Steps To Taking A Photo – Photography Basics

Photography Basics - Understanding Shutter SpeedPicking up speed after yesterday’s topic of White Balance it’s time to talk about…

Steps To Taking A Photo

Some of you have asked how I take a photo, what goes into my thought process? Much like opening Pandora’s Box, I’m not sure that is a safe question, but let’s take a trip down the lane of shooting just one picture and the voices I hear in my head.

For an example, let’s use the image below, from the Himalayas in Nepal, Asia (in another post I will explain how I edited it). This is a view of Cho Oyu, the 6th tallest mountain in the world, and the Ngozumpa Glacier, the longest in Nepal. On the other side of that distant ridge is Tibet.

Equipment Used: Canon 7D, Canon 28-300mm L lens, ISO 100, 28mm, f/8, 1/125 second, no flash.

Taking a photoStep 1 – Start Feeling

The first step is to get all Jedi on the process. “Feel the shot flow through you.” “With the blast shield down I can’t see a thing.” “Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly alright now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?” Really, I could go on all day with Star Wars quotes. But the important part is to get to a point where thinking about what you want to shoot takes a back seat to seeing it.

Steps to Taking a PhotoWill this happen overnight? Nope. It’ll take practice. I shot about a dozen weddings before I felt comfortable just knowing what I should be seeing, and seeing it in my mind before I shot it. That’s a lot of nerve wracking weddings before it started to come naturally. Some people have the gift to start out just ‘knowing’ and that’s awesome. For the rest of us, it takes work to get to a point of not thinking. Practice, you’ll get there.

At this point I’m thinking – “Hey, that looks cool” and right after that was “I love how small the people look and how grand Cho Oyu is.”

Step 2 – Think About What You Want To Convey

And what you want to convey is typically an emotion. Or a sense of place. Or just what your gut/heart/soul is experiencing in that moment.

I often tell people to put down their camera when they travel some place new and walk around for a day without it. I got lambasted by some commenters for suggesting such blasphemy. You can decide if that tactic is right for you.

Steps to Taking a PhotoI have found looking critically, without a camera, leads to better photos. It will give you a sense of place that becomes more readily obvious to shoot when the camera is unpacked. Mentally list adjectives of how you feel and what you see, if you’re the list type.

At this point I’m thinking – “The rich colors and the calm of the Himalayas as the sun is getting lower.” Calm and small are what I’m experiencing. And a little cold.

Step 3 – Now, How To Show That Emotion Or Feeling?

I wrote about capturing emotion, at least some tips, here. This is a fun area because if you ask 100 photographers about how to do it, you’ll get 98 different answers (there’s always two passive photographers in every crowd). Keep asking whenever you can and study other photos to see what pulls at you and how the photographer was able to capture that.

Steps to Taking a PhotoAt this point I’m thinking – “Deep blues and bright whites. Underexpose if the first one doesn’t come out, because that snow and ice can be tricky depending on where it hits the light sensors.” Also, “Don’t let the unreal saturation in the blue sky blow out!”

Step 4 – Set It Up

Now it’s time to get the camera in place, be it on a tripod or handheld or on a jib. Look through the viewfinder and frame things up. If you’re stuck for a place to start, use the Rule Of Thirds (covered later), which is much easier than the Rule Of 65ths.

At this point I’m thinking – “I need to move to the side to see a little more glacier and balance the image” Then, after moving 10′ to the right, “Wait for those clouds (out of frame) to cast shadows for contrast.”

Step 5 – Check Settings

Steps to Taking a PhotoYou might want to do this before setting up, but it’s ok to do it now as well. If you’re going for anything other than average, which is what you camera wants to achieve, check your settings. Are you going to meter off the whole scene, or just part of it? Do you want to blow out some highlights or deepen shadows? Will there be enough light for a lower ISO? What’s the white balance set at? Will there be blur at this shutter speed? Will I get enough depth of field with this aperture?

When starting out, these questions are okay. As you progress, they’ll enter your head less and less as it becomes more natural.

At this point I’m thinking – “ISO to 100. Check! I don’t want noise. Shutter speed just fast enough but, without a tripod, I’m going to have to be very steady.”

Step 6 – Breathe Slow

Steps to Taking a PhotoAt this point I’m thinking – I’m not. I’m breathing and getting all Super Zen-like and stuff. At 15,600’/4,700m it takes longer to catch your breath.

Step 7 – shoot

Why is ‘shoot’ lower case? Because it’s not really that big of a deal. What’s happening in front of you is. Don’t forget, you are capturing a moment in time and experiencing it, right along with shooting it, is important.

In my mind, for something exciting, it should go “Wow! Something cool happened. Hey, cool, I got a shot of it too” instead of, “Wow! I got the shot, I got the shot!”  If nothing else, there might be another shot AFTER the one you got and were so proud of. Keep your mind open. And keep breathing.

At this point I’m thinking – “Wow, what a beautiful place.”

Rinse and repeat!

Oh yeah, you can review the photo if need be. I often do, using a histogram to make sure my viewing eyes are seeing things right.

Tomorrow we talk about Exposure Compensation to help fix what your camera does wrong.

Questions?  Pop ’em like Pez in the comments section below. or email me at

Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

Photo ToursIf you enjoy the series, consider learning photography first-hand on a professionally led international photo tour in Nepal or Bhutan. More information can be found at Far Horizon Photo Tours

2 Comments Steps To Taking A Photo – Photography Basics

  1. Paul Weimer October 16, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    “and seeing it in my mind before I shot it. ”

    I do think that previsualization, which I do not do consistently, is when I get better shots.

    1. Peter Carey October 16, 2018 at 4:44 pm

      It certainly takes some conscience effort at first. Otherwise you end up with average pictures of just stuff.

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