❄️ Snowflake macro photo (Tyler Cipriani — CC-BY-SA-4.0 — Original)

The implicit agreement [of social media] is that in return for receiving (for the most part, undeserved) attention from your friends and followers, you’ll return the favor by lavishing (similarly undeserved) attention on them. You “like” my status update and I’ll “like” yours.

– Cal Newport, Deep Work

Nobody cares about most of your photos on social media. Sure, likes and social updoots are gratifying, and documenting your life may be useful in some sense, but that’s not what I mean when I call a photo useful.

Useful photos abstract ideas and subjects. Researchers, journalists, and encyclopedia authors push the boundaries of our understanding with useful pictures. If this all sounds grandiose — it is, but it’s within reach of the dedicated amateur.

This is a short guide to getting started taking useful pictures.

What is a useful picture?

A great architect’s creative power […] lies in his capacity to observe correctly and deeply.

– Christopher Alexander, A Timeless Way of Building

A useful photograph is technically sound; focuses on a single, important subject; and makes its subject obvious. Most people will never create a useful picture because they don’t have the know-how.

International Space Station solar transit (Tyler Cipriani — CC-BY-SA-4.0 — Original)

It’s easy to make a useful picture when you focus on your subject. Focus means picking a single subject and highlighting it. Social media pictures aren’t useful because the subject is always both: you and your subject. You ate dal makhani vs. this is dal makhani. This subtle shift changes a thousand little technical choices.

A useful picture is the result of good technical choices (this is a summary of the Wikimedia Commons image guidelines):

  • The subject is in focus
  • The subject is the most prominent thing in the image
  • Depth of field (i.e., a blurred background) should have a purpose (e.g., to isolate the subject)
  • You’ve appropriately lit your subject (avoid harsh light, ensure it’s light enough to see)
  • The colors are natural, balanced, and attractive
  • The exposure is correct; you don’t lose details in dark or light areas
  • Distorted and blurred image areas should have a purpose (e.g., to show motion) — if it looks wrong, it is wrong
  • Digital image editing should make an image look more real, not more surreal (use HDR sparingly)

How to buy a useful camera

First off, a useful camera is a camera, not a phone. Buy a camera. When a picture matters and people have a choice, they rarely choose to use a phone instead of a camera: presidential portraits, for example, are never shot using an iPhone.

Featured Pictures are the best photos on Wikimedia Commons. At the time of this writing, only 0.019% of the almost eight million pictures on the site were “Featured Pictures”—the best of the best. I looked at more than 12,000 of these pictures (you can find my database of EXIF data on GitLab) you know how many were iPhoneography? Three. These three:

Gulls on Morro Strand State Beach — CC-BY-2.0 by Mike Baird Izvori na Crn Drim, Chun — CC-BY-SA-3.0 by Taskosmileski Celing of Wien Hauptbahnhof (Vienna Main Station), Austria 01 — CC-BY-SA-4.0 by Jules Verne Times Two

What do those three pictures have in common? Their subject is human-scaled; it fills the frame, is well illuminated, and is close to them. If you’re dealing with subjects that don’t match those criteria, your phone picture probably won’t be useful.

For example, try to take a picture of any of the following on your smartphone (without any extra equipment):

  • A fly, super up-close
  • The moon or the stars
  • A bird in a tree
  • A mountain in the distance
Wikimedia Commons Featured Pictures by camera make — smartphones are poorly represented (Original data)

The characteristics of a good camera:

  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Manual mode
  • Intervalometer (either built-in or sold separately)

You don’t need a top-of-the-line camera to take a useful picture. The data I collected about Featured Pictures confirms this. You can find a camera matching these criteria for about $100, used. The most popular Nikon in the data (the d5200) is available on eBay for about $150, and its predecessor, the d5100, is even more affordable. A Canon 500d (also popular in the data) is less than $100, lens included. These cameras are a good starting point for beginners.

Edit your photos

In the book Atomic Habits, author James Clear tells the story of photography teacher Jerry Uelsmann’s experiment with his class at the University of Florida:

Everyone on the left side of the classroom, he explained, would be in the “quantity” group. They would be graded solely on the amount of work they produced. […] Meanwhile, everyone on the right side of the room would be in the “quality” group. They would be graded only on the excellence of their work. […] At the end of the term, he was surprised to find that all the best photos were produced by the quantity group.

– James Clear, Atomic Habits

The point of the story is deliberate practice produces results. You might think this means if you take more photos, you’ll take better photos. But the students in the class weren’t only taking pictures; they submitted these pictures and got feedback on them.

When I first started photography, I spent a lot of time focusing on quantity (and I still do, according to exiftool -ShutterCount, I took 3,100 pictures between Nov 2020 and Nov 2021). But you should practice creating final, edited images to the best of your ability, too. Still, you’ll need honest feedback to improve.

I’ve received honest feedback whenever I nominate my pictures for either Quality Image or Featured Picture on Wikimedia Commons. The process is very impartial (and often demoralizing), but when persnickety strangers on one of the largest photo websites in the world agree your image is useful: it probably is.

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