Cooking a Better Photograph

In Photographically Speaking, Study the Masters, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory by David41 Comments

How is it that two photographers can stand in the same place and make two very different photographs? What accounts for the frustrating reality that, in that moment, one photographer can make something truly compelling and beautiful while the results of the other’s efforts are underwhelming? Surely it can’t be just better gear.

Sometimes it’s different gear. Different gear represents different possibilities, and if one photographer uses a tripod and a polarizing filter and the other has neither, then the results will be different. But what about when the gear is similar?

In my experience, it’s different thinking that explains the different results. Two photographers making different choices for different reasons will create different photographs, often very different photographs.

Photographs are made: they are created from a long series of choices that differ from one photographer to another. In the scenario above, it would be easy for the less experienced photographer to look at his image and say, “I made the same photograph, so why are they so different?” But that’s just it. They aren’t the same photograph; they’re different photographs of the same scene, and there is often a world of difference between the two.

In the same way that a great meal is rarely amazing only because of the ingredients, subject matter alone (our ingredients) rarely makes a photograph good or compelling.

A photograph is made of much more than the stuff you choose to include in the frame. Sure, you stood in roughly the same place, but what focal length did you use, and why? Did your faster shutter speed get in the way of representing the clouds in a way that a longer, slower shutter speed might have resulted in? Were your choices of aperture and the resulting depth of field the same? What about the moment you chose, or even the time of day? Did you underexpose it a bit? Use a filter, or introduce motion in the camera itself? Still not sure why the two photographs are so different?

And then, you pull the images into your chosen development tool, and one photographer brightens and warms their image while another does nothing. One might dodge and burn a little to lead the eye more effectively around the frame, or perhaps add contrast and selectively adjust saturation, while the other does nothing more than hitting Auto-tone and moving on.

Choices make the photograph, and it’s often a combination of many smaller choices rather than one big decision. It is often subtle, and subtlety comes from experience.

For example, it takes experience (perhaps I should say mindful experience) to learn that cranking the saturation up on the whole image is often less effective than raising it slightly in some areas while lowering it in others. That choice alone can reduce the visual competition created by too many colours at play and make a much stronger photograph without changing the basic ingredients. The same is true of sharpening or adding exposure or contrast. It takes experience to know that it’s not about getting the correct exposure but about getting the most expressive exposure.

Photography is not unlike cooking, though I don’t know many cooks who would say, “You know, I had the same ingredients and the same skillet, so I just can’t explain why the other meal tastes so much better.” Of course they can explain it. Cooking is their craft, and they know the end result comes down to the choices they made.

Cooking is not only about having ingredients and the tools to cook them. It’s about flavour profiles and textures and presentation and probably a million things I don’t understand because I’m not a chef, yet I do know a great meal isn’t made by a skillet but by a chef making great decisions. Interesting decisions. Unexpected, nuanced, and creative decisions that come not only from a deep knowledge of ingredients, tools, and techniques but also from how people experience flavour and texture: they know what makes a great meal.

Photographers are often too preoccupied with making “correct” decisions. Doing it by the book will get you “by the book” photographs, but is that all we want?

At the beginning, perhaps. Hell, when I started out, I would have been thrilled with “by the book.” But surely not as we mature in our craft. I hope that as we grow, we pay less attention to being merely correct, and spend more time being more creative in the combinations of our choices. Growth offers us the chance to start thinking less about the subject matter and the tools and more about how we might combine them in new ways to create certain feelings and tell specific stories, to make very different photographs with very similar tools and ingredients.

It’s in our choices, and choices come from thinking. Specifically, different choices come from thinking differently, and that leads to different results. Better results? Sometimes. But not always, though in those moments when the different choices lead to rubbish results, then you learn something, and you discover those particular ingredients don’t go so well together—at least not the way you put them together. Maybe the proportions were wrong. Maybe you seared when you should have baked. And yes, maybe it’s just that you just didn’t the right tool because sometimes that’s what makes the difference. I mean, there’s no way you’re going to make a great crème brulée using a hair dryer instead of a butane torch. (Of course a great chef who knows he’s missing a crucial tool will pivot and make something spectacular without it. Something different, sure, but something great. A great chef won’t make something mediocre and then blame his tools.)

