I have bad news. Great images require repeat attempts - sometimes over the course of years. Your first image of a particular place or subject will rarely be your best, but with some planning and the right approach you can shorten that path to perfection.
With digital images today being almost 'free', it's tempting to think that if we approach the same subject from a dozen angles on a given day and take a few backup shots we'll get what we're looking for. But that approach fails to take into account that good photography is much more of a mental process than it is a technical one.
The secret of a great photograph is knowing what it will look like before you press the shutter.
Over the years I've had many conversations with photographers about how to improve the quality of what we do. We generally come to the conclusion that our limited budgets are better spent on going to great places rather than buying new equipment. And it's not just about maximizing the opportunities for great images - being active will increase your photography fitness. There is a lot to be said for training your brain to think more photographically - doing so will help maximize your chance of success and result in images that you are really proud of.
Over the years I've collected a set of mental snapshots that I try to look for in the images I take. I love dramatic skies, I love texture, I love color contrast, I love to guide the viewers eye through an image, and I love my images to take me back to those locations. Those are the things that appeal to me, but you will respond to different things. Breaking it all down into smaller elements helps me with visualization, and when I'm looking through the shutter I'm keeping them in mind. These days I'll not take more photographs than I do take, because at that time and in that place I just don't see the characteristics I'm looking for.
A good way to build up your own set of mental snapshots is to look at the work of others. When you see an image that appeals to you, try to figure out why. Making the connection between what you respond to and why you respond to it will help you create better images without necessarily being derivative. The next time you venture out with your camera you will then have a better idea of what you want to achieve.
As I noted at the start of this article, one of the best ways to improve is to keep trying. As a famous golfer once said "The more I practice the luckier I get". Repetition isn't just about maximizing your chance of finding the right conditions, it also helps you figure out how you want to capture a certain image. The image below from Death Valley took me three visits over the course of about eight years to finally get right. Between my first attempt and this one, somewhere in the back of my mind I toyed with compositions, took inspiration from images taken by other photographers and ultimately decided exactly how I wanted to capture these sand dunes.
Ultimately I ended up with something that appeals to me. It captures the feel of being there, the power of the location, and the subtlety of the ever changing landscape. You'll notice that I haven't said anything about the tools or techniques I used or my post-processing work, and there's a good reason for that. I strongly believe that the means of getting a great image are of secondary importance. If you don't clearly visualize your photographic objective you will never reach it; no matter how fancy your lens or skill with image processing tools. My first step was to figure out that I wanted to take this photograph, and the second step was to figure out how.
Most advice related to photography is dedicated to the 'how' rather than the 'why'. I feel that the motivation behind my images is much more important than the process. The most important decisions I make about my images are the ones I make before I press the shutter - color vs. black and white, the best crop etc.. I'll cover some of these areas in future articles.
So in summary, here's my advice for great images. First of all, figure out what appeals to you. Then figure out why, and finally figure out how to get there. And be prepared to have many failures before you have a success, because in photography as in life we learn the most from our failures but our failures make us great.