Whether you take photos with an iPhone, compact camera or 5 zillion buck SLR it doesn’t matter – these tips can work for YOU (PS give me that SLR). If you aren’t a beginner, maybe you can pick up some good practice from this.
We begin with the basics. I’m sure you have seen these kind of tip lists a bunch before, but I sometimes get asked for tips from friends who don’t really know anything about photography and want to improve. These are tips that I personally use to improve my own photography. Got any good beginner tips of your own? Put them in the comments so we can learn from you, you sly devil you.
Tip 1 – Take your camera with you!
Yes, it’s obvious, but I bet you my last Ferrero Rocher (with these, I am really spoiling you) that you have been somewhere and wished you had had your camera. No longer lie weeping in the night about the award-winning photo you could have had… by actually taking your camera out with you! Whatever you do, where-ever you go, you could run into an great photo opportunity. I’m not saying carry your camera with you everywhere (true hardcore photographers actually do, caressing their camera and muttering to it under their breath), but if you are popping out for the day, off on a dog walk, even going for a drink, bring it out. If that’s too much of a pain, bring your iPhone or a small camera, slip it in your pocket/handbag and now there’s no excuse, is there? Smartphones have amazing cameras nowadays. Use them!
Tip 2 – Check or Die
This is a long tip but it’s important.
You are walking the dog when a UFO lands in front of you. An alien pops out and decides to make first contact with your dog. You pull your camera out ready to capture this beautiful, historic moment, hoping to get the shot before the inevitable leg-humping occurs. You click the shutter and… nothing. The battery is empty. You forgot to charge it. Snowy starts humping the Aliens leg. The world is doomed. All you can do is scream: “NOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooooo!”
This thrilling account is based on a true story. Such tragedies are common for us photographers. To avoid them, just remember to check these things on your camera when you grab it at home. This is camera Mum talking to you now, heed her or you will get slapped.
- Charge the battery and remember to put it back in the camera once it is charged. If you take a lot of photos, or you are taking a longer trip, take a spare battery too. They aren’t expensive. Protip – I put empty batteries on charge as soon as I come home so I don’t forget.
- Check you have your memory card in the camera - not in your computer, or down the sofa, or in the dog, or wherever the hell they always end up. Make sure you have enough space for a bunch of new photos. You don’t want to be deleting photos to free up space at that critical moment. On big trips, take an extra card or two for backup. Before you leave with your camera, take a quick snap and play it back to check the memory card is working ok. Corrupt memory cards make everybody sad.
- Check the lens. It’s fun to snap all day only to realise at the end there is a huge dirty thumbprint in the middle of every photo. Don’t risk scratching your lens using your clothes – grab a microfiber cloth from any photo shop and some cleaning spray, or even better get a Lenspen (or Lenspen clone). I discovered the Lenspen a few years ago and never looked back. They are not paying me to say this (although Lenspen, buy me a new camera, cheers). It has a brush on one end and a lens cleaning tip on the other, which is covered in carbon – which is amazing at cleaning off fingerprints and dirt without scratching the lens. They are cheap, come in different sizes and are small enough to take out with you too. Everyone I have showed a Lenspen usually ends up buying one.
- If you have a camera strap, put it on the camera, and use it. I know plenty of people who have dropped or lost their cameras because they didn’t have the strap attached or they didn’t bother to use the strap when doing camera-unfriendly activities such as paragliding, taking photos from speeding tuk-tuks, on rickety boats in the middle of storms and so forth. My personal triumph was dropping my waterproof camera in the river at Vang Vieng, Laos whilst spinning around in a tyre tube, because I couldn’t be bothered to attach the wrist strap to the camera that morning. So it was sitting on my lap instead of tied to me. Now it is sitting somewhere else – on the riverbed annoying the fish with its bright fluorescent case. Yes, I was drunk. Use your camera strap.
- Increase your image quality. On most cameras you can change how high quality (video resolution) the photos will be. A lot of the time compact cameras use a medium setting by default instead of a high setting. Have a peek into your settings (it’s ok to use the manual if you need to, don’t be scared) – check whether you are using an appropriate setting. Crank it as high as possible, unless you have a small memory card. Just remember though, higher quality = more memory space used. A memory stick of 1GB or more will easily take hundreds of the highest quality JPEG photos, so why not max the quality setting and bathe in that high resolution that your scummy low quality pixelated friends can only dream of.
- Check the camera setting. It’s easy to forget that yesterday you were engrossed taking photos of the 100m European Ant Olympics in your garden in Macro mode. That’s going to be pretty annoying today, because you suddenly come across a dying elephant who has heroically taken a bullet for his best friend Mousey the mouse and they are having their final embrace. You whip out your camera, get the once in a lifetime shot and then later check it back only to find a huge grey and brown blur because the camera was still in Macro mode from yesterday. Stupid bloody ants! So let this definitely true story be a lesson before you go out, set the camera back to whatever standard setting you usually use. Protip – if you have fiddled with the ISO setting, remember to reset that too.
Tip 3 – Keep your camera steady and LOOK
When you take a photo, use two hands when possible to steady the camera and hold it close to you, not at arms length (it’s not infected, probably). Even with an iPhone it can help. Look in the viewfinder or screen to check what you are actually photographing rather than what your eyes are seeing. It’s not the same. And STOP (Hammertime). I am amazed at the amount of people who take snaps whilst they are walking! If you are in a hurry at least stop moving for a few seconds to line up the shot properly and press the button. A lot of out of focus photos are caused by camera shake and it’s easy to fix. Protip: For sharper results, don’t jump up and down or use pneumatic drills whilst taking a photo.
Tip 4 – Isolate your Subject, Remove Clutter, Receive Bacon
What are you taking a photo of? Quickly think about your subject and isolate it – make it the focus of the photo. Is your subject supposed to be your partner or that yellow dustbin they are standing by? Get rid of it, move the view so its gone (I mean the bin, unless your partner is that bad that the bin is preferable!). Try moving or zooming so only the subject fills the frame. Get rid of visual distractions in the photo if you can. I don’t want to see traffic, and random hands, and wires, and messy backgrounds. You get the idea.
For portraits, get close to your subject, or use zoom to isolate them. Advice that photographers often give you is “get close and then get closer”, and “keep it simple”. And they ain’t wrong. The more simple your shot, usually the more effective it is. Try simplifying your pictures. If the photo is a landscape, or you want to show off the environment that your subject is in, no worries. Just think about how much of the environment you want to show and try to remove clutter and distractions. Do you really want a fat man’s bum escaping from Speedos in the same photo as your baby at the beach? I hope not.
Tip 5- Try Different Angles
99% of people take photos standing up, holding the camera up to their face. A lot of photos you will see in galleries and magazines will not be taken from this position. Unless you are a robot or a circus performer on stilts, take a minute to get low. Or find something to stand on to get high, hold your camera above your head, or put the camera on the ground and check out the shots from there. Amazing, you have just discovered how to use your body’s full range of movement AND you can take photos too! Congratulations. Move around the subject and see if you can find a more interesting angle. Sometimes simply crouching may present a nice foreground you didn’t even think about. Plus think of the entertainment you are providing all those non-photographers around you, as you jump up and down and crouch and duck. Brilliant.
Tip 6 - Check Your Camera. Again.
Just like the starting checklist, don’t forget to check your camera from time to time. Check the lens, maybe it has a whopping thumbprint or a raindrop on it (Protip – don’t take photos at upward angles when it’s raining, yeah?). Quickly check your shots after you have photographed a subject to check there’s not something horribly wrong. Once you are home it’s too late to go back. Start crying.
Tip 7 – Limit your Shots
Hurray for digital cameras! 400 sunset photos in 10 minutes! Now you are home and looking through them, thinking, which one is better – 7:15 and 10 seconds or 7:15 and 11 seconds, or 12 seconds, or 13 seconds? Whoop de doo! What a life! Before you take a photo, think about whether its really worth taking. Is it a moment you want to capture or a thing you don’t want to forget, or are you just taking a photo for the sake of taking a photo? Are you really going to want to see this photo again? Cut down the amount of photos that you take and you will start to think more about the photo you want to take rather than snapping non-stop. It saves time and pain later when reviewing and organising. Hell, you can even take some time to see the scene with your own eyes! Imagine that! You can even force a limit on yourself by putting a small memory card into the camera. Also, delete as you go. Know a photo is terrible? Delete it now, why wait? You have just freed up memory space and saved time later. You’ll also be realising “why the hell did I take that photo anyway?” – and you’ll learn. Oh yes, my precious, you will learn.
Tip 8 – Use your Camera Modes
If you always shoot in Auto mode, try using your other camera presets. If you don’t know how, have a play with the menus (Protip – “Delete All” is not a camera mode), or check your manual. They are easy to use and it can make a big difference. Landscape mode, Portrait Mode, Macro Mode and Night Photo modes you can use a lot and get better results from. Just remember to change back to Auto when you have finished photographing that subject to avoid pain and suffering later on.
Tip 9 – The Rule of Thirds
Cue cultish chanting. You’ll see this in photo tips for good reason. You can read about it in more depth anywhere online. Don’t follow it religiously, you can compose photos however you like and so you should, but I can tell you from experience that it is a great starting point for improving your composition. Imagine your photo overlaid with a grid like this:
That’s a nice grid, isn’t it? Like a window except better because it was free. I composed that photo using the rule of thirds as a guide. The sky is in the top third, the path roughly follows the left vertical line, and the boy is on the intersection of the lines. Even the mountain on the right almost follows the grid corner. Try to place your subject, points of interests, and natural lines along the grid lines or at the intersections, and try to split the image into thirds. For landscapes, try putting the sky in the top third, or, if it’s a really interesting sky (angels descending, The Perfect Storm, etc) then you could use the top two thirds. For some reason our strange little brains find this more satisfying to look at. Why? Go read some other articles, lazybones. It’s all mystic photography brain wizardry but it does work. Those articles will have more advice for composing using the rule. If you are mental you could use a marker pen to draw this grid on your viewfinder, but a saner person can check the display settings of the camera. Some of them let you put a grid overlay like this on your screen and so you can compose without having to imagine the lines. I often use a grid overlay when I am taking photos to help my composition. Here are some examples from my collection where you can see how I’ve used the Rule of Thirds – and after this article have a look through my other blog photos or my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AlanStockPhotography) and see if you can see the rule at work.
Tip 10 – Don’t Shoot into the Sun
You are welcome to fire whatever weapons you want into the sun but unless you want a silhouette, taking a photo into the sun is a bad idea. Just try it and notice how it “blows out” all the colour and detail of your photo (unless its sunset/sunrise). Anyone in the photo is going to look really dark. Instead, take photos with the sun behind you. If you are photographing people switch positions with them – just watch out for them squinting at you now they have to look at it (using shade can help). If you can’t do much about the sun and your subject position, at least try altering your shot so the sun is covered by an object. I use branches of trees and buildings a lot of the time to do this. Take that, sun! By doing this you cut down the glare and you can sometimes get a decent shot.
So, go forth, camera pioneers, and may you never take a bad photo again! Hope these tips are some help, let me know if they are useful and get out there with that dusty camera of yours! I welcome your comments and feedback, and I would love to hear your own tips for beginners. Now I’m off to find my memory card. That cat looks suspicious.
Next time we’ll look at some more advanced tips and specific shooting situations. Ciao for now!