A friend of mine recently asked me for some basic photography tips. It turned in to a mini-manifesto, and here it is:
Matt's Platform-agnostic Photography Tips.
One. Learn your camera.
It doesn't matter what type of camera you have, spend some time with it, get to know it well. Learn how long it takes to be ready to shoot once you turn it on. Learn the lag between pressing the shutter release and the actual taking of the picture. Learn the flash recycle time and the approximate battery life and how many pictures your card can hold at medium-high resolution. Read the manual and learn the advanced features like close (macro) focus, flash fill, face recognition, backlit scenes. The more you know about your camera the more quickly you'll be able to adjust to get the shot you want. And the more you practice, the less likely you'll miss that shot.
Two. Think like a camera.
Cameras don't think, they just see what's in front of them and do what they're told. You have the luxury of not one but two eyes and a brain that processes information at light speed. You can take in a panoramic scene in mixed light, focus on what's imnportant and give it meaning and emotionaly and historical context all in an instant. A camera with its one eye, narrow focus and limited range of light values it can capture (EV), needs to be told to capture specifically what you want it to see.
Three. See like a camera.
The camera can only capture so much. You need to be able to see what's in front of you the way a camera would capture it. Best way to begin: close one eye and make a rectangle out of your fingers to frame the scene. Is the light pefect the way it is? Turn off the flash and stand still. (I take most of my shots, even digital, without flash whenever possible). Are there shadows on the face that would be too dark? Use fill flash or move into the shade. Moving subject in a dark room? Full flash. Are the most important elements of your scene in the frame? If they're too small move in. Then move in more. Is your subject off-center (as it usually should be)? Focus on the subject and reframe while holding the shutter release halfway. Make the camera work for you. It's a tool. Become one with it.
Four. Study other photos.
You can't write without reading, can't play music without listening to music. Study photos and when you find ones that strike your fancy, try and figure out what it is you like about them. The tight cropping? The interplay of bold colors? The natural light? The hidden meaning in the juxtaposition of subject and background? The intersection of angles? Study your own photos as well. Which are more successful and why? Would tighter cropping help the less successful ones? Are the facial expressions true to what you remember about the scene? Think about these things when you frame your shots. The more you put these stylistic nuances into practice the more natural it becomes and the better your pictures as a result.
Five. Understand the difference between types of photos.
In general there are two types of photos: ones that are merely records of a scene, and ones that aspire to something higher. The ones that you like to see and like to take are the ones that aspire to impart more meaning than just a record, they want to give a sense of time, place, and of feeling. If you simply point a camera and shoot, likely as not you'll get the first type. If you learn to frame your photos, turn off the flash, and most importantly, know when to press the shutter release, you'll nearly always get the type of photo you always wanted to take. Think. Practice.
Last. Not all shots are worth taking, but sometimes any shot is better than none.
Sometimes the picture is not there in front of you, it's just in your imagination. Sometimes what you wanted to capture is gone before you can pull the camera out, or simply doesn't look like what you thought it did before you framed it or thought like a camera. It's ok not to press the shutter if the picture isn't there. Your best bet is generally to anticipate the shot that hasn't happened yet and be ready before it flits past. Know when the car is coming around the corner, know when the child is about to turn to you and smile, know when the dog is about to leap and grab the frisbee and be ready with that finger poised above the button. But sometimes a record is all you want or have time for, so go ahead. If it's not perfect you can crop it later, and there will often be other opportunities for similar photos. And sometimes you realize you'll never get a second chance to be there and a blurry hastily framed shot is all you get. And sometimes those turn out to be the most fun, original records of the scene.
General random tips.
Always have a camera with you, even if it's just the one in your phone. Know how to use it. Turn off the flash when you can. Remember - people don't always have to smile perfectly. If kids are being goofy make it a record of their personalities rather than a museum piece. Shoot in the morning, in the evening, on cloudy days, indoors near windows for best natural light. Flowers and people like the same diffuse light. If you're shooting a moving subject, pan the camera with the subject. Learn to stand still and pause your breath while firmly squeezing the shutter release. Experiment. Learn to use Photoshop or another image editing tool to crop, adjust contrast, eliminate redeye after the fact. Sometimes black and white is better. Learn what times of year have the best light in your part of the world (for me it's spring and fall). Don't be afraid to direct people, they want to look good in the picture. But don't be too bossy or they won't want to pose for you again. Make them laugh for real if you want them to smile, unless you want "cheese-y" smiles. Frame the photo, but watch the subjects over the camera so you can see whose eyes are closed before you press the release. Own a tripod, even a tabletop one, and use it for posed group shots, especially if you want to get in the shot during a timed release. Know the rule of thirds: compositions are most interesting if the subject is at an intersection of thirds of your frame. Don't try to capture too much, the eye wants a place to rest when looking at a photo. When in doubt, get closer. Shoot often. Don't be afraid to delete the bad ones, but get a second opinon on pictures of yourself before you do. Doesn't hurt to carry a pocket notebook and use it. If you're shooting towards the sun, hold a hand over the lens to keep the glare off. Sometimes vertical is better. Have extra batteries and an extra memory card or film on hand whenever possible. Above all, don't forget to enjoy the moments of your life in addition to documenting them. Sometimes a memory is better than a photo op.
© 2009 Matt Denton. Please include title and backlink if republishing.