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Photography for Beginners: The Bigger Picture of Taking a Picture

8 July 2016, By

The digital age has allowed photography to boom like never before. It’s a massive, commercial industry which is growing explosively to keep up with the demand for faster, better and cheaper communication.  

Pictures speak a thousand words.

One picture can present the entire state of affairs in a country better than a hundred articles ever could.

Steve McCurry’s, The Afghan Girl, appeared on the cover page of the National Geographic magazine and became the most recognized photograph in history for bringing refugees to the forefront of international dialogue.

Steve McCurry’s, The Afghan Girl(Picture sourced from Wikimedia Commons)

Andreas Gursky’s, 99 Cent II Diptychon, a picture of a supermarket with only products priced 99 cents, went on to become the world’s most expensive photograph sold.

Andreas Gursky’s, 99 Cent II Diptychon(Picture sourced from Wikimedia Commons)

Photographs aren’t just taken for a pleasing visual aesthetic anymore. They need to tell stories, stand for ideologies, and make statements.

Amidst all these pictures that we’re drowning in, the thought remains that some pictures are better than others. They catch our attention, they draw us in, and they speak to us.  

What makes these photographs stand out? What makes their photography skill stand out?

The fact is: taking a picture can be an easy task.

Making a picture is far from it.

And to get your pictures to speak to the world, you need to make them.


Let’s assume at this very instant that you want to grab your camera, hit the location closest to you and take some pictures. Good, passion is the first requisite for being a photographer!

Hard work, is the second.

Before you start pointing-and-clicking pictures, let’s spend some time making one.

Here’s a guide that breaks down the essential steps of photography for beginners.

It’s an oft-repeated myth that good photographs just happen. That creativity and genius cannot be forced.If you’re lucky and you’re clicking excessively, something is bound to pop and come your way.


What people forget to mention is that good photographs do happen.They happen to photographers who were in the right place at the right time.

And how does one find this right-place-right-time circle of perfection? Through the ordinary, humble streets, of ideation, planning, and organization.  

An array of lenses to get photography for beginners started

1. Deciding a Theme.

You’ve decided you want to take a bunch of pictures. Fantastic! Now it’s time to get a pencil and paper and start with some good ol’ brainstorming. A good photograph might appear random but that’s far from accurate.

There is always order in chaos.

A theme is going to be that order.Your theme can be:

  • A central idea that runs through the pictures you’ll take.
  • A delicate string that holds them together even as they stand out individually.
  • A concept that you want to explore the many dimensions of.


A theme can be anything: your imagination and your resources available are the only limits.

  • It can be small. (Types of cobblestones used on roads)
  • It can be big (The different characters of cities across the globe)
  • It can be tangible (The process of making a sword!)
  • It can be metaphorical (The idea of Peace)


Deciding on one theme can and should take time. Create a list of themes that you’re interested in, and more importantly, those that have – The ability of execution.

Deciding a theme is an excellent practice for combining creativity and practicality.

You could, for example, decide Lights as your theme.


Perhaps one day on your way home, you see an old-timey lamppost surrounded by its more modern counterparts. There it is: this old, rusted post with a flickering yellow flame, nearly hidden behind dirty glass, standing proudly next to its tall, clean and white-lit companions.

The scene strikes you. You look at the rest of your list, which may or may not include:

  • Trains
  • The expressions of people on their mobile phones
  • A child’s perspective of the world
  • Dogs in conversation


Perhaps you really wanted to do Dogs in Conversation but you don’t own a dog and scrounging up dogs from friends is exhausting. Trying to work with street dogs could result in you getting bitten.

Lights it is.

2. Narrowing Down the Theme.

It’s impossible to cover a theme entirely because a theme is an idea and there’s no finite way of expressing the idea. There is a possibility of expressing a certain aspect of an idea. This process is done by endlessly questioning yourself about what and how you want to portray your theme.

Questions of:

  • What is important?
  • What is a priority?
  • What are you trying to say?


Should be answered here.

You don’t need to have deep or meaningful answers to these questions but you must have some kind of answer.  These questions help you discard the obvious and find new avenues to explore.

