Non-Photoshop Ways to Be a Better Photographer

by Mike on July 29, 2012

One staple in every traveler’s bag is a camera whether it’s a simple point and shoot type or one that’s built into our mobile phones.  It’s just something we as travelers don’t leave home without to capture our unique experiences on the road.(one of my favorite once in life-time trips)

I’m willing to bet that that the vast majority of us(I myself included) have never taken any kind of photography instruction before.  I think it’s safe to say most of ustake the intuitive approach to photography: point the camera at the object we wish to photograph and if it comes out clear, the picture is good enough.  If not repeat the aforementioned process until we desired results are produced.  This is simple enough and works.

Photo of Resident Chinese people taking picture of rare to them caucasian

Photo of Resident Chinese people taking pictures of caucasians(rare because of the homogenous population)

Well, I want to share some stuff I learned about photography when I had a chance to meet James Clear in Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago.  Like myself, he’s an avid traveler.  He’s passionate about photography and gave a little workshop about what he knows.  The advice that he has is so simple that anyone can use it to take better photos.



The more mega-pixel, the more whiz bang super whamdime features a camera has, the better your photos will be. Right? That’s not necessarily true.  The truth is the camera you have doesn’t lead to good composition photographs.  You can’t buy yourself a good camera and expect to take good photographs, i.e. buying your way to a good photo.

One caveat to that is gear.  Certain gear such as lens, such as wide angle and zoom lens are needed for specific pictures.   So, there are limitation to what can be captured with what you have.


This is probably the single most important aspect that matters the most.  If there is no light, there is no photo.  However, too much light is not necessarily a good thing either.  As in the case with sunlight, too much of it can wash out colors, leads to squinting eyes, and creates harsh unwanted shadows.

Example of too much sunlight makes for a bad photograph

Example of too much sunlight washing out an otherwise scenic shot

I’m not surprised that good lighting is the leading factor to good composition photos.  I’ve taken numerous photos with my iPhone 3GS and can recall when I’ve been stunned by how great some of the photos turned out and how poorly some are.  It seems that the variable that separated great photos from the poor ones stem from proper or adequate lighting.  Usually pics in restaurants or low level lighting conditions didn’t turn out well(the iPhone 3GS lacks a flash).   Still pictures outdoors or indoor pictures with adequate lighting resulted in better photographs.

Other thoughts on light:

  1. Soft light such, as over cast days are prime times to take outdoor photographs.  This almost eliminates any severe shadows.
  2. Dusk and Dawn times produce unique subtle light for outdoor shots.  These unique shades of light create different perspective of a picturesque scene.


This is essential to portrait shots. I look at people’s eyes when I’m talking to them and they’re looking at my eyes when they’re listening.  So, needless to say, this is where the human body lives.  To capture a more eye popping photo, James likes to have the subject sit and face a south-facing window and take a picture with them with your back to the window.


The lead is what the photograph is all about.  Don’t loose it.

On the other hand, the photograph doesn’t always have to focus on the lead, it could be something else.  A prime example of this was when James showed a picture of the Eiffel tower.   Rather than simply taking several pictures of the Eiffel tower, James found a rather large puddle that captured the reflections of the tower well and focused on that.

Lead was capture through a reflection

An example of the lead captured through a reflection. PHOTO CREDIT James Clear


Scale – Place a familiar object next to an unknown object so that a viewer of the photograph can grasp the realm of the scene.

Example of Scale for a photograph

A Jeep next to two giant Sequoia Trees to show the grand size of the tree. NOTE: picture was taken inside Sequoia National Park

Perspective – Change the frame of reference to make something appear differently.  I don’t have a good example of this, as I’ve never been creative enough to capture this.  James on the other hand has some great ones.

Perspective of the angle of the house

Perspective of the angle of the house. PHOTO CREDIT James Clear

Perspective of house

Same picture, but different perspective of the angle of the house. PHOTO CREDIT James Clear


The following  photo is a clear violation of the rule of thirds.

Violation of the rule of thirds

Violation of the rule of thirds. NOTE: picture was taken in Death Valley National Park

Grid lines indicating where the horizon and lead should be

The rule of thirds divides the picture into thirds on BOTH the horizontal and vertical axis.  The objective is not to have the horizon in the middle of the shot to create two halves in the picture.  Likewise with the lead or the object your photographing shouldn’t be right in the middle breaking the photo in left and right half segment.  As one can clearly see, I violated the rule of thirds on both axises.

To avoid violating the rule, I would place the horizon and object so that it lands in the third quadrant vice right in the middle.  I didn’t realize this prior to meeting James, but there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the rule of thirds.

Take 5, Choose 1

James later describes his take 5 photographs and keep one.  With digital storage being cheap, taking multiple pictures is not a problem.  The problem I find is sorting through all the pictures AFTER my trip.  I back-up my photos to an external drive at the very least.  Sometimes I sort through them to find photos that I want to display.


All the photos with the exception of the ones that are noted are from my collection.  As an inexperienced photographer, I’ve clearly made mistakes that went against what James preaches.  However, I did take some photos that hit the “bull’s eye” with what James was preaching out of pure luck.  Moving forward, I’ll keep James’ insight in mind to hit the “bull’s eye” more often.

If you have any additional thoughts on taking better photos, I love to hear them.

Related posts:

What to Do With Leftover Foreign Currency
The Fine Art of Packing Light
Why I have Two U.S. Passports

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Schorr August 1, 2012 at 11:19 pm

I found this from mp forums and gave it a read. I have a few critiques, you dont explain what the “lead” is and as someone who has studied photography for many years i’ve NEVER heard this term, not sure if thats a good or bad thing. Either way, you dont describe it and i guess what you mean is the subject of the photo.

Your explanation of the rule of thirds is a bit shoddy at best. Short and concise, keep your horizon on one of the two vertical lines and your subject points should hit the intersections of the dividing lines.

The section about eyes doesnt really make much sense when you add the south facing window with no reasons behind it. If you’re taking a portrait of a person the eyes should be your focal point. Direction of light needs to be taken into account so move yourself and subject accordingly.

Touching on light, the time at dusk and dawn is known as magic (or golden) hour because it provides a very soft (diffused) light and very warm hue. Shadows become longer and if the sun is below the horizon you’ll have very little shadow. The key here however is the soft light and warm color temperature.

Hope this clears some things up for you and some of your readers.
All the best.


Mike August 2, 2012 at 12:18 am

Thanks for the critique. I made mention that I’m no professional photographer and this workshop I attended was a crash course to taking better photography. With that said, there maybe some things I didn’t quite understand. I definitely appreciate elaborating on some of my short comings.


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