How to Take the Greatest Photo in the World
Forget theory. You want results. Our tutorial lays bare the tricks, techniques, and gear of our favorite photographers.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
What the pros do seems like magic. In a lot of ways it is. The vision and artistic ability of Outside contributing photographers like Kurt Markus and Dan Winters is beyond explanation. But the pros also rely on tricks—illusory techniques and lighting that give their photos an iconic look. Those we can teach. To do it, we've teamed up with acerbic former Outside photo editor Rob Haggart, who now blogs at aphotoeditor.com, and David Hobby, who runs the popular lighting Web site strobist.blogspot.com. Haggart describes each look, and Hobby tells you how to execute it.
1. Wild Things
Hero: Frans Lanting
Rob Haggart: People think that to be a great wildlife photographer, you find an animal and chase it down. That's backwards. First, you find your scene; then you wait for an animal to walk through it. The best test to see whether you'd be a good wildlife photographer is to sit in your backyard for eight days without moving. It's like going down to the freeway and waiting for a car accident.
David Hobby: A small flash dialed up to maximum power is bright enough to freeze wildlife in late afternoon. It can also help you see things you wouldn't ordinarily. One example is creating reflections in distant eyes. To achieve this effect, just shoot late in the day with your flash on manual override to its highest power.
2. Vivid Landscapes
Hero: Andy Anderson
Haggart: No, Iceland doesn't look like that. It's gray and drab. Anderson gets water this blue and grass this green by controlling saturation and contrast in postproduction. I might get shot for saying this, but here goes: No digital photographs (and very few shot on film) come out of the camera ready to publish. Nearly everything needs color correction.
Hobby: In Photoshop, from the IMAGE>ADJUSTMENTS menu, select CONTRAST. Increase it by about 15 percent. Then select SATURATION from the same menu and decrease it by about the same amount. Most pros who use digital postproduction eventually work out their own tightly guarded recipe that's much more complicated, but this should get you started. Once you come up with your own process, your photos will start to have a similar look that ties them all together into a body of work.
Equipment: Scott Kelby's 7-Point System for Adobe Photoshop CS3, $32; amazon.com
3. Crazy Eyes
Hero: Martin Schoeller
Haggart: The reflection of a light source in a subject's eyes is an easy way to tell how the photo was shot. Schoeller's “cat-eye” technique is probably the most striking use of itmostly because everyone ends up looking like a cyborg.
Hobby: The secret is extra-long strip lights whose reflection will wrap around the subject's pupils. Schoeller uses a much more complicated setup, but you can approximate the look with a quick trip to Home Depot. Buy a pair of four-foot-long fluorescent tube lights and mount them vertically, side by side about a foot apart, in a large box that's been painted white on the inside. Cut a lens-size hole between the lights. Set your camera to auto white balanceto counter the green tinge from the fluorescentsand shoot through the hole, with the lights facing your subject.
Equipment: Lights, paint, and box, about $40
4. Gritty B&W
Hero: Antonin Kratochvil
Haggart: Contrast adds gravity and tension to the situation. If you want to make your tubing trip down the Boise River look like Apocalypse Now, gritty black-and-white is the way to go.
Hobby: Established pros like Kratochvil still use film and spend lots of time in the darkroom. A much simpler way to get the effect is to shoot a color digital file and convert it in Photoshop using the channel mixer (or black and white adjustments if you've got the latest version, CS3). Open the file and select LAYER>NEW ADJUSTMENT LAYER. Under TYPE, choose CHANNEL MIXER. When the channel mixer comes up, click the MONOCHROME box, at the bottom, to make the photo black and white, and then try increasing the percentage of red. You should end up with dark skies and silvery skin tones. If the photo starts to look overexposed, decrease the LIGHT-CONSTANT percentage.
Equipment: Photoshop CS3, $649; adobe.com
5. Party Pix!
Hero: Chris McPherson
Haggart: A ring flash is the classic party lighting. Shoot your girlfriend doing aprés-ski at the Mangy Moose and pow!suddenly she looks like Paris Hilton at Bungalow 8. The flash creates a halo around the subject but completely lights the face. It makes people look fabulous.
Hobby: Once mounted on your camera or on a flash arm, a ring flash shoots just like a built-in flash. There are two great bargains I'd recommend: The ABR 800 is a $400 pro-quality ring flash (alienbees.com). Then there's the Ray Flash Ring Flash Adaptor ($300; expoimaging .net). This one's really cool: You place it around your camera's lens and it modifies your on-camera flash into a ring, using fiber optics.
6. They Look Like Toys
Hero: Vincent Laforet
Haggart: It's called selective focus. Tilt the focal plane for things that are far away and everyone looks like Barbie. Your brain tells you you're looking at dolls, because shallow depth of field is usually associated with objects that are very close. It's a gimmick. But it's also a cool way to see something that's been shot a million times.
Equipment: Lensbaby 3G, $270; lensbabies.com; Canon Tilt Shift TS-E 24mm, $1,150, and Nikon PC-E 24mm, $1,850, both available at adorama.com
7. Moody Lighting
Hero: Jeff Lipsky
Haggart: You don't need any of this crap. If you can wake your friend at 6 a.m., you'll have perfect light for free. Trouble is, if your friend is a lush, or if you're a pro shooting Tom Cruise, you might get only ten minutes at midday. Most outdoor, off-camera lighting techniques arose to address this. You block out the ugly light that's coming down out of the sky with your own beautiful light. In the hands of amateurs, it's usually overdone. But a master can get dark skies and perfect skin tones every time.
