NOTE: CLICK ON THE THUMBNAILS TO SEE THE FULL-SIZED PICTURES; THEY SEEM SOFTER WHEN VIEWED AS THUMBNAILS FOR SOME REASON.
There’s a mistaken opinion among people that good photography is beyond them; a belief that that honour belongs only to a select upper echelon whose position cannot be challenged. I hope to rectify that with this post. Maybe my grandiose vision won’t come to fruition but it’s a start. Baby steps.
I’m going to steer clear of false modesty-although all [constructive] criticism is welcome- and attempt to guide you through how to take good pictures in as articulate a form as possible. Here’s an outline:
- Clever composition
- A Pervading Theme
- To Flash Or Not To Flash
- Your Equipment Doesn’t Matter
- Technical Jargon You SHOULD Know
One of the things I detest is wasted space. We’ve all seen it; that family picture that uncle of yours took which designates more space to the ceiling than the subject; leaving in its wake a slew of mutilated half-torsos. A good picture trims all the fat and makes sure that the first thing the viewer sees is what the photographer saw when he was taking it. This DOES NOT mean placing your subject square in the center of the frame; in most cases, that’s a very bad idea. Be creative. Mess around with a multitude of different shots; I dare say there isn’t a 36 picture limit so there’s nothing to be scared of. Try not to let distracting background elements creep in to the frame. Remember, the point is to make people’s eyes instantly gravitate towards your subject. There are loads of composition tricks to bring attention to your subject; in the interest of brevity, I’m just going to link you to external pages for now. I’ll have a deeper discussion on each on a later date (Don’t hold me to that though :P).
There’s patience involved in getting a good shot. Wait for that perfect smile, for that perfect lighting. It’s very easy to miss a shot just because you weren’t paying attention at a crucial moment. Just focus on your subject and wait till you feel the timing is right. It may be just a split second but it’s better to have one brilliant shot as opposed to a slew of tepid ones. If you have the equipment, then sure, take your shots at a high frame rate burst mode but what you lose there is the subtle adjustments to composition and juxtaposition you can make while you are waiting. Balance is essential here too. I remember scoping this tomcat for around fifteen minutes once edging closer and closer because I wanted to get the perfect shot. It was staring through a hole in the garden wall with only it’s liquid-gold eyes visible. I waited too long; the feline got tired of my antics and decided it had better things to do than pose for me. I regret it to this day. Sorry about that digression- albeit a necessary one- but as I was saying, the right balance of timing is the difference between getting a mediocre a shot, a stellar one or no shot at all.
Good lighting is key when taking good pictures. Landscapes don’t change but a good picture can be transmuted into an amazing one with appropriate lighting. Cloudy days with even lighting are preferable to sunny days with high contrast shadows. That being said, high contrast lighting can be effective when you’re trying to distinguish two objects or one part of an object from another. Take for example light from a window illuminating the front of an object and not the back; maybe the front has something fascinating on it while the back has distracting elements; in that case, contrast is your best friend. Filling shadows with light is an effective way of removing those terrible contrasty shots you get on very sunny days. This can be achieved by a reflector (Or even just a large mirror or shiny sheet of metal). As with everything, timing is very important. You need to know what type of light occurs at what time of day to know when the best time is to get a good picture. Noon is generally a bad time because the sun is at its peak casting terrible, dark shadows over eyes, etc. The evening is generally a good time as shadows are softer and sunsets can yield stunning lighting almost every time. Wake up at dawn- another very good time- if you must to get good lighting; just always be on the lookout for those moments where the lighting is perfect.
A quick note for people who don’t know, Dicitionary.com defines juxtaposition as “an act or instance of placing close together or side by side, especially for comparison or contrast.” That being out of the way, it’s very important to arrange or juxtapose objects in the frame in such a way so they complement each other. Something I do is to walk around with one eye closed, getting different angles on the same group of objects; and no, this isn’t because I’m some half-crazy eccentric who can’t help himself. Since photography is two dimensional in nature, having both eyes open impedes your ability to judge whether two- or more- objects look good together in a picture. The 3D nature of our vision means that we can’t judge how things would look on a flat plane. If you want to get really into it, you could dress up like a pirate and get an eye patch for yourself; it’s all up to you.
