By Kahli Hindmarsh

When I first started to take photos, one of my biggest hurdles I faced was figuring out how to take what was in front of my camera and turn it into a compelling image.

That should be the easy part, right? Find an interesting subject, point your camera, press the shutter and boom! Not quite… I was visiting these amazing places, but when I looked at my images, all I saw was “tourist” style snapshots. They lacked meaning and interest. They were cluttered and messy. They didn’t tell a story.

I had everything I needed:
→ Camera
→ Breathtaking view
→ Amazing light

But, still, my photos sucked.I was completely overwhelmed with what was in front of my eyes and had no idea how to actually capture it all in one meaningful photo.

With time and practice, it got a little bit easier, but it was still a recurring problem for me. One particular evening, as I ran panicked along a shoreline of a lake as the sky exploded in colour overhead, I just stopped and took a step back. Every image I took was horrible, yet right in front of me was this magical scene that looked like a unicorn could gallop across at any moment. Why couldn’t I capture it?!

I stood back and asked myself what I was seeing that I wanted to capture.The colour of the sky, the fading light, the reflection on the lake, and the movement in the water. I identified the key elements that stood out to me, focusing on one thing at a time rather than the whole vista and things seemed a little easier.

I tried the same approach for the next month and came up with a kind of ‘mental checklist.’ It changes from time to time, I add things, kick things out, but whenever I need clarity I go through this process and for me it really helps!

The most important part of this list is the process. It can’t be rushed or forced! If you are going to try it, you have to give it time. You aren’t allowed to unpack your camera or even think about setting up that tripod until you’ve spent a good few minutes observing (you’ll get quicker at it with practice).

12 Key Components to Consider:

1// Light – Is there anything special about the light? Dark shadows to avoid? Rim light bouncing off something? Potential bright areas that could blow out? Sun stars?

2// Colour – Is there a stand-out colour from the rest of the scene? Blue river? Gold tree against green?

3// Movement – Is there a breeze? Notice the way it’s blowing your subject’s hair, or causing ripples in the water.

4// Reflection – Can you reflect your subject in water? Off a shiny surface?

I then add a few extra considerations before I commit to the image.

5// Patterns – Is there repetition in the scene?

6// Shapes – Is there an S bend, triangles, etc.?

7// Angles – Get down low, get high, and look down on the subject. Do these offer a stronger perspective?

8// Foregrounds – Interest in the foreground to tie into the background?

9// Balance – Is my image too heavy on one side?

10// Horizon – Make sure it’s not intersecting with important elements.

11// Focus – Blur the foreground? Make sure everything is in focus?

12// Direction/Leading Lines – Does my subject lead the eye out of the image? Are there leading lines in the scene?

The list can be never-ending but I’ve found if I keep it roughly around 10-12 things to think about, it helps me find my shot. It might sound cheesy, but I like to think if you take a moment to observe what is happening, rather than just pressing the shutter straight away, you become more connected and in tune to that moment. You can see things more clearly.

Of course, I’m writing from a landscape perspective, but this applies to any realm of photography – portraits, weddings, babies. I even used this for a commercial shoot this week.

Take a moment to find your mental list and see if it helps next time you’re shooting!


Kahli Hindmarsh originally wrote this article for our private online photography community here at OFFBEAT. There are dozens more where that came from. If that sounds like something you like the sound of, sign up for our community!