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  • Writer's pictureMike Page

The Secret to Great Photography (That the Experts Won't Tell You)

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

There are lots of (so-called) experts out there who promise to let you in on the One Secret to unlocking your potential as a great photographer, The One Thing that experts deliberately won't tell you (presumably out of fear for all the competition that would arise if everyone knew). There are certainly enough Facebook ads and YouTube video titles out there suggesting that this is the case. So what is The One Secret?

The secret to great photography is… …that there isn't one. Anyone who insists otherwise, or even says that only they are privy to some Great Insight that no one else has realised or that others are deliberately keeping from you like some vast photographic conspiracy is either naive or full of BS, probably the latter. We've all seen adverts on social media stating otherwise, but they are not true. If you see someone saying something along the lines that 'this is what other photographers are keeping from you', run a mile. Or, now here's a thought, the creators are using these titles as clickbait. Now who would do an evil thing like that? Hmmm.

There are (n+1) valid different ways to break down the photographic process where "n" represents the number of photographers in the room. It's a very subjective process and not all explanations are helpful to all readers. What I want to do with this publication is break down my process in the hope that maybe a few of you are inspired to take up your cameras and explore the beautiful world that surrounds us. The way I break down the photographic process won't be helpful to everyone, but I hope that it will be useful to some. And if I have managed to inspire you, or at least pique your interest and you want to find out more, get in touch. Perhaps we can get together for a session or two.

The Four Pillars of Great Photography

I’ve broken down my process into four pillars or aspects - not quite the ABCD of photography, more the CC(T)CDD. These are Commitment to the image, Composition skills, Technical Competence and Digital Darkroom. Anyone can take great photos with a bit of luck and without much skill, but understanding how to reproduce a serendipitous image can maximise your luck and improve your chances of regularly coming away with stunning images. As I often say to friends who deprecatingly attribute their good photos to a lucky moment, a good photographer makes their own luck.

"A good photographer makes their own luck"

For the record, I don't consider myself to be a 'great' photographer. I'm a good photographer with solid technical skills. I've taken some photos that I'm really proud of, that might even be considered to be great by some, but I'm still learning and growing.

So lets get into my take on the four pillars of photography.

I: Commitment to the Image

How far are you prepared to go to get an image? Are you prepared to chase an evening thunderstorm for the chance of capturing an epic sunset? Are you willing to get up in the dark and travel 1½ h to catch the sun rising over the mist? Are you prepared to spend a night freezing on a mountain top waiting for the clouds to clear and give you a glimpse of the Milky Way? Are you prepared to carry 3-4 kg of equipment up (and down) 1,000 m in the hope of getting THE shot? Are you committed enough to embark on a three hour round trip to get better light because the image is worth it? I'm not bragging, but I've done all of the above (and more). Sometimes it hasn't paid off - a wasted night on the Kranzberg in Bavaria springs to mind, but sometimes you hit paydirt at it's all worthwhile.

All these are good examples of commitment to the image. It boils down to planning for the best possible conditions under which a given image can be taken in order to maximise the chances of getting a great image.

A cold evening on the Seiser Alm

A good photographer makes their own luck by being in the right place at the right time in the right conditions with the right equipment that they know how to use. And most of those elements actually have nothing to do with luck, they are consequences of our planning and decisions. Maximise your luck!

The good news is that of all the aspects I’m going to talk about, this step requires the least experience, the least time investment and can yield the biggest return. All it costs to go out under the right conditions is a bit of resolve. Sometimes it can help to arrange to go on a shoot with a friend or a group. I have a couple of friends that I like to head out with. When we get together to take photos, we do crazy stuff that I wouldn’t necessarily do on my own such as getting up for the dawn or staying up all night on a mountain to photograph the Milky Way. I find that if I've arranged to do this with someone, I'm much more likely to get out and do it. You can't take great photos of a sunset on the lake sitting in your comfortable armchair at home. The added advantage of going out to photograph with others is that there can be safety in numbers.

