Don’t Ruin the Moment
June 25th, 2018 by David LaBelle

Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Art Spiegelman speaks at Kent State University along with a plastic water bottle that appears to get equal billing.
© Photo by David LaBelle

I remember the first time one of my young sons used a foul word to describe a natural body function. He waited for his mother’s sharp response and was surprised when she repeated the word again and again, loudly, and even began using it in a singing sentence.

It wasn’t the response either he, his brother or I expected. Let’s just say it took some of the gas out of their new word.

Since endless articles offer tips for making better pictures—I have done my share—I decided to try a little reverse psychology to help you make better pictures.
Here are a few ways you can ruin breathtaking scenes and beautiful moments.

The dreaded plastic water bottle. Want to visually pollute a beautiful, natural scene? Include a plastic drinking water bottle in your picture. The challenge used to be making an interesting and natural picture without a water glass or loud promotional banner in the background, but those distractions were nothing compared to the ever-present plastic water bottles.

The clear, shiny water bottle is becoming the signature of our time. We find it in every business meeting, in locker rooms, positioned at every podium—always visually screaming “look at me.” It will be an easy mark for historians and archeologists assigned with dating an era. They will say, “Oh that was the pre- or post-plastic water bottle era. Maybe it will even replace the eagle as our most-recognized national symbol?

We can electronically remove these ugly blemishes from our pictures with programs such as Photoshop, but then we would be lying and altering history, creating an inaccurate portrait of our time.

Someone on a cellphone, laptop or iPod. In the beginning it was a novelty, like pictures of people talking on telephones. You don’t see someone tied to a cord while talking much anymore.

It wasn’t many years ago I gave the assignment to a college photo class, challenging them to see if they could make a picture with two or more people on a cellphone in the same frame. Now, the challenge is to make a picture of 20 of more people in a public place without someone on a cellphone, iPod or laptop.

While I still like photographing people on their cellphones because they seldom notice me, too many pictures are becoming like our world—too visually noisy.

Leave your camera bag, bicycle or car in the picture. Seeing how many times we could get a picture published with our vehicle in the background was one of the games some of us played as newspaper photographers. We did this during outdoor portrait sessions, parades, even news scenes. Hey, every occupation looks for ways to have fun and break the monotony.

But accidentally leaving distracting, attention-stealing items in your compositions can be the difference between an artist and a picture snapper.

Use flash to create a sharp, artificial feel to your pictures. If there is enough light to make pictures and capture spontaneous moments, avoid flash. Artificial flash is, well, artificial. It changes, even kills, the natural mood of a scene and calls undo attention to you and the camera.

Flash is a great accent and necessary illuminator with some types of photography. But for subtle, quiet, natural moments, turn your flash off.

Like golf course signs that warn us to watch out for rattlesnakes or alligators, we need invisible mental warnings reminding us to pay attention to those loud, manmade objects that can harm our natural and pristine pictures.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit