It is all very well giving advice on how to take better photographs, but if it doesn’t apply to your camera, or the advice is to do things that you can’t do on the camera that you are using, then what’s the point?
This is our list of general points that ANYONE can follow on ANY CAMERA… whether that is a smartphone, an analogue film camera, a Polaroid camera, or top of the range DSLR or mirrorless camera.
This is the easiest thing to do, and yet the thing that gets missed by most people. THINK about the photograph you’re taking!
It is something that you will get into the habit of doing, and the more you do it the easier and more instinctive it becomes.
What we mean by think is – be intentional when you’re taking a photograph. In other words when you’re taking a photo, do it with purpose.
We all probably do this to a certain extent anyway, but we say that you should be doing this obsessively, with every photo.
Let’s imagine a situation – you’re having an office party and you think it might make a good photo to put on your business Instagram page. You grab your smartphone, point it at the group and snap. You then post it to Instagram and almost immediately regret it – you’re looking at it thinking “that is a crap photo”. Sound familiar?
The time to think is between realising there’s a good photo in front of you and pushing the button on your camera. When you’re reaching for your smart phone, and even more once your smart phone is pointed at the office party… that is the moment when you should look at what’s on the screen and think. Think – am I in the best place to take this photo? What do I want this photo to say? Would it be better if I moved a bit?
Sounds pretty easy right? Or perhaps it sounds a bit daunting… ?
The first time you really think about your photograph, you might look at the screen and feel like you have no idea whether you’re in the right place or not. You might feel that you don’t know if this photo could be any better. And that’s fine. Just keep doing it. The more you do it, the easier it will get and the better you will get at it.
If you find that you take a photo that you’re unhappy with, ask yourself why. What didn’t you like about it? Could it have been better? And the next time you get your camera out, you’ll remember that and hopefully be able to do something to improve it.
- Pay attention to light
I am sure you’ve heard this before – light is everything in photography.
Without lights, you can’t take a photo. If there is lots of light, you will generally get a better photo than that if there is not a lot of light.
You don’t need to spend every day of your life carrying one of those light meters with you, all we are suggesting you do is start paying attention to light. How much light is there, where is it coming from etc.
There are even free, crude light meter apps available for most smart phones, if you’re a bit of a scientist and like the technical side of things.
Having one of those free light meter apps is actually quite useful from the point of view of realising when there is lots of light and when there isn’t. The problem we have is that our eyes are so good at adjusting to the amounts of light that is around us, that without really trying hard to pay attention to it, changes in light mostly go unnoticed.
For example we have all sat in a room, perhaps at work, or maybe in your kitchen at home, and it seems bright and well lit. You’ve got all the lights on, and to you it doesn’t seem dim.
But consider this… Have you ever sat in a room with the curtains closed, but all the lights on during the day, then left that room, walked into the sunlight, and been dazzled?
The reason walking into the sunlight is dazzling is because, scientifically speaking, there is loads more light outside than there was inside.
Your eyes kind of assessed it the same – it is roughly normal brightness inside and normal brightness outside. But the reality is that outside the something like 10 or 20 times more light than I was inside.
A camera operates in much the same way as your eye, except that even the very best, top of the range cameras today are nowhere near as good as your eye at balancing out those light changes. As with so many things, technology in photography is still not as good as the tech that God gave us.
The lesson here is – pay attention to light, realise when there is light, and when there isn’t light, and take that into account in all your photography and planning.
- See in 3D
This is one for the thinking stage, or planning of your images. Because photographs are two dimensional, the tendency is the think about them, and visualise your photographs in two dimensions.
By that I mean when you look at a group you are about to photograph many people will consider moving the whole group left or right, or perhaps moving a few people from one end of the group to the other end of the group. You may even think about moving things up or down, maybe having people sit, or stand.
Then very few people think to move people forwards or backwards. What would happen if you moved the whole group 3 feet forwards, away from the wall against which their standing?
What would happen if you moved three people forwards, and the remaining four backwards?
If you’ve get everyone lined up single file, what would happen if you put them in two tiers? Or eve three tiers?
This is generally referred to as depth. And depth is widely regarded as a good thing to have in your photographs. But note – depth is not the same thing as depth of field, although the two are related. Depth of field refers to how much of the depth of the photograph is in focus.
One of the big frustrations of people taking photos on smartphones, is that they want a blurry background but can’t achieve it. The blurry background is to do with depth of field, having a foreground in focus and a background out of focus is referred to as a short depth of field.
Seeing as your smartphone has, by its nature, a large depth of field (i.e. everything is in focus whether it’s close to the camera or far away, we’ll explain why in another blog post), you might as well take advantage of this. Don’t just move people around left and right, up and down, move them around forwards and backwards and try different things.
