Monday, September 28, 2009

“You Go into Photography with the Camera You Have, Not the Camera You WISH You Had….”
By E. David Luria, Founder and Director, Washington Photo Safari

You’re attending a photography workshop when you look around. You have the impression that everybody else has a bigger, better camera than yours--longer lens, newer, more expensive, more features. You have Lens Envy! You feel inadequate! Tail between your legs, you slink back home to engage in your other hobby—cooking. You prepare a great meal and serve it to your friends. They love the food, and one of them says, “Gee, that was delicious! How did you do that? You must have a great OVEN.” You pause for a moment, thinking, “A great oven?” As politely as possible, you say, “It’s not the oven. It’s me. I just know what I’m doing. It’s the cook who makes a great meal, not the oven.” What’s true for cooking is also true for photography.

Great pictures are created by photographers, not cameras. If Ansel Adams were alive today, and we gave him a five-dollar disposable camera to shoot pictures of a canyon or a waterfall or a city, he’d come back with beautiful images. Why? Because he knew what he was doing behind the lens.

Cameras, no matter how expensive they are, are merely boxes that let in light. It’s the photographer who aims the camera to capture the subject at the right time, in the right light, and--as Henri Cartier Bresson would say--at the “decisive moment.” Good photography is about composition, determining the subject of the picture, removing clutter from the background, finding the right angle, getting close, and looking for strong composition lines to run through the image to create a picture that clearly tells a story, gives a message, or conveys an impression.

If telephoto zooms and wide-angle lenses are so important, why did Henri Cartier Bresson capture all his most famous images with a simple 50mm lens? If autofocus and matrix metering and six-frame-per-second shutters are so important, why is it that Joe Rosenthal caught his famous Marine Corps flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi in perfect alignment with one push of the button on an old Speed Graphic? If color quality is so important, why are the classic photographs that are most seared in our memory mainly in black and white?

As a photography instructor, I’ve trained several thousand people how to take better pictures with any kind of camera--film or digital. One of my favorite clients arrived on a photo safari loaded down with about $4,000 worth of expensive camera gear draped around his neck. He explained, “I just looked at what the professional photographers use and got myself the same stuff.” He figured the equipment would help him take better pictures. It didn’t. Bigger, better cameras give you more options. They give you longer zooms, wider angles, faster and slower shutter speeds, more control over exposure and color filtration--but not necessarily better pictures.

The first step in taking good pictures is, of course, defining the subject. What’s the point of this picture? Why are you taking it? What are you trying to show? Who is the “client” for this picture? An architect? A nature-lover? The child’s parents? A magazine editor? If you’re your own client, what use do you have in mind for the picture? A family album? An e-mail to friends? You need to have a clear purpose. Next, pick a time of day when you have the best light. For outdoor pictures, this is generally an hour on either side of sunrise or sunset and never any time in between. After determining the purpose, get close to your subject. Eliminate any distraction in the background, so who or what the picture is about is clear to the viewer.

A low angle helps you become more intimately involved with your subject, whether it’s a baby, a flower, a spouse, a cat, or a landscape. Next, look for strong composition lines that draw the viewer’s eye into and around the picture. Lines that move diagonally from lower left to upper right, or upper left to lower right, tie in with our Western cultural training of reading from left to right. Look for lines that lead the viewer’s eye to the main subject, which should NOT be right in the middle but in the left or right or upper or lower third of the picture. Then, look for opportunities to frame your subject using tree branches, archways, doorways, flagpoles, church columns, or any other available frame. Flowers or bushes on the bottom of your picture provide a frame of color. Now, check your exposure. This step is very important. No matter how smart your fancy double-matrix, triple-bypass camera meter is, it knows only what it sees. Make sure it’s reading a medium-gray reflectance on your subject, a mid-point between black and white. If in doubt, use a gray card or a hand-held ambient light meter.Then, check the depth-of-field of focus. Do you want the subject to stand out and have the background blurred? Use a wide aperture. Want everything in focus from front to back? Use a small aperture. Here’s a handy way to remember aperture. At F2, you get two people in focus. At F22, you get 22 people in focus. (Point-and-shoot camera users should look at the “Portrait” and “Landscape” icons on their control dial to achieve this same effect.)

Ready to take the picture? Make sure you’re holding the camera correctly, resting the body of the camera on the palm of your left hand, wrapping your left hand’s fingers underneath and around the lens, holding it very tightly to reduce camera shake. Better yet, use a tripod.Wait! Before you push the button, make sure you like what you see. What you see in the viewfinder is the way your image is going to look. Do you like it? Okay, push the button. More importantly, if you don’t like it, DON’T push the button! Lastly, look at all the pictures you’ve taken and remember that your worst pictures are your best teachers. Learn from your mistakes, so you won’t repeat them.

As a photography instructor who works in the political capital of my country, I’m a strong advocate of two official positions:
  • First, I urge my clients to adopt my official position on photography--which is to lie on the ground where all the good pictures are.
  • Second, I tell them that in the Luria Administration, we are opposed to “Faith-Based Photography,” that can be expressed as “I will take 500 pictures on this trip and pray that ten of them come out.” That wing-and-a-prayer approach to photography results in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only ten pictures come out.
If elected, my Administration favors “Confidence-Based Photography” in which you’re careful to define the subject, get the best light and exposure, frame the image carefully in good composition lines, check focus and depth-of-field, hold the camera correctly, and push the button at JUST the right moment! With that approach, all 500 pictures should come out, causing your friends and family to gasp, “What? You took that picture with that camera?”

E. David Luria is a professional architectural and commercial photographer in Washington DC. A member of the American Society of Media Photographers and the Society of Photographic Educators, he has had his images of the nation’s capital appear in 100 publications, including TIME, Prevention, WHERE/Washington, Washingtonian, the Washington Post, and the Entertainment Book, and on the covers of 30 magazines. Trained in Paris by a protégé of Henri Cartier Bresson, he is also founder and director of the Washington Photo Safari ( through which he and his fellow instructors have trained over 16,500 clients since 1999 in the techniques of travel and landmark photography, nature and pet photography, and outdoor portraiture. He thanks former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for inspiring the title of this article.