3 Habits of Great Photographers

By Austin Mann

Hey, I’m Austin Mann, travel photographer, and I love shooting with my iPhone.

I get a lot of questions from all of you about how to shoot better pictures on iPhone, but when I think about the best way I can help you shoot better photos, it really comes back to habits and principles that really all photographers live by.

It’s not specific to any specific device or phone or camera. It’s really how we think, how we see, and how we interact with people in the world. I want to share three of those habits with you.

Habit #1: Chasing Light

The most important ingredient in all of your photographs is light. Everything revolves around it:

  • How does the light fill darkness?
  • How are you manipulating the light?
  • How are you working with the light?
  • How are you seeing the light differently, and how are you using it to create a narrative for your audience to view the image in a different way?

One of my favorite stories of chasing light was when I was working on a project on a prerelease iPhone review in Iceland when I was working with The Verge. It was late in the day. Iceland is a really interesting place where it can be really cloudy, and then sometimes there’s beautiful sun. Then the next few minutes later it’s raining, and fog, and all kinds of stuff — just really erratic circumstances. It was the end of the day. I was really tired, and we were driving straight east. It was around sunset time, but we couldn’t see the sun.

Then, right around when the sun was setting, we were driving east away from it, and it came out. It was this beautiful golden sun. I’ve got the image here that I ended up shooting, and I’ll show you in a second.

I saw it in my rearview mirror, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this light is amazing.” We were just driving into this gray drab background. I was tired, and it was the end of the day, but I had to chase that light. We pulled a U-turn and started driving, and went back to these moss fields. It turned into this really cool shot. Right as the sun was going down, the light was kissing all this really cool green moss. It added a ton of texture, and it was totally worth it to pull that U-turn and chase the light.

Now it’s important to know it doesn’t mean you should always be shooting in the sun, but you should be chasing wherever the light is amazing. If I see it out on a peak, I should be chasing that and finding, how is that interesting? I’m always looking for light beams and rays that are coming through specific areas and really looking…just really looking at the light.

That is your most important ingredient.

People, composition, editing…you have all these different elements that contribute to your image, but if you don’t have light, you’re not thinking about, How is the light filling this image? That could be really dramatic, or it could be flat. It could be whatever, but that’s the number one thing: Think about your light.

Habit #2: Explore the Unknown

Here’s another story from that same project: We were in Iceland, and we were driving the Ring Road, which goes around the entire perimeter of Iceland. We flew by this dirt road, and I looked in the direction it was headed. It disappeared into the fog and went up this hill. I thought, “Huh, I wonder what’s up there. That’s pretty interesting.”

We turned around and went up this road and started driving through the fog. From me to 20 feet out, you couldn’t see anything, and we slowly drove through this fog. At times, you could see there was a dropoff on either side. We didn’t know what was happening.

After maybe 45 minutes to an hour, we dead-ended out on this huge snowy, flat area — this big, round playground for snowmobiles. There were a couple snowmobiles up there, but no people, and wehad no idea what was going on up there. The fog started clearing. We played around in this big snow park or something. There weren’t really people there. There was a tiny, little building and a big snow plow. I don’t even know what that was, but anyway.

We started driving back, and the fog had cleared. We got to this one point where it appeared that there was a dropoff, and there was the largest glacier I’ve ever seen in my life. It was massive.

We parked the car and then climbed down. We ended up being able to get on the glacier pretty well and safely — that’s another bonus tip: safety first — and got out on top of this glacier. That’s when I was able to capture this image, which is this panorama of my friend Jordan. This amazing, huge glacier was right there under our noses. We drove right by it, and the only reason we found it is because we explore the unknown. If we hadn’t walked into the fog quite literally, this shot, we would have driven right by it and never seen it.

This was one of the first shots that I had published. It was on Apple.com as part of the “Start Something New” campaign, and then later up in the Apple stores, which was a real honor and really cool to see. It was super fun. I think back to that moment…if I hadn’t been willing to explore the unknown, it would have never uncovered itself.

Think about that when you’re out shooting, especially if you’re in street and urban shooting or any sort of landscape photography. Don’t be afraid to explore the unknown, whether that’s in the literal sense of walking into the fog, or it’s trying a new technique. It doesn’t have to be actually driving into fog. There’s a lot of new ways that we should be experimenting.

I think experimentation and exploring the unknown are very connected. Experimentation in general is huge to your creativity, so try something new. Walk into a new frontier, and you’ll probably be thrilled with what’s on the other side.

Habit #3: Prioritize People

Prioritizing people is probably the most important thing you can do. I continue to learn, and I continue to try to get better at it as a human being and as a photographer, but I think as a photographer you can really begin to sculpt your skills of how you interact with people.

It’s super important, if you’re shooting portraits especially, to really prioritize this person over your shot. It’s easy to get this shot in your mind and think about it a specific way and totally disregard anybody’s well-being just so you can get that shot.

I see a lot of travel photographers go out on the street somewhere in some other country and try to sneak these photos of people on the side of the street. It’s disrespectful. It’s not intimate. You’re not really offering your audience a unique perspective on this person because what’s most interesting about a person is their soul and their personality. When you’re sniping them with a long lens, you’re getting a shot of this person, but you’re not really connecting with them. I think you’re really missing an opportunity, and you’re not dignifying that person.

I think more than anything we want to prioritize people and our relationships with them. I think if you’re going to make a great portrait, it means you’re making a great friend first or at least making an effort to build a relationship with them. That looks like walking up to them, asking their name, asking how they’re doing today.

If you’re traveling, and you’re in another country, it’s whatever language…that’s the number one thing to learn is how to interact with people and how to ask them if you can take their photo. Tell them that they’re beautiful, exchange something with them, and don’t lead with the camera. Lead with your humanity. I think by doing that…

  1. You’re going to meet a new friend.
  2. You’re going to open up the opportunity for a better image.

We should always be prioritizing people, but it’s not just when we’re shooting portraits. When I’m in the field I should always be thinking about those around me, whether it’s someone I’m working with that’s part of my team, or if I’m around others and I’m throwing my tripod up in the middle of a site somewhere and disturbing them all.

There are so many ways we can get too fixated on the shot and forget the humans that are in our shots, or the humans that are around us. Whether that’s your driver, your pilot, just spectators, people around you, don’t lose sight of the people around you for your shot.

Always prioritize people. If you do that, first and foremost, it’s going to honor them. It’s going to build healthy relationships, and that foundation of healthy relationships is probably going to help you get better shots. Don’t lose focus of the people around you.