What to take pictures of?
November 25, 2006 8:48 PM   Subscribe

I've got the camera...now what?

My husband just bought me a very nice digital camera. I love taking pictures, but I hate every picture I take. I want to take pictures of things that other people will find interesting - instead of filling my flickr account with more photos of my cats.

I'm learning when to use flash and when to turn it off, and how to frame the picture, and I'm going to start carrying a tripod because I have shaky hands. I know I can improve my general abilities through practice, but I don't know what to take pictures of.

I would eventually like to be able to take photos that other people might be able to use as stock photos. I did a little research on it and it seems like what stock photography sites want is pictures of corporate environments, ideas and concepts, food (people eating it), objects, and textures. I don't have much interest in photographing people, so I want to tackle concepts and items.

How do I find interesting things to photograph? How do I make them suitable for stock? Any ideas from people who have had success with taking stock photography would be greatly appreciated.
posted by jesirose to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Walk around the city and take a picture of anything that seems interesting. You're never wasting a shot because it's digital, so don't hold back.
posted by PowerCat at 9:09 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Take LOTS of pictures. Get out of the house (away from your cats). Go for camera walks. Learn from your Exif data -- shutter speed, aperture, flash, focal length, etc., is all there when you want to see why an image turned out like it did.

Focus on learning to take pictures that you like first -- don't try to break into stock just starting out. Taking "stock" images may be profitable for some (not many, I imagine) but it will not help you love your photos -- stock photos are generic and bland almost by definition.

Oh, and edit ruthlessly. You will discard 80% of the shots you take (if you can't bear to delete them, move them into a sub-folder or an external hard drive).
posted by misterbrandt at 9:19 PM on November 25, 2006

Practice, practice, PRACTICE. Composition is the key. Frame your photo in your mind. Look at the screen instead of the viewfinder (unless its a SLR). Take youe time. Look at different angles, go high, go low.
If all else fail, Photoshop it!
posted by raildr at 9:21 PM on November 25, 2006

Thanks misterbrandt - I hadn't thought of it like that, but you're right. I want to take interesting photos, not boring ones. I hadn't thought about making money from it (I just want to develop this as a hobby) and I thought stock photos would be a good way to measure if people liked them. But what you said makes a lot of sense.
posted by jesirose at 9:22 PM on November 25, 2006

In terms of finding interesting things, go for a walk and roam around. When you go out with the specific intention of taking photos, it gets easier, rather than just waiting for something to hit you, actively seek it-- and if find other friends with a similar interest to do it on a regular basis, it's a lot more fun.
posted by perpetualstroll at 9:25 PM on November 25, 2006

A camera that you don't have with you is a camera that's not going to take any pictures. Remember to bring the camera whenever you go anywhere that has the slightest potential to be interesting.

Get in the habit of noticing things -- learning to think like a photographer can enrich your life by making you pay attention to what's worth looking at and really helping you to see your world.

It also works the other way: the desire to take photos can get you moving in ways you might not have before, you'll take more journeys and learn to enjoy the ones you normally take more. I find that I walk more places than I used to, for example, because you don't really get a chance to look at anything -- let alone compose a photo and shoot it -- when you're in the car.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:34 PM on November 25, 2006

The best thing I ever did for my photographic skills was to take a community ed photography course. Cheap, informative, and fun, and I'm a much better photographer for it.
posted by jdroth at 9:44 PM on November 25, 2006

I'd like to second misterbrandt. I found that I started taking much better pictures as soon as I realized that not every one I took had to be amazing, or kept -- that I could take lots of pictures, try hard on each one, but edit them down to the core ones that I was really pleased with. I found my output went up, my enthusiasm went up, and I ended up being much more satisfied with the outcome.
posted by headlessagnew at 9:47 PM on November 25, 2006

George_Spiggot's suggestion about changing how you think about how you view the world is the best suggestion though. As is ralldar's advice to compose as you go using the viewfinder.

But take pictures of what clicks in your head as "Hunh." Or even "Wow, that's beautiful." And take several right then. Again, digital. Nothing to lose.

I take a lot just to see what does what, and many suck, and ever now and then I get some real gems.

You're only limited by your hard drive space. :)
posted by smallerdemon at 9:51 PM on November 25, 2006

You should also plan on getting out early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Having the sun low in the sky will usually make a huge difference in the quality of your photos. The low sun will add more depth and interesting shadows to your photographs. Also, you get a softer light just before sunset.