The human eye is naturally attracted to certain colours. Some colours stand out when compared to others as perceived by us; I can’t speak for other animals but as long as you’re photographing to show humans, this is something to pay attention to. As a rule of thumb, brighter colours should preferably be the object you want to attract attention to. If not, then you should take care to remove such colours from the frame. Red dominates blue, yellow dominates green, etc. I’m not going to expand on this here but instead, I’m going to link to another, more in depth article that explains it much better than I could ever hope to. Just keep in mind that the colours in the foreground and background are a very important part of whether a picture is going to be effective or not. Another thing to note is sometimes when colours don’t add anything to the picture (Sometimes they can be downright detrimental), it’s a good idea to go black and white (Or shoot colour and convert to B&W; a safer bet).
A Pervading Theme
Clicking away is easy. Especially when you can get 64 GB memory cards which hold infinite amounts of data. What’s hard is getting a picture that speaks to people; a picture that communicates what your thought process was at the moment you were taking it. Whether it’s something as simple as a contrast in colours to something much more enigmatic, you should always try to identify what strikes you about a scene and then take the picture. Here’s a link to a rather amusing Ken Rockwell post (More on him later) that describes the photographic thought process that you should adopt.
To Flash Or Not To Flash
As a rule, if there’s adequate lighting available, I avoid the flash like the plague. Built in flashes are something I don’t use even if there isn’t adequate light. Just raise your camera’s ISO (More on that later in the post) and stand with a wide stance and a firm grip on the camera and you should be good. If you have a bigger, external flash then by all means, use it. Direct flash still isn’t a good idea though. If you have a white wall above you, try to reflect the flash off it onto the subject, it gives a more natural effect that’s more pleasing to the eye. Or you could get a diffuser for the front of your flash to temper the harshness of the light. But whenever possible, try to do without.
Your Equipment Doesn’t Matter
Blaming the camera for a bad picture is very easy. It’s a comprehensible complaint if you have an archaic camera phone from the early 2000s but anyone with a decent point-and-shoot or even a passable 3 megapixel- As a side note, megapixels don’t matter. Period. The largest picture most people print is a 5×7 and in rarer cases, 10×14, which equates to an upward rounding of 1280×720 pixels which in turn equates to .9 Megapixels; if you want to crop the most you need is 3 Megapixels; the rest is just the camera manufacturers marketing claims- recent camera phone can take good shots regardless of the specs. Good composition and technique doesn’t come with good equipment. If it did, only the affluent among us would be good photographers. I’ll go as far too say that you should start out with a crummy third rate camera to allow yourself to take the best shots within the limitations the camera imposes. It’ll only help later when you move on to better equipment. A camera phone isn’t a bad place to start either. As long as the image quality is usable, you’re good to go.
Technical Jargon You Should Know
Three words: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. That’s all the technical nonsense you need to know to have good control over your shots. Ignore the piles and piles of drivel people burden you with. It’s all peripheral garbage meant to confuse you. Let’s start with shutter speed since it’s the easiest to explain; the shutter speed determines how fast your camera’s ‘shutter’ snaps down and up; essentially how long the camera takes to get the shot. It ranges from- a wider range than most cameras offer- 30secs to 1/8000 of a second. As a rule of thumb, 1/60 is good for capturing still shots of objects/people with slight movements. 1/250 at least for fast action; you can go as slow as 1/10 for scenes with little to no movement. The 1 second or greater shutter speeds are for when the camera is mounted on a tripod or another stable mount in very low light. These are just guidelines though. Sometimes movement can be conducive to some very interesting shots. Experiment with it, go wild; just don’t break anything. The ISO is basically the sensitivity to the present light of your camera’s sensor. Films used to have it too. Basically, the higher your ISO, the more sensitive the camera’s sensor is to light and the faster(Because it takes less time- 1/125 as opposed to 1/60 for example) the shutter speed you can use; thus giving you the ability to capture faster motion without as much blurriness. The trade-off, however, is that with higher ISOs, pictures can get very grainy. For a point and shoot camera, ISO 800 is as high as you should go if you can’t avoid it. DSLRs can go up to ISO 6400 (And beyond for current models) and still deliver good, relatively clean pictures. It’