10 tips for better photos

My friend Sheena just bought her first DSLR, leaving her old point and shoot behind. While this is a great move for her in my opinion, she was a bit concerned about her skill level. She's never used a DSLR before and was worried about the learning curve. Nowadays, DSLR's are more like glorified point and shoots with better quality images and a greater range of options for photo taking and manipulating. I know she has a great eye because she does a lot of theater work which is very visual and all about composition, but getting that to transfer to a photograph is another matter entirely. I recently sent her an article with some basic photography tips, but thought I'd write my own that is geared specifically to someone new to the medium or looking to improve upon their basic skills and get better pictures, whether it be from a point and shoot, a DSLR, or a film camera.

1. Light - Light is perhaps the single most important factor in photography. DO NOT use flash if you can help it. If you are a pro or know your stuff, then by all means, use your flash, mount them in weird places, cover them with gels, go nuts. But for most people, flash is like the kiss of death. More often than not, flash will ruin a great image. I can't even count how many times friends have asked me why my picture looks better than theirs and 99.9% of the time it's because I don't use flash. IF you are going to use it, then take the time to learn how to use it correctly. 

 The one on top is without flash, the one below is with flash. Notice how the colors are blown out and all the details are lost when I use flash, especially at close range. If you are going to use flash, make sure you take a few steps back, know it's reach, or find a way to diffuse the light.

I try to shoot in natural light as much as possible. Even if it's in low light or the dark, I try to compensate in other ways if I can before I will turn the flash on. More on this in the next tip, below. Natural light is your best friend. Use it from the front, from the side, from behind, it's all good. Experiment and see which angles and times of day you like best. Light is always changing so always be ready to play around, try different things, and find the best light for your shot. What works one day may not work the next so be flexible.

Studio lights are also really nice, if you can afford them, but they can be a tricky if you've never used them before. 

2. Know the basics - This means shutter speed, ISO, and aperture settings, and how all 3 work together.

Aperture refers to the size of the opening in the lens and is measured by f-stops. The lower the f-stop number (f/2.8), the bigger the hole so more light gets in.The higher the f-stop number (f/16), the smaller the hole, the less light gets in. A small/low (f/16, smaller hole) aperture will give you more depth of field with most everything in focus. A wider/higher aperture (f/2.8, bigger hole) will give you less depth of field, and will cause the background to blur. It may help to remember that a small aperture means a small hole but big numbers, while a big aperture means a big hole but small numbers.

In this shot, I used an aperture of f/5. You can see how the details of the poster and the writing on the package are blurred, even though it is only inches away. 

Shutter speed refers to how fast the shutter opens and closes. The longer the shutter is open, the more light gets through, and vice versa. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. A shutter speed of 1/30 means the shutter is open for 1/30th of a second and will let in more light than a shutter speed of 1/250, which means the shutter is open for 1/250th of a second and will admit less light. Higher shutter speeds will stop motion, while lower shutter speeds will blur motion. If you are shooting with a low shutter speed, be sure to have a steady hand, something to lean on, or a tripod ready since it will be more sensitive to slight movements.

This was shot with a shutter speed of nearly one second, from my car on the 101. The vertical patterns are buildings in downtown, while the horizontal patterns are cars passing by.

ISO refers to how sensitive your film/camera sensor is to light. The higher the ISO is, the more sensitive it is. If you were shooting in the dark or at night, or in low lit areas, you will want a higher ISO. If you are working on a very sunny day then you will want a lower ISO. Most cameras are set to a default of ISO 200. The usual range for most digital cameras is 100-1600 although some of the higher end models can go lower/higher. However, there is a catch. Images taken at high ISO's will suffer in image quality and have more noise/grain than images taken at regular ISO. A steady hand/tripod is also critical for shots taken at high ISO's.

Now that you know what aperture, shutter speed and ISO are, you can use them to your advantage. If your camera tells you there is not enough light, you can now decide if you want to fix that by opening up the aperture from f/16 to f/8, or by using a longer shutter speed, or by increasing the ISO. Keep in mind that depending on your situation, each has it's own set of drawbacks. If you decide to fix it by changing the f-stop, know that the wider/bigger the hole gets (f/2.8, f/5, etc...) the less in focus the background will be. If you adjust with shutter speed then the slower it is, the more prone it is to pick up movement which may result in a blurry image. If you adjust by increasing the ISO, know that you are sacrificing clarity and your image will have more grain/noise. You can also use this knowledge to manipulate your image to come out a certain way. Imagine you are taking a picture of a waterfall and you want the water to look as though it is moving and not frozen in time, you would want to use a slow shutter speed, so you can adjust for that to get the kind of image you want.

3. Composition - There are a few basic compositional rules you want to follow to make your photos more interesting. The first rule is the rule of thirds.

You want to keep things (like the horizon line for example) along the lines, and have your focal points (let's say a tree or a person in the foreground) fall on the intersections. Another rule is the S-Curve. Think long winding paths, or a snaking creek. Another good tip is to try to keep your lines straight; the rule of thirds will help with that. Be sure to double check that horizontal (horizon lines, table tops, doorways) and vertical (sides of buildings, walls, poles, people) lines are straight before you take a shot. Also experiment with angles and getting closer and looking at something from a different viewpoint or side. Don't be complacent and assume you can crop, try to get the good shot now if you can. Photoshop is awesome but it can only do so much, you've got to have something good to work with in the first place. Also don't forget to check what's in the background to see if there are any odd angles or distracting things that will take away from your image. If you shoot vertical, try it the other way and vice versa. Things look completely different sometimes when you change orientation.

