Tried and True Techniques for Better Photos

A good photograph takes a bit of luck, yes, but it also takes technique, experience, and time. Even the pros will tell you that bad shots are more common than good ones due to the many factors that affect image quality. But don’t let that discourage you from picking up your camera. We’ve compiled a list of 15 techniques to help you capture a moment with precision, control, and confidence. You’ll be oohing and aahing over your images in no time.

Tip #1: Fill the frame.

Don’t be shy — move closer to your subject! Pay attention to what is visible along the borders of your shot, and frame it to crop unnecessary elements. Details are more interesting than a full view of the scene. Focus on the point, and don’t worry about capturing the entire environ. If you are afraid of upsetting someone by taking their picture, just ask.

Tip #2: Compose your photo in thirds.

Imagine four lines, two lying horizontally and two lying vertically across the frame, creating nine even squares. Most photos put the subject in the center square, but for a unique composition, place the subject off-center at one of the four corners of the central box, where a vertical line and a horizontal line cross. This technique creates an aesthetic space around the subject.

Tip #3: Shoot quick and often.

The perfect photo is but a moment. If you wait for your subjects to smile, or for the light to be perfect, you’re missing opportunities to experiment and have fun. It’s the digital age, so unless you’re using film, never worry about taking too many photos.

Tip #4: Keep your hands and the horizon level.

While the slightly askew MySpace photo is still in vogue, the best way to ensure a clean, balanced picture is to keep the camera steady and level with the horizon. Hold the camera with both hands, one around the body and one around the lens.

Tip #5: Make conscious directorial decisions.

If you’re snapping candid photos at a picnic, you can still shuffle people around, ask them to smile, and give them a moment to strike a pose. Be conscious of lighting, background, perspective, and placement of your subjects. Don’t be afraid to get bossy; the effort will be worth it once your subjects see your beautifully composed, frame-worthy photos. To keep focus on the subject, choose simple backgrounds.

Tip #6: Understand aperture and depth of field.

Aperture refers to the physical opening in the camera lens that allows light through to the film or digital sensor. The wider the aperture opening, the more light can pass through, just like an eyelid controls the eye’s access to light. The opening is measured in f-stops; a narrow opening may be f/22 while a wide opening may be f/1.8 and lets in more light. Widening the aperture makes the subject sharpen but the background blur, creating a shallow depth of field good for portraits and close shots. A narrow aperture keeps everything in focus, near and far, and it is thus good for landscapes, though a tripod is recommended as small aperture requires a slower shutter speed to gather enough light. For general use, set the aperture at f/8 to achieve a balance of fast shutter speed and broad depth of field.

Tip #7: Understand shutter speed.

If you’re using a 100mm lens, your shutter speed needs to be 1/100th of a second or faster. Fast shutter speeds (1/500 and up) are good for objects in motion. Use a slow shutter speed and a tripod to take photos in low light; the longer exposure captures light slower, so the tripod ensures the lens is steady and the resulting photo crisp.

Tip #8: Understand lens measurements.

Lenses are measured by focal length. A short focal length like 24mm is less magnified, so will focus a broad shot. A long focal length like 240mm is more magnified, thus offering tight shots on far-off objects. All focal lengths are measured against 35mm film

Tip #9: Understand ISO.

The ISO setting determines your camera’s sensitivity to light. When it’s dark, you need a higher ISO (400-3200, perhaps) in order to make the camera more sensitive to light. In the sun, you can use a lower ISO (like 100) or the automatic camera settings.

Tip #10: Play with light.

Unless you’re taking a silhouette shot, light should shine on the front of your subject rather than from behind it. Direct, “hard” lighting (as on a sunny afternoon) creates shadows, side lighting creates drama, and indirect, diffused lighting creates flattering softness. Play and experiment with different settings, and remember that some of the most breathtaking photos are found at dawn and dusk. Just make sure your subject isn’t squinting, and don’t settle for your camera flash as your only source of light.

Tip #11: Buy a polarizer.

If you only buy one lens filter, buy a circular polarizer, which helps reduce reflections and improves the color depth and drama of the sky and nature. It’s a great tool for beginners and a gateway to other, fancier lenses.

Tip #12: Buy multiple memory cards.

Spread your photos across many memory cards so that if you lose one, you don’t lose your entire body of work. Replace memory cards every few years.

Tip #13: With landscapes or inanimate objects, maintain a sense of scale and keep the human interest.

Placing an object or a person in the foreground of a wide-angle shot helps give a sense of scale. Also, people enjoy looking at photos of other people – not 18 angles of a single inanimate object. Your photo of a famous landmark will be more personal as well as more composed with a friend in the frame.

Tip #14: Look for reflections.

To add depth and interest to your photos, use this simple and elegant trick: capture reflections. Buildings reflected in puddles, skylines in rivers, and faces in mirrors or other glossy surfaces add a new layer to a familiar shot.

Tip #15: Don’t fawn over every photo.

In the thousands of pictures you take, there will be a few gems to frame, send to Grandma, and maybe even post on Facebook. But don’t post every single photo, including 11 versions of your dog looking the wrong way. While you should exercise leniency in the number of photos you take, you should exercise restraint when it comes to releasing your images to the world. Curate, choose the best shots, and let those be representative of your always-improving photography skills.

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