The most important lesson a photographer can learn

May 30, 2020

Boy sticking out his tongue

Everything overwhelmed the mind and nothing connected.

A group of aspiring photographers sat in the pews of a seaside church, while our instructor, with his back turned, adjusted a studio light and then directed a model in a wedding dress to stand a certain way — her hip out to give a little curve, eyes on us but face turned toward the studio light, the illuminated stained glass windows behind her.

This was the last full day of instruction of a week-long photography school held every year in Cape May, N.J. When the instructor, Ken Sklute, turned to his students with a “You see?” look on his face, he could tell that the majority of us did not.

Then Ken said something that will forever stay with me. And that was when everything he tried to teach us during that intense week came together.

“Control what you see,” he said, holding up his own camera as if to illustrate his point.

That was the aha! moment. That’s when I realized what I’d been doing wrong. I’d shoot, look down at the back of my camera to see the image, and exhale an audible, frustrated breath when the picture was below my personal standard.

Then I’d try to shoot again and become overwhelmed by all the components of creating an image. I’d worry my subject, a bride or my own children, would see me get flustered, roll their eyes, and think I’m nothing more than some new dad with a camera.

Instead, Ken conveyed that the entire class had to take our time, to think critically, problem-solve. Relax! A better image is within our ability. Then, do what it took to create a stellar image.

I know it seems simple common sense now, but the lesson behind those four words can elevate your photography like nothing else. That’s especially true for beginners frustrated with the quality of their images.

There’s a truth here we must acknowledge from the start. Photographers must be problem solvers. That is the key to better photography.

Bride with a veil
By taking your time and thinking things through, you can take your photography to another level.

Every situation, every image you want to take of your family, your children,  your life, a beautiful sunset, a flower, a basketball game, anything, is a puzzle to solve that involves a multitude of components.

Light, shadow, composition, foreground, background, shutter speed, lens choice — these all factor into creating just one image, and I don’t blame anyone who’s at the beginning of their photography journey and grows frustrated when their images aren’t up to their expectations.

There’s so much that goes into creating just one image. When you’re clicking the shutter without considering all of these components of image making, chances are the images aren’t going to look the way you hope.

The lesson here, though, is simple, thanks to Ken. “Control what you see.”

What he meant was: take your time. Use your brain matter. The camera in your hand (or the cellphone) is an instrument to be commanded by you, not vice versa.

As you continue on a photography journey, you’ll hone your instincts. You’ll see all the elements of an image come together quickly. And that’s important because life happens quickly, especially when you’re a parent of young children.

Moments come and go so fast, and you’ll learn to anticipate them, position yourself ahead of time, get the image. Or, understand as you photograph what needs to be adjusted — the light, the background, the composition, and so on — and instead of forcing a bad image, you’ll do what’s necessary to get a better shot.

Control what you see.

Baby with Christmas bokeh
The more you practice, the more control you realize you have over the image you can create.

Most of the time, you’re in control of the moment you want to capture. If your baby learns to crawl, position yourself in the living room where the light on his or her face is best. If the room is too dark, add a flash (go ahead and try off-camera lighting). Think. Then shoot. Think about it again. Then shoot some more.

The skills to make better photos of your family and to document life around you … no one masters them overnight. They also don’t exclusively come from a book, a training video, or a photography school. These all help and can be crucial toward a successful photo life journey.

Like any other skill, it comes from practice. From experimenting. From making a whole lot of bad images and learning from them. Be your best constructive critic. If you know your images are subpar, frustration is okay, but don’t wallow. Look at it critically and ask yourself what you could’ve done to improve it.

As the days and years go by, the more you’ll be able to control what you see, and the results will speak for themselves.

Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer who’s made more bad images than good ones. And he’s okay with that. He lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife Alison and their three sons. Contact him at

More about Dave Pidgeon

Dave is the author of and lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife and their three sons.

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