How to Take Better Pictures with Your Digital Camera
Nearly everyone has a digital camera today-in your cell phone, a point-and-shoot digital, or, maybe, even a digital SLR camera. A lot of people are even using digital video cameras to record their experiences and to win money on America’s Funniest Videos! As a self-proclaimed “professional” photographer, what makes my pictures stand out and make some people feel they are worth paying for? I was hoping you could tell me!
No actually, there are some very important differences between great photographs and the ordinary snapshot. I hope to give you a better understanding of what makes a photograph special and how you can use these ideas to improve your own photography, whether still or video. Even though the digital cameras are different from the older film cameras, the basics for great photography never change!
How to Take Better Pictures: Focus
The first thing a person notices in a picture is what is in focus. If nothing is in focus, the picture usually won’t have much appeal. Under low light conditions or with a long telephoto lens, you may not be able to handhold the camera and get a really sharp focus. In that case, you need to use a tripod or some other support to stabilize your camera. Sometimes, you can find an available “table” to hold your camera or a vertical structure to brace your camera against.
If something is in focus, it should be the intended “focus” of the picture. Every picture tells a story (of a thousand words, remember?), and you want to emphasize the main subject with a sharp focus. It may be even more dramatic if the rest of the frame is intentionally “out of focus”. This is known as “selective focus” and achieved by use of something called “depth of field”. This means that your lens may only make part of the image look focused. This depends upon the size of the image sensor, the focal length of the lens, and the aperture setting. Whoa! This is complicated stuff!
To simplify, consider that oftentimes, either you want everything in the frame to be in focus OR you want only the foreground or main subject in focus, with everything else blurred. So, let’s consider how to achieve these two extremes. To get everything in focus, you will want to use the largest aperture (lens opening) possible with a wide angle lens. If you are using a cell phone or a point-and-shoot with a small sensor, this only makes it easier!
At the other extreme, if you want a focused subject with the rest of the image blurred, you will want to use the smallest aperture and the longest focal length (e.g. telephoto setting). Unfortunately, if you don’t use an SLR or a camera with a reasonably large image sensor, you won’t be able to get as strong a selective focus, but these settings will give you your best shot.
How to Take Better Pictures: Composition
Once you learn how to get what you want in focus, it’s important to make the “story” your picture tells more appealing by using what artists call “composition”. When you hear people remark, “He sure has a good eye for taking pictures”, what they are probably talking about is their composition. This is the positioning of the subject(s) in the frame and their relationship to each other. Your eye doesn’t “take in” the whole picture at once, it generally scans for a method to “explore” the image. If there are elements in your picture that provide a natural “path” for the eye to scan, it will be more appealing.
Also, key points of interest are usually more appealing if located at one-third or two-thirds of the way across the frame, in both horizontal and vertical directions. This means it is usually more appealing to have your horizon either a third up from the bottom (if you want to emphasize the sky) or a third (or less) from the top if you want to de-emphasize the sky. In fact, if the sky is an overcast monotone, you may want to leave it out of the picture altogether! Or, you can leave it in and change it in PhotoShop later.
The simple rule here is, “Don’t center the subject”. Of course, like most rules, there are exceptions! If you are taking a reflection picture, it is often more appealing to center the picture so that the top and bottom of the frame are mirrored. If you want to take a picture of a subject where the background has no interest, centering the picture will minimize the background. But if you are taking a picture of your vacation spot with your friend in the foreground, putting them to the side will emphasize the scenic background while proving that “they were there”!
If there is real or implied movement in your subject, try to frame it so that there is more space in the direction of the movement or in the direction the subject is looking. This will feel more nature, since it adds to the “story” of what the subject is doing and where it is going.
How to Take Better Pictures: Be Unique
After you learn to take pictures that are properly focused and well composed, you will want to make them stand out from what everyone else has done at that location or in that situation. Get a new perspective by moving in extra close or farther away (with a telephoto lens). Take your picture from either lower or higher than your nominal eye level. You want to let people see ordinary things in a new way! If what you are photographing is truly unique, then you may not need to change your perspective, but normally you are not in that situation. So be creative – climb up a ladder or look out from a high window or take the picture at an interesting angle! If you are photographing children or flowers, get down on their level! You will be surprised by the difference it can make.
Another part of being unique is to take a lot of pictures, experiment with different perspectives and orientations, and then select only the best to print or show. With a digital camera, there is no excuse for not getting the right picture, so keep shooting until you have it! You can erase the rest. When you show your pictures to others, the overall impression of your picture quality will be greatly increased if you just omit the pictures that aren’t the best. Instead of showing three or more pictures of a similar scene, select the best and show only that one! This selection process will also help you to develop your “eye” for what makes a good picture.
How to Take Better Pictures: Magic Light
My last tip is what turns a good photo into a truly spectacular image – the proper use of light! Landscapes will look warmer and more magical if you take the picture when the sun is low in the sky, either morning or evening. The midday sun is very bright and causes images with high contrast and “washed out” colors and features.
Portraits will be more striking if you have soft shadows to accentuate features in the face. This can be done indoors with well-controlled lighting conditions, as found in a professional studio. It can also happen outdoors in shaded or cloudy conditions, but rarely in direct, bright sunlight!
How to Take Better Pictures: Start Shooting!
So there you have it – four topics that can make a big difference in the quality of your photography. You can and should use a photo editing program to crop and edit your pictures as desired. But you will be way ahead of the pack of amateur photographers if you first learn how to properly focus and compose pictures and take them from a unique perspective in the optimum lighting conditions! Happy shooting!