How can we plan for these occasions? Looking up the time and direction of sunrise and sunset, moon phase, tide tables and weather can all be done on your smartphone these days (#PhotoPills). When I'm out and about I make a mental note of images that have worked well and think about the conditions that would elevate the image from good to great. In my blog I've talked about a covered bridge that I discovered a couple of years ago. We first found it in summer. Returning first of all in autumn with the rich foliage and then once in winter after a fresh snowfall really brought the best out of the scene.

I've got a couple of examples of stories of the lengths I'm prepared to to get The Image, most recently of this scene at Llanddwyn Lighthouse on Anglesey. We'd visited the spot on the Thursday afternoon and I found this lovely composition of the flowers (sea pinks) leading nicely to the steps up to the lighthouse. I was really pleased with the shot, but not with the light. We'd gone on to shoot the sunset at South Stack but not come away with any images that I was happy with. The next day was our last full day in Wales and, living in southern Germany, I knew it was going to be a while before we were back.

Llanddwyn Lighthouse in Afternoon Light

On the Friday morning we hiked up Snowdon in great weather, getting back to our holiday cottage in Beddgelert early in the afternoon. The photograph of the lighthouse really wasn't giving me any peace as I knew it would look fantastic in the light of the setting sun. Despite being tired after our 7 h hike, after a quick dinner I drove back up to the island and walked out to the lighthouse again. Sixty min in the car followed by a 30 min trek across the sands. I arrived only to fly into a panic because I couldn’t find the exact spot. After a frenetic five minute search I found the right patch of flowers and got this:

Llanddwyn in the Evening Light

I don't think I need to say too much about the difference between the harsh midday light from above in the first image compared to the soft golden evening side-light - I think the two images speak for themselves. Also pay attention to the sky. Generally unless you're going for a completely minimalist image, it's good to have some clouds in the sky to avoid negative space.

Not only can clouds break up the sky, gaps in the clouds can have some amazing results on the landscape below as well. For this shot of Llyn y Fan Fach in the Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) I hunkered down to wait for 30 min or more waiting for just the right cloud formation to appear to give the dappled light I wanted on the hillside below.

Dappled light on Llyn-y-Fan-Fach

So go the extra mile for your shot. Get out in all weathers (but be careful). Get up early to catch the mist. Go and find the morning frost. And whatever you do, wait until well after sunset before you pack up your gear. That’s when the magic happens. So many times I’ve seen other photographers pack up after the sun goes down, but there’s still plenty of light to shoot, especially if you’ve got a tripod. The colours can be amazing such as this evening excursion to the Seiser Alm in the Dolomites in winter.

Stages of a Sunset on the Seiser Alm

Do remember though, although you can maximise your luck, there are no guarantees; clouds on the horizon blocking the sunset, mist that's too high or a bad weather forecast can all put paid to the best laid plans. And stay safe.

II: Composition

So you're in the right place at the right time. All you have to do now is point and shoot, right? Well no. Unfortunately it's not as simple as that. You see, the human eye and the camera perceive the scene in subtly different ways. Think back to all those times where you've been faced with an amazing vista in great light, you've pressed the shutter and got home only to find dross instead of gold. Don't worry, you're not the only one. And it still happens to me regularly. The good news is that by understanding why this happens we can improve our hit-rate - the ratio of gold to dross.

Differences Between the Eye and the Camera

Have you ever stopped for a minute to consider the differences between the way you see through your eyes and the way your camera sees? It’s a worthwhile exercise because it helps explain why a great scene doesn’t always translate to a great image. There are several differences between how the eye and the camera perceive a scene;



Identifies movement

Captures an essentially stationary image

Attracted to (minimal) contrast changes

Sees all contrasts equally

Sees stereoscopically (3D)

Sees the scene in 2D

Broader dynamic range

Less able to capture the whole range of light to dark

Able to rapidly refocus without thinking

Needs to be told where to focus

Uniquely able to blot out things it doesn't want to see

Sees all things equally

Our eyes are extremely sensitive to differences. Once upon a time we depended on this for survival. We're almost hyper-aware of small movements in a scene as well as small areas of contrast, be it shape, colour or brightness. What the eye sees in the field - a small pink flower, a sunlit fern in a clearing, the enchanting glint of moving water over stones won't necessarily translate to a good photo though.

