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The process of taking a photo

A young man reaches for his tea in a local Sri Lanka tea shop - Pics Of Asia Black And White Photography

The process of taking a photo

Have you ever wondered what goes through a photographer’s mind before they press the button? Here’s what I see in my mind’s eye before I create each image.

As a photography teacher, I wouldn’t blame my students for finding a lot of the educational literature on the subject a bit dull. One exception to this is Michael Freeman’s excellent ‘The Photographer’s Mind’ which I recommend you read.
Here’s my take on the process of taking photographs – it’s some of Michael’s ideas served up with some of my special Asian photography sauce. I’ve found that it’s a great way of helping students to understand how things happen – and how to apply this knowledge to take better photographs. One of my few regrets is that I didn’t come across this insightful book sooner!
Let’s break things down into the four elements of camera settings, observation, anticipation, and experience.

Camera settings

South East Asia can be busy, so being fast makes you a better and more efficient street and travel photographer. Mastering your camera settings is the first step to being a more rapid photographer. It’s all about being prepared, which is why I instruct my students to use aperture priority when shooting (at least during the day) and to always adjust their settings when entering a new “light situation” (a brighter or darker area). One less thing to worry about when the right photo presents itself.

Being familiar with the buttons and functions on your camera, and being able to change settings instinctively, also contributes to speed – especially if you can do this without looking. You want your camera to become an extension of your body. Planning to be spontaneous may seem like a contradiction in terms, but it means not missing those unmissable moments.

The need to be very fast and know camera settings was essential to capture this fleeting moment.

Sri Lanka fishermen


To be a good travel or street photographer, you must first be a great observer.

If you’re aware of your surroundings, you won’t need as long to make important decisions, and you’ll already be anticipating the shots you want to take. This is especially important in dynamic environments such as markets, where opportunities can appear and disappear in a moment.    

Being in tune with my surroundings allowed to choose the best background to give symmetry to this image.

Ninh Binh farmer


Once you know your camera settings like the back of your hand, and you’ve honed your powers of observation, you next need to master the art of anticipation. Or perhaps you already knew I was going to say that? Anticipating where a potential subject is going to be, or where the light will move to, is key to shooting a great photo. You need to be physically fit and agile enough to move quickly into position, even when there are trees, streams, walls or a highway in the way…

Familiarity with your camera settings can save you seconds, and that can make all the difference. I’ve found that many of my students miss great photo opportunities because they feel rushed, or overwhelmed at finding themselves in exotic locations where everything is new, beautiful and photogenic.

With so many great shots on offer, there’s a danger of trying to take them all and ending up with lots of poor quality pictures rather than a handful of great ones.

It’s time to free your mind to concentrate on the fine details and techniques you need to perfect your composition. That’s much easier to do when you’ve already taken care of everything else.

After spotting this woman, action in the distance, I got in position to photograph her hands against this blue sky. Then I only had to wait for her to throw the peanuts in the basket again.

close up action shot of Vietnamese farmer


Experience is a great teacher. However, it can also limit us as we tend to subconsciously recreate what we know makes a good photograph. In other words, we’re confined by our ‘repertoire’ of image types that work for us. If you want to read more about it, check out my articles about creating your templates and be a more effective photographer.

You all know the ‘rules’ of photography. Following them has the advantage of letting you make faster decisions, but it also means that you end up taking similar pictures over and over again. In other words, you’re trapped by your templates.  

Adjusting the composition to be a more creative photographer and take more interesting photographs takes time, and the best way to gain the extra seconds you need is through preparation, observation and anticipation and applying what you’ve learned on the streets.

Everything was ready and patiently prepared. Then the subject arrived… Click.

Burmese monk



  1. Pics of Asia | Contact sheet 1 on January 4, 2014 at 6:55 am

    […] what goes into the photographer’s head when taking the shot, a bit in the way I wrote “the process of taking a photo“.  Some students find this very relevant and help them think faster and more effectively […]

  2. Louise on January 9, 2014 at 1:20 am

    what goes into my head: great blog and photos

  3. Ron on March 7, 2014 at 3:34 am

    “The brain stops working. The result is a lack of discipline in creating composition, and as is very often the case, the use of the wrong camera settings (leading to a slow shutter speed and blurry photos). Yes, you reader.. you know I am talking about you!”

    Reading this was very creepy.

    Me to a T.

  4. Pics of Asia | Taking it to the streets on January 11, 2015 at 6:26 am

    […] In order to be effective at capturing brief moments, one needs to be prepared, and do a lot of anticipation. I put some steps on how to be faster and more efficient in my article The process of taking photos. […]

  5. Pics of Asia | Shoot the light on September 6, 2015 at 2:42 am

    […] over time. Until you are getting comfortable with this new idea, and start re creating your “templates” that will allow you to be fast and efficient and not miss your […]

  6. Pics of Asia | Juxtaposition on December 19, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    […] It means that there is no time for camera settings (they should be ready, refer to my article about the process to take a photo to know more about […]

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