In the end: your photographs will be questioned as to how well they represent the theme of your choice.

For Lights,  you feel you want to focus only on City Lights.  

How many kinds of different lights there are in the city you live in?

  • Car lights
  • Lights from electronic signs
  • Fairy lights
  • A traffic light


Come up with 20 different varieties of lights that you absolutely wanted to shoot. Keep another 4 as an extra in case you aren’t happy with the original 20.

3. Decide a subject.

What is a subject in a photograph?

And what is an object in a photograph?

In photography, a subject and an object are the same thing. A subject is an object because photography is a visual medium and everything within a photograph will be an object.

The purpose and presence of a subject are to tell a story. It helps the viewers connect with the photograph at more than a visual level.  

For City Lights, you decide emotion will be the subject.

Emotion needs to be visually represented as well. Hence, your subject becomes a person who is portraying the emotion you want…and not just any emotions!

What if the emotions shown by the subject were the same as the emotions brought forward by different kinds of city lights?

This link helps represent city lights best because it shows how lights around the city make you feel happy, joyous, satisfied, sad, lonely and isolated—all emotions that living in a city can bring out from people.

The photographs subject celebrating

For example: Here, the focus on the fairy lights, along with the subject’s smile, portrays the emotion of celebration.

4. Explore the Possibilities.

The connect between your theme and subject will be what makes your photographs stand out from the crowd. Having them in tandem is necessary otherwise your photographs will look:

  • Noisy
  • Cluttered
  • Irrelevant.


Trying to say too much is definitely a problem photographers encounter.

Exploration is the way to find these possibilities. Take a few pictures to see what works and what doesn’t. This will help in:

  • Creating prototype frames for pictures later on
  • Helping you understand the problems and drawbacks of taking the kind of pictures you want to.


Study these initial few to see if the photographs make sense. If they don’t – it’s going back to the drawing board.

The photograph's subject looking at his phone alone

The lights – from a lighthouse far away, surrounded by the darkness and the light from the mobile phone – plus, the extending empty space behind the subject are all kept in mind to connect with the emotion on the subject’s face. One can’t help but feel isolated because of the sync between all elements in this picture.

5. Visualize the photograph.

Visualization is when each potential photograph is seen in the mind’s eye to decide where the subject is positioned along with the rest of the environment, and the placement and perspective of the camera (also called framing.)

Visualizing helps you:

  • Arrange your elements in a manner suitable to you
  • Decide the perspective from which you’re shooting (framing)
  • Practice before taking the actual picture
  • Change the frame if you feel it isn’t working your way


During the actual clicking of the photograph, a photographer is open to the threat of change from other elements. His skill on location is to adapt to these changes. Changing aperture, shutter speed and ISO are the technical skills s/he must master.

Thus, it would be ridiculous and extremely inefficient to decide what he wants his frame to look like, at that very moment when he is attempting to do three other things.

These visualizations can always be open to change later on. But it’s always easier to find out what you don’t know when there is something you already know.

In City Lights, circumstances – mostly to do with change in the lighting – will force you to hunt down new frames for pictures. But with proper visualization, these could turn out to be variants of the original frame.

If you find that the original visualization doesn’t appeal to you:

Photograph's subject looking away as a flash of light hits his face

You can always modify it to find something that does.

Photograph's subject looking away as a flash of light hits his face

Instead of being at the subject’s level in the previous picture, you can climb on to the hood of the car to get an angle, which would have been impossible to visualize earlier.

6. Get Down and Dirty.

At last, we end up with the actual photographing of the theme!

Take “getting down and dirty” in its most literal sense.

Photographers must be prepared for long days, un-accounted-for-delays and censure from people around (usually the law!) who don’t approve of photography.

You’ll be required to climb trees, duck under benches, roll under fences, and sit in bushes, all so that the camera is where you want it to be.  

Taking the same frame repeatedly to ensure it is clear of clutter (unwanted elements) will be mentally exhausting.

The more pictures you take, the more you have to choose from. Only take a picture when you feel you might need it, or need to see it, or need to fix it, but take it just the same.