Similarly, we see in 3D, the only way we can interpret dimensions in a photograph is if we have reference points - we can see when something is out of plane from the focal point if it's out of focus, but that's about it.

I'll talk about dynamic range more in the section on Technical Competence, but I'm sure we've all got photos of sunsets where the sun is just an ugly bright blob and everything else is dark and detail-less, or photos taken at night where the beautiful moon is just splodge of white. It's because the human eye can perceive a greater range of brightness levels from dark to light than the camera can.

One of the biggest differences between the camera and the eye though, and this is one that I've never heard other photographers talk about, has to do with visual acuity and peripheral vision. We're really, really good at focusing on a tight spot - it's actually about a 5° arc right in front of the eyes, but our arc of vision carries on to about 180°. Try looking forward whilst holding your arms out either side and moving them backwards to the edge of your vision - you'll be surprised just how far they go before you lose sight of them. But this isn't the problem, the problem is that our vision has a very tight focus and our ability to make out details more than about 15° either side of centre is very low. We are uniquely able to blot out features that we're not directly looking at, or have you never come back from a shoot with fantastic shots with dead blades of grass in front of that lovely flower, or unwanted branches intruding into a russet sky? Why do we miss these intruders in the scene? Have you ever tried looking at a passage of text and then trying to read a word two lines up without moving your eyes? Give it a try, I'll wait for you. You can see the word, but you can’t read it (unless you’re some kind of freakish mutant).

Uncanny, isn't it. The receptor cells at the back of the eye are extremely dense right in the centre, giving us access to detailed information about the subject of our vision, but move away from that tight arc and the level of detail very quickly drops off. This is why we don't see those intrusive items in the scene. Sometimes it can feel as though we’re wearing blinkers. The camera, though, sees all and records all faithfully, even the bits we don’t.

Composition Skills

So how do we overcome the camera's shortcomings?

Good composition is mostly about communicating wordlessly to the viewer what the image is about, or to take it to the next level, it's about communicating what you felt when you were confronted with the scene to hand. One of the lessons that has helped me most on my way to learning good composition skills has less to do with classical composition rules such as the rule of thirds, the golden ratio and so on (though we'll touch those in a minute), and more about distilling the scene into its essential components.

The American photographer Joshua Cripps once put it like this:

"A good landscape photograph is like a caricature: it simplifies and exaggerates." - Joshua Cripps

This is a great way to approach our images; what was it that caught my eye about this scene? How can I employ my skills and equipment to bring that aspect of the scene to the fore in an aesthetically pleasing manner. What do I need to leave out of the scene to maximise the image's impact? Often good composition is as much about what to leave out as it is about what to leave in. This will be a perpetual battle as you grow as a photographer.

When we were in Eryri (Snowdonia) in May we came across the woodland scene on the next page. My first instinct was to take it all in - shoot wide, give them everything including the dry stone wall leading nicely into the scene. But then I forced myself to stop and consider which elements I actually needed to tell the story. Did I need the whole tree and the foreground? You tell me.

Ladder and Wall, Wide Angle
Ladder and Wall - Final Version

Although I loved the sweep of the wall in the first shot, I thought the dead bracken under the wall would add more to the final image. Together with the fallen branch it just made it all look messy though, so instead I went in tight. The final image has all of the necessary components to tell the story and convey the impression of the scene. All of the rest was unnecessary distraction. Analyse your scene and remove the non-essentials.

I remember taking a client out early one morning last year and we tried using the Cripps approach that I mentioned above. As we came across a dew-soaked field against the morning sun she was delighted by the scene. Her first photo was a wide-angle shot taken at eye level and we both realised that it was kind of meh. After taking time to talk about what it was about the scene that caught her attention and discuss how to accentuate this feature, she got down low to the grass, focused on some individual blades, letting the background disappear into a blur and voilà, we had an image that beautifully captured the essence of the scene.

