“How can I take better pictures?” is the one question I’m asked constantly. Usually by people who just recently moved up to an entry model digital SLR with a kit lens. Like a kid who has found their father’s gun, they have the tools, but they don’t have the experience to use it properly. It’s a dangerous scenario. Don’t worry though, taking better pictures isn’t that hard, and there are some really easy steps you can take that should improve your game immensely without a lot of effort.
1. Get Out Of The Sun
Anywhere under direct sunlight is a terrible place to take pictures. It generally creates very high-contrast images with ugly shadows and squinting subjects. These are things you should avoid. So if you’re outside and need to take pictures of your friend for instance, what do you do? You do what Richard Avedon did, move into the shade. In the middle of the day there is plenty of soft, indirect sunlight in the shade of a building or under a tree. This is perfect, wrap-around light for portraits that you can’t really replicate even with thousands of dollars of studio gear. Believe me, I and many people before me have tried. The universe gave you a perfect studio, use it.
Unless you’re an expert, avoid direct sun except for the so-called Golden Hours after sunrise and before sunset when the sunlight is diffused through more of the atmosphere and closer to the horizon so it’s coming from the side instead of from the above.
(Intermediate Tip: If you absolutely must work in the middle of an open field, do yourself a favor and bring a diffuser. A diffuser is just a panel of translucent fabric that breaks up the hard light of the sun and transforms it into softer indirect light. A 5-in-1 reflector/diffuser is the next purchase after the camera, it’s just amazing how many things you can do with this simple tool.)
2. Simplify, Get Closer
Robert Capa used to say, “If you’re pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Granted he was a war photographer and a little bit crazy, but it’s a maxim that works for taking pictures of people and places as well.
Most pictures don’t work because they’re too cluttered with other things. Distracting backgrounds, other people, or simply too much distance between the photographer and the subject. Simplify the composition of the frame by getting closer to the subject either by zooming in (no ‘digital’ zoom though, that stuff is just terrible) or by getting physically closer. As I’m fond of saying, “Zoom with your feet”.
I’ve found that getting closer to my portrait subjects also has the ancillary benefit of making them open up to the camera, assuming the lens isn’t right in their face. When your subject is closer, you feel less like a sniper and more like another human being.
3. Camera Handling
Today’s hi-tech cameras are admittedly pretty amazing, and while they may seem like it, they’re not yet capable of taking the pictures themselves. That’s where you come in. Very few amateurs I see have good camera technique. Follow these basic guidelines and you can increase your odds of getting sharp accurate shots. It’s not a difficult skill set to acquire, but more a matter of mindfulness; like learning to hold the steering wheel at 10 & 2.
There was a National Geographic special a couple years ago about President Obama’s staff photographer, Pete Souza. While the whole show is great, what fascinated me most was watching how Pete held his camera. He was master of this stuff and it was obviously second nature to him. Even the big boys master the fundamentals.
First things first. Spread your feet a little and straight up so that your hands have a good platform to work from. Think of yourself as a walking talking camera tripod, or bipod more accurately. Next, keep most of the weight of the camera in your left hand. On a SLR style camera this usually means cradling the camera in your hand from underneath near the junction of the camera body and the lens with your thumb and first few fingers wrapped on either side of the lens. This keeps the camera from bouncing around when you press the shutter. Work on holding the camera steady this way, as if you’re a waiter and the camera is a tray full of drinks.
And the biggest technique mistake I see people make is that they press the shutter with such force that the camera shakes, the result being blurry pictures. This is especially true if you’re taking pictures indoors without a flash (which you should try to master by the way; these shots look better than the flat bright pictures you get with on-camera flash). Practice pressing the shutter without moving the camera (The stable left hand underneath should help). Also try half-pressing the shutter to lock focus and exposure. That way when you actually want to take the shot, the shutter will require only a tad more pressure and will be nearly instantaneous. Most of all become deliberate and conscious of what you’re doing. Eventually this will become your natural way to shoot.
4. Edit Down Your Pictures
By far the biggest mistake amateurs make is that they don’t edit down their pictures. I recently had to look through 1262 pictures from a family member’s vacation. I wanted to see their pictures, but I would much rather have seen only 100 of their best. Editing is what art is all about. As technology allows us to make more content for less, this becomes even more true. When you only had 36 frames on a roll of film you were much more careful about each shot. Now it’s a free for all.
For every image in my portfolio I may have taken hundreds of images. They weren’t all the same of course, but that’s where editing comes in. A photographer makes artistic decisions about which are the best pictures, and so can you. Go with your gut. Trust yourself, and do it in stages. First cull the bad pictures, then choose the best from each set of similar shots. Just by doing this you’ve probably got your images down to 1 in 4.
I personally then do one more round where I choose the pictures I wouldn’t really wouldn’t want to lose if my house burns down. That’s the set that I show to people. Not only will they thank you for not putting them through hours of monotonous shots, but since you’re only showing them your best they’ll think you’re a better photographer to boot. You’re only as good as the worst shot in your portfolio. They don’t need to know about the stinkers.
So there you have it. Four quick tips that’ll make your pictures better overnight. Well maybe not overnight, but if you follow my advice and practice a bit, you’ll certainly put yourself ahead in the pack. Be careful though, pretty soon you’ll start getting requests to shoot weddings for friends. Trust me, run.