In a world of articles about aperture, shutter speed, and technical jargon, beginners can easily get lost in data and lose out on the fun of photography. More and more people are choosing to buy DSLRs and fancy cameras without ever taking them out of full auto. And, honestly, that’s perfectly fine if you don’t want to spend hours studying photography but you want nice family pictures. If you could care less about bokehs or polarizing filters, then this article is for you. Of course, good equipment helps, but sometimes I don’t have time to sit around and set up a tripod or mess with manual mode. I was reminded of this while on a recent trip to New Orleans with my family. I wanted to enjoy my vacation, not spend 15-30 minutes setting up shots. All of the example photos were shot as I walked, either full auto or aperture priority. They are regular ol’ snapshots, not tripod-perfect setups, but they are beautiful.
Today, I want to share some tips about how to improve your everyday photography. One of the biggest challenges that any novice or professional photographer strives to learn is to “see what the camera sees”. Photography truly is a set of skills (and I am very much a student, not an expert) but with each piece of the puzzle you can improve the overall picture. Practice and experience are the keys to success, but be mindful to take in one tip at a time and practice it before moving on to the next.
Follow the Light
So where do we begin? Light is the single most important aspect of photography. In fact, there are probably books written just about lighting. I said no technical stuff, didn’t I? Don’t worry, although light can be complex, there are some simple tips to get the most out of lighting. When I intend to photograph a subject (before I even raise my camera to my eye), I first look for the light. If possible, I ask myself how does the light play off the subject and how can I use it to showcase the object of the picture. Here are a few things to keep in mind for everyday photography:
1. Directional light – You generally want directional light. Light with a direction comes from a light source and give highlights and shadows. This gives the object dimension whereas overall, even light flattens a subject.
2. Turn of the flash – If you remember nothing from this article, remember this tip. Find that setting and shut the flash off! While you may find yourself in a situation that necessitates the use of flash, know that the quality of your photograph will most likely be affected.
3. Shoot away from direct sun or light source. Shooting a photograph towards the sun (as in the top left picture) causes high contrast and will darken your subject.
This was our first night with my parents showing me around New Orleans. I wanted to capture the feeling I had when I looked down at that street. It felt like a thrill was awaiting as I grew closer to the lights of Bourbon Street. The lights are very directional and add to this perspective shot.
Fill the Frame with Good Stuff
A common mistake that the novice makes is to think that a subject, in its entirety, must be in a photograph. This really isn’t necessary and many of the details will be lost. It also forces the subject to compete with any background or foreground artifacts. However, unless there are artifacts surrounding the subject, it is not absolutely necessary to crop in as close as the picture above.
There is an innate rule of thirds to photography (oh darn, technical jargon! It’s simple though, I promise). A photograph is more appealing if the subject is not centered. Why? Well, for one if we center something, our minds want it to be symmetrical. By shooting a subject slightly off of the center, we are adding a dynamic feel to the photo and circumventing our mind from deciding that the subject should be symmetrical. Notice all of the photographs in this article. None of them, except for the symmetrical building, are evenly centered.
If you imagine a 3×3 grid on your potential photograph, the interesting points should go along either the intersections or the lines. Notice how her eyes, mouth, and flowers are around these lines.
This Mardi Gras float head sat in a sea of other large figures. By clearing out all the other figures, the focal point is sure to stay on her. Even without the tip of her nose or the complete headpiece, her artistry is on full display. The exposure and color contrast in this photo was adjusted as my full auto setting is a little dark/flat indoors.
Play with Angles
Another mistake that I often see in beginners is that they always feel the necessity to shoot straight at an object. While you will get the object, the photo may be less interesting than if you shoot from an angle. Play around with various angles and closeups to get a good picture. Different aspects of an object may give different impressions and change the scale to suit your desires. There are really no rules to this specific tip, just have fun with it.
Look around the Focal Point
Sometimes a photographer may focus mentally on a subject so much that they miss everything else in the photo. Have you ever had a photo that you later noticed something present that you didn’t see while taking it? This happened to me with a particular photograph of a beautiful house. I was so focused on getting the right angle on the house and later when I saw the photograph, I realized there was a telephone pole smack dab in the middle. Another favorite example of this was a photo of my mother where someone was standing behind her near a waterfall. Let’s just say that the shot was ruined by an awkward third leg. Before you hit that button, take a second to look around the frame for anomalies or suffer later.
In this photograph taken at a New Orleans cemetary, the sky adds a beautiful (but foreboding) element to the photo. While the subject of the photo is the tomb, the sky was a great backdrop. Although I considered cropping the photo in tighter, the loss of the sky would have negatively impacted the photo in my opinion.
Keep the camera straight and level
So I did say to play with angles, right? Well, this is not the same as that. What I am talking about here is shooting level to the plane of your subject. (Uh, oh, this lady is about to bust out the technical stuff….no no no).
Think of it this way – Imagine an open book with a spine. Your camera lies on one page with the lens facing the opposite page. The opposite page is your subject and together they meet at the bottom of your photo (i.e. the spine). The idea is that you can open or close the book as much as you want, but the camera must remain flat to the opposing page. Otherwise, the subject appears skewed, tilted, or awkwardly leaning. This works either horizontally or vertically.
One of the hardest aspects of photography for even myself is keeping the lens parallel with a subject. This is particularly important in pictures of buildings and other subjects with straight lines and specific angles. In addition, one section of the object may appear closer to the lens than the opposite side. I often check and recheck and still mess this up sometimes. Use any straight lines in your photograph such as wall corners, doorways, or furniture to check for level.
This cathedral at Jackson Square was a favorite subject of mine. The camera is almost perfectly lined up with the horizontal lines of the stonework. However, I do wish that I had been a few steps more center which would have made the photograph perfectly symmetrical.
Take A Deep Breath, Exhale, and Hold It
Lens Blur and Motion Blur can really ruin an amazing photograph. I do own a tripod and use my smart phone as a remote shutter to get sharp pictures. But in snapshots, I take a breath and really make an effort to be as still as possible. Even though a higher shutter speed will help with these situations, you should still make every effort to center yourself and remain still. Some people find that holding their arms to their sides, elbows tucked in, helps to stabilize the camera.
Can you believe this photograph was taken on a moving trolley? I braced my shoulder against the seat and waited a few seconds to be sure of no bumps in the ride.
Get the Details
When deciding on a photograph, know your priority in the shot. What stands out to you? What emotion do you want to convey? Sometimes, the small details of a photograph can more easily spark the emotion and memory of the event.
I was moved by these flowers on a tomb. The roses were bold and bright which contrasted with the decidedly gloomy cemetery. I remember thinking that it hadn’t rained all day, but the dew added a certain sadness as if the flowers themselves were crying. All of the other roses in the bouquet were dead except this one. My mother even asked me why would I take a picture of dead flowers.
Good luck with all of your photos! If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.