So how do you learn to do this? I bet a great chef can sit down to a meal anywhere in the world—a meal that someone else cooked—and tell you more about it than you might ever guess. They’d talk about the ingredients, for sure, and how the potatoes in Peru are unlike potatoes anywhere else, but I bet the conversation would quickly become more interesting. What choices were made with those ingredients? What combinations of ingredients, in what proportions, and using which techniques resulted in those specific flavours? Which flavours and textures balance with, contrast with, or amplify each other to create the final result?

And maybe, if you’re sitting with a chef who truly loves their craft, they’ll tell you how they might have done it differently and to what effect, or which ideas this meal brings to mind for some hybrid dish they’ve only now just conceived. It’s highly unlikely they’ll rush home and buy a better skillet.

So I wonder, can you do the same with photographs? Can you look at another photographer’s work and let it wash over you and stir your emotions and imagination and then reverse engineer it to decode the choices made by that photographer? What did they do with their tools to mix the basic universal ingredients of every photograph: light, space, and time? Which combination of choices with gear, technique, and the elements in the frame resulted in this one photograph that makes you feel a certain way? And how might it all have been different had other choices been made? Think about it, because if you can do that when looking at the photograph, you’ll be better able to do it when making one.

This is a long, circuitous way of reminding you to study photographs. To reverse engineer them. To figure out why the photographs of others make you feel a certain way and how that was accomplished. Which choices did that photographer make? What was included and excluded? Does the focal length add something? What about shutter speed? The aperture, the placement of the camera? Is there mystery or mood in the image? Which choice or choices are responsible for that?  Is it all down to the choice of moment or use of colour?

We should be doing this all the time, not only to learn our craft but to revel in it. We create photographs. That’s what we do. Shouldn’t we have a deep and growing sensitivity to what makes one image a compelling visual experience while another might fall short? Shouldn’t we be thinking a little less about what makes a great camera and much more about what makes a great photograph?

For the Love of the Photograph,

Want to explore this more? I wrote The Heart of the Photograph to explore the choices we make, specifically as they relate to how our photographs will be experienced. If you’re looking for your next challenge as a photographer or the spark of new inspiration, you can get The Heart of the Photograph here on Amazon, or from your favourite bookseller.


  1. In my opinion it has a lot to do with your visual education, the images you like, the paintings, the movies, the nature and everything that inspires you, we try to create something beautiful acording to our visión of beauty

  2. I am new to your articles. I thoroughly enjoyed your article about “telling stories” and plan to read more of your postings and to share them forward with photographers who submit work to our gallery’s juried exhibits. Thank you for sharing your experiences and thought provoking articles.

  3. Beautifully said! I struggled with this for a long time. Still do on occasion. It’s a great reminder to practice as much as possible so we can develop strong instincts and then learn to trust those instincts.

    I also think that there is something beautiful about two photographers standing in the same place and making two very different images of the same scene. I agree that we should study photographs and learn how to use the tools we have to make good work but I also believe in embracing our different perspectives and not letting comparison rob us of our unique vision.

    Thank you for always sharing thought provoking information. You never fail to inspire.

    1. Author

      You nailed it Tina. Comparison is the thief of joy. Thank you for dropping by!

  4. Great comments David.

    In 2006 I got back into photography after a very long absence, and like many, I dove deep into the hobby…but my 20 year journey has become much more internal and zen like. Unlike the beginning where it was all about getting gear, getting “that great Image”, being liked, etc…now I shoot for me…maybe it’s all ‘cuz I’m embracing my old guy and curmudgeoness – yes I’m proud of my grey, wrinkles, and my various ‘dos…thanks David and keep up the good work and posts. PS love your books!


  5. Your clarification regarding experience (only) vs mindful experience might also be expanded to include the time prior to deciding what “ingredients” to have included when the shutter is pressed. For me at least, a bit of a mindful pause just looking, letting the scene come to me, speak to me, & then decide how to proceed. My personal experience has taught me that when I feel excited at the moment of discovering/seeing whatever, in the rush to act on that impulse, I miss seeing the “whole” (for lack of a better word.)
    Obviously some this is entirely impractical for some situations, where photographic muscle memory comes into play.
    Your articles are wonderfully provocative. Thank you.

    1. Author

      Rush is almost never the pay off for me as I hope it will be. But once in a while that muscle memory (and a little bit of hurry) is exactly what we need. No matter the situation I think you’re right on the money about mindfulness, Marty. Thanks for chiming in!

  6. Thanks for another mind-stirring article, David. I’m going through some of these thoughts right now, having spent yesterday morning wandering around Sacramento looking for shapes and textures and interesting juxtapositions… now to apply my development thoughts!

