5 Questions to Think Like a Photographer

This photo is my film crew as we were taping a segment for my video series, painting watercolor at Monterey, CA. (Watch for free on our YouTube channel, WatchingPaintDryLLC). Not everyone can have a degree in photography or filmmaking or years of experience and tens of thousands of dollars in gear, right?

Every photo snapped from your phone isn’t a great photo. Even with an expensive camera your photos can still be average or mundane.. As an art teacher and former professional photographer, I gathered these questions to ask yourself before heading out on your next shoot for great landscape shots:

1) What are you trying to communicate? Where do you want the viewer to focus? What’s the main point? That main point in your photograph is your FOCAL POINT. Sometimes it is a small specific area in a photo; sometimes it is the whole scene—such as a sunset. In the sunset photo, we all understand what the point is: awesome sky. In the bird picking up the fish on the beach, you can center the focal point, but generally it’s more appealing to scoot it a bit to one side or the other. In art, our sense of composition typically prefers an arrangement that is not “perfectly balanced.” Just as no human face is exactly the same on each side, we are comfortable with variations in symmetry and balance.

Brilliant yellow sunset, tree top horizon, dramtic clouds in sky
Timing and patience is essential to capturing scenes such as this.
Horizontal photo. Pelican grasping fish in large beak, FLorida beach with wet sand, shorebirds surround pelican
A pelican grabbing a fish on a beach in Florida. You want your viewer to be thinking about what the bird is grabbing.
Horizontal photo. Fall foliage, Holden Arboretum, Ohio. Orange, red, golden trees. Tall fountain sraying water in pond.
The focal point is the fountain at the Holden Arboretum, Fall 2014. The randomness of the background allows the fountain to be centered in the image. Note the circle of foliage creates almost a frame around the fountain, directing the viewer’s eye where you want it to be.
Horizontal photo. Two dogs chasing each other, running on beach, gray-colored sand, surf, and cloud-filled sky near Gloucestor, MA.
Dogs playing on a beach bring joy to any dog lover. Note these dogs also help suggest scale to the enormous gray vista near Gloucester, M


2) How do you want to say it? This is your POINT OF VIEW. People tend to shoot photos straight on at their own eye level. New technologies such as “Gopro” cameras on dogs, drones, skateboarders, etc., have helped the world see that an unusual point of view can be especially engaging. Don’t be afraid to tilt the camera. Lift above your head and shoot down. Lie on the floor and shoot toward the heavens.

Vertical photograph. Fall foliage, orange, yellow leaves, tree canopy, Cleveland Metroparks. 2014.
Looking up Into the tree canopy at Cleveland Metroparks. October 2014.
Feels warm and sunny just looking up into the palms.
Feels warm and sunny just looking up into the palms.

3) How will you help the viewer enter the scene? Two good techniques are SCALE and a PATHWAY. Scale can be indicated by including something human-made, such as a fence, or the drinking glasses in Siena, Italy. Or, an actual path into the photo allows the viewer to mentally step into the photo and walk the path. Your landscape reached out and grabs a viewer if he feels he can walk right into the scene.

Horizontal photo. Serene forst scene with dramatic tall trees and small bench. Cleveland Metropark.
The wooden bench tucked at the bottom of the tree in this summer scene at a Cleveland Metropark invites a visitor to pause and absorb the serenity.
Square photo. Bright summer day. Tuscan scene looking into hills outside Florence, Italy. Olive trees. Vineyards.
A bistro table in Siena, Italy, in view of the vineyards and olive orchards. The solitude and casualness of the scene is tempting for the viewer to jump in and sit at the table enjoying an espresso with some biscotti.
Horizontal photo. Bog and forest vegetation surrounds wooden boardwalk with a person in the distance walking on the path. Late afternoon sun creates deep shadows.
The boardwalk on the Wahkeena Nature Preserve, Fairfield County, OH. The boardwalk beckons the viewer to enter the scene.



























4) What will make the image pop? A POP OF COLOR will catch the eye, and generally as the viewer continues to examine the photo, the pop of color pulls her eye back to the intense splash of color. It generates eye flow which tends to force the viewer to linger on the image. This is human nature. Our brain is trained to identify things which stand out against their backgrounds. A red male cardinal rustling in a tree. The movement of a deer in front of forest shrubbery.

