“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.
Pretty basic setup. Three speedlights. One up and to the right of Charity as something like a key light. Another slightly behind to her left and the last next to the camera for fill. Overall not too difficult to shoot a pretty lady lounging on a couch. Slight crop and light shaping in post.
One of my favorite in the series. My friend Kecia on the evening of her birthday sitting and blowing out candles on a toy birthday cake with my adorable nephew Bert. Not the kind of thing you can make an 18 month old do. Luckily he was interested enough to sit down and play with Kecia for the 30 seconds it took to get the shot. Composited together a shot of him and one of her in the end.
As I was down with my family for the holidays in DC, I had a couple volunteers to help me out while I was down there including Adrianne. Who climbed up the chimney of an abandoned picnic house in the woods down the trail of a park near her house. Felt very fairy tale so I thought it would be fun to have her trying to escape her captors and then climbing too high. One speedlight through a diffuser as I recall, camera left aiming up.
My sister and her husband Kevin, who you might remember as the crazy man with the knife in the shot from December 2nd. Since it was Christmas Eve and their 2nd wedding anniversary, I cast them as the wife waiting for her husband who’s late for the party. One speedlight through an umbrella. Composite of two shots to get the expressions right.
Christmas Day. Perfect time to do an homage to the Rockwell painting of the family at the table. It was dark out by the time we ate though, so light is from a speedlight bouncing off the wall camera left to mimic window light.
Youri is a friend of mine from NYC who’s family lives in northern VA, so we met up in town and shot her as a spy stealing from the national archives. It’s got a distinctly Boris and Natasha feel, but it was fun. Shot in the daytime with a speedlight through a diffuser to the right. A bit of post to darken the whole thing and make it look more like a headlight on her as well as turn on the streetlights.
My little redhead friend Mary is always game to take some pictures and had an idea about arm wrestling. Her idea was to be a dame watching two men wrestle, but I thought it would be more fun to have her be one of the contestants. Her mustached friend Tad played a good shill. Held a speedlight with diffusion panel over the two of them with a lightstand and a reflector underneath. Added a little lens flare and stole smoke from the Capcom shot earlier in the month to complete the mood.
Crazy windy day gave me the idea of having someone actually picked up by their umbrella. Had Annie jump off a foot stool and then later comped her into a plate shot taken a few minutes later. Available light on a cloudy day. Had to shoot at 1600 ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed to catch her in mid air.
Zed (the on with the razor) and I talked a few months ago about doing a shot with her washing her girlfriend’s hair in a big old bathtub. My friend Dave has one which I shot him in during my Drabbles series a couple years ago and he kindly volunteered it again. There was windowlight but not quite enough of it for the aperture I needed so I ended up bouncing a speedlight off the ceiling which in a white tile room just bounces it everywhere. Wished that I could have backed up and used a slightly longer lens, but the space is quite cramped so I had to go wide and try to minimize the distortion of the size of her leg for instance. Though I think it makes the razor and her hand more interested and 3D.
My buddy, frequent assistant, and podcast partner Dan is a Words with Friends nut, and plays with a number of people at any one time. So I thought it would be fun having him playing everyone at once in a virtual blackness. Overhead softbox and additional gridded strobe straight onto the game board. Moved the camera in relation to the board and took several shots which I composited together.
Eleanor is one of my favorite people. So on the morning of New Year’s Eve I went round to her place and spent an hour shooting her rolling around in a sheet on her bed. It’s a tough job people, it really is. I wanted the bright sunlight but wasn’t getting enough so I put a monolight out on her fire escape and then laid a big 4×6′ diffuser right outside the right window, effectively mimicking as much sunlight as I wanted.
Here’s the second in a series of posts explaining the how of the December Portrait Series. If you missed the first 10, here’s the post from yesterday. Enjoy.
One speedlight with a 36″ shoot-through umbrella camera right. I wanted to do it all in one shot, but with 4 people you often have to composite together the best of each. For this one it was three pics. The men in one and the girls from the other two. The chaos of tree branches actually makes that composite a little more forgiving.
This shot is almost exactly how it looked in the camera so I didn’t even bother showing you the before. We shot in Times Square and during a long exposure (1.5 seconds as I recall) my assistant Dan popped the flash 3 times as I panned Pat’s head across the frame. Not really the kind of picture I’d normally take, but projects like this are for experimentation, so there’s an experiment.
Two big soft sources, one on either side of her. Camera actually in the oven on a timer. Was a real pain in the neck to setup after each shot and required a lot of post to bring her our in the picture. Not as successful as it could have been. I realized later that it would have been better if she also had her palms on the glass in panic, or one hand on the window and the other pulling the bottom hem of the apron up to her mouth or other such exaggerated reaction.
Tony Ortega is the Editor of The Village Voice and my idea was to make a homage to Charles Foster Kane complete with snow globe (which I shot and composited in separately). Four speedlights. One with a 12″ softbox above and to the left to act as a keylight on his face. One bracketed to the window frame to the right as a rim light along his back and head. One snooted down aiming at the bar in the back. And one really low power on camera pointed to bounce off the wall behind me for fill and to trigger the rest of the lights with optical slaves.
The original idea was to do something with refraction through the water in a fishtank, but it didn’t gel, so Craig and I went outside and I shot him walking in both directions in order to composite the top and botton half of him together. Lit by a 46″ umbrella on a Profoto AcuteB
Neal is a recovering heroin addict who I shot for my drabbles series a few years ago. He is in a better place than he was before and I wanted to play with the idea of baptism and redemption. So I shot him in his bathroom with the crazy shower curtain. Two speedlights, one inside the tub and another handheld above with the diffuser panel down. Then in his hall an artist neighbor had drawn a ghost on the mirror, so I took some pictures and composited Neal into the mirror as if the camera was looking through his eyes.
