I’m not sure I know anybody who doesn’t own a digital camera in one form or another. Whether it’s on their cell phone, a point and shoot or a DSLR, most of us have access to one. Changes in technology, and affordability, have made it easier than ever to take a decent picture. However, armed with a few simple pointers and techniques you can go beyond decent. I’ve written this post not as a tutorial but more like a general guide to highlight a few areas that are worth delving into.
Get to know your camera. Yes you can set it in automatic mode and shoot to your heart’s content but your camera is capable of so much more than that. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pocket camera or a DSLR, most cameras these days have a myriad of functions. Do yourself a favor – get out the manual, learn what’s on those fancy dials and experiment a little!
Learn terms like aperture, shutter speed, depth of field and exposure. You don’t need to be a wizard with the terminology but a basic understanding (especially if you are using a DSLR or hybrid camera) will make a big difference in helping you to take better pictures. Here is a quick article on the subject to get you started.
Learn about white balance and how to adjust it on your camera. Yes, this is something you can play with in editing software but unless you are shooting in RAW, which you probably aren’t, it’s best to try and adjust your white balance as best as you can on your camera. Your camera will have an auto function which will serve you reasonably well in a lot of situations (particularly outdoors) but like everything “automatic” it’s not perfect. You can read a little about white balance here.
Learn to use Focal Lock. This is a handy little feature that pretty much every camera, even your phone camera, comes equipped with. Focal lock allows you to focus on whatever part of the scene you want and then move the camera to change the composition. It’s extremely useful and comes in handy if you are applying the Rule of Thirds (more on that below). Check your camera’s manual for specific instructions but the method is pretty much the same on every camera. Point your camera, focus on the subject or area that you want to focus on and push the shutter release half way down. Without releasing the shutter move your camera to compose your shot, putting the object in focus where you would like it in the frame. Push the shutter all the way down and take your picture.
If your camera has an exposure compensation feature learn how to use it. If you have a DSLR you have this feature. If you have a point and shoot you may or may not. This is the quickest way to adjust exposure when taking pictures.
Take your flash off automatic. Flash can be useful, it really can. But it’s not always necessary, even if your camera is telling you otherwise. If you take some time to learn about the terms above you will discover that low light doesn’t always require flash. If you have to use flash in a low light situation, and sometimes you just have to, don’t aim it directly at your subject. If you are using an accessory flash you will be able to point the flash at the ceiling and have it bounce down. If you are using your camera’s pop of flash use a diffuser (they are also great for accessory flash). They are readily available at any camera store and are not expensive. You can also just make one. There are tons of quick tutorials out there on how to make your own diffuser and most of them involve paper and tape.
Turn your flash on outdoors. When it comes to shooting outdoors forget what I just told you. Using your flash when your scene is already relatively well lit is called Fill Flash. Fill flash can help you eliminate shadows and back light subjects, put sparkle in eyes and create some interesting lighting effects. Just put your flash in “on” mode and give it a try. Some camera’s even have a “fill flash” option which generally gives more output. This isn’t appropriate or useful in every situation but at times can really bring your outdoor photos to life. Just experiment with it and see the difference it can make.
Get a tripod. This goes hand in hand with the last point. If you are going to shoot in low light a tripod is a must have. For most people there is no need to spend a fortune on a tripod. The only essential is that it has a quick release so you can get your camera on and off relatively easily. If you don’t have a tripod, or it just doesn’t work in the situation then learn how to hold your camera properly to avoid shake and get a nice crisp picture. Here is a great article to help you out.
Invest in good memory. Not all memory cards are the same. The cost of memory has nose dived over the years so most people can afford a good memory card. It’s not about size (although you do want something of adequate size). It’s about speed. This isn’t really a huge factor with point and shoot cameras but is something to consider with a DSLR or hybrid. However, just because you have that kind of camera doesn’t necessarily mean you need a super fast card. It really depends on your needs and what you are taking pictures of. If you are primarily doing stills or a few actions shots here and there you don’t need the fastest card on the market. If, however, you are snapping off a lot of pictures quickly and/or taking a lot of action shots then you will be glad that you got yourself a faster card. It’s not a bad idea to refer to your manual or visit your camera manufacturer’s website to see what they recommend. There’s no point buying a fast card if your camera can’t take advantage of that speed.