So we've worked out what to leave in. How do we arrange those elements in a way that's pleasing to the eye, that invites the viewer to dwell a while on the scene rather than just swipe right?

Classical Composition Rules

There are some basic universal compositional tools that have to do with the psychology of vision. If a scene is symmetrical, such as a reflection, then the viewer is normally most comfortable when the line of symmetry runs through the centre of the image (and is preferably straight). A lot of photographers compose using the rule of thirds or the closely related golden rule, which is a modified version of the rule of thirds.

Placing significant elements on a grid of thirds can strengthen the composition
The Fibonacci spiral can also be a useful compositional tool to balance an image
When photographing reflections symmetry can emphasise the image

Most of these rules have to do with establishing balance in an image and making it pleasing to the eye. Other composition aids include approaches such as using a frame within a frame and leaving objects space to breathe at the edges of a photo. Try not to include too much ‘negative’ (blank) space in a photo unless it’s deliberate for the balance of the image or if you intend to use the image as a background for text or similar.

"Unless you break the rules, you'll rarely get anything better than good. But I have a rule about breaking rules: You can only break rules on purpose.” - Drsilver

Many modern (mirrorless) cameras allow you to overlay one or more of these grids on the viewfinder. At the very least you should be able to overlay a grid of thirds (and an electronic spirit level).

Grids aren't the only compositional tool in our bags, however. The British photographer Henry Turner talks about composing by analysing the geometric shapes in an image. Squinting can help when composing like this - it emphasises the shapes while reducing distracting elements. Work out the optimal standpoint to bring the shapes into a pleasing arrangement and shoot.

Be warned though, there's more to taking a great image than simply following the rules of composition. It's easy to take a photo that conforms to the rules but that is essentially dead. My personal goal with any image is to convey the impression that I had when seeing the scene in the flesh, to share the awe I experienced with the viewer. It's more ambitious than just documenting in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

"Composition allows us to tell the story of a location and how it made us feel - it's taking a well thought out photograph, rather than just a quick snapshot." - Henry Turner

Another useful composition technique is pattern repetition, or to give it its mathematical name: tessellation. This works particularly well if you include man-made elements in the scene such as the pilot cottages on the next page. Images of King's College Chapel also spring to mind or the four boats at sunset in a couple of pages - not a perfect tessellation, but close enough to work.

Repeating patterns strengthen a composition

Another way to keep the viewer’s eye in the image is to use leading lines. With the following photo of Llanddwyn Island, everything is pointing towards the lighthouse; the sea pinks lead to the stairs leading up to the building. The triangles of the sea point towards the main subject and being the brightest point in the image really helps too. The eye is naturally drawn to bright points. Or contrast. But mostly to bright points.

Let me let you into a little secret here: even the best photographers don't always know whether their composition will work or not, by which I mean they can't always guarantee that that which looks good to the naked eye or in the camera viewfinder looks good on the computer screen or even printed. Watch a couple of landscape photography tutorials on YouTube (yes, they're out there, there's a whole corner of YouTube dedicated to this stuff) and I can almost guarantee that sooner or later you'll hear the phrase "if this image works out I'll put it on the screen now". Of course it always does - if it didn't that footage would end up on whatever the digital equivalent of the cutting room floor is. Again, it's all about maximising the chances of getting gold. Sometimes it's also about knowing how to get the best out of an image in the digital darkroom, but we'll get to the fourth pillar a little later.

Leading lines and shapes

When composing your image, especially with a tripod, don't forget that you have pretty much universal flexibility in camera placement and direction. You are not limited to taking photographs from 1.70 m above the ground. It's not rare to find me lying prone in a wet mountain meadow to photograph flowers or be up to my knees in a lake or mountain stream when taking photos. Why do I say 'especially with a tripod'? Because there's a very real temptation to extend all the legs to their fullest and restrict yourself to that elevation. If you've got too much dead space in your image, consider how you can minimise the space it occupies in the image by either lowering or increasing the height of the camera. In the photo of the lighthouse I think I had two leg segments extended so that the line of the flowers connected to the steps leading up to the building. Had I shot this with the tripod legs fully extended it wouldn't have worked nearly as well as there would have been a significant disconnect between the flowers and the steps.