The other thing I would do is learn about depth of field and how that is affected by the aperture settings. For example, a narrow depth of field around your subject will really make it pop out. However, depending on your camera you may or may not have much control over the aperture settings and depth of field.
posted by mach at 10:10 PM on November 25, 2006

Whenever I get a new camera, I always plan a trip down to the city zoo, and the local botanical gardens. If you have anything like either of them near where you live, I'd say plan a trip. Bring lots of batteries/storage and shoot your heart out. Try to work on composition and lighting in addition to just taking pictures of the pretty animals/flowers.

I agree that a community college course in photography could be useful, if you've never done any formal studying of photography. If that's not available, there are a lot of books you could read (you can't go wrong with Ansel Adams' instructional books, although you'll need to skip the sections relating to B&W chemical photography; I also just like going to a good bookstore and finding photographers whose style I like, and looking at their work to see what it is that makes me like it -- Flickr can be good for this, too).

Also, one of the best skills to learn in terms of improving yourself as a photographer is self-criticism. You shouldn't ever be afraid to take a picture, and once you have them all on your computer, you need to be ruthless about sorting through them and rating them. If I get 1 photo out of 30 or 40 that I even want anyone else to see, I consider that an unbelievably successful day.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:10 PM on November 25, 2006

Learning to take photos is all about learning how light works. There's no better intro into how light works with photos than Philip Greenspun's tutorial on light. Follow the rest for his whole intro to photography, it's all great stuff.
posted by mathowie at 10:23 PM on November 25, 2006

First, get yourself completely out of the mindset that you are "taking" pictures.

Photography is, literally, from the Greek,"light writing". Train yourself not to look at the subject, but to look at the light itself. Is it red, blue, white, golden? Diffused or contrasty? Where's it coming from and what's it doing to the shadows?

Once you know the light, and it's quality and color, you can begin to make some strides towards modifying the light. This can be as simple as shooting from a different direction, or using aluminum foil or the side of a white building as a reflector to open up shadows. I've even used the sail of a nearby sailboat as a reflector, when the need arose. Look around you and see what your resources are, and get into the habit of asking yourself how you could use them.

Photography is a subtle art, and training your eye takes time and effort.

There's a whole raft of books and tutorials on the web that will make learning the mechanics easier, there are excellent suggestions already, right in this thread. The hardest part for me has always been 'seeing' the photo, and then making it happen.

The 'rules' for composition, for example, are not that hard; knowing when to break them is.
posted by pjern at 10:53 PM on November 25, 2006

b1tr0t has some good points, but as his rule #7 says, I would disregard his rule #1. Flashes are pretty much always relevant in daylight photography of people (portraits).
posted by SirStan at 10:53 PM on November 25, 2006

i agree with sirstan but learning how to use flash properly is just as complicated as learning how to compose and shoot in the first place. so it might not be a bad rule for a beginner.
posted by joeblough at 11:02 PM on November 25, 2006

I would like to recommend getting a copy of Understanding Exposure and using it in conjunction with your manual. That book helped me move into the world of full-manual photography much, much more easily than anything else I cam across.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 11:55 PM on November 25, 2006

Stop framing the subject. Forget everything you know about that. Cut things off. Take pictures of fragments. Get close.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:59 PM on November 25, 2006

Go to sites that have lots of awesome photography of the kind that you like - not only is it inspiring, but after you say "I could have done that if only I'd thought too - what a clever idea!" for the millionth time, you'll start to look at things differently - a little more open to finding your own out-of-the-box clever ideas.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:58 AM on November 26, 2006

Sign up at www.DPChallenge.com and take part in some of the competitions. You're given a topic, and it's up to you to decide how to be creative with it. It's great inspiration to find interesting stuff to photograph.
Photography reflects the life and interests of the photographer, so if you don't get out of the house much and are only interested in cats, that will come across in your photos! What are your passions that other people find interesting? Do you see the world in an interesting way? Get out of the house as much as you can and look for what other people are missing. What people really love to look at in photos are things they don't see too often, so get out there and find it!
posted by BobsterLobster at 4:07 AM on November 26, 2006

All good advice so far, and in addition, something that works for me is playing twenty steps. I can't remember where I heard about it but the way it goes is this...

Go out for a walk. The objective of the walk should be the twenty step exercise.

