While bad photography is a time machine, good photography creates meaningful moments. Learning how to recognize, take, and share good photographs does more than just document a specific time period, it shares the photographer’s thoughts about a subject and shows what they think of both the subject and their audience. Good photography can make a moment anew.
When I was a kid we didn’t have fancy cameras, in fact I don’t think my parents took photos very often, compared to some parents. We don’t have family videos and only a few photo albums. One day I borrowed my dad’s camera, took a few photos and decided that I needed to go buy a better camera and start taking it with me when I went places.
In college I dabbled in photography. I took pictures at punk shows, for fun, for albums, and for fanzines. I had a nice rig: Nikon SLR with speed shot attachement, external flash battery and flash bracket. My favorite lens was a fast 28mm.
But more than the gear I loved the darkroom. Developing a photographic style was part gear, part media, part vision. I loved Ilford paper- the black it developed was so inviting. I remember spending a summer in the darkroom of Orange Coast College watching Akira Kurosawa films with professor Arthur Taussig on a TV cart pulled in the hallway. (Professor Taussig is one of the most brilliant minds I have EVER encountered- watching him deconstruct a film was extraordinary.)
Because I lived on my own in college and paid my own tuition, car, insurance, food etc… I ended up selling all my gear on the cheap one trimester to pay for tuition at U.C. Irvine. I rarely took photos after that until my son was born. Even then my main camera was an all-metal silver body Canon compact, because “the worst shot is the one you didn’t take.” That was my camera until I bought a Galaxy III phone that had a better camera than my compact.
I’m not an expert photographer, but I can spot a good image and I love looking at photographs because it’s the fastest way to see how someone thinks and feels about the world. I have a cousin who is a great photographer in Canada:
This next photo is not an example of great photography, but it shows how Remi and I are connected. This is the color of our shared Acadian blood. Some people call it Molasses.
and I have an uncle who spent his whole life as a professional photographer. He lived with us in Huntington Beach, with his young son, for over a year. I enjoyed talking to him and seeing how he saw the world.
mon oncle Marcel
THE other day I posted a photo on Instagram that people appreciated. It was a simple how-to photo- talking about the difficulty of capturing someone making a presentation while keeping both the screen and the presenter well lit.
If you need to read anything on the photos, click on the photos- they load bigger after the click.
Then three days ago Sean Ziebarth came in my room saddened by some photos he has recently seen by some “amateur photographers.” Sean and I have such a cringe reaction when we see people make the mistake of taking portraits instead of landscape photos.
Portrait on the left, landscape on the right. How’s the pic on the left going to look on a computer screen or YouTube?
Alice Keeler actually sends me tweets whenever she sees some teacher taking a portrait shot with their cell phone.
Well, all of that got me thinking that maybe people could use a little help taking better photos. Since my students, and Sean’s students, and teachers, and administrators all need to take photos I thought I’d share a little acronym to help you take better photos. Since people like taking photos while traveling and since looking at a photo is like taking a trip to the past, I thought we could create a short acronym to help us remember four steps to taking better photos.
The acronym we are going to use to find and make better photos is: T.R.I.P.
T:ake (and find) many, share only what matters to you, your subject, your audience
R: etell the story
I: nteractions (between objects, using contrast, using focus, using lighting)
P:op (make it pop using color, lighting, focus, various filter settings and effects)
STEP ONE: Take…
(and find) many, share only what matters to you, your subjects, your audience
Point 1: Does your family share photos of your kids? Do your friend share moments that matter to them online? I’m guessing the answer is yes. Well… then why aren’t the admin at your school, in your district, the teachers in your classes sharing the moments that matter to them? You would never do that to your family… why are you doing it to your school?
Fear? There should be moments at school that inspire such joy, such happiness, such pride, that you HAVE to share them with others. Look with love and discovery in your heart, not fear in your mind. You do not need to SHARE every pic you take, just the ones that matter. And the pictures matter. I have a dream….
One day teachers and schools and admin will share so many pictures and video of the amazing things that our students do in school, that we won’t need test scores to prove their worth.
Just the act of taking a picture shows your kids that you find something of value in the moment. They may act shy, but they SEE just by the act of you taking out your phone and taking pictures that YOU see something worth sharing.