In this next image of boats at a local lake I thought that shooting from water level would work best until I realised that I was losing the hulls against the wooded shoreline. Mist would help in a situation like this, but expecting mist at sunset on a warm summer's evening is like wanting the proverbial egg-laying woolly dairy sow (don't worry, it's a German thing). After originally shooting at water level underneath a landing stage, I climbed up onto it and took this shot. There were millions of flies and mosquitos flying around and so I used a few tricks to make it a long exposure which had the double-effect of removing the flies and smoothing out the water, but that's getting off topic if we're talking about composition.

Sail boats at sunset

Apart from separating the hulls from the black row of trees (through vertical placement), I arranged the tripod so that the boats were separate from each other and so that I had the full length of the masts and their reflections in shot (horizontal placement and direction respectively).

One more composition tip before we move on to the next pillar: Border Patrol. Remember the dried grass and the intruding branches from earlier? Always check your shot immediately after you take it (or even better: before) to make sure that you’re eliminated all the unnecessary and unwanted intruders that your eyes didn’t spot but your camera did.

That's the basics of composition then. It's about capturing the viewer's attention and communicating visually.

So, we’re in the right place at the right time (because we’ve made our own luck). We’ve found our composition. How do we get the most out of the image with our camera?

III: Technical Competence

Technical competence is about knowing (i) which settings to use on the camera to optimise the image AND (ii) how to dial in those settings on the camera in your hand. It's about understanding the limitations of your equipment but being able to use it all to its maximum advantage.

It is not about putting the camera into full manual mode, and I very rarely do. I normally shoot in aperture priority with autofocus on, or in shutter priority if I want to capture moving water or am concerned about the speed of my subject.

At the moment my ability to dial in the right settings without hunting for controls for precious minutes is fairly restricted to Olympus (OMDS) cameras. If you were to put a Canon or Nikon in my hands, I'd know approximately which settings to use but would be fumbling all over the place to get the camera to do what I want.

I liken it to driving a car. Once you've driven for a while, you know roughly which gear you need to be in at a given speed, you know when you need to use the indicators, the headlights, the windscreen wipers. If you're familiar with the vehicle, you know without thinking where the appropriate levers are and can find them without even thinking about it. That's the sort of control that I aspire to having over my camera - to be able to adjust the settings blind whilst looking through the viewfinder or to be able to find the right button in the dark without having to destroy my night vision with my head torch.

Focus and Exposure

The two most fundamental things to get right for almost every image are focus and exposure. Which elements of the photo are going to be sharp and how bright or dark are the elements of the photo going to be? Cameras are stupid and cannot read your mind. Faced with a complex scene they don't know whether to focus on the flower at your feet or the distant mountain, and unless they're told otherwise they'll expose the scene on the assumption that it's a uniform 18% grey. Why 18%? Because that's the average grey tone of all scenes. The problem is that when confronted with a bright scene, such as a snow field, the camera still thinks that it's supposed to be off-grey and will deliberately underexpose the image accordingly. Similarly with a dark scene, the camera will think that you need to really bump up the exposure and turn your blacks into mid-grays, probably overexposing the intended subject of the image horribly. In [P]rogramme or AI mode the camera's programming might override the 18% grey when determining the exposure and might even take an intelligent guess where to focus, but you don't have to leave it to chance. You have all the controls that you need at your fingertips. Use them.

Most modern cameras allow you to determine where in the image you want them to focus, sometimes even via a touch screen. Learn how to tell your camera where you want it to focus. I generally use a point focus system. I can define a point almost anywhere in the image and tell the camera to autofocus just there. If your camera doesn't have this facility, it will almost certainly have a ‘focus lock’ button allowing you to focus first, lock this in - generally by holding a convenient button down after focusing, after which you can compose the image and take the shot. As a last resort you can always opt for manual focus to make sure you get it right. If you’re using manual focus, check to see whether your camera allows you to magnify a part of the image to ensure tack-sharp focusing.