Walk twenty steps.

Stop. Look around. Take a picture. Try and make it interesting, an unusual angle, a closeup, abstract...anything.

Walk another twenty steps.


The point is to develop your eye. This exercise forces you to try and see the mundane differently.

If you do try it, there's a flickr group for the results... (blatant self promotion)
posted by itsjustanalias at 5:51 AM on November 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

One thing that helped me get interesting photos and helped me think about things from a different viewpoint is shooting from the hip. If your camera's a point and shoot (as opposed to a digital SLR - the big 35mm looking ones), turn off the preview screen and don't look through the viewfinder. When you see something that might be neat, just point the camera at it and take the picture. Not only can you wind up with some interesting photos you might not have thought of, it'll get you in tune with the camera's position to the world.

I mention this working better with the point and shoot primarily because I haven't figured out an easy way to do this with my DSLR - if you have one and do, then by all means, try it with that too :)

Naturally, if you're somewhere you want to be sure and take good photos (daughter's wedding, baby's first steps, reaching the summit of Mt. Everest), this is not the method to be using. But you need to go out every now and then for sheer experimenting time. "If I hold the camera by my side, can I get the top of that statue in the frame?" "I wonder what I'll get if I hold the camera behind my head?" Imagine being a super-secret spy trying to take photos of things without anyone realizing you're taking photos. You'll have a lot of crappy pictures, but you'll have a few that will astound you.
posted by Moondoggie at 7:15 AM on November 26, 2006

Also, the best advice for improving your photography comes from the war photographer Robert Capa: "If your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough". This works. Always.
posted by slimeline at 7:17 AM on November 26, 2006

There are a lot of really good suggestions in this thread and I haven't had coffee yet, so I'll just give an example:

Take a look at how this photograph is composed. Move the camera around to the front and it's just a picture of a guy with some scythes instead of the grim reaper.

Us amateurs are never going to be able to see like James Nachtwey, but the first thing you should think about when you set up to make a photograph (notice I didn't say take, you are an active participant) is what you want to say, and where can you put the camera in the relation to the subject that will say it the best.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:09 AM on November 26, 2006

Learn all about off-camera lighting: Strobist.
posted by jedrek at 9:45 AM on November 26, 2006

I already take a lot of pictures, myself, but my snap reaction to this question was "well, what kind of question is *that*?"

It seemed obvious to me that the fundamental underlying requirement to being a photographer is "already having an answer to that question"... but the other replies here made it pretty clear that it's a good thing I waited to post. :-)
posted by baylink at 10:06 AM on November 26, 2006

You might like Photojojo (go to the archives for the meat). It's a bit cutesy-tootsie but they have some fun project ideas that will make you want to go out and shoot, which is half of what it takes.
posted by chimmyc at 11:00 AM on November 26, 2006

join a photo community like Flickr. Post your photos, join groups, participate in critique and discussion. the C.A.F.E group is one that I would recommend in particular - post a photo into a thread, then let others comment on it.

As with everything else, there is advice that is good to keep, and other advice that is good to toss - I learned scads about photography by showing not only my own photographs, but reading critiques of other people's photographs.

All the best to you with your new camera!
posted by seawallrunner at 11:48 AM on November 26, 2006

And, on reflection (since a friend of mine runs one that I can't join because it's meetings are on the same nites as my chorus's): find a local Camera Club and join it.

The interaction between you and other shooters will likely prove useful, even if only informally, and membership in a club can sometimes have benefits like discounts from local camera stores, as well, if the club is big enough.
posted by baylink at 12:42 PM on November 26, 2006

Go to cemeteries and take photos for Find a Grave and local genealogy websites, especially if you can fill requests. You will probably get some interesting shots while also contributing to the historical record.

Also consider photographing buildings/businesses that are likely to be destroyed/changed. Likewise, consider doing some rephotography of old photos taken by others, postcards, etc. "Now and Then"-type shots are pretty popular on Flickr.

These are just two ideas for subjects that have significantly large audiences; however, it is often the things the photographer loves that grabs a viewer's attention, even if it is "just" cats. :)
posted by Liffey at 12:52 PM on November 26, 2006

Whatever you do don't become a camera freak who can only talk about famous photographers and expensive lenses. You may improve your photography but you will become a bore.
posted by srboisvert at 2:07 AM on November 29, 2006

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