I think that most people believe that the key to taking good pictures is mostly technical. First you need a good camera and then you need to learn all the advanced trigonometry and physics necessary to use said camera. (“So, a higher ISO means more light but a higher shutter speed means less light? What?) All that stuff is necessary, sure, but let’s not overlook the thing that’s really important: Memories.
Always ask “Why?”
Every time you reach for your camera, ask yourself, “Why am I taking a picture? Why did I reach for my camera?” Most of the time it’s one of two things: Either you want to preserve a memory, or you saw something that sparked a memory in you and you want to record it. If you approach the picture with that in mind, you will take better, more meaningful pictures of your family.
My kids were putting out Halloween decorations last year and I grabbed my camera to record the memory. Don’t stand your kids up and take a snapshot. You have thousands of snapshots of your kids and they all look the same. Instead, ask “Why?” In this case, the reason I was taking pictures was because my children were putting out decorations. The decorations were the memory… the process. So, I focused on the decorations, not the children. My technical knowledge allows me to take the picture from the proper angle with the proper light, etc, but it’s my desire to preserve the memory of my children decorating the house that leads me to create an image that is unique and so much better than a snapshot.
One Saturday I walked into the kitchen and my youngest daughter was painting. I looked at her paint brush and was immediately reminded of when I was a boy. The ruined paint brush…. how many of those did I create as a kid? It’s a memory I hadn’t thought about in decades and it made me smile. So, I grabbed my camera and recorded the image. This is a gift for my children… a memory recall button they can use 30 years from now to feel the same way I did when I took the picture.
Have you ever watched people look at old family photographs? Have you noticed how sometimes they talk about the stuff in the pictures more than the people? “I remember that couch!” “That was my favorite mug!” I was once at a family gathering and watched my wife and her sister laugh and talk for 15 minutes about the “Holly Hobby” dolls they had as kids… all because their Mom showed them a picture and one of the dolls happened to be in the background. Looking through a photo album the faces all start to run together, it’s the things that make the memories special.
My daughter was decorating Easter Eggs last year when I took this picture. I sat there and fooled around with my camera for a minute or two because I wanted to capture what I was remembering about my own experience as a child. I was watching her and thinking about how great it was to be a kid, when the most important part of your day was deciding what colors to put on an egg. When I see this picture now it reminds me of that memory and hopefully it will do the same for my daughter one day.
One of my students said, “I’m taking a picture of my young son on horseback this weekend. How should I take the shot?” I thought about it a second and said, “Get low. Take the shot from a low angle so that your son looks like he is really high because, to him, he is really high. Think about what it felt like when you were a kid and climbed on a horse, then try to preserve that feeling for your son. The reason why you are taking the picture is simple: To record your son on a horse. But, if you think a little more you can record how your son feels on a horse.”
If you ask yourself “Why? What’s my real motivation? Why did I reach for my camera just now and not 10 minutes ago (or not at all) then you’ll begin to take better pictures of your family immediatly. They’ll thank you for it later.