Typical focus-lock button

This really has to be something that comes automatically - without thinking almost - when you're taking an image in the field.

The second fundamental control is exposure - determining how dark or bright an image is. As I just mentioned, the camera will generally expose the image on the assumption that it is 18% grey. Sometimes this works fine, but often we find ourselves shooting in situations where the light is - for want of a better word - difficult. Situations with high contrast or where the range between the darkest and brightest points of the scene (the dynamic range) exceed the camera sensor's ability to record the image accurately can result either in detail-less shadows or worse (in my opinion) blown-out highlights.

Sometimes we want to capture one bright fern in a shady forest and are frustrated when we end up with a picture of a well exposed forest and an unsightly patch of pale green or even white where our beautiful fern was. How do we overcome these problems?

By taking control of the exposure ourselves. Virtually all cameras allow a variety of modes for determining how bright a scene is. They will allow overall metering, measuring the brightness of the whole scene, spot metering where you can measure the brightness at one specific point and, more often than not, some metering modes in between, usually called evaluative metering or centre-weighted metering or something similar.

Whichever metering mode you chose, your camera will almost certainly give you the option to override it with a little dial somewhere that allows you to control exposure compensation. This forces the camera to artificially brighten or darken the image in increments of a third of a stop. "A what of a what now?" I can hear you asking. Don’t worry, all will be explained in a minute.

Typical exposure compensation control

Just like controlling where the camera is focusing, you should be able to control exposure compensation in your sleep. It needs to be second nature and come automatically.

Generally I expose for the brightest part of the image, or the main subject matter if there's a conflict. What I really encourage everyone to do is switch on your camera's exposure clipping warnings. Remember the detail-less shadows and burnt out highlights we talked about a minute ago? Nearly all cameras will allow you to visualise these in the electronic viewfinder, either in terms of shading, often with blue and red respectively, or hatched shading ('zebra stripes'). Turn this on. Go now, dive into your manual and work out how to switch this on for your camera. I'll wait for you.

Camera Modes [P/A/S/M]

Whilst we're talking about exposure, we need to talk about the four basic modes of your camera; program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual. Before we take a quick look at what they all mean and when to use them, we need to take a quick look at how the brightness of a given image is determined by our camera settings.

There are three ways in which we can control the brightness of an image: we can open the shutter for a longer or shorter amount of time, we can open or close the aperture - the iris opening at the back of every lens, or we can increase the sensitivity of the sensor (actually amplify the signal) by altering the camera's Iso. Adjusting each of these parameters comes with advantages and disadvantages:

  • Shorter shutter speeds can freeze motion, longer ones can introduce motion blur into an image with moving components or, in extreme cases, make us vulnerable to unintentional camera movement resulting in an unsharp image.

  • Wide open apertures allow more light to reach the sensor but reduce the depth of field of the image. Conversely narrow apertures do the reverse.

  • Low Iso means the camera is less sensitive to light, high Iso makes it more sensitive, but can also introduce unwanted noise or grain into an image.

So, back to the four shooting modes; P/A/S/M.

In [P]rogram mode, the camera decides the aperture and shutter speed according to pre-programmed algorithms which take into account the lens being used.

In [A]perture priority, the photographer determines the aperture and the camera chooses the appropriate shutter speed for an optimal exposure.

In [S]hutter priority, you determine the shutter speed and the camera chooses the appropriate aperture.

In [M]anual mode, you determine both aperture and shutter speed.

Most of the time I shoot in aperture- or shutter priority, rarely in manual and almost never in program. I want creative control over my images but I also want the camera's support in making decisions that I don't care about when creating the image.

When do I use which mode and why?