I stood in the same spot to take these two shots, except on the right, I got down to the point where I was almost laying down on the floor. The white rocks lose all shape and you have no idea it is in the shape of a circle.

4. Always have a camera with you - Whether it be a cell phone camera, a point and shoot, or all your gear, just make sure you have something that can capture what is in front of you. So many times I've left the house thinking, I'm just running this quick errand, I don't need my camera. Sure enough, I'll see something I want to photograph but my camera is at home. What good is it if it just sits at home instead of in your hand? It may be a pain at first, but once you get into the habit of it, it's like second nature.

 This was taken by the side of the road. I made my friend stop the car and pull over so I could get this. Boy was I glad I had my camera on me! It was a little point and shoot but it was better than nothing.

5. Always have a fully charged/extra battery - Nothing is worse than going out into the world for photo fun only to realize you are out of juice. :(

6. When in doubt, shoot it anyway - A camera can be like a weapon to some people. They see a camera and suddenly go on the offensive. All photographers will have stories about when someone confiscated their film, or told them to get the hell out, etc. It's hard to know what the rules are if it's not clearly posted or you are in a public place. My philosophy is to shoot it anyway. If someone tells you to stop, then stop. If someone tells you they don't want to be photographed then don't photograph them. You still have to be respectful, but you also want to take advantage of the situation and more often than not, no one really cares. It's better to take the photo and then have someone tell you you can't, than to wonder about it when you could have been shooting.

7. Be fast and always overshoot  - This is a personal preference on my part. Over thinking can lead to so many missed opportunities. The point of photography is to capture a moment, but if you take too long fiddling with settings, or trying to get lines perfectly straight, or whatever it is that is preventing you from hitting the shutter release, then you will miss it. This is particularly true when you are photographing people. We've all seen those pictures where normal people look like they're in the middle of a seizure. I'm sure we all have a few of those where that person is us! It's not that the person actually looks that way, we've just caught them at the wrong moment. This ties in nicely with the second part of this tip which is to always overshoot. If you are fast, you will have enough time to take a second or third or fourth shot of that person and hopefully one of those will turn out better. With digital, there is no processing like with film so mistakes are free. It is also MUCH better to edit a bad shot then it is to have no shot at all. Another argument for overshooting is that sometimes, the best shot isn't the one that is carefully crafted, perfectly staged, or well planned. Sometimes the best shot will be one of the "extra" shots. Most photographers never take one shot and leave it at that, except for maybe Ansel Adams.

8. The Self Portrait - One of the best ways to get better at photography is to do more of it. The simplest way to do this is the self portrait. Think about it, you don't need much set up, you are always there, and if you don't want to sit for yourself then who will? Besides, isn't it time you updated your facebook/twitter/myspace account with a new profile picture? Doppelganger week is sooo over, switch it up! Most cameras have some sort of self timer and if not, you can always buy a shutter release. They are relatively inexpensive and come in handy for group shots or candids too. If you're going to do the whole extended hand thing (you know, when you hold the camera out in front of you and hope that everyone makes it into the shot and it's not too crooked), at least try to stretch your photo muscles and do it well.

This was taken using the "one handed" technique. I was at the train station, the train was delayed, I had a camera but no tripod and no self timer.

9. Postprocessing: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly - One of the most arduous things about photography is editing. It takes forever, it seems like there's no end to it, and if you have a lot of pictures, doesn't even seem worth the hassle. Most people never edit their photos which is too bad, or on the flip side, over process their photos which is also a shame. Over-editing can turn a nice picture into an image of post-apocalyptic Earth with too many unnatural colors and weird things going on. The good news, you don't have to be one of those people. You can be the person who adds just enough to give a photo a little extra punch without going overboard. No matter how good you think your picture is, it can always be a little bit better with a little editing. It may be just a slight crop, a slight color adjustment, a little vignetting, whatever it is, it will jazz up your photo and make it look like a million bucks. Editing can also change the entire feel, mood, tone of an image and turn it from something cute and light, to dark and menacing. It is as much a creative outlet as your actual photograph so take advantage of it.

10. Don't be afraid to break all the rules - I know, we just went over 9 tips to make you a better photographer and now I'm telling you to forget about all of it? Well, you need to at least know the basics before you can start to break from them. Photography is fun! If you feel burdened by all the things you need to remember then take a break and shoot any way you like. No one has to see them but you. Some fun ways to take photos are from the hip, above your head, on the ground, while spinning, while running, any way you want really! It's nice to switch things up. Following the rules all the time gets boring, let your inner artist play a little. Just because a picture doesn't follow the rules of composition or isn't perfectly lit doesn't make it a bad photo. The only opinion that maters is your own so if you love it then power to ya! If you need to take a break, then take a break, hide the camera for a week. Everyone has their own aesthetic and style and one is not better than the other so don't worry if your photos don't look like someone else's, that's the beauty.

So these are my 10 tips. Follow them or don't follow them. Do them one at a time or tackle multiple areas at once.

I hope this was helpful. If you have any additional tips, feel free to leave a comment and share it with the rest of us. Or if you have questions, leave them in the comments and I will get back to you!


SLY said...

I am going to go through each of these tips until I learn the rules. And once I learn them I'm going to take artistic liberties and break every rule. And I'm gonna be emailing you throughout it all!

Jantira K said...

Yes, please!