10 Picture Taking Tips

Let’s face it: Most of the photos populating the amateur shutterbug’s camera are, shall we say, less than ready for a gallery viewing. There are the dim ones, the washed out ones, and even the ones with a thumb over the lens. Don’t forget our old favorites either: The open mouth, the pinched face and the demonic red-eye. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way forever. In fact, if you follow just a few simple tips, you can soon be shooting the type of photos guaranteed to put a smile on any viewer’s face. Here are ten easy, everyday hints to help you get started snapping like the pros:

Use the rule of thirds – How many pictures do you have featuring a person or object that’s located in the dead-center of the image? While this method works for mug shots or ID pictures, it makes for uninspired photographs. Whether you’re shooting a person, a building, or even an interesting street sign, you will take a better picture if you use what photographers call the Rule of Thirds. Imagine splitting the image into nine sections by drawing two vertical and two horizontal lines (picture the pound button on a phone). If you put your subject at any of the points where the lines intersect, you will have a better picture. Why? There’s no complete explanation, but experts say it gives a better sense of direction and movement to the image, and common sense says that showing a bit of the surroundings gives the impression of context and depth. Whatever the case, give it a shot – we promise that you’ll like the results.

Focus on your subject – It may seem like a no-brainer, but thousands of photos attest that many times people do not focus on the subject. For example: If you compose a picture using the rule of thirds, as indicated above, your camera may focus on the background by default. Fortunately, most point-and-shoot cameras let you automatically focus on your subject of choice by pushing the shutter down halfway. So say you want to shoot your wife (with a camera, for once – sorry, a little married man’s humor there): Just focus on her and push the shutter halfway, then when it is locked (denoted by a beep and the focus box disappearing), you can reposition the camera how you like, and snap the shot. Some better cameras even let you focus on the subject while blurring the background. This draws more attention to the subject, but keeping the background in mind can help you take better shots. The picture below, which has been making its way around the Internet, uses the sharp focus and blurred background to an artistic and humorous effect.

Giving her a "time out" was not a good idea.
Giving her a “time out” was not a good idea.

Know when to flash – Don’t rely on your camera’s auto flash setting when taking pictures. Use the flash for subjects in a combination of bright sunlight and shadows – this will even out strong shadows from bright light, especially if it’s located overhead. Remember that most flashes have a range of about 10 feet as well. If you are shooting in a dim environment, get within 10 feet of your subject, or try to shoot without it, keeping the camera very still.

Use a tripod – Though you cant carry a tripod around with you everywhere you go, it’s good to have one, and some are very portable. A tripod steadies the camera for low-light shoots, where any movement will cause a blur. But it’s also a steady hand when you want to be in the picture, and offers added flexibility. Unlike just setting the camera on a mantle or window sill, the tripod lets you position and tilt the camera for the perfect shot.

Figure out the functions – Hint: That dial on the back of the camera is there for more than switching between playback, camera, and movie modes. Though the particulars differ between each device, most models offer a host of different and useful picture-enhancing functions through the dial and/or a built-in, button-activated menu system. For instance, many cameras offer scene (SCN) settings, which are customized settings for different types of shots, such as landscapes, bright snow, night shots, or fireworks. Not only should you check those out, but read the manual to uncover the advanced functions, and test them out. Practice makes perfect.

Change your point of view – If you always shoot from your perspective, you’ll wind up with a lot of pictures of children, pets, and sitting adults looking up. For a better shot, try positioning yourself on their level. Lie on the floor if you have to. For nature subjects, like flowers or butterflies, get in close and use the camera’s macro function, or your subject will be lost in the image. Then again, there are times when you may want to deliberately shift your perspective to an odd angle. As an example, to capture the action and fun of friends dancing at a party, you may want to stand on a chair shooting down. Or you could shoot a giant, old tree from the base of the trunk looking up at the spreading branches. Use your imagination, and don’t be afraid to try new things.

Shooting up one of the massive pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge reflects its immensity.
Shooting up one of the massive pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge reflects its immensity.

Use available light – Try to use the available light to take your pictures. The images will look better and more realistic if you let the scene provide the lighting rather than the camera’s flash. You should also be open to altering lighting to suit your needs. The easiest way to do so: Just tip a lampshade or move the lamp, or have your subject move to get in a better position relative to available light sources. Likewise, try not to cast a shadow into the image.

Take a lot of pictures – Professionals don’t rely on one image to get the shot right, and neither should you. You’re not wasting film with digital photography, so take as many pictures as you like, and delete the ones that don’t work. If you are not short on space in your camera, you may want to wait until you get to your computer to decide which pictures make the cut and which don’t. As insiders can tell you, the camera’s tiny LCD doesn’t reveal nearly as much detail as a larger PC screen.

Go incognito – Fun fact: The best shots are the most natural ones, so try not to plan everything out in advance, or let subjects know they’re being photographed. Candid portraits of a boyfriend or wife waiting for a train can provide extremely compelling imagery, as can a clandestine picture of your family chatting on a couch, or your child sleeping. As an added benefit, not only will subjects appear more lifelike and less artificial in their expressions, the technique will also lend variety to your shots. That way, you won’t be left with a pile of photos where everyone’s visibly straining to smile or just throwing up the peace sign.

Be prepared – Like any experienced photographer can tell you, you should always be ready to take a picture. There are great shots all around you just waiting to be taken. If you merely take a second to stop and look at the world as though viewing it through the lens of a camera, you will uncover countless scenes worthy of capturing, not to mention an entire world’s worth of first-rate photo opportunities.

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