A lack of depth is one of the most common failings of the first time photographer. And depth in an image can make all the difference.
- Learn your camera
I know what you’re thinking, that word learn. We just made your photography boring didn’t we?
Sadly, taking good photographs does take a bit of effort. But this one isn’t the hardest thing you’ll ever do.
We’re not suggesting you print out the instruction manual and spend three weeks poring over every detail. We are also not suggesting that you sign up to weekly evening classes entitled “how the camera on my iPhone works”.
What we are suggesting is that you take a little bit of time, maybe even just 10 seconds each time you pick up your phone to take a photograph, and try things – find out what that camera does.
We’ve spoken to hundreds of people telling us that they can’t get their iPhone to expose correctly, but they didn’t know that you can selectively change the exposure by tapping on the screen. It is this kind of thing that will actually change how you take photographs, and hugely enhance your ability to take great photos.
Once you’ve learned the basics of how your camera works, what it can do, and how you can customise the process of taking each photograph, then you can learn the next thing about your camera.
And that is… Learn your camera’s strengths.
Every camera has stuff it does well, and stuff it does badly. In order to take great photographs with your camera, whatever that camera is, it is best to have a good understanding of what it does well, and what it does badly.
For example – iPhones… great for ensuring you always have a camera on you, but as discussed above, terrible for short depth of field. So there’s no point in spending days, weeks, frustrated with your iPhone because it never gives you a blurry background, because it never will. It is not what it’s about. That’s not its thing.
But, blurry backgrounds are really not that important, not that exciting and not essential for taking good, striking photographs.
Also a few phones now have that portrait mode, which gives you a fake blurry background. If that’s your thing, go for it!
By just understanding your camera, your photography will improve instantly.
- Take control of your camera
An extension of the previous point, once you’ve learned your cameras functions, and how to make them work, the next thing you need to do is actually put them into action.
It is all very well knowing everything about your camera, but if you don’t then put it to use, it’s all worthless.
What you don’t need to do is make use of every single teeny tiny feature. Just because your camera offers the ability to, heaven forbid, put kitty eyes and ears on a person’s photograph, it doesn’t mean you should use it!
However if you are to have the ability to manually adjust the exposure, then you should at least know how to use it and be be ready to use it if you need it.
So, learn how to use your camera, whatever camera it is, and be ready to put that knowledge into action to ensure that you’re getting the very best out of your camera.
- Review and assess
We’ve covered most of the process up to the point of taking a picture. And here’s a funny thing about photography – 99.99% of photography is before you take a photo and after you take photo. The act of actually taking a photo is momentary, lasts just a split second. Every photo is created in the buildup, and the aftermath. Not so much in the moment.
So, having covered the buildup, we now turn our attention to the aftermath.
Here’s a really easy thing to do that a lot of people already do (but a lot of people also don’t do) – when you take a photo, on any phone, on any camera, always take two. Tap that button twice. Why not? You’re not shooting on film any more, it costs you nothing to snap a second one.
Taking two snaps instead of one has two purposes. Firstly, it allows you to hopefully avoid ugly things like people blinking, or things that were happening in one moment that weren’t the next. But secondly, and more importantly for the purposes of this, it forces you to choose between the two photos that you’ve taken.
Having two photos forces you to look critically at each one and assess the merits of one versus the other. If the two photos are taken just moments apart then it is unlikely there will be many differences. But there will be differences. There are always differences. No two photographs are identical. They can’t be, it is impossible. Because in life, stuff moves, things change, constantly.
So by taking two photographs you are forced to have a close look at both of them and decide what tiny, perhaps almost unnoticeable, incremental changes between one photo and the next make one photo better or worse than the other.
We also highly recommend photo editing. A professional photographer will edit all his photos. Every single one. No photo will be posted, or delivered to a client, without first passing through some form of editing process.
Again, we’re not talking about making eyes bulge, or putting kitten ears on your portrait subject. What we’re talking about is making sure that the photo that was taken by your camera or phone is as good as it possibly can be before you share it with other people.
Pretty much every single camera or phone now has some form of in-built edit software available. iPhones certainly do, if you go into your photo album and click on a photo, there is an option to edit in the top right-hand corner. In this you can tweak exposure, colors, contrast etc.
Our best advice with photo editing is – don’t go crazy. Tiny changes can make a big impression on the first-time viewer. Always bear in mind that you’ve already seen your photographs without the editing, but no one else who views the photograph will know what it looked like before.
So whilst you know that there was all that wonderful detail in the clouds, if you crank the exposure right up, or mess with the contrast to the point where the clouds are almost invisible, a first-time viewer to that photograph will never see those clouds. As far as they’re concerned the clouds were never there.