Point 2: Many of my students struggle to find good pictures for their blogs, but I have found that students who are active on Tumblr have a better eye for what looks good. Just as reading helps your writing, looking at photos helps your photographic eye. So don’t just take photos, look at photos. Get an Instagram account, find a few good photographers, or friends with a good photo eye and just lurk, look, comment, ask. Find professionals who use their cellphone cameras, not fancy rigs.
Point 3: My friend Urbie Delgado (I’m going to hope he considers me a friend) had a great tweet the other day. Great, because I feel the exact same way and tell my students this often:
The best way to make sure you are not violating the copyright of a photo is to use your own photos. Once you have published tons of photos, how easy is it to find one that works for what you want to say.
Point 4: While we may take and find lots of photos we do not share that many. We are not spammers.
- We care about the subject of the photo. Do they look good in the photo? Can we make them look better?
- We care about our audience, we share the photo in the right place with the right people. The photos I share on Facebook are different than the photos I share on Instagram.
- Why is this photo worth sharing? If we don’t care about the story behind the photo, then why share it? Which leads us to the 2nd part of T.R.I.P.
- If you want to learn more about the importance of showing your work and the work of those around you I highly recommend buying and reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work.
STEP TWO: Retell
the story of the moment
So you’ve taken lots of photos, you’ve gone back and looked at the photos, finding some that matter to your subject, your audience, yourself.
A photo shared is a story. What is the story you want to tell?
There are many kinds of stories, but your best photos should make that story evident. Stories are memorable and you know how I feel about the importance of making things memorable. When you share a photo you are telling your take on what happened. I love how photos share the mindset of the photographer. You can tell a lot about a person by the photos they choose to share. So share the photos that tell the story from your perspective, from YOUR heart.
The story can be
An inspirational story of a hero overcoming gravity
A story of man vs. boredom or the contrast of natural and man-made beauty.
Or a nostalgic look back at childhood.
STEP THREE: INTERACTING/Interaction:
(between objects, using contrast, using focus, using lighting)
Catch people as they interact with the things they love or hate. Emotional engagement is a powerful visual statement. Interacting is a form of dialogue, it is how a photo shows a conversation. You want conversations between your subjects and between your subjects and their environment.
You can use lighting as an interaction. Just a week ago students at my high school hosted an actual TEDx event, it was completely student run. Two of the students running the sound and lighting board were in the coolest light. I wanted to grab everyone I ever knew and throw them in that light. Well at least I captured two students I like in this coolest of side lighting. The interaction between the dark and light caught my eye.
What makes the photo above is the contrast of Karl and I trying to capture a moment and John trying to mess up the moment (in the future.) I guess photo-bombing is a form of time travel. Karl and John’s good looks help the photo. Nothing like taking a picture of an attractive subject to make you look like a better photographer.
Another example of structure, contrast, visual conflict
Here are some more examples of Interaction
Greg interacting with the header photo of JR from his blog.
Me interacting with a wall of used gum.
We are looking in one way, the other people in the photo are looking at the camera. And costumed vs. non-costumed people.
Interactions in a photo fool our mind into thinking we see action. Well, we do see action. The inter|action between two different things or different faces. This interaction moves our eye across and around the photo. You can do the same trick with lines and composition, but I’ll leave the rule of thirds and other design elements for you to discover, if photography becomes more passion than perfunction.
Our last step is making your photo POP
STEP FOUR: Pop
(make it pop using color, lighting, focus, various filter settings and effects)
You can make a photo POP by:
using color or increasing the color of the photo using filters and photo tools
finding something unusual and unexpected
You can find a focus point and blur out the rest
You can add a spot of action.
you can create #want
you can get CLOSE
Or you can combine: close, color, action, focus #want (you want to be there…)
My favorite POP tools for my phone are:
Both of these tools are free and both work on iOS and Android. Just pick ONE and start using it. Have fun with them, they will work on a copy of the photo and you can always find the original and mess with it again. You can’t break a photo if you work on a copy of it. Experiment!
Most cell phone pics can use a little increase in contrast and saturation.
My favorite free tool for using on your computer is: PicMonkey
You will love this program. Download it in the Chrome store and start messing around with it.
IF you are an administrator or teacher, my all-time favorite person to follow on Instagram is: Tim Lauer. Tim is an elementary school principal in Oregon. He is able to take so many photos at his school because instead of doing his busy computer work in his office, he takes his laptop into the classroom and does his computer work there. That way when something cool happens in class he is there to capture it.
This leads me to an important topic: FEAR. Time and time again I hear from teachers and admin that they are worried about violating privacy laws by taking photos and publishing photos online. Please don’t let fear get in the way of celebrating your school. Here is what you can do to reduce the fear.
Make sure you have photo release forms for your students and THEN do something so you can figure out which students you can and can’t publish photos of… I wish my district would put a code next to a student’s name if I can’t or can take and publish a photo of them. Perhaps you can create a sticker to put outside of classrooms. A green sticker means it’s okay to take photos, a yellow sticker means to take care and use some other techniques when you take photos. Techniques like:
- Take photos without a recognizable student in them. The photo of the cast signing above is an example. Unless you are sure of a student’s photo publishing status, don’t publish the age, grade, or name of the student in the photo.
- Take photos of student work. Make sure the work doesn’t have a name and a grade on the work.
- Take photos from behind students. Blur students. I’m not really a fan of putting stickers over student faces, it looks kinda weird, try another photo angle instead of doing this. Sometimes I stand over students working and shoot straight down (overhead) or take the shot from behind their shoulder, or just include their hand and their work in the shot.
- Publish photos of the buildings, the sky above your school, the equipment, the books, make your school seem magical.
- Publish photos of things that were donated by people or businesses around your community. Show your love for their gifts in your public spaces.
Photo by Principal Tim Lauer
Photo by Principal Tim Lauer
A shout-out to Wes’ dad for the new basketball nets.
Photo by Principal Tim Lauer
Seriously…. you are going to let FEAR stop you from posting this?
Wait a minute Theriault… you said that you would help us FIND better photos by taking a T.R.I.P. and yet you’ve just told us how to TAKE them? What gives?
Well the first step in finding better photos is making sure you recognize a good photo, so use the T.R.I.P. strategy to find photos except that instead of taking the photos, just look at them. Additionally I would:
- Follow friends on Instagram and Twitter who take great or good photos and save those photos to a Google+ folder, Tumblr, or Flickr account with their name on the photo, a few hashtags showing what topic the photo might be good for, and a link back to them. Then when you need to use one of their photos you’ll be able to quickly find the photo and contact the artist for permission.
- I also like to use artwork from earlier than 1920 so that I don’t have to worry about copyright.
- Using Google’s advance search, search for photos using the .gov domain. All photos taken by the government are available for non-commercial use.
- Screen caps from movies or the covers of novels are useful for non-commercial use. Make sure to link back to the movie or book on Amazon or somewhere else so that the owners might profit from the link back. I only do this when I’m going to mention the movie or novel.
- You can search many sites at once using the Creative Commons search tool, but use your common sense. I’ve found some images on the site that didn’t look like they were posted by the owner, or seemed in violation of copyright laws.
IF you want to follow two photo pros on Instagram who also give presentations/classes on the subject I HIGHLY recommend these two teachers:
Nicole Dalescio: Known on Twitter and Instagram as @magrelacanela basically a Goddess of mobile photography
If I could just get her to do this (or figure out how to do this) for one of the photos of my family on the beach I’d hang it on our wall in a second.
Stephen Davis a middle school teacher in Southern California: the black and white master of Hipstamatic. Known on Twitter and Instagram is @rushtheiceberg
I also love:
The whimsical work of @cintascotch
and an artist that Nicole introduced to me in her mobile photography class
@cryingjune on Instagram
If you are ever at the library or have money to burn I suggest getting these books if you love photography.
I own all three of these books, probably the greatest three books written on photography ever. Complete photo nerd stuff here by the master Ansel Adams.
Can’t wait to see your photos online. Feel free to share your Instagram or other photo spaces in the comments below. Lastly, if the worst photo is the one you didn’t take, then the second worst photo is the one you shouldn’t have shared. Don’t be spammy with your photos and don’t post things you shouldn’t post. Be nice, be compassionate. Thanks.
PS: I love how Remi (my cousin) never uses his professional photography gear to take his Instagram photos. Instead he lets his heart and his talent find pictures worth taking. You could learn a lot about photography and what pictures do to our lives by following the Instagram account of Remi Theriault :
If you want to follow my Instagram account, you can see and follow the Instagram account of David Theriault by clicking on my the link.
*all photos by me, Tim Lauer, Remi Theriault or my son.
** if any of this seems familiar, I wrote an earlier post on photography, but then I tried using it with my students and decided it wasn’t working. Nothing like using something in the classroom to show you the difference between concept and reality, so I pretty much redid the entire post. Sorry for any confusion.