    1. Author

      I’ll provide the stick to stir the paint, but you’ve got to do the stirring, man. Always good to hear from you.

  7. Hi David, having just finished reading the Heart of the Photograph and reading this weeks article, I love the cooking analogy. I used to be a chemist focused on construction chemicals and designing concrete. My boss always said the work I did was like cooking. You never would make the same thing twice but you may get close or sometimes it would perform better.
    Applying this thinking to my photography I think is something I can now start to relate to.
    Today I went out to photograph with one camera and. 18 to 55 lens, no plans. I went for a walk and started to look around and see the shapes and colours.
    Thanks David
    I am starting to think about my photography and realized I am making photos first for me!
    Andrew in Ottawa

    1. Author

      The moment we realize our creative urges are first for us and from us, is the moment we start to really find ourselves in our work. That’s some good progress, Andrew!

  8. David, you always gives me food for thought, pun definitely intended. You ramble a bit sometimes, but it always leads to hammering home a useful message. If people take the time to sift through your words and they too may find a tasty morsel of inspiration, thanks again David.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Eugene. Love me, love my ramble. That’s the deal. 😉

  9. This article is very interesting! It was timely. I happened to read it whilst waiting for a batch of snickerdoodles to cool after taking them out of the oven…I seem to spend more time creating in the kitchen than with the camera these days. A quarter of the cookies were following the recipe exactly, a quarter were an experiment as I changed the coating; the other half of the dough has been frozen in balls to try some different coatings…you can only eat so many cookies! 😉 The other coatings? Just ideas based on my experience of the taste of different spices that I think might just work and thereby create a new cookie sensation.

    I’m a bit of a foodie. I tend to follow a recipe almost exacly the first time unless I have to substitute one or two missing ingredient. Then if the recipe was a good one I will be evolving it to suit my taste, a different texture or flavour maybe.

    Eating out, I’m usually choosing something that’s different to discover…almost never the burger choice.

    I’m influenced by photography exhibitions, maybe more so by painters? Only today, I emailed a friend with a link to a collection of images from an upcoming photography exhibition, noting that none really appealed to me…I suspect time in London could be better spent with the impressionists than those photographers…but that’s just my taste!

    There are great parallels in cooking and photographing but at the same time key differences – raw ingredients are pretty much the same when cooking but light and weather can’t be controlled the same as weight and temperature to reproduce a photographic ‘recipe’ for a given subject. Tweaking a recipe will be influenced by previous experience and the temptation to create something a little different, just like trying to interpret a subject in a different way when taking a photo.

    Yesterday’s loaf didn’t turn out the best but I leant from the experience of trying a different approach…and it was still edible. Last week I tried different camera settings when photographing birds in flight, fewer keepers but lessons learnt.

    Not sure I’m articulating this well but what I’m trying to say is that acquiring lots of different experiences leads to lots of possible new experiences by working with the raw ingredients(subjects) in a different way whether it’s cooking or photographing. Using familiar equipment is easier than that special new tool, the 20/80 rule applies though there’s always that temption to buy a new tool…that will probably only get used infrequently and end up at the back of the cupboard.

    David, your article rang true…and as for pre-visualizing “…make a “crème brulée using a hair dryer…”, you owe me a keyboard!

    1. Author

      Thanks for that, Kelvin. A very thoughtful reply. Sorry about the keyboard, but it makes me so happy to know that someone out there found that as amusing as I do. LOL. (It’s nice not to be the only one laughing at my own jokes).

    1. Author

      Thanks! Not sure I’m so much THE man as A man, but it’s nice to know someone out there doesn’t think I’m just shouting into the void. LOL. Thanks, Stanley.

  10. Hi David. Another great article. This quote pretty much describes me to a tee.

    “Photographers are often too preoccupied with making “correct” decisions. Doing it by the book will get you “by the book” photographs, but is that all we want? ”

    I believe this article will help nudge me in a different, more creative direction. Thank you.

    1. Always great to hear from you David. I always look forward to your words pf wisdom. thanks for al your wisdom!

    2. Author

      I live to nudge, Dave. 🙂 Thanks for taking a minute to say hi. Much appreciated.

  11. David,
    So this is why I can’t have nice things? Like a new Olympus ONE system instead of this OM-DEM-5 from 2012? I’m increasingly bored with myself and all the crap pictures I take.

    Last autumn when I had a couple plus months of Long Covid, I gave up gourmet home cooking and we ate frozen entrees and packaged salads until I recovered enough to start cooking one entree a day; even then, it was only marginally interesting food compared to what I had been doing.