When I'm most concerned about the amount of the scene that's in focus (whether a lot or a little) I use aperture priority because this gives me control over the amount of an image that's in sharp focus. Depth of field - the amount of the image in front of and behind the focus point that's acceptably sharp - is determined by the aperture as well as focal length of the lens and the distance to the subject. Opening the aperture (smaller f/ number) decreases the depth of field, closing it (you guessed it; higher f/ number) increases it (but be careful about closing it too much as this can paradoxically have a detrimental effect on the overall sharpness of the image). Whilst we’re talking about depth of field, if you want to keep it shallow also consider using a longer focal length or shorten your distance to the subject. If you want to increase depth of field, go wide angle and increase the distance to the subject (if possible).

When I'm most concerned about either freezing or emphasising movement in a scene, I shoot in shutter priority. Fast moving birds can be frozen by shooting at 1/2000 s or less for example. The motion of water in a waterfall can be emphasised by shooting at between 1/10-½ s, or turned into a mist at 1-2 s or more. Be aware that you'll most likely need a tripod when shooting this slow to avoid camera motion blur. Generally the longest the average person can hold a camera steady is (1/[focal length]) s. For example, with a 50 mm lens, the longest free hand exposure that will be sharp is about 1/50 s. Modern lens and camera body stabilisation can extend this significantly.

Slowing down a stream to emphasise water movement by shooting at 1/5”

This is where we have to start looking at the differences between the camera and the human eye again, but first let me introduce a technical term - the stop. When photographers talk about a stop of light, we are generally talking about a stop down (half the amount of light) or a stop up (double the light). Two stops would mean a quarter or four times the amount of light and so on.

The human eye can generally distinguish 18-20 stops of light (depending on age and other factors) and can adapt extremely quickly as the focus shifts around a scene. The best digital cameras in 2023 can only distinguish 13-15 stops of light - around 5 stops or a factor of 32x less. This range from dark to light is referred to as the dynamic range of the eye or camera respectively and is a thorn in every photographer's side because the scenes we photograph can sometimes have a dynamic range in excess of this limit. When this happens we have to resort to some technical trickery, the explanation of which would vastly expand the length of this post.



Dynamic range: human eye vs. camera

We've covered quite a lot of ground in this section and used some highly technical terms. I've included a quick glossary at the end for you to refer to.

These are the absolute basics of camera control - of the technical competence that you will need to master if you want to make the most out of your digital camera. But there’s only so much we can achieve in the field, so let’s open Pandora’s Box…

IV: The Digital Darkroom

So we've been to the right place at the right time. We've composed the scene and used our camera to the best of our ability. The image is in the bag (or on the SD card to be more precise). What now?

The RAW file direct from your camera (and if you're doing any sort of landscape photography I would strongly recommend you shoot in RAW) should be seen as a digital negative. Why shoot in RAW? Much like an mp3 audio file, an in-camera jpeg simply cuts out dynamic information that the eye doesn't see. Doing this, however, means that this information can't be recovered later, it's gone. Shooting in RAW maximises the information to hand when it comes to editing the images.

How many times have you heard someone say something along the lines of "all digital editing is cheating"? Or maybe you still think this yourself. The truth is, you've probably never seen a completely unprocessed image. Every jpeg image you have ever seen has been processed, whether by your smartphone or your camera. You may not have applied any filters, but your device certainly has. And smartphones are much much worse about this than cameras as a rule. So before you kick up too much fuss, think a bit about the ground you're standing on.

"All digital editing is cheating!" - anonymous idiot

Complaining that editing an image on a computer is cheating is like saying that it's cheating to hand-make a pizza instead of using a shop-bought frozen one to heat up in the oven. I would go as far as saying that most people who complain about others’ post processing are lazy and are jealous of those who have invested time in this part of the photographic process. There. I've said it.

The question then isn't edited vs. unedited, it's machine edited vs. hand edited. But why do we need to edit in the first place? The next three images taken in the Dolomites a couple of years ago are (1) completely unedited straight out of camera RAW file without a conversion profile, (2) after my RAW editor applied a standard profile to the photo and (3) after a full manual edit.

