Anybody can take great photos with virtually any camera. I learned this was true during my years as a newspaper reporter, when I picked up tips from professional photographers and editors. Follow these simple steps, and you, too, can take photos that are suitable for display.
Pay Attention to Composition
When my editor looked at the day’s photos, he selected pictures where everything inside the frame was attractive. The subject was large and easily spotted, and there were no distracting details in the background. I soon learned my photos were more likely to be published if I made sure to fill the frame.
To take the best possible picture, make sure that everything inside the viewfinder is something you want in the final photo. If the subject takes up only a small portion of the photo, zoom, move closer or find a different angle. Many amateur photographers see only what they want to, forgetting about all the space that might be filled with unsightly items. Is there a pile of dirty laundry next to your adorable kitten? Move your camera or frame the photo differently. Is your friend holding a diploma, standing in the middle of a wide parking lot? Consider moving closer to get a shot of just your friend’s head and shoulders, or ask your friend to move to a more attractive location.
You don’t have to center everything. Photos look more dynamic and artistic if the subject is slightly off-center. Pay attention to interesting details in the background. A photo of someone shopping at a farmer’s market, for example, becomes more exciting if it includes a selection of colorful produce to the right or left.
When taking still lifes or landscapes, the same principle applies. Make certain that there’s a “subject” for your photo: something to draw the eye. By framing your photo around a misty mountain, a grazing cow, or a striking statue, you can add interest to the print. Likewise, make certain to crop out anything that detracts from the subject. If there is an unsightly telephone pole in your shot, try moving or zooming in to eliminate that eyesore from the pastoral view.
Pay Attention to Lighting
The most valuable tip I learned from the professional freelance photographers, or “stringers,” who worked at my local newspaper was to pay attention to how light hits the subject.
Whenever possible, take a photo so that the subject is looking into the light. This will fill in the shadows in the face for a more attractive portrait. When inside, make note of the light sources and strive to turn your subject toward the light.
When taking candid photos, the easiest way to get good photos is to remember to keep the light source at your back. Try a variety of angles so that at least one of them is likely to turn out.
A flash can illuminate the subject in a dark room, but it also has its drawbacks. A flash adds light to the subject but casts the background into darkness. If you stand too close to the subject, they will be overexposed. In addition, if the subject is looking at the camera, it can produce red eye. Even so, with film cameras, it’s usually best to use a flash in a dark room. Just remember to stand back at least five feet to lessen the probability of overexposure.
Many digital cameras can adjust for the room conditions, making non-flash photos possible even in dimmer lighting. Experiment with different settings to find the one that works best, and remember to hold the camera steady to avoid motion blur. Either hold your arms in close to your side or get a small, flexible tripod that can be attached to a chair, table, or any immovable object to produce a better photo.
Take More Photos than You Need
The best freelance photographer covered many of the local sporting events. He took rolls of film just to guarantee the editor would have two or three great photos to run in the newspaper. From this stringer, I learned the importance of taking multiple photos.
If you only take one photo of a subject or one photo of an event, and that photo doesn’t turn out, you’re sunk. By taking more photos, you increase the chances of having some fantastic photos in the group. Take at least two photos of everything, which will give you options when you go through them later to choose something for the scrapbook, for the photo album, or for the wall.
Get on the Subject’s Level
Comparing the work of the professional photographers with the photos submitted by community members to publish with personal notices, I could easily tell the difference. Amateurs took photos without considering the angle, which often led to distorted views of their human or animal subjects. The stringers took photos from an angle closer to the subject’s level, with more flattering results.
If you’re extremely tall, remember to bend your knees when photographing your friends and family, so that the camera is closer to their level. If the subject is seated, either sit or squat so that you’re on their level. If a subject is standing, a more attractive portrait will result from the photographer standing, as well. Remember that children and animals tend to be much smaller than adults. Photos taken from a standing, or even sitting, position will accentuate the size of a child or animal’s head and make the body look disproportionately small. Get down on their level for the best shots.
Limit low-angle shots unless it’s for a specific, artistic purpose. Low-angle shots, generally speaking, are unflattering, because the subject has to look down and therefore creates the impression of a larger neck and chin. By contrast, if the subject looks up, it appears to lengthen the neck for a slimmer look.
Leave Some Border Space
The editor didn’t simply mark the photos he liked. He also marked where he wanted the layout department to crop them, and the layout professionals made the photo fit into the space allocated on the page. I soon learned not to frame important details near the edge of the photo. Otherwise, they could easily be cropped out when the photo was placed on the page.
Different cameras produce different sized photos. Likewise, the dimensions of various sizes of prints are slightly different. To give yourself the most options for prints and framing, leave a little extra space around the important elements of your photo, which can then be easily be cropped out.
Pay Attention to Color and Contrast
At our newspaper, some of the pages were in color while others were in black and white. As reporters, we often didn’t know where our photo would appear and whether it would be reproduced in color. This taught me to pay attention to both color and contrast.
Generally speaking, if everything in a photo is in the same color palette, it’s unlikely to make an interesting print, either in color or in black and white. The exception would be where there are other striking elements in the photo, such as strong geometric elements.
If a subject is wearing dark green, don’t place him or her in front of a pine tree. Instead, look for a background that can contrast in both color and darkness; for example, a sandy beach, or in front of an adobe wall. If there’s any chance you will be making black-and-white prints of color photos, remember that different colors may still be similar levels of saturation and will therefore read as similar levels of gray. Instead, strive for balance between darks and lights.
Experiment with Your Camera’s Settings
In my spare time, I often asked my favorite stringer for photography tips. He would take my camera and point out options I didn’t even know were available. In my spare time, I used my own film and tried out different settings to get a good feeling for how my camera worked. Nowadays, I use a digital camera and am constantly experimenting with new options.
The best way to improve your photography is to get to know your camera. Read through the owner’s manual (if you don’t have it, you can usually find it online by searching for the manufacturer and model). Try out any tutorials listed in the guidebook, and you’ll soon figure out what works best for different conditions.
As you learn what works and incorporate the rest of the above pointers, you’ll have an easier time producing a frame-worthy photo, whether it’s a portrait, a candid, or a special event.