Hobby: The high-power battery packs that pros use (like the Profoto Pro-7b) are capable of overwhelming midday sun. To overpower ambient light with a AA-battery-powered flash, you'll have to wait until sunset. Place your subject in front of the brightest part of the sky and put your flash on a stand (better yet, have a friend hold it) at a 45-degree angle to the subject. Sync the flash to your camera with a PC cord, a PocketWizard transceiver, or one of the built-in syncs made by Nikon and Canon. Set your shutter speed at or slower than 1/250 second, which is the maximum sync speed for most flashes. Expose for the sunset rather than your subject. Normally, that would turn anyone standing in front of the sunset into a silhouette. But your flash will correct for this. Move the flash closer or farther until you get the perfect exposure. The first time you nail it, you'll think you're the best photographer in the world.
Equipment: PocketWizard wireless radio slave, $185 per unit (you'll need at least two); pocketwizard.com
8. Antique Vignetting
Hero: Teru Kuwayama
Haggart: The biggest problem with digital photography is that it looks too perfect. Perfect is boring. Vignetting emulates a crappy old camera, which adds a level of authenticity. Teru shoots his magazine assignments with $25 plastic Holga cameras, which don't even have reliable shutter speed. He can do that because he's a master. Since you're not, do what Hobby says.
Hobby: Vignetting happens when the spherical image projected by the lens doesn't evenly cover the rectangular film or sensor. Rather than abruptly stopping, the image simply fades out at the corners. If you want to create this with a modern camera, you can buy a cheap plastic Holga lens and mount it on your $1,000 SLR. You can also do it in Photoshop. Select the rectangular marquee tool. In WINDOWS>OPTIONS, set FEATHER to 60. Drag a rectangle over the entire photo or just the portion you want to remain clear. Now select INVERSE from the menu bar, then select LAYER>NEW>LAYER. In MODE, select HARD LIGHT, and click the box that says FILL WITH 50% GRAY. Click OK. Select the paint-bucket tool with the color black and an opacity of 30, and click to fill any corner of the frame. Keep filling until it's suitably dark. If you want to darken the exposure of objects in the frame, like, say, clouds in a sky, select SOFT LIGHT instead of HARD LIGHT.
Equipment: Holgamods Canon Rebel adapted lens, $41; holgamods.com
Choose Your Weapon
Go with the camera format that best matches your needs
What it is: Generally a 4×5″ or 8×10″ view camera
Who it's for: Landscape, architectural, and still-life photographers
In the field: Ansel Adams used an 8×10 to shoot his iconic national-parks project.
Our pick: Sinar's entry-level f1 4×5 is lightweight and ready for field or studio use; $1,575 (body only); bearimages.com
What it is: 6x6cm, 6×7, 6×4.5, and sprawling 6×17 cameras all shoot 120 and 220 roll film.
Who it's for: The thoughtful artist who composes shots with care, or the high-budget pro who's shooting a cover
In the field: Environmental portraits and landscapes will all make crisp enlargements from any 120mm format.
Our pick: 1970s Hasselblad 500C/M, about $1,200; keh.com; 503CW kit, $5,800; bhphotovideo.com; CFVII digital back (fits vintage models), $10,000; hasselblad.com
What it is: What we used to put in our SLRsnegative for prints, chrome for slides
Who it's for: Luddites. If you insist on using film, go with medium format, which still has advantages over digi.
In the field: A manual film camera is still a solid choice for long trips, where battery failure would mean no pictures.
Our pick: The 1982 Nikon FM2 is a well-built, reliable, all-manual camera and will mate with all modern Nikon lenses. Used bodies from $150; keh.com
What it is: A digital version of a 35mm film camera. The best now top 15 megapixels.
Who it's for: Everyone who wants to make a hobby or profession out of photography
In the field: Blast off rapid-fire frames of your friends' sports stunts and party antics at no cost.
Our pick: Nikon's new 12.1MP D700 (body, $3,000) and Canon's 12.8MP EOS 5D ($2,500) are both compact, pro-level cameras; nikon.com, canon.com
What it is: A smaller, lightweight digi camera. Their glass and sensors now rival SLRs.
Who it's for: The athlete or traveler who wants to bring a camera without being weighed down by it
In the field: Keep one in your pocket for that perfect fish picture, group shot, or Zapruder moment.
Our pick: The 10MP Leica D-Lux 3 has a pro-quality lens and shoots with enough clarity to print two-page spreads in this magazine. $660; leica.com
The Pro Says…
Let Polaroid Go
I had just started using a converted land camera to shoot Polaroid 665 film when I learned that Polaroid would stop all film production by the end of this year. I was getting great stuff with that camera, even though it was slow, difficult to focus, and prone to malfunction, and the delicate negatives were a pain to fix and wash on location. So I did what any sane person would do: I ordered enough of it to last me several years. I rented a storage unit to put it in. My hope was that by the time it was gone—well past its expiration date—I’d have gotten used to the idea that it was all over. No more of Chuck Close’s life-size Polaroids. No more of William Wegman’s dogs dressed as . . . all right, maybe losing instant film isn’t so bad. —Jake Chessum
Engage Your Subjects
Photographers are master manipulators. Ultimately, what you produce is about how you interact with your subject. When people are engaged, they’re not difficult to capture. Before shooting the Dalai Lama, I learned that his hobby is to repair pocket watches. The mechanics of watches are very similar to lenses. I had 20 minutes to shoot him and we spent 15 talking about cameras and watches. You have to develop trust. —Dan Winters
Use a Normal Lens
A 50mm lens is “normal” for a 35mm camera. It’s referred to as such because it offers a field of view close to what your eyes deliver. The resulting pictures don’t offer up any obvious effect and, therefore, run the risk of being, well, normal. Yet most great photographs have been taken with normal lenses. Those pictures are great because they’re about something; they have content. No lens, camera, technique, or gadget can replace something extraordinary happening within the borders of the frame. A normal lens is anything but. —Kurt Markus