Beyond Photo Basics

Written by Mihajlo Filipovic |

Looking at myriads of photos posted up to various internet sites, one can’t help but wonder how many people shoot pictures without ever feeling the need to know what they’re doing.

Whether made by phone cameras or the most expensive photographic gear, a frighteningly large percentage of pictures simply seem to lack important elements. A story, expression, balance, correct framing, all that is missing - as if the cameras somehow actuated the shots without any human intention.

Indeed, knowing some people which became photo-makers because the visual recording feature simply came with their phone,you’ll notice that their whole imaging process consists of “point camera” and “press button” (or “touch screen”). Whatever comes out will then be immediately, and often automatically uploaded to some internet site!

Maybe people are encouraged by camera advertisings that photography is actually as simple as that? Or are they simply too lazy to learn?

This is sad. Let’s re-visit some things about photography that should be clear, and way before the pressing of the shutter. Anyone who wants to make pictures should be aware of those, and invest some interest in learning to visually express themselves. Even small kids, and they want to learn!


Photography is a means of communication by visual statement. It is not unlike written or printed words or text, but while texts are read sequentially, the photograph (or any other kind of image) is visually accepted both as a whole, and also as a layout of details.


The most important aspect of an image is that it needs no translation (as opposed to spoken, written or printed text), since images visually trigger our comparation capabilities. Images are about equally accepted in any culture. An image content transfer is instant, be it documentary, emotional or both, and the viewers will attempt to understand the meaning at their personal level of knowlege, experience, culture, educational or emotional sensitivity.


Imaging is best compared to auditive communication. A spoken text via radio or telephone has its sequentiality (beginning, contents, and end), but requires understanding of the language. In that respect it is much like written or printed text. An instrumental musical piece can be said to be universally understood. Much like the images, it needs no translation; its acceptance will be occuring at the listeners’ personal level of knowledge, culture, education or emotional sensitivity. Musical songs containing spoken language, will require the ability of translation, though. Those are then comparable to pictures with text, like billboards, ads, etc.


Images are essentially flat surfaces where visual content resides in form of graphic elements: shapes, colored areas of shades and hues, and their respective dimensions and relation. The images present our real world in its contents, inter-relations and approximations. We are so used to visually gather our information that we do not question the lack of an image’s third dimension. Our interpretation of an image  will work equally well for photographic pictures as for paintings.  Even when the graphical presentation consists only of simple lines, like in some sketch, we will easily recognize a house, tree, animal or human figure in various expressions. Our power of imagination and association will supply the missing pieces, and we will understand what the image shows.


The answer is similar to the question “Who is a painter?”, as a photographer actually makes an image painted with light. The photographers or painters are also the authors of their work. They create their visual comments upon various themes.  Since we are beings of unique experiences, our comments differ in approach and expression of even the same theme. 

Photography is thus communication about the differences in our perception of the common World that we share.


Photographic comunication is the way we use to present to others how we see and understand our World. We can thus compare our differences and find common elements between our unique aspects. That way we understand each other better, and in the same time have the privilege of experiencing the same things in many different ways.

Photography connects people, creates understanding and tolerance, and shares knowlege. We gather more information, and this educates us in many ways. Educated and informed people are able to live better lives, and better life is an universal goal.


Good photo is a frame of visual content that is clear, simple, informative and pleasantly laid out. Such an image contains recognizable elements set in such a way that the viewer can comprehend their relation. 

To achieve this, an author has to know and understand the way an image is composed. This is part of learning the basics, which can be found in many Camera Manuals, books and other kinds of photography-related information.

The most important part to be mentioned here is that anyone who wants to produce good photos should strive and read about it from any source – and the Internet is the biggest source of all kinds of knowledge available today.

Learning what a good photo is also comes from studying other people’s photographs, and distinguishing well-laid out photograph from merely the theme that might be attractive. Sometimes the ugliest theme is excellently photographed, and many a time an attractive theme will be presented in a way that does it no justice.

Good photos usually manage to transfer the whole of their emotional charge to the viewers, while badly made photos will fail to convey that message, simply because it was ineptly conceived. In that respect, pictures are much like an art of speaking; not easily done by just anyone!


An image content does not move. Instead, the shapes we recognize are laid out such that we sense their connection.  The author’s choice of key elements and their placement relative to each other and to the frames of the image explains their inter-relation and makes a story. A photo story can be read from such relations.


The most precise synonym for photography, this language has its grammar, rules and suggestions. Those are meant to help authors create their visual comments so that the most viewers can understand what has been expressed. Like in any other language, the need for clear, simple and technically correct expression is paramount.

Without this in mind, the images produced will be hard to read and understand, which in turn means that their authors either do not have anything to express, or can’t do any better than “visually mumble”.

Photographers are not necessarily after compliments, but should care not to appear ridiculous. Thus, being a photographer means lifelong learning and advancement in the expressive ways. This is beneficial and irreplaceable, both for themselves, and for the viewers of their work.


Any camera, actually. There never has been so many camera models, and every one of those has its limitations.  Also, there are no cameras able to do everything an author could imagine. That is why the very first question for any photographer is “What do I need the camera for?”

