Learning to ‘see photographically’ was one of my great challenges when I first started learning photography. Like many other newbies, I was rather hung up on technical perfection for quite a while — get the exposure right, get the composition just so using a 3×3 grid, do it right in the darkroom, blah blah blah.
Granted, that all had to be learned or there wouldn’t be any good pictures at all, but to produce memorable photos more consistently I had to learn to See. And even now that I’ve been a teacher of photography myself, I still find it a doozy to explain sometimes. There’s no formula to it! It’s a totally visceral way of looking and feeling. But I can reconstruct from my better photos what I saw and made me take a position or hit the shutter at a particular moment, and so came up with the following things to keep in mind:
Look for Color
Beautiful light makes existing colors pop, or alters colors in interesting ways. Just compare the vivid colors a nice sunset vs. the lackluster gloom of a rainy day.
Look for Rimlight
Sharp, bright highlights around the edges of something — or someone — really brings shape and form to the fore, and are a sure attention-grabber.
Look for Broken Light
Light that’s even all through out can be boring. We humans have a natural attraction to dappled light — maybe from our hominid ancestors, who must’ve equated dappled sunlight with the promise of food and safety brought by trees. Whether the light’s broken up by foliage, fretted windows, or anything else, broken light’s sure to be more interesting than flat, even light.
Look for Wells and Shafts of Light
Areas where there are well-defined ‘pools’ or ‘wells’ or shafts of light are great for shooting in. Specially when there’s something in the air, like smoke or dust, to catch the light and throw it back to your camera. Pools of light can really emphasize a subject and separate them from the background.
Look for Stark Light
Common photographer’s wisdom is to avoid the noonday sun because its light is just so stark. But there are subjects and themes where that’s exactly what you need to make the picture pop. Stark light has its uses, specially when you want to express some strong emotion or to reduce shapes to graphical geometric elements.
Look for Subdued Light
Soft, subdued light, like what you get at dusk, has an appeal all its own. It creates a kind of cool, spaced-out mood that’s useful for some landscapes and for still lifes.
Walk in the Dark Side
As every fan of Darth Vader knows, the Dark Side really is more interesting. I’ll often eyeball where the light is coming from and take my position directly or obliquely opposite that to take advantage of some dramatic back- or side-lighting. Of course, if the contrast is too strong you may need to add some light on your side to avoid getting mere silhouettes, but sometimes a silhouette is exactly what you need.
In lower-contrast situations shooting against the light often yields nice pics, with a rimlighted subject and detail that stands out from the background. Shooting into the shadow side of the subject is a standard technique of portraiture and food photography for precisely this reason.