6 Simple Tips to Start Thinking Like a Smarter Photographer

I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase: “Work smarter, not harder”. There is definitely some truth to that idea when it comes to photography as well. Once in a while, you have to stop and see if you’re actually thinking about what you’re doing. Sure, practice makes perfect, but you might be missing a lot of details when you’re operating on autopilot. For photography, thinking smarter is usually about training your brain to think more creatively and detect those hidden angles. Especially if you’re still a beginner or intermediate photographer, don’t underestimate the importance of your photographer’s eye. Even if you only own one lens and a mediocre camera, the creativity of your eye is much more powerful than any lens you could buy. Not sure what I mean? Let me explain with these six simple tips to start thinking like a smarter photographer.

1. Think in Layers

If you’re a painter, graphic designer or know how to use Photoshop, you probably already know what I mean when I tell you to think in layers. This is a skill that is important for virtually every visual art, including photography. What do I mean with layers? I’m basically talking about depth, something that composition and aperture (f-number) will help you play with. Photos usually fall flat when you forget to create some sense of depth.

Yellow flowers and a Dutch windmill in the background
How many layers can you see in this photo? There are at least three.

The easiest way to create depth in your photo is to start thinking in multiple layers with one dominant layer that is in focus. Think about what needs to be in the background and what could help create a foreground layer. Is the middle layer your focus, or is the focus on the background? Think about which layer needs to be in focus and which one(s) should be blurry to help emphasize your main object. Those blurry layers will help you frame the layer you are bringing into focus. Think about layers in terms of framing, highlighting and shadows, just like you would if you were painting or illustrating. Although only having one ‘layer’ isn’t always bad, it usually leads to less of an ‘instant appeal’ and doesn’t really challenge the viewer to take a longer and closer look.

2. Vertical and Horizontal Symmetry

Those who have studied the visual arts will already know: the human eye loves and even seeks out symmetry. In urban photography, you can focus on finding vertical symmetry, like capturing a geometric building right at its center. However, vertical symmetry is generally much harder to find in nature photography. It is possible, but uncommon. The image below of the two Highland cows below is one of those rare examples.

Instead, horizontal symmetry can be found anywhere, both cities and nature, as long as there is a body of water involved. Always keep an eye out for reflections! Horizontal symmetry is usually created by using a reflective surface, which can be a mirror, but is most often a lake or even a puddle. One of the best times to go out into the city or forest with your camera is right after the rain. There will be plenty of puddles to create illusions of parallel worlds and when the sun breaks through the clouds, the sky will look extra dramatic. Have a look at examples of horizontal symmetry below, in the streets of Paris and on a North Sea beach.

3. Add a Sprinkle of Uniqueness

In the age of Instagram, most angles have been done a million times before. People tend to see the same location from similar angles and simply reproduce that image they saw online. But where’s the fun in that? Before you take your shot, always look around for a few seconds to see if there are any opportunities to elevate your photo to the next level. Everybody tends to take the same photos of well-known locations, so what can you do to make yours unique? That’s a helpful rule to always keep in mind.

Maybe you can find a slightly different spot to frame your photo differently. Sometimes it’s about timing and waiting for those magical in-between moments. A moment like that could be the single ray of sunshine illuminating a building while the raindrops are still falling on your umbrella. You might think you’ve got the shot, but you have to believe that there’s always a way of looking that you haven’t discovered just yet. Consistency is overrated (and boring). When you’ve got the hang of it, don’t copy the popular angles you see online. Instead, try new things. Experimentation is how you keep expanding the type of perspectives your photographer’s eye can anticipate and recognize.

4. Find the Hidden Angles

This fourth tip for smarter photography also builds on the idea of adding a sprinkle of uniqueness. There’s always a hidden angle you haven’t thought of. Turn photography into a game: challenge yourself to find the hidden angles that aren’t immediately visible to the average eye. Force yourself to dig deeper, train your eye to see outside the box. Even if you’ve taken photos of the same street or landscape ten times before, there will always be a perspective you haven’t thought of. Sometimes, the closer to the ground and the more stains on your jeans, the better your photo. Try lying down in the grass, or reframe your shot while looking through a window or fence. Even if you’ve visited the same place a hundred times before, remember that seasons change, plants will grow and no sunset will ever the same.

5. How to Recognize Those Real-life Movie Scenes

Another trick of the mind that I like to apply is looking at life as though it’s trying to imitate art. Keep an eye out for those moments that could fit into a movie scene. Pretend you’re looking through a pair of sunglasses you borrowed from your favourite film director. Or pretend you’re looking through your rose-coloured glasses, and I promise you will start to notice the little scenes that look like they belong to a rom-com. Pick a pair of glasses that fits with the mood, with the weather, and you’ll train yourself to notice compositions you usually wouldn’t consider. Even in the most boring-looking, unexpected places, you’ll be able to recognize cinematic moments. When you start looking for real-life movie scenes, you’ll discover hidden stories wherever you go.

Isabelle (silhouette) poses in front of the sunset with her surfboard.

6. A Good Photo Should Make You Feel Something

Something to remember while you’re taking photos, but even more so when you’re trying to select the ‘right’ photo to publish, is that photography is all about feelings. A good photo isn’t necessarily the pinnacle of technical know-how and a perfect rule of thirds. A good photo should make you feel something. The viewer will only connect to your photo, will genuinely see it, when your image somehow triggers a feeling or a memory for the viewer. That’s the power of photography: an image can make people feel nostalgic, invoke wanderlust, experience sadness or happiness. Don’t worry about not having the right equipment, that will come with time and practice. The most important thing that you should aim for as a photographer is learning how to visually translate moments into single frame stories.

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