The answer(s) to this question will narrow down the choice, and the next question might be “How much?” Determining the manufacturer, the type and model in this particular price range will require a lot of reading and understanding of various technical characteristics, but the final outcome could be the optimal piece of equipment. 

The most important thing to remember is that even the most expensive camera is limited by its user, and that there are many excellent cameras to be had in surprisingly low price range. Among those, second-hand gear may be said to have quite attractive advantages.


Simple. One can’t make good images from botched photos, period.

Post-processing programs are what was once a Film/Photo Developing & Printing Lab; a Twilight Zone from where we simply accepted whatever came out, never mind the correctness of all the things done to our material! Now that part of the process falls within the photographer's responsibilities, and there are no more excuses. No other people to blame. Authors did it all.

Post-processing programs, routines, editors, filters and effects are various and galore. But these can’t produce good photos from just anything the camera has registered. One should start with properly framed, sharp, clear, simple and well-balanced photo, and use the PP programs sparsely and in tiny increments.

This is yet another case where “less is more”, which is an important rule throughout photography. Strange, alienating effects, far-out color, uncontrolled noise and “artefacts” usually point at authors that are easily fascinated by tricks, and try to hide errors they have made while photographing.

They also forget that others have the same or similar programs and effects! We’ve all  been there, done that, and it is all too easily recognizable. So it should be avoided.


Lots of work. And then some more. Essentially, it also means remembering what not to do.

Using the camera and understanding of the basic principles involved in its technical aspect, that goes without saying. Examining the results closely, and mercilessly erasing whatever does not fit own idea of “good” - that should be the norm.

Note, one should never use the camera outside of its technical limitations, since the results will be disappointing. So it is equally important to know what the camera CAN’T do.

Aside from that, one should make many photos, make many  mistakes! It’s okay, as long as something has been learned from it.


There are many. Being overly optimistic about camera’s technical abilities is one of them. But it is harmless, as it only results in badly done pics, and some spent battery power. Whatever has caused some picture to appear incorrectly is reason enough to delete it.

Posting up just about anything on the Internet is another no-no.  Kids are many times eager to let their circle know what they’re doing, so it’s done for “documentary” purposes. They’ll learn, in time. We should show them as soon as possible how to do it properly.

There is also this problem of picking some costly piece of gear because the price alone kind of promises an instant success. Wrong. Without understanding, the results will be equally disappointing, only more expensive.

Sometimes a renown manufacturer’s name proves to be a cloak for cheap products. Such product sales attempt to ride upon the prestige of previous cameras, ones that were once popular or well made. Sadly,  many things have changed since those times, and many high-class and high-price equipment is now made (or composed of parts produced) in places we’ve never heard about. The Name does not present sufficient guarantee of quality for all models tagged with it, not any more. The new business ethics (or lack thereof) has seen to that.

So, to be able to discern and decide upon acquiring some piece of equipment, it has become equally important to know how to balance many data from all possible sources. After going through the ads, always read specifications, reviews, and personal experiences of other people.

Choosing and using are some of the most obvious problems... there are more... but the most serious problem for any photographer by far is an invisible, creeping, psychological deformation, which by all definitions should be regarded and feared as a grave illness! It is called…

VANITY (also see another article titled"Photography And Vanity")

Vanity is one very real and very widely spread trouble. Its most obvious appearance can be noticed in all competitive and creative fields of human activity. It should be understood immediately, and as deeply as possible, since it can effectively destroy talent and success.

Many people know that having a violin does not make one a musician, but accept the illusion that a camera will make them photographers! Millions of botched photos are posted up to the internet social sites every minute, gathering “likes” from the equally uneducated. Or for reasons unrelated to photography. This empty praise grants the authors of photos that superficial and false feeling of achievement.

Such authors easily succumb to the delusion that whatever comes out of their cameras must be a masterpiece. Very quickly, this unbased self-appreciation will set, and from that moment the learning (if any) will cease. Logically, this state will be followed by jealousy (of other people's work), denial (of own lack of advancement), paranoia, rudeness… and this may then become a personal trait, which is an all-round psychological trouble.

Vanity is Worldwide, and visible in every society based upon competitiveness. The vain people may cause problems, but all people suffer the consequences. Strangely, there is no serious striving to suppress what has become the ubiquitous, dark power source used mainly for social climbing. It would seem that even the most senseless competing is encouraged in our society, regardless of the known adverse effects.

So, beware! Creative activities are those where the way to success is infinitely more important than arriving. Since learning is one never-ending process, stopping it must equal the end of progress. Thus, an end of progress is what one encounters at the point of perfection. Is it real?

The very definition of perfection means no more advancement. It is easy to liken the end of advancement to the end of all activity along some path. Sensible beings will not ever want to reach such a point, since it is a self-imposed illusion. Nevertheless, it imposes a very real state of no-way-out.

Steer clear of vanity. Use whatever it takes to suppress or avoid it wherever you see it.

Just as you would attempt to do against any other kind of death.

Copyright ©

Author: Mihajlo Filipovic
Retired pro, but a lifelong amateur at heart. Also a diver with decades of experience, and still addicted to underwater photography. I never go to water without a camera, to be able to record the beauties of the submerged Nature. Which, as you well know, covers the largest part of the Earth. I will enjoy what our wonderful Earth offers to our eyes and mind for as long as I can.


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