Lux is the editor of Fleshbot.com and she and I had talked a year ago about taking a picture like this. The original idea was to shoot her from above laying on a pile of writhing bodies, but it’s surprisingly difficult to get that many volunteers and then also next to impossible to get her laying across them with any grace. So instead I used the naked bodies to frame the shot along the edges and made it less raunchy and more glamorous. Two big octabanks, one top right the other bottom left. The subjects were laying down on a slightly satiny curtain I picked up at the corner store on the way. Shot from above in a friends loft which was perfect for the concept.
Emily, the girl lifting the car, is tiny so I though it would be fun to exaggerate the fact by having her doing something superhuman like lifting a car. I didn’t have access to the car’s jack and it was too cold out to get that involved anyway, so I instead composited a shot of her, one of the car shot at a lower angle so I could make it look lifted, and one of me on the ground as the victim of a horrible accident. The AcuteB shot through an umbrella to soften it was used in all three shots. Also comped in a prettier sunset.
Relatively simple one. Shot Abby outside her apartment door, one speedlight from above with a green gel through a diffuser to match the fluorescent lighting in the hallway.
To have Aga kicking me onto the tracks we shot her in the studio kicking up a storm. Then took some pictures from my chest’s perspective and leg/arms flying forward. Then we headed to the subway and shot the from of the train as well as some pictures of the platform that I could comp together into a space. Lighting in the studio was one strobe with just reflector camera left to mimic the headlight of the oncoming train and another strobe with umbrella above and camera right to fill in shadows and give overall illumination.
A few people have asked me how I pulled off a number of shots from my December Portrait series. It’s my birthday today and therefore I’m in a good mood and have decided to write down some quick notes on each one and perhaps a small ‘before’ shot lest I forget the details. I’ll do 10 a day over the next three days. Let’s get started!
Subjects acting out the birth in the back of their SUV in a parking garage. Megan had the baby at a hospital a few days later, by the way, and both are healthy. 3 speedlights. One coming in the sunroof through a diffuser to mimic the cars interior dome lighting. One on the platform camera right shooting through a crumpled up diffusion panel from a softlighter and one light with an umbrella to the right of James and a reflector to the left just out of shot. In the end I made a composite of the best shot of each of them.
Basement of my sister’s house in Arlington, VA. Friends daughters as the victims, my very accommodating brother-in-law with soot on his face. One speedlight bounced off the wall/ceiling corner camera right as I recall.
Gary shot in the studio. Two strobes, one softbox above and in front as well as a second umbrellaed strobe behind the camera at low power to fill in the shadows a little bit. Grain and trees/sunset were separate shots taken in Prospect Park earlier in the day.
Composite of 3 separate shots. One of Heather and the pan shot with one hard strobe with grid and a reflector to fill. Another of Derek climbing in the window with softboxed strobe out on the fire escape and same gridded strobe indoors. Final shot of statue on podium with overhead gridded spot.
An attempt to play off a painting I saw at the Met. Main shot of girl and mirror was shot with a 48″ octabox camera right facing her back. I then shot the frame in the adjacent room with the same setup shooting through the door to give enough light. Two shots composited.
Nothing fancy on this one. Friend’s apartment for dinner and that’s what it looked like. Lindsay put on a party dress, Chris handed her a drink. Lit with a speedlight bounced off the ceiling camera left.
Two shot composite of course. Went to Eran’s house and shot the 7′ tall room from 3.5′ up. Two speedlights in 16″ softboxes a couple feet off the floor aiming at the ceiling. Went back to my place and shot Eran dancing with the same lighting setup coming from above. Marmo was stuck to the ceiling with glue, just kidding.
I wanted to recreate a scene from the Apollo era. Shot Chris on black background with overhead softbox and an umbrella on either side to give him some rim lighting. Shot smoking cigarette separately and brought it in in post. Headset comped in from archival photograph. Background desks and ceiling build from scratch in Photoshop.
Brinkworth and I met up at the lab and shot her with a taped up scalpel and a little fake blood. One speedlight with diffuser panel held up camera right while I was taking the pictures. Later comped in found public domain shot of dissected cadaver arm.
Shot Cisco on the roof jumping off of a chair. Then brought up a couple of yoga balls which we then moved around and shot in different locations. Composited and colored the balls in post. Added Cisco in bouncing about.
A lot of people ask me what gear I own and use. There’s nothing particularly special about my setup. I’m a pretty straight ahead Canon user with mostly nice L glass. All of the pictures I make could be made with similar stuff from other companies, but I figured I’d make a list anyway for those of you who don’t believe me and want what I’ve got.
Each link points to the product on Amazon. So if you plan on purchasing this stuff, please do it through my links so I can buy a can of Coca Cola. Thanks.
Canon 5D Mark III Body
5 in 1 Reflector/Diffuser
Canon 580 EX II Speedlite
Alien Bees B400
Alien Bees B800
White Lightning x3200
Profoto AcuteB Pack and Head
Photek Softighters – all 3 sizes
Avenger A420 Stand with D600 Boom
Leica M4 with 50mm f/2 Summicron
Cambo 45NX 4×5″ Large Format
Kodak Portra 160, 400, 800 NC
Kodak E100 chome
Ilford 3200 b/w