on photography :: learning from Penny De Los Santos

For the past couple of years I’ve become more and more interested in taking good photos. My interest began with memory keeping, wanting to document the lives of my niece and nephews with regard to the special relationships that we share, but then it evolved beyond simple scrapbooking. As I perused the blogs of scrap artists I began to find more and more photography tips which led me to websites of amateur photographers which, in turn, led me to professional photographers. What captured me the most is how perfectly the photos were used to tell stories. Beyond the scrapbook journaling of years past, photos were being paired with simple sentences that told a complete story or, better still, sentences that conveyed a single moment in time… an emotion to be remembered. I began to see life differently at this point; I began to look for moments in my life rather than “events.” Instead of waiting to document holidays and birthdays and milestones I began to snap photos of single images that affected me at a particular moment. The last boy’s fascination with the car wash. The girl speaking with her dad after a tough defeat. A sky full of clouds that took my breath away. A vibrant bowl of oranges prepared just for me by the produce man at the grocery store. Each of these images tell their own story — a story that sometimes only I know — and each of these images was another small piece of my daily life. By taking photos of the mundane details of life I began to realize how much I wasn’t seeing in the hours of my days. Photography as a practice helped me see the art that is in every single moment of life. And I desperately wanted to improve those skills so I didn’t miss one little thing in the future.

Last weekend I was able to participate in an online workshop led by professional photographer Penny De Los Santos, and it’s no overstatement to say that I learned more about the process of taking photos than I’ve learned in years of surfing blogs and reading tutorials. For the first time, in fact, I’ve come to actually believe that it really isn’t about the tools but all about the way we look at things. For three days Penny stressed this very thing to us students, and as I watched her work in the studio I came to understand just how true the statement is. The principles of photography are the key to taking great photos, and great photos can be taken just as well with an iPhone or point-and-shoot as with a high-level DSLR. The best camera in the world can still produce the worst photos if the photographer isn’t implementing the basic principles. But the simplest camera in the world can produce outstanding photos if the photographer takes the proper amount of time to “see” before shooting. And Penny demonstrated how to see. And I finally understood.

I took copious notes during the near-24-hour workshop and won’t post them all here, but I feel like the following are the most important to know. And while these do apply to photography, in many ways they also apply to art, in general. If not life itself. I see images much differently now, and I’m looking for photos through entirely different eyes. That’s really the greatest gift of the weekend: just learning a few key techniques to take me beyond the obvious. Watching Penny work was truly a gift. I hope you find something in these few notes to take away for yourself, as well.

    What makes a good photo?

  • light — Find the best natural light, even if that means carrying something to a new location (an open door or window). But also think about the potential in any situation. Even if the power goes out. Even if you’re under a tent. Even if nothing goes according to plan. Find the shot. Capture the moment. That’s STORYTELLING.
  • color — If your subject/food is all the same color, add an element of color somewhere else.
  • composition — Study other photos to broaden your range of composition.

Beirut, ©Penny De Los Santos                                    photo by Penny De Los Santos; read the incredible story of how she obtained this photo

Alleviate the eye so that the subject is not complicated when you look at it.   EDIT.
Infuse energy into your photographs, even (and especially) a static image like food.
Move past your clichés. If you keep seeing the same shots in your photos, you need to push yourself out of that comfort zone. Look for new angles and new perspectives.
Your over-familiarity with a place or a subject comes through in your photos. Boredom comes through. Learn to see with fresh eyes, as if each photo is your first introduction to the scene.
Find the frame you want for your shot then stay put and wait for the energy to fill that frame. Take many shots until you capture the emotion you want to see, then take more to get it again. And take even more to get it again.
Change your perspective. Shoot from a different angle. Shoot from overhead. Get down to the level of your subject.
Get in front of the action.
Stay in place a little longer than you think you should. Wait for the action to finish.

Do you want to be great at photography? Never stop looking. Every single day. Look at books, magazines, galleries, the Internet. The only way you’ll get better is to LOOK. When you react to a photo, figure out what it was that made you react that way. What is the first word that comes to mind? Write it down. Light, color, sadness. Write those words down. Then take that list of words and walk around with your camera looking for representations of the individual words. Focus on the first word and take a series of shots. Then focus on the next word and take a new series. Stretch your eyes, focus on one idea, exercise that idea. Think of it as Visual Yoga.

In order to create (anything): first, get grounded. Get quiet, get centered. Then pump yourself up and go! Shoot photos. Write something. Create!
Make up your mind before anything happens that whatever it is, you’re going to love it. Wake up every day ready to make something of that day.
Look at photography daily. Books, magazines, internet. Pick up something with photos and LOOK.
Practice your photography regularly.
Keep a visual journal. Make a photo every day, put it in a book, and monitor your progress.
Walk around the block for 15 minutes and try to be inspired by ONE idea. Capture that idea with your camera.
Remember the basic principles: light, composition, framing, detail, color, movement, energy… If you can put as many of the principles into a single photograph then it’s all happening! You’re DOING IT.


A lot was said during this 3-day workshop, but one particular statement by Penny resonated with me more than anything else: You have to self-assign your dream assignment.
Penny suggested that we assign ourselves 3 personal projects per year where we have to go somewhere outside our home bases and tell the stories that interests us. She instructed us to find 3 stories that feed the soul and set out to capture them. A powerful idea. I love that it can be applied to more than just photography. Three stories told through art. Three stories that capture me and me alone. Penny made this assignment early on during the first day of the weekend and it’s still haunting me. I can’t help but wonder what my 3 stories are this year! And I’m excited about how they will manifest from my creativity. Will I capture them in photos? Will I put them into words? Will I do something entirely new, like paint or sketch? Perhaps a combination of them all? The possibilities are exciting! And terrifying. And empowering. I can’t wait to see which road will present itself to me.

Herding Lamb, photo by Penny De Los Santos     Herding Lamb, a photo by Penny De Los Santos (and the one that struck the richest chord in me last weekend)

About Jules Q

sharing stories of life, faith, and love for pop culture

Posted on 20 May 2011, in Stories I Tell and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I have always felt that a good photographer is not only a good storyteller, but has a good eye for finding the story that needs to be told. When I wander with my camera, I look up. I climb on things and look down. I stain the knees of my jeans to see what that perspective provides. Anyone can take a photo of a pretty flower. What can I do to make my photo different than the one everyone else is taking? If everyone goes to the same spot to capture the same view, I wander away and go for a different angle. Of course, none of this is worth a darn if my camera battery decides to die at the moment I finally get it all figured out ;0)


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