Always always, as part of the review process, look at the photo and ask if anything could be better. Then tinker with it if it needs it (but don’t if it doesn’t!).
- Act on your assessment
After you have reviewed your photographs, and assessed what could have been done better… make sure you carry that memory into the next photograph you take.
All this learning, reviewing and assessing is all worthless if everything gets forgotten. Don’t stop paying attention the moment you’ve completed that assessment.
If you look at one of your photos and think it could have been better – if the people in it had taken a couple of steps forward, away from the wall, for example. Then the next time you find yourself in that situation, remember!
The next time you’re in exactly the same situation move those people, get them all to take two steps forward. Then repeat the process as above. Review and assess that photograph once you’re finished taking it. Decide whether that was good or bad. Did that change help it? Is this a better photo than the other one?
After you’ve reviewed, act on that review of assessment, use your review and assessment to improve your photography.
- Learn your camera’s limitations.
Every camera has limitations. Every single camera. There are cameras on the market that will set you back $100,000 and they still have limitations.
Unless you’re planning to go out and spend big money on a camera, you are always going to be compensating.
For example, iPhones are pretty terrible in low light. Taking photos in a fairly dark room quickly gets grainy, out of focus, motion blurs and it’s difficult to see. If you already know that your iPhone is going to be bad at taking photos in lowlight, then you can make allowances. You can do things differently, or select the subjects of your photographs differently, to avoid these problems.
Continuing the example of the iPhone, if you know that your iPhone is bad in low light, you can compensate. You can either try to add more light, perhaps by moving your subject closer to a light source. Or you can switch on more lights in the room. Or you can just avoid low light situations altogether.
The Hasselblad H4C, a 400 megapixel, medium-format professional camera will set you back about $50,000. But, that camera achieves its 400 megapixel photos by taking six 100 megapixel photos and overlapping them. And those six images can’t be taken simultaneously. They have to be taken sequentially, one after the other… So that Hass is not the camera to use to photograph sports!
If you try to use your camera in a situation that is not designed for, or for photographs that it is not very good at, you will end up with bad photographs. There’s no way around that. Therefore, know your camera, know its limitations, and work with them not against them.
- Adapt to those limitations
We’ve kind of covered this above, but there is another step that you can take.
There was a fascinating exercise being carried out regularly by the website DigitalRev. Several professional photographers were given bargain-basement, old cameras to take photographs, and the results were amazing – check it out here.
Those professional photographers managed to take impressive photos even with cheap, tiny, old, terrible cameras.
Why was that? How did they manage to do it?
The answer is simple… They looked at the cameras they had been assigned, they assessed the limitations of the camera, and they adapted to those limitations. The pros made sure that they were only asking the camera to do things that it could do. They weren’t attempting to make the camera do things that are just couldn’t do. They weren’t using the cameras in the same way they use their top-of-the-range DSLRs.
The fact that these photographers managed to create striking photographs using cameras riddled with limitations, is testament to their understanding of photography. It’s testament to their understanding of how photography works. And how to work around the limitations of the camera put in front of them.
Adapting to your camera’s limitations is the best thing you can do for taking better photographs. It’s also the worst thing you could ignore.
It is also an opportunity for exponential improvement in your photography. Photography is a complicated, detailed art or science. There are tens of thousands of books available to read about photography. The more you read, the more you try to understand every aspect of photography, the better your photographs will be. It is that simple. You don’t have to attempt to read everything ever written. But if you did, at the end of that mammoth mission you really would be a pretty good photographer.
Having said that, you don’t need to know everything. But the more you know the better you’ll get. So worth considering how good you wish to be, and therefore how much it is worth you reading.
This is the easiest thing you can do to improve your photography… Don’t give up!
Keep plugging away, keep following the steps above, keeps reviewing and assessing everything you do, and you will become a better photographer. That is a fact.
Once you’ve started thinking about and planning your photographs and reviewing once you’re finished, you’re on your way. Do this 100 times and you will be twice as good as you were before you started. If you do this a thousand times and you’ll be 10 times better than when you started. Do this 100,000 times and you will be infinitely better than when you started.
Photography is an art… it can therefore take a lifetime to master. With our tips, and other advice on this website, we reckon you can get good at photography in just a few days. But you will never stop improving.
Therefore, the most important thing on this list, and also the easiest, is never give up. If you want to take good photographs, you can take it photographs, it will just take a little bit of work.
When you take a crap photo, figure out why it was crap, and try not to do again. If it comes that crap again, repeat the exercise.
But most importantly it never never never give up!
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Thanks for reading – from the BudgetProPhoto team.