If you have a camera with interchangeable lenses (DSLR or hybrid) asses your needs and invest in the lenses you need. I won’t go into this a lot because there are so many options when it comes to lenses but, in my opinion, there are three basic lenses that anyone who wants to consistently take good pictures should have in their camera bag.
A macro lens is a must have. For most cameras this will mean a 50mm prime lens. What is a prime lens? It just means the lens has a fixed focal length (you can’t zoom with it). This is a great lens for many situations. If you are taking pictures for a blog (products or cooking especially) this is one lens really should have. In fact, this is probably a must have lens for just about everyone. It also makes a pretty decent portrait lens and, as the name implies, is great for macro (close up) shots. Another significant advantage that a macro prime lens offer is affordability. A 50mm prime lens with an aperture in the neighborhood of f/2.0 is considerably less money than a zoom lens with the same maximum aperture (this is important for creating shallow depth of field).
The second lens that really comes in handy is a “general purpose” zoom, something like a 18-50mm, 14-54 or similar focal length. This lens will give you a wider angle for getting more in your picture without having to cross the street to get it all in (like taking pictures of a larger group). And the last lens I recommend is a telephoto. I put this one last because this might not be a must have for you (especially if it’s not in the budget) but if you are taking a lot of pictures of people (including kids) a good telephoto really comes in handy. It’s much easier to take candid shots of a subject if you aren’t right in their face with your camera and a telephoto allows you to do just that. It’s also much, much more flattering to use a telephoto on adult subjects. You will be looking at something like a 50-200mm or 70-300mm. Here is a brief guide to choosing a lens that you might find helpful.
When ever possible take advantage of natural light. Most people don’t have off camera flash and/or studio lights so your best bet is to utilize natural light as much as you can. Do use a reflector to maximize light sources. It’s a great way to improve lighting in your shots. You can buy a collapsible one for a fairly reasonable price but you can also improvise. Foamcore or even a large piece of cardboard covered in foil can do the trick. If you happen to have a sunshade for your car’s windshield that makes a perfect reflector. Basically anything light weight and portable with a somewhat reflecting surface can be used as a reflector. It can be white, gold or silver (or any color really but those are the most useful). The color will effect your shots but it’s a fun way to change things up a bit and add some interest to your photos.
Speaking of natural light, get out and experiment with the Magic or Golden Hour. The golden hour is the first and last hour (just after sunrise and just before sunset) of sun in the day. During the golden hour the sun is low on the horizon and gives off a lovely soft diffused light. There are also less shadows and contrast. This is the perfect time to take landscape shots or pictures of any person or object if you are looking for a golden, dreamy shot.
When taking pictures always consider your audience. If you are taking pictures for your blog, for example, you most likely want your shots to look more professional and will want to keep background distractions to a minimum. However, if you are taking pictures of your family to look back at in the future those “distractions” in the background can bring back great memories and make the pictures much more meaningful. And don’t be quick to delete those casual shots that aren’t in perfect focus. Once you delete it that memory is gone. It doesn’t need to be perfect to be memorable or special.
Learn and practice the “Rule of Thirds”. The rule of thirds states than an image is most pleasing when its subjects or regions are composed along imaginary lines which divide the image into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. In a nutshell what this means is that your subject is not smack dab in the middle of the photo. Take a look at the image below and imagine this grid imposed on your photo:
You want your points of interest to be placed on or near the intersections of these lines. When taking pictures that include landscapes place your horizon on the bottom third or top third line instead of in the middle of the picture. Here is an example:
As you can see there are two main points of interest in this photo. My flying daughter and her daddy. Both of them are captured very close to intersecting points on the grid. A couple of notes about this rule. First, it won’t always apply to what you are photographing. If your subject fills the frame or you are doing a more traditional portrait (like a headshot) or many product shots you will probably be composing your shots differently. And the other thing I want to mention about the rule of thirds is don’t worry about it. Don’t miss a great shot because you are trying to frame the moment just perfectly. The great thing about digital photography and the rule of thirds is you can often crop a shot afterwards to get the composition you want. So, learn it, practice it, but don’t think of it as a hard and fast rule that you have to use with every picture.