Here’s a checklist to follow when embarking on your shoot.

  • A list of the locations.
  • A list of required, visualized, frames
  • A plan of where you’ll be eating and hydrating yourself.
  • A valid identity card.


Since City Lights is a night photography project, that last item will be the most useful to get out of sticky situations from the law.

Zooming along in a car ruins the focus and causes the camera to shake.

Photograph's subject enjoying himself on a joy ride

7. Waiting For The Moment.

Remember when we said that great pictures are taken by being at the right place and time? All the planning we’ve done till now is to ensure that you’re exactly there.

To get that brilliant picture is to be able to recognize the moment when it presents itself. And the practice to develop that skill is to – wait endlessly.

Patience is the third requisite for being a good photographer. Being proactive is necessary until a certain point.

Don’t think of this as wasted time. In fact, while waiting you can:

  • Adjust the camera settings to suit the conditions present.
  • Find a different frame or attempt harder to reach frames.
  • Hone your observation skills.


All of this is in an active process of shooting.

A right-place-right-time picture can happen with an original visualization too!

Only a single element has to appear to change the depth of the photograph. For a traffic signal photograph in City Lights, your subject could walk back and forth across the same road as you click.

Photograph's subject waiting to cross the road

If you’re persistent and wait, something unexpected might come along and make your entire project!

A car passes by as the photograph's subject waiting to cross the road

8. Editing and Arranging the Photographs.

A small problem will pop up after your shoot: you can’t present 300+ pictures to your future viewers. It’s time to find the gems hidden in the dirt through some quantitative editing.

There are a few simple features that let you know you’ve got a bad photograph:

  • Lack of focus
  • A shaky subject
  • Too dark / too light


Any photograph, which falls under these categories should be culled. Unless they’re for specific artistic or thematic reasons, these pictures will not appeal to any viewer.

The next step is to find the story you’re attempting to tell through your photographs. There are two ways:

  • Find photographs to fit a story in your mind.
  • Find photographs and create a story around them.


For both, the story is presented by putting them in a set order of presentation.

The order of photographs must allow the viewer to appreciate each photograph individually and also take them on a journey through the theme.

Qualitative editing is when after-shoot changes are made to a photograph using an editing program.

Filters are all the rage today thanks to Instagram. But aside from using them to hide irregularities within a photograph, they can also be used to set a mood, which you might need for your story.

A blue tint to your photograph could evoke an emotion of melancholy.

The first edit in City Lights, is to remove all the technically bad pictures or to pick the best picture of the various angles taken of the same light.

From those, create a story for your subject by arranging them.

Your final list should have pictures that are absolutely needed to tell your story.

The change in colour of the lights from yellow to white and back is prominent in the photographs and this would break the immersion for people when viewing the entire series.

As individual photographs, colour works well. As a series, it is mayhem. You can consider converting  to black and white to maintain consistency.

Decisions in photography involve sacrifices. A photograph that looks absolutely gorgeous in colour might not have the same effect in black and white and vice-versa:

Subject sitting alongside the ocean

A black and white photograph of the subject sitting alongside the ocean

9. Feedback.

Success! Your series of photographs is ready for viewership.

Feedback is essential to be able to grow as a photographer. Pay attention to the criticism and evaluate whether it would improve your photographs.

While giving weight to feedback from photographers makes sense, the laymen give unvarnished, simple observations, that are equally useful.

City Lights, has received generally positive feedback except that very few viewers realized the importance of the city lights itself and the emotion they’re representing. Many assumed them to be props for your subject’s journey and not an integral part of it.

Only a few photographs really connect the way you first envisioned them to.

Subject sitting at a bus stop, waiting

As with all forms of art, a solid concept can be executed to perfection. Investing time in the pre-production process will do wonders for concept ideation and development.

The above steps are guidelines. Follow them until confident enough to find sure footing in the way you determine best. The only thing to remember is:

Stop taking pictures.

Start making them.


All photographs in this article except for The Afghan Girl and 99 Cent II Diptychon, are taken by the author and cannot be republished or used for any other means without prior permission from the author.

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