Is good photography a natural gift, or can it be learned?
“It can be learned, because there are basic rules of composition. You can learn how compositions, colour and different elements work within a frame. On a more practical level, someone who is intuitive and then applies learnt knowledge can compose and shoot very very quickly. That instinctive ability to compose good pictures, without thinking, is very hard to teach yourself. Ultimately, if you can see a picture, frame it and get all the technical stuff right, all at once, without thinking, means you can generate good pictures all the time, not just one occasionally, when things happen to go your way.”
How would an aspiring photographer turn professional?
“Ultimately, to make a living from it, you’ve got to go full time. So there’s a leap of faith – there’s some risk involved. With travel photography, you have to actually go and do it; at your own expense at your own time and you have to shoot a lot of images, then you can go around saying, ‘hey, I am a photographer, this is what I can do.’ No one is going to pay you to build up your own library. So, the only way is to invest in yourself, your travel and equipment – go and do it. However, there are things you can do before starting out. On my first trip I had no real knowledge of travel photography. The results on that seven-month trip, from a business point of view, were useless. But from a photography and educational point of view it was a crucial apprenticeship. Afterwards I did a much longer trip and it paid off.
At some point in every photographer’s life you’re going to make a quantum leap, from just taking average pictures to making good pictures. The only way, is to take a lot of pictures. I think it was Max Dupain [famous Australian photographer] who said something like: ‘If you want to get into this business, you have to take a million pictures, chuck them all away and start again.’ That’s the way I did it.”
- Research your destination. A little preparation is all it takes to avoid turning up at a place the day after a weekly market or annual festival and being told how wonderful it was.
- Ensure you’re comfortable with your equipment. Many photo opportunities don’t repeat themselves – don’t miss the moment because you’re trying to figure out how the camera works.
- Fill the frame with your subject so that there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind what the picture is of. If you have to explain that the grey blob is an elephant then the picture has failed.
- There is no one perfect composition for a subject. But if in doubt, use the rule of thirds (the main elements should be placed at points one-third of the way from the sides of the frame).
- Consider whether the subject would look best photographed horizontally or vertically. Camera orientation is an easy and effective compositional tool.
- Don’t assume the first place you see your subject from is the best viewpoint. A few steps left, going down on a knee or standing on a step can be significant.
- Look at the space around and behind your subject and make sure nothing overpowers it in colour, shape or size.
- Focus on the eyes when photographing people or wildlife. It doesn’t matter if other features are out of focus: if the eyes aren’t sharp the image will fail.
- When photographing landscapes keep horizons straight.
- The colour, quality and direction of light change throughout the day. Note how the light is falling on your subject and select a viewpoint that makes the most of these elements of natural light to enhance your subject.
Richard’s pictures have been published in more than 400 Lonely Planet books and he authored Travel Photography: A Guide To Taking Better Pictures. To WIN one of five copies, email
firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us what number comes after 400.