Horizontal photo. Ancient metal gates partially open to bright pasture that leads to deep forest.
The beautiful teal color of the fence is an appealing counterpoint to the natural bright greens, whites, and dark shades of the vistas beyond. The colors are so striking in their juxtapositioning that it is difficult to pull ones eyes away. Plus the partial opening of the gate is an inviting pull to enter the forest outside the gate.
Horizontal photo. Old masonry wall forground. Glass vessels set on ledge. Vase with bright red poppies. Urns of summer flowers. Background two cypress trees and long view of Tuscan countryside with vineyards, olive orchards, ancient buildings.
A vase of a few brightly colored poppies create a striking pop of color against the dark Cypress trees. The drinking glasses and copper vessel give a sense of scale and a touch of impromptu casualness.
Vertical photo. Tight shot in shade of hillside. Lush vegetation such as hostas, landscape grasses. Unusual green colors.
The unexpected silver-green color of the grasses on this bank at the Holden Arboretum, Cleveland, OH not only create a visual interest, but the “weeping” effect of the foliage creates eye movement that flows diagonally through the image. The tree trunk crossing to the left creates a “cross current” to allow the eye to flow to the left and start entering the photo again. Even the scattering of the fall leaves across the bottom of the image presents a musicality to the image that continues to delight a viewer.



































5) When should you use special FXs? I tend to prefer more natural images although many times for fun, to create or amplify an emotion, or simply to experiment, you may elect to add an effect. In the photo with the yellow finch, the bird had flown across my yard and landed on the external side of my window screen. I had time to grab my phone before it zipped away. But the screen was distracting. Using a standard filter on my Android, I created a vignette with a theme, and it minimized the distraction caused by the screen. On the winter landscape photo, the image was primarily two colors (blue and black) and seemed a bit flat. By using another standard filter on an Android, I created an emotional context for the image that seems to emphasize the stark, solitary frigidness of the scene.

Horizontal photo. View from inside of room to small yellow finch songbird attached to exterior of a window screen. Airmail dotted band applied to top of photo.
The generic filter on the Android created a post card or “air mail” effect on the little finch that landed on my window screen. the effect minimized the distraction of the screen between the viewer and the bird.
Horizontal photo. Exterior edges appear torn or roughed up. Intensity of color amplified through filter. Winter snow leading into forest scene. Intense blue, black and blue-gray snow.
The filter from the Android created an emotional tone to the winter photo.









Some of the images in this post, such as the one with the glasses on the ledge in Siena, have incorporated the answers to several of the questions. This strengthens them.

All these photos (except for the two included under “FXs”) are straight from a camera. None of the scenes was composed. Each one was shot exactly as it appeared. This isn’t required when you shoot your photographs. You are the artist and you can compose scenes and you can manipulate photos. But if you start with a strong image, life is easier.

And, your photos will look like you know how to think like a photographer.


I teach online classes in watercolor painting and drawing through TakeLessons.com. Check out my profile and read about taking art lessons from me online. Read the reviews from students. It’s a great way to get individual, one-on-one learning. 



About artinthecenter

I am a lifelong artist having studied painting, photography, drawing, and other media, in schools in the US and Italy. I won my first art contest when I was five--at a museum-- and my point of view tends to be as a five-year-old creative child embracing life. Check out all sort of artsy information at: www.watchingpaintdry.com and purchase my artwork at: janemmason.com +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ This policy is valid from 1 January 2016. This is a personal, educational, blog written and edited by me, Jane M. Mason. For questions about this blog, please contact: jane@watchingpaintdry.com. Sincere effort has been made to cite, recognize, and thank all sources of content, including images. If you feel we have included something in this blog that has not been accurately noted or recognized, please let me know and I will adjust the citation when presented with details. If you are interested in using intellectual property from this blog, please contact Hello@watchingpaintdry.com. This blog does not accept cash or paid topic insertions. However, we will consider accepting free products and other forms of compensation. The compensation received will not influence content. All advertising is in the form of advertisements generated by a third party ad network. We do not have control over the products advertised. The views and opinions expressed are those of Jane M. Mason or the associates of WPD LLC. We only endorse products or services that we believe, based on our expertise, are worthy of such endorsement. Any product claim, statistic, other representation should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. This policy has been adapted from DisclosurePolicy.org. For your own policy, go to http://www.disclosurepolicy.org

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