Photography 101: A Gentle Reminder to Get Back to Basics

Long-tailed Meadowlark

Long-tailed Meadowlark

A great way to improve your photography is to critique the photography of others and then to critique your own photography relative to what you see around you (be tough on yourself and others but not unkind). I’ve officially curated and reviewed thousands upon thousands of world-class photos at One Exposure at and continue to vote on photo challenges at GuruShots at Whenever I see a photograph, whether amateur or professional, I always (automatically) run it through my internal critiquing process. This critiquing process is an internal dialogue and not offered up as public opinion (no matter how well intentioned) unless specifically asked for.

Before I ever get to subject, creative interpretation or aesthetic appreciation I check off three basic must have boxes: the image must be tack-sharp unless purposely motion-blurred (panning for instance) for artistic effect; the image has to be properly exposed and the photograph must be well composed (adhering to accepted rules-of-composition but allowing for the occasional exception-to-the-rule). These three boxes would seem like a no-brainer but you would be surprised by how often they are ignored or simply overlooked. Sometimes the subject is so compelling it’s tempting to overlook a technically flawed shot—we do so at our peril (compromising technical basics is a slippery slope).

Male Cinereous Harrier

Male Cinereous Harrier

Tack-sharp Focus. The focal point on a human or animal is the eye. This can be a challenge when shooting with a long lens and shallow depth of field. If the shallow depth of field will not allow you to keep both eyes in sharp focus make sure the eye closest to the lens is always tack-sharp. I shot this male Cinereous Harrier with my Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM super-telephoto lens at its minimum focus distance of 3.5 meters at f/6.3 resulting in a depth of field of only 2.74 cm (approximately 1-inch). But with his head turned in profile I was able to keep sharp focus on his eye and beak allowing the rest of the image fall softly out of focus.


Monterrico Sunset

Properly Exposed. Sunsets have become cliche (I get that) but once in awhile they just beg to be photographed. Such was the case during my one week stay in Monterrico, Guatemala (a small coastal village on the Pacific Ocean). The black sand beaches are the result of volcanic lava flow and sunsets can be spectacular. I captured this image as an Adobe CameraRAW (ACR) file at 1/400s @ f/4.0 at ISO 100 @ 24mm. Processing this image HDR would have ruined it so I opted to work with it in post-processing: coaxing more detail from the shadows while dampening the highlights and I boosted sharpening and saturation just a tad to replicate what my eye actually saw.

Acrylic or Metal Print

Valle de la Muerte

Well Composed. It’s my opinion (and always has been) that rules are made to be broken. However, having said that, there is a reason we have rules—in photography as well as in life. Before you can successfully break the rules you have to know the rules. I’ve actually met photographers who’ve said to me: “I don’t have to know the rules because I just do my thing.” Seriously? Actually, your own thing pretty much sucks (and you can blame it on your arrogance and ignorance). My photo of Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile follows the composition Rule of 1/3s and it works (if you’re not familiar with this rule you should Google it).

Many photographers follow this blog (thank you) and they represent many different skill sets (from “Newbie” to seasoned “Professional”). My intention here is not to insult anyone’s intelligence but rather to offer up this gentle reminder about what’s important—trust me, this also (especially) goes for me. I constantly have to remind myself to go back to the basics and I’ve been clicking shutters for over 63-years (and almost 8-years as a professional). We can all use a reminder from time to time. Subject, creative interpretation and aesthetic appreciation are all well and good but if we slip up on the technical side of things it’s all for naught.


Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, Traveller

Buenos Aires, Argentina



7 responses to “Photography 101: A Gentle Reminder to Get Back to Basics

    • Thanks Tim. One of “my” biggest foibles is trying to salvage photos with compelling subjects but containing one or more technical flaws. For the most part it’s a waste of time. Sometimes I can save composition with a judicious crop or exposure with some tweaks in Lightroom or Photoshop but I find that out of focus images (even if only slightly out of focus) are almost always fatal. Ah, the frustrations of photography. 🙂

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