    I’m slowly getting a bit of mojo back in the kitchen, though I think the Golden Age of Cooking is over now that I’m in my Golden Years.

    I’m hoping something similar will happen with photography. I feel like I shot my brains out in London and haven’t done anything interesting since. It’s been raining, and hailing , and snowing for months when I’ve I’ve had multiple shows and lots of production work to do, but nothing new even when I get out.

    I have a Sisters Retreat on the Oregon Coast the second week in April when I look forward to re-setting my eye. With no new gear in sight, I will also need to fall in love with what I have all over again. In a fit of madness, I sold all my lenses but a LensBaby Velvet 28 and a Trio 28. I have a 12-70 and a 300 for my micro 4/3rds. So I’m down to a sauté pan and a Dutch oven.

    How hard can this be? That’s enough equipment to re-invent the world, I’m sure you would tell me.

    Blessing on your journey ahead,

    1. Author

      Sounds like it’s time for a new challenge, Sandy. Picking the right one is always the hard part, but at this point, if you’re bored, maybe you just need to pick something that gives you a good push. Anytime I hear someone say they’re bored I wonder if it’s not just time to learn some new thing or follow a thread of curiousity that has no point but to be followed and no pressure to perform. You’ve got this. 🙂

  12. Thank you, David – I am on your mailing list and enjoy your articles – but this one in particular resonated with me; I think you found the perfect analogy to help cut through the noise that I hear in so many articles on improving my photography.

    I very much enjoy your work – thanks for sharing your thoughts and inspirations.

  13. David,
    Good morning, day, or evening, (depending on when you read this).
    I find myself responding to your invitation to leave a comment as well as to just say “hi”.

    What compelled me to respond, was your observation that the same scene or location can produce both dramatically or subtlety different images. I have felt or realized this “in my bone” for a long time now.

    For me, I think of it as extending my awareness ( my self) outward into what I see , and try to capture that in my image. I’ve expressed that “feeling” or process to fellow photographers as
    “working the location”. But “working” seems doesn’t seem like the best description as it feels too clinical.

    I like your analogy to cooking, in so many ways. I’ve been told for years that my images have a “style “ that can be noticed even before they know who made the image. I never know how to take that comment, or “ your image looks like a painting “. I suppose I take it as a good thing. But, with cooking in mind, it’s easy to associate making images with creative cooking. Both have many styles and perhaps subtle flavours that distinguish one from the other, despite similarities.

    I like to think that every good photographer or chef , creates with their own unique sense of what they “feel” . For me, I look for that moment where my image captures a feeling. Like a poem or Japanese haiku, where a few words can convey so much.

    Anyway, this has been a lot of words to say, “ I appreciate your cooking/photography analogy”.

    Don Zwicker
    Victoria, BC

    1. Author

      Thank you, Don. Your comparison to a haiku is a good one – simple elements and not many of them, but infinite wonderful combinations.

  14. Another great photography article; thank you David. I have read several of David’s books, most recently, the Heart of the Photograph which I think it’s making a difference in my photography.

    1. Author

      “it’s making a difference in my photography.” – You just made my day, Paul. Thank you for taking the time to say so.

  15. I enjoyed the article about cooking better photos and I hope to incorporate those points in my group critiques. Thank you!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Maia. I’m pleased to know you can use these thoughts.

  16. Hi Dave,
    You just found a great way to summarize the possibilities we can get by using the tools you taught in the last 5-8 years.
    Hope you’re doing well.
    Bonjour from Sherbrooke, Qc

    1. Author

      Bonjour mon ami! I hope this finds you well. Thank you for saying hello!

  17. These thoughts are exactly appropriate to where I am in my photographic journey. I want to thank you for them. I’ve enjoyed your books too! Thank you.

  18. When I started shooting less and giving more time to different subjects, it felt better. Less run and gun and more thoughtfulness made for better photographs. I’m not on the clock, these aren’t paid gigs–this is a hobby for me, so why was I rushing through it as if it was work?

    Thank you for the influence and kind advice.

    1. Author

      The pleasure is mine, Rick. Thanks for saying so. You’re right – creativity doesn’t often benefit from being in a hurry. Our lives are short enough as it is, I’m not sure why we’re all rushing through them.

  19. What a wonderful way to explain the “Next Steps” in photography. The analogy of cooking really works. And not just in regards to photography; covers all (most) creative endeavors.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.