Having been making photos continuously for the better part of a decade or more, if you had to ask me what one single photographic skill that I ‘ve learnt that is most important in making a photo? I would say ” to think inside the frame.” What I mean has two parts: the first is the easy part and that is to be able to envisage the photo in your mind’s eye before you press the trigger. To be able to put up an imaginary frame in the vista in front of you and pick the correct lens for the job, or more often is the case that I already have armed myself with a fixed focal lens, say a 35mm lens and I literally scan the scene for possible 35mm images. Most of the time I also have a second camera on me with a telephoto so I have even more options available readily. I am not a big fan of zoom lenses, but a zoom lens would certainly further increase your composition options, but will decrease your creative play with depth of field.
I said that this is the easy first part, because strangely enough to learn this skill didn’t require me to learn actively, it was a fairly rapid passive process. It started with my first first fixed 35mm fixed focal lens (it could’ve easily being a 50mm lens), it was a rather weak and inexpensive Kodak point and shoot, I loved the camera so much that I stucked with it for many months. And during this time my mind became accustomed to seeing in 35mm field of view and was able to accurately predict the results. I would recommend anyone that asks, to try it themselves, I think it is the first step to good composition and training for the mind.
That was the first step, the second step is much harder and require lots of reading, practicing, research and examining other people’s photos. In other words it requires thinking! This is the thinking part of “think inside the frame.” Once you have acquire the innate ability to form the frame in your mind, it then becomes important for your mind to assess if that is a good photo opportunity or not. To know you must know the basics of composition, how to break these rules, which lens, filter, flash or some other tool is required for the job, what are the effects you can use in post-processing to enchance the scene, have you seen examples of such or such photo in the past, will a shift in camera position improve the scene and what are the contrasts in the scene, is the scene beyond your camera’s dynamic and tonal range, what depth of field & shutter speed do you need? All these factors must go through your mind continuously as you search the scene inside the frame in your mind’s eye.
There is no quick way to acquire this second skill quickly but it is made a little easier after learning the first skill (at least you have minimized a variable). How I learnt was from reading from different sources a lot, learning the workflow for processing photos and critically examine other people’s photos objectively and not just to say this is nice, learn to read the photos you see and be able to understand why a photo looks good or bad. It will only come with lots of hard work.
This process of learning reminds me of reading x-rays. I am a veterinarian during my non-photography and non-sleeping moments and in the beginning of my veterinary career, with much less experience under my belt as I do now, when I took x-rays, I often zoom into the problem at hand, will it be a fracture or a cancer, and this can lead to missing the bigger picture. After over a decade of practice, when I pick up a x-ray, I see the bigger picture, is the film exposed well, if not what will be limitations on contrast of the radiograph, was there any problems with the processing fluids, is the animal straight, did the settings for the exposure adequate, is there other factors that will effect the contrast of the x-ray, was the required part of the animal in the frame, aside from the obvious main problem at hand is there anything else wrong, I’ll make a mental note of even normal anatomy. Do you see the parallels with photography?