12 Things to Photograph Before You Die

You’ll photograph lots of subjects and reel off tens or even hundreds of thousands of images before you lay down your camera for the last time. Some of those pictures will be memorable; a few will serve as milestones in your life. One or two might even change it.

Here are twelve subjects we think you should photograph before you die.

1. A Perfect Portrait

Photography: millylillyrose

There are few photographers who don’t, at some point, find themselves pointing their camera at the face of someone they love, admire or just find interesting. Capturing an expression is simple enough but creating a portrait that captures an entire life’s story is a whole other challenge.

You can practice portraiture every day but you might only get the right face in the right light at the right time once. It’s worth looking out for.

2. A Complete Story

Photography: Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration

An image of a face can capture a life but photojournalists have to capture moments that describe stories that might have taken years to develop. This picture by Dorothea Lange of a 32-year-old mother of seven in California summed up the Depression. You don’t have to find poverty to create a picture like this; just a moment that says more.

3. Northern Lights

Photography: Joshua Strang/ USAF

A telling moment can happen anywhere at anytime. The Northern Lights can only be found in the northern latitudes. They’re a must-see for anyone but especially for any artist whose medium is light. While the Southern Polar Lights are just as impressive, the Aurora Borealis is easier to reach. They’re the reason to bone up on your long-exposure night photography… and buy a pair of longjohns too.

4. A Blue Iceberg

Photography: Marc Shandro

And you can get a second use out of those when you take a picture of an iceberg. All icebergs are spectacular but blue icebergs are special. They often come from the bottom of a glacier and may be 80,000 years old when they hit the sea. Ice filters out all colors except blue so because these icebergs are completely clear, they look exceptionally beautiful through a lens.

5. A Rainforest

Photography: pfly

The amazing color of a blue iceberg is one reason to shoot one before you die; another reason is that if global warming theorists are right, there might be a sudden burst of them and then no more. The same is true of rainforests. If you like photographing any sort of flora or fauna, you won’t find a better variety of choices than along the Amazon or in the wilds of Sarawak.

6. Migrating Wildebeest

Photography: pnoid00

And whether you like photographing animals or not, every photographer should get a chance to shoot the annual wildebeest migration. It might be a wildlife photography cliché, but the sight of 1.5 million animals spreading across the plains, crossing rivers and feeding lions makes for some spectacular photos.

7. A Sand Dune

Photography: Luca Galuzzi

A photo of the wildebeest migration is likely to be all action and rapid movement. Sand dunes move too but at a much slower rate. That gives you plenty of time to set up your camera and capture an image of rich blue, golden yellow and curving shadow. Try it once.

8. New York

Photography: photochiel

There are plenty of cities that look good through a lens. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has St. Paul’s and Shanghai has the Bund. But only New York has that skyline, those sky-less streets, yellow taxis, steaming grilles and more characters than a Tolstoy novel. There’s a reason it’s one of the most photographed cities in the world — and plenty of reasons why at least one of those photos should be yours.

9. Love…

Photography: LordKhan

Christopher Hitchens based the title of a book on the principle that life is incomplete unless it has experienced love, poverty and war. Fortunately, of those three, love is the easiest to find. At least one of the images you take before you die should summarize that most wonderful of emotions.

10. … and War

Photography: arique

And another photo should still include war. You don’t have to dig out a helmet and buy a ticket to Iraq to do that. “War” can mean an argument between two battling neighbors, a face-off at a rap concert or two football players lining up. It’s a vital part of life and it should be in your portfolio of images.

11. A Picture that’s Sold

Photography: Matt Pagel

Selling a photo is never just about the money. It’s about the recognition that you’ve created something so valuable that someone is prepared to pay for it. It doesn’t matter how much or what they do with it. It just matters that they pay.

12. An Image that Makes a Difference

Image courtesy of Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.

And this is what photography is really all about. Some photographers are lucky enough to take a picture that changes the course of history or affects the way millions see the world. That would be ideal. It’s good enough to take a picture that gives hope, pleasure and a smile whenever it’s seen.

67 comments for this post.

  1. Denver Photographer Said:

    I really need to go to new york. I think that capturing street photography there would really build up my own photography portfolio, and teach me a thing or two.

  2. katja & rob Said:

    really great streetstyle works! in germany i'd would be much harder to get those kind of shots 😉 no 2 and 10 are our favories.
    best regards from dresden/germany

  3. rob - fotograf Said:

    very great works, especially the streetstyle ones. i love no. 2

  4. Russ Said:

    Pretty cool post. I would love to photograph the northern lights at some point in my life.

  5. Bonnie Said:

    These don't seem like bad things to photograph, but I agree with the few who say this is a pretty cliche list. How about instead of *things* to photograph, you give *ideas* to photograph. You got love and war, but there's so much in between. OR if you are going to give things, try things that everyone can attain, like moving water, etc. I think I would call this the must-photograph list for the extremely rich and unimaginative.

  6. KatherineJ Said:

    And,,,,a fabulous macro shot (with proper macro lens! )

    I'm working on it!

  7. CariAnne Said:

    "No self respecting photographer should ever dream of snapping any of these cliches."

    I found that comment amusing.
    The second image is a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph.

    So much for these photographs being termed as "cliche".

    I enjoyed seeing the images. Thanks for posting them.

  8. amy Said:

    I'm so doing these, especially 2 and 12, but nothing on earth will make me go to new york.

  9. WindCharm Said:

    I so needed this article, I was getting stuck between 'old buildings & flowers in soft light'. I feel reinvigorated!
    To Amy, if you don't want to go to N.Y.; then San Francisco is a beautiful city to shoot both day & night :-).
    Thanks for the post.
    b/b )O(

  10. Matt (@3rdDateCooking) Said:

    I've checked off 2 of 12: "12 Things to Photograph Before You Die" http://t.co/5HolJamp via @photopreneur

  11. Raushan Farjan (@RaushanF) Said:

    12 Things to Photograph Before You Die http://t.co/4zwuBjVI via @photopreneur

  12. Rick Sforza (@RickSforza) Said:

    The #photographer's #bucketlist? http://t.co/a3Mxmh1N

  13. cameosis Said:

    interesting list.

    however, new york is unnecessary and of course overrated.

    frankfurt am main in germany has got all that new york has, and much more <- my recommendation for everyone reading this.

  14. Scottsdale Wedding Photographer Said:

    I have some catching up to do. I have New York in the bag and the portrait. That leaves me a lot to do in what life I have left. Thanks for the motivation.

  15. www.TodaysPhoto.org Said:

    What a wonderful and thought-provoking article Laurie. I often look at photographs taken by others and wish that I had taken them because they are so beautiful or unique. You really summed up what it means to bea photographer in this post. Thank you so much. By the way, photos #3 and #12 have been featured as "Pictures of the Day" on TodaysPhoto.org.

  16. Wedding Photographer Said:

    These are awesome! I really like the b+w ones! I mainly shoot weddings so I have accomplished "Love". I am not sure about war... :)

  17. Erik Esparza Said:

    Number 12 is my favorite. I could not even imagine what it must of been like to capture that shot. Only a hand full of people will ever be able to view our world from that incredible perspective.

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