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  By Mike Valeriani

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The Secret of Taking Good Pictures

An old mak in Algeria poring mint tea in a cafeTaking good pictures... if I got a penny every time someone asked me about this, I would be a millionaire by now. Everyone wants to know how to take good pictures, but very few people actually know how to achieve this.

Like in every field/industry, wherever there is confusion there is someone ready to make money on people’s ignorance and believe me, there is a lot of ignorance on the issue of "taking good pictures".

I can’t blame anyone in particular, because it just happens everywhere and everyday: “thinking of taking good pictures? Buy this cutting edge camera that will shoot at 1/8000 of a second, or this power flash that will light up the pyramids of Egypt, or this photo bag that can carry an elephant and its trunk...” Most people fall for this, also because statements of this sort are often supported by the press, by some professional photographers and photography experts.

The result is that very often you see tourists with equipment that clearly required a mortgage, or something near to that and that are absolutely unable not only to use that equipment, but also to produce anything slightly decent.

Child with rose running after pigeons in Venice Italy.I feel very sad looking at these scenes. Once talking to one of these advertisement’s victims, it emerged that this guy (according to him) was not taking good pictures, because he hadn’t fully studied the instruction book. I felt so sad to tell him the truth, that I actually didn’t tell him anything.

What you must understand is this: photography is a form of art, so start from the fact that not everyone is an artist. Someone who simply cannot paint, is not going to create a work of art simply because he is handed a golden brush and an expensive canvas. People like Leonardo da Vinci are rare and unique.

Following this principle, you do not create a good image just because you own a good camera, but because you are able to create good images in your head. Then – and only then – you will use your technical ability (obtained with a good education) to transfer your imaginary picture from your head to a tangible medium by the use of ANY camera.

Now that I have explained the key point, lets investigate what you need to do in order to produce good images even if you are not an artist.

First of all taking good pictures requires a basic knowledge in photography. Get yourself a good book and start studying. Yes, it’s true... in photography you must study a bit in order to achieve something good. There is no way around it... you want to know about photography? Then you have to learn about photography.

People are often under the wrong impression that anyone can take good pictures, regardless of their experience and background. It might be true in some 2-3% of the cases, but for most of us a good and solid theory preparation really means a lot.

There is a very good book out there called “Photography”, by Barbara London and John Upton. This is a fantastic book that you can rarely find in bookshops. I have one of the old editions (1995) and I can’t think of a better book. It covers everything very clearly and in great detail.

What I like about this book is that it teaches photography the old way, with traditional cameras and darkroom stuff.

I strongly believe that you have to get the basics the traditional way, as if you start with digital you will miss on the essence of photography.

You can start the old way and then forget all about it, but it will always be there embedded in your brain. When you will naturally move on to digital photography, you will have some solid roots to stand on. Remember that you must learn to walk before you even try to fly.

I have read many photography books, but this is THE one (Photography by Barbara London and John Upton). I always have it handy as a reference. You can get it by clicking on the ad link above; that is a 1997 edition, which should be pretty much the same. Must warn you though: you’ll be lucky if you can get yourself a copy, as it is sort of a rare book.

A stag posing for the photographerThere is obviously also a newer version, but I haven’t had a chance to look at it, so I can only assume it will be better than the previous editions.

You can get it by clicking on the ad link to the right. You shouldn’t have any problems obtaining this one. I’ve added some links for some useful quality reading.

Those are good books that I have myself in my bookcase, or I wouldn’t be recommending them. Taking good pictures requires skills; proficiency in photography is the result of a good preparation and a good preparation can only be obtained with great tools. This is what these books are.

The first three books you see just below are by Ansel Adams, master of black and white photography. “The Negative” is going to be your Bible if you intend specializing in black and white and “The Print” will teach you how to create the perfect print in a darkroom.

The Camera” is a book that teaches you the basics about the instrument. The good thing about it is that it covers what all the newer books on digital photography leave out.

These three books are written in a clear and lucid style with excellent examples from Adams' own work. Truly an essential work for anyone interested in the timeless art of photography.

The fourth book, “The Darkroom Handbook”, is a newer book that guides you through the practical running of a darkroom at home.

So, after a solid theory preparation, what’s the next thing you need for taking good pictures? The answer is photo composition. Composition in photography is the most important thing, before anything else. If you have a good sense of composition, you WILL end up with good and visually interesting pictures. For more on composition, see my Art Gallery web site.

The spiral staircase used as fire exit of a hotel in AlgeriaThere is a very good book, written by master of photography Andreas Feininger in 1973: Principles of Composition in Photography. If you are lucky enough to find a copy of this book, get it without thinking twice about it.

As far as I know there are no recent reprints, so you can only get it used. You can try to click on the title link and see if by any chance they have a copy at Amazon, but I doubt.

For taking good pictures you don’t have to rely on your natural sense of composition. Of course if you have it it’s a big plus, but if you don’t you can always learn. It will be harder to create good images, because you will have to think much more instead of just follow your heart, but it’s not impossible.

If you follow my advice and read those two precious books, you will be a much better photographer, regardless what camera you use. I took some of my best shots with one of those compact cameras, or even with a mobile phone, like the picture on the right. Thames River and London Embankment with fog shot with a cell phone camera.I was on the embankment in London at about 5 in the morning, without my camera. This beautiful scene was in front of my eyes and I could do nothing else but take my silly cell phone camera and shoot.

Do you see? You don’t need an expensive camera for taking good pictures; all you need is your mind and your heart, together with good composition skills. The camera is just a tool; there must be a competent human being behind it. Do what I’ve told you and you’ll be taking good pictures for life. As I have mentioned before, the books I am recommending on this page are all books that I purchased myself many years ago and that I truly believe are well worth reading AND keeping.

A green bicycle chained to a pole in Padua ItalyThe first book you see listed below, Beyond the Lens, is a book by The Association of Photographers (AOP) and its purpose is to get you started in business. It covers everything legal, best practices, forms, contracts, copyright, etc. A must have for anyone making money with photography.

The remaining three are artistic books. Henri Cartier-Bresson: The man, the image & the world: A retrospective is a book published as a tribute to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s life. It contains a lot of his work and not only in photography. Paris Mon Amour represents a collection of black and white images from the last century shot in Paris, a city that has always attracted a number of artists. Very nice book.

The last one, Europeans, is a book by Henri Cartier-Bresson. It represents Europeans in his personal view. A very interesting book, with many icon images that you will definitely recognise.

If you have read this far it means you are here to learn and that you are determined in taking good pictures. I would like to wish you all the best in this fantastic journey that is photography. This is the just the beginning and you are on the right track. Good luck!




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