If your camera has a “burst” mode and you are shooting anything other than an inanimate object use it! Shooting a handful of shots in rapid succession will greatly improve your chances of capturing that great shot. This is where that fast memory cards comes in handy.
Having trouble with a squinter or someone who always closes their eyes when you snap the picture? This happens a lot if you are shooting in harsh light. Obviously you should try to avoid the harsh light but sometimes you can’t. Have the subject close their eyes, count to three and open their eyes. Take the picture the moment they open their eyes. If you use burst mode like we talked about above start snapping before they open their eyes. This technique will increase your chances of getting them with their eyes wide open.
Taking pictures of young children and babies is a whole specialized area of photography and there are plenty of books and websites dedicated to the subject. My focus here is not on specific genres of photography but just to share some tips that will help you build on your picture taking skills in general. I will just touch on a few important points. First, and I know you’ve heard this a million times, but it’s worth repeating, get down to their level. The best shots focus on the eyes and you can’t do that properly from above. Of course that rule, like most others, is also meant to be broken. Try shooting from different angles and getting some interesting and unusual perspectives. Get close up and get a little abstract. A close up of those pudgy little toes or those impossibly long eye lashes makes for a great picture.
Photograph kids in burst mode! Not only will you increase your odds of getting a good picture but you can also create some really wonderful photographic series this way.
If your camera has a “sports” mode and you haven’t completely mastered aperture and shutter speed, then use that sports mode if you are trying to take pictures of a moving target (in this case your kid). The same thing applies if you have a “portrait” mode and are taking pictures of a (hopefully) somewhat still child. Your camera will default to the most appropriate settings for the mode you have picked.
If you are planning a photo “session” with your kids do it when you anticipate they will be at their best. After a nap or snack time for example. You have a reasonably good idea when your little darling will be most cheerful. Do not get angry or frustrated if things aren’t going your way. This will cause your little one to start to resent the camera and he or she will start refusing to play ball every time that blasted black box comes out! If things aren’t going well, just stop and try again another time. If they continue to not go well and you really want a photo shoot with your kid(s) then hire a professional. A seasoned photographer who specializes in kids can do things you never imagined possible. Not only do they have the skills, but they aren’t you. And depending on the age of your kid that can make a big difference.
Get inspired. If you have a particular subject that you want or need to photograph but aren’t sure just how you want to capture it go online (Pinterest is a great place to look) and search for images that are relevant. It’s a great way to get ideas and incorporate them into your own pictures.
Buy some backgrounds. Again, if you are taking pictures for your blog this is important. You don’t have to buy expensive photography backgrounds. A few different colors of poster board for using for clean product or food shots is great. Scrapbook paper (like in the image below) makes awesome backgrounds for shooting smaller objects.
Leave space for titles or text. This one is also aimed at bloggers. When composing your shots (or when cropping later) consider if you are going to be adding anything to the picture, like your blog name or a picture title, and leave an appropriate area for that.
Keep props to a minimum. I don’t think I need to add much to this point. Many a fine photograph has been ruined by lovely yet unnecessary props. Keep it simple.
Learn to use photo editing software – but don’t rely on it. Whether you have a full on photo editing package or you use some of the free (but very useful) online editing software it’s important to know how to use a few basic functions. There are a million and one things you can do with imaging software and the more comfortable you get with your camera and your software the more you will utilize it. Cropping and adjusting brightness and contrast are probably the most important things you want to learn. Beyond that, learning to tweak color, saturation and fix small imperfections will be useful. Many people like to attempt to create depth of field using imaging software but you are far better off using the right lens and camera setting to do that. Never take a picture with the intent of “fixing” it later. Your goal should always be to take the best picture possible and if editing it can offer some improvement then that’s a bonus.
Practice, practice, practice! Take out your camera whenever the mood strikes you and snap away. Experiment with different settings and techniques. Have fun with it!