Timeless Photography: How to Take Photos that Stand the Test of Time

There are those individuals throughout history that seem to possess something that most of us lack. The innate ability to be in the right place at the right time. Somehow they know that what they are doing is important, not only to themselves, but also to millions upon millions of people in future generations.

Mathew Brady was just such an individual. During the Civil War, he made it his quest to photograph as many battles of the Civil War and war events as he possibly could. Could he have known his images would last so long and touch so many lives in such a profound way? When you look at a Brady image today, what do you feel? What thoughts and emotions do the images evoke? For each of us, these emotions are different. That’s the beauty and wonder of photography.

historical photo

Mathew Brady Civil War-era photograph (flickr/The U.S. National Archives)

Modern cameras are so sophisticated that taking excellent photographs is reasonably easy. However, the true beauty of the images is possible only because of the artistry of the photographer using the camera. The abilities and insights of the photographer are what make the images timelessly memorable. The camera is only the tool that makes accomplishing the task possible.

Images created by the real masters of the device can evoke a wide range of emotions in each of us depending on our viewpoint of the scene and our connection to that point in history. Some photographs inspire us while others can cause severe emotional distress. Some pictures remind us of things we would rather forget. All these emotions are possible because of the photographer’s ability to record that particular moment in time.

Taking truly memorable photographs requires a lot of both luck and skill. To capture timeless images, you must give some thought to what you want the image to say to those that view it. Think of it this way. If someone were viewing your photograph 100 years from now, what would the image say? Does the picture tell a story or is it just a randomly shot image with no meaning?

ways to make your photos stand the test of time

Photo by Linh Nguyen; ISO 400, 1/320-second exposure.

Will you ever take a photograph that will be viewed 100 years from now? It’s possible! But there’s one way to guarantee that you will never take that really memorable picture. Not being prepared when the opportunity arises. So here are some tips to better increase your odds:

Always Have Your Camera with You

I was driving home from work one evening and there had just been a huge thunderstorm. Large clouds were hovering to the west, but the sun managed to peek out for just a few minutes. As I approached a clearing in the trees, across this huge field to the east was the most gorgeous double, completely arched rainbow I had ever witnessed. The sky was a royal deep blue and the grass of the field was a shimmering emerald green. And guess what? I didn’t have my camera with me; I missed the shot of a lifetime.

how to make your photography stand the test of time

Photo by Just Me; ISO 100, f/8.0, 1/250-second exposure.

Know Your Equipment Intimately

I was hired to photograph a wedding several years ago. The cameras I was using at the time were Olympus OM-10 film cameras. I had several of the same model cameras in my case, each with a different lens, so I didn’t have to stop and change the lens for different shot lengths. As the scenes changed, I switched cameras to make sure I didn’t miss a special moment during the event. When I got the prints back from the processors, the pictures from one particular camera were all blurred. After several days of testing, I finally realized the glide rail on the film door had fallen out of the camera, thus preventing the film from being held tightly against the shutter frame. What was the moral of the story? I didn’t see what should have been an easily recognizable flaw with my equipment, because I wasn’t familiar enough with the camera.

tips to make photos stand the test of time

Photo by laura burns

Know Your Subject Matter

If you routinely photograph children, you should know they are very unpredictable. You can be prepared for their antics if you know and understand their behavior. Nature photography requires that you know the normal habits and traits of the animal or bird you intend to photograph. Photographing the elderly sometimes requires as much patience as photographing children, and the results can be just as rewarding, if you understand the traits and characteristics of the individuals.

techniques for photos to stand the test of time

Photo by -JosephB-; ISO 125, f/2.2, 1/80-second exposure.

Recognize Opportunities

Was Mathew Brady just lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time? I don’t believe that to be the case at all. I believe he knew what he wanted his images to say to the masses, both then and in the future. He made it his business to be in the right place when the action was going on. I believe he knew that what lay before him was historic and he was compelled to capture it for posterity.

Document the Event

Sometimes photographs are not enough to tell the whole story. Very old antique family pictures with no written records inspire us to wonder who these people were, how they lived, what they felt, and what was important to them. Pictures are all that is left of them. When all the people who knew and loved them are no longer living, even their memories are gone. That makes the image all the more important in the lives of those who possess it.

timeless photography

Antique family photo, circa 1923 (flickr/John Atherton)

These types of photographs need to have a written record of the event kept with the photographs at all times. The old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” won’t hold true for photographs that are so content-focused that the image explains nothing at all. Look at the image and decide if the picture does indeed tell the entire story. If not, document the event in writing and keep the documentation with the image.

One excellent way of doing this is through online digital photo processing labs. You can assemble a collection of photographs into a hard cover book complete with the entire story behind each image. The cost is very reasonable for a single copy of the book, so this option makes an attractive way to document multiple photographs in a single binding.

Be Prepared

Keep extra batteries and keep them all fully charged. Keep your lenses clean and functioning properly. Keep extra lenses with the camera at all times. If you do specialty types of photography that requires you to change settings on your camera, set those functions back to normal before you turn the camera off each and every time.

I regularly photograph artwork using a tripod and the timer function on my digital camera. If I forget to turn off the timer function when I’m finished with a session, the next time I take a photograph it is going to take 10 seconds for the shutter to actuate. Always set the camera back to your normal shooting mode after specialty photographic sessions.

So the next time you point your camera at something or someone, think about what impact the picture you are about to take may have. You never know what the picture could mean.

About the Author:
Randy Brown is from MVB Digital Cameras, providing camera reviews and image editing tips.

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