(1) Unedited jpeg conversion of a RAW file
(2) Same image after using a standard jpeg conversion profile
(3) Final hand-crafted edit of the scene

The initial RAW image is very dull and lacks contrast. The darker mountains lack detail and the whole scene feels very matt. Applying a standard RAW to jpeg conversion profile in ON1 Photo RAW 2023 (my personal editor of choice rather than the standard Lightroom/Photoshop package) brings the image to life a little, but it isn't until the final image that the scene really pops.

Why is all this necessary? A lot of it comes back to something we covered in the previous two sections; the camera and the human eye perceive things differently. On top of this, the camera has certain limitations.

I would argue that at least 95% of my editing is to overcome the innate deficiencies of the (any) digital camera, whether this is a dynamic range that exceeds the camera's limits, adjusting colours, image sharpening, reducing iso-related noise or cropping the image to arrive at the desired composition. Of the remaining 5%, I'd say that 3% would probably be erasing man-made objects or intruding branches from the scene and 1% would be monochrome conversions.

The truth is that even the very best digital cameras on the market today are 32x less capable of distinguishing between light and dark than the average human eye.

The goal should always be to get as much of the image right in the field, simply because this gives you the most leeway at the PC.

It isn't the place of this post to walk you through the digital editing process, merely to emphasise that just like the other three aspects, it's an essential component in the photographer's bag of tricks.

The Bottom Line

So what's the bottom line, what's the One Secret that no-one else is prepared to tell you? Well actually there is one that I'd share with you, and it’s this: There aren't any shortcuts and that it's all legwork and perseverance! Nurture your passion and commitment to the image and work on your technical skills to enable you to get the best image possible.

One recommendation that I would add is to let your mistakes and failures fuel your curiosity to advance your technical competence.

The good news is that the difference between a good photographer and a great photographer has more to do with the first pillar than the third or fourth; If you're committed to getting the image, you'll generally do better than someone with all the skills who isn't prepared to get out there. Composition skills are important too, but sometimes the composition is obvious.

If there isn't a simple secret then what's the answer? Practice. Like any other creative undertaking, whether music, sculpture, anything. The answer is passion and practice. There will be 'lucky' moments along the way where everything comes together, but the more you go out and commit to the image, the luckier you will become!

But why am I telling you this for free if I want to make a living as an instructor? Well I've told you what to do, but most of us like to be walked through the 'hows' - how to put it all into practice. If you're in the neighbourhood and would like me to help walk you through the 'how to's', get in touch and I'll be happy to set something up.

Glossary of Technical Terms




Aperture refers to the size of the hole at the back of the lens letting light through to the sensor. It's given as a fraction (f). With the aperture at f/2 you're letting half of the light through, at f/4 a quarter and so-on.


Bokeh is the blurred quality or effect seen in the out-of-focus portion of a photograph taken with a narrow depth of field

Depth of Field (dof)

​The amount of an image in front of and behind the focus point that is acceptably in focus. A shallow dof means that sharp focus is limited to a very narrow plane either side of the focal point, a deep dof is the reverse, leading up to the whole image being sharp from front to back.

Dynamic Range

The range of levels of brightness that can the eye or camera can

Focal Length

The focal length of a lens is an indication of the magnification factor of a lens and is given in mm. It's generally accepted that 50 mm roughly equates to human vision, anything less than that is considered to be wide angle, taking in more of the scene, anything over 50 mm is considered to be telephoto, bringing objects closer than they appear in real life.


Iso reflects the level of signal amplification on the sensor. Lower numbers (80, 100) reflect low sensitivity, higher numbers (400, 1600 etc.) reflect higher sensitivity.

Shutter Speed

How long the shutter is physically (or electronically) open for for any given photo. Will generally vary between 1/8000 s - 60 s depending on light levels and desired exposure.


​A ‘stop’ is a doubling or halving of light, for example changing the shutter speed from 1/60 s to 120 s doubles the brightness of the image, increasing the exposure by one stop. Changing it from 1/60 s to 1/30 s halves the brightness, decreasing it by one stop. Similar effects can be achieved by changing the aperture or ISO.

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