I thought I'd make some time this week to share a few basic tips for my "non-photographer" friends.
Nothing beats going back and looking at photographs from holidays, vacations or important times in our lives. And as much as you'll hear pro photographers talk about all the details and subtle nuance that go into making a great photograph, I assure you, everyone of them will tell you "content is king." In other words, the subject always trumps the artistic endeavor. That's not to say we don't want a great photo, but the subject matter is what it's all about.
So with the holidays coming up, I'm going to pass on a few simple secrets that I guarantee will have you shooting better pictures immediately.
First, if you don't have a digital camera, get one. You'll want something comfortable in your hand, (smaller is not always better) and a camera with at least 5-7 megapixel. More is ok... but not necessarily better. Also try to get something with a decent OPTICAL zoom. DO NOT pay attention to digital zoom, and if your camera has it, do not use it. I don't want to waste the space discussing why... just trust me on this one. You are only concerned with OPTICAL zoom.
Whatever your budget is, consider spending a little more. You're not going to be buying film or paying for processing any more, so consider the savings and add that into your budget. Buy a better camera.
Don't worry about getting all the features ... many cameras offer movie and voice recording and lots of features you won't really use. Stick to the job at hand and tell the dealer you just want a good camera that is comfortable, reliable and takes a good quality photo. There are a million options out there... but you can't go wrong sticking with a Canon or Nikon. While I'm not a big fan of Sony, Panasonic is making some very nice small cameras and so is Olympus. It all depends on your budget. Now, I'm not talking about bigger cameras with removable lenses here... we're talking strictly point and shoot. $250 - $500 is going to buy you a hell of a camera.
Before you leave the store, make sure you've bought one or two extra memory cards. Chances are the one that comes with your camera wont be that big. Buy a 1GB or 2GB card. They're not expensive.
Most of these cameras will come with software for keeping the photos on your computer, just be sure to read the instructions and develop good storage habits. You're going to end up shooting more and more as you get used to your camera. Start of with good habits or you'll end up with a mess on your hands and risk losing your important pictures.
So... let's start taking better photos.
First, make sure your camera is set on the "high quality" jpeg setting. Always use this setting. This way if you get a photo you want to blow up and make a big print, you'll have the quality to do it.
For our purposes, we're going to leave the camera's settings on automatic. I want to concentrate on composition and the basics of making better memories.
First off, start THINKING about the picture before you put the camera up to your eye. Look around. Look behind the subject. Watch out for windows or mirrors that you or your flash might be reflected in. Also, look for things that might end up growing out of the top of somebody's head... try to make yourself aware of things that will distract from your finished photo. When you're looking at the viewfinder... look all around it. Look in the corners... don't just look at the faces or the smiles. The middle usually takes care of itself.
Making the most of the light.
Photography is called "the science of light." That's because what you are actually doing is photographing the "value" of light as it reflects off of a surface back into your camera. So we need to try to see and learn what it is doing.
Try to keep the light behind you. This can be tricky, since you also don't want your subjects squinting looking into the light. The best rule of thumb is to try and keep the sun or main light source just off to the side over one of your shoulders.
If you're outdoors, early morning and late afternoon will provide the best light. If you're shooting mid-day on a bright sunny day, try to move your subject into the shade. It's just a tough time of day to get a nice shot.
Work on your composition.
I want you to look at the screen in your view finder or on the back of your camera and imagine a grid like the one you draw to play tic-tac-toe. You should end up with an imaginary grid of nine boxes. What we are going to do with this is apply what we call "the rule of thirds."
Let's say you're taking a picture of a pier stretching out into the water. If you stood at the foot of the pier and took a picture looking straight out toward the end, there would be no way for a person looking at your photo to get an idea of the length of the pier. RIght? It would just be flat looking... like a porch or veranda. But let's say we look out at the pier and move the camera so that the very end is now positioned where our tic-tac-toe grid intersects near the middle square and the upper right square. Now someone looking at your photo will look at the foot of the pier then allow their eye to travel to the upper right and the end of the pier. They will now be looking deeper into your picture and the perspective view of the pier's length.
You can apply the same technique if you're photographing a person... just shift the subject off center. We're trying to avoid what we call "center syndrome." This is a phenomenon caused by automatic cameras and auto-focus. They are center weighted... so all of a sudden, we're lured into taking picture after picture with our subject dead center. So when you visualize your tic-tac-toe grid, look at where the lines intersect around the center square and try to arrange your subject on or around one of those intersects.
We've just discussed two things that deal with the camera gathering its settings while you point it toward your subject. It gathers the light information to set the correct exposure and it measures its distance from your subject to set the proper focus. But wait, if it focuses on the center, and you've followed my instructions to move your subject off center, how will we make sure the camera gets the right settings? Well, we have to "trick" the camera.
Most cameras today have a feature that allows you to lock the light reading and the focus. Here's what you do. Let's point the camera at our subject. In this case, a person. We locate where we want our focus and aim our lens at it. Let's say it's their face (tip: the eyes). With their face in the center of the frame, we push the shutter button half way down. You'll hear the camera whine and see it come into focus. Now.... keep the button pressed half-way down and recompose your shot... moving your subject's face slightly off center. Once you've composed your shot the way you want it, press the button the rest of the way down. You can do this with scenery or any other subject too. Just make sure the item that you focus on is the on the plane or is the same distance away from the camera as the scene you ultimately want to shoot.
There's an old saying that if your pictures aren't good, you're not close enough. Guess what? It's true. Get in there. Don't be bashful. Too often people mentally imagine the picture they're seeing but don't take it. The camera doesn't always see things the way you see them. It is your job to trick the camera into recording something the way you see it. That's the reason for our rule of thirds and the little focus locking trick we talked about above. This is why we started this conversation with THINKING about the picture first.
Bend your knees.
Here again... change the point of view. Make the picture look different from what the person viewing your pictures might normally see. So many people walk around with their camera, see something, stop and just turn and take a picture. Well, think about that. That will report the exact same thing as a passing glance. Why would someone want to see your picture of a passing glance? Stop. Look at the subject. Think about it.. and change your angle of view. Bend your knees... get lower... show the subject in a way your audience wouldn't normally see something. Want proof? Take a photo of kids playing. Walk up and take some pictures. Now get on the ground at their level and take some more pictures. Now go home and look at the two sets of photos and you tell me. It's a no brainer. Kids pictures are awesome when you shoot down at their level.
Ok, so we've got our list of things to THINK about. They all start with THINK. Don't be overwhelmed and don't be intimidated. All of this costs you nothing. It's digital. Delete, delete, delete, If you are not deleting, you are not trying hard enough. Go nuts... experiment... take lots and lots of photos. And when you've done that, go and take lots and lots more. Double it. Trust me, if you have a kids party and shoot a couple of hundred frames, I promise you'll come away with 20 killer pictures that capture the entire day... and you'll look like a pro.
- THINK about the backgrounds.
- THINK about the light.
- THINK about the rule of thirds.
- THINK about your point of view.
- THINK before you shoot.
Lastly.... always take lots of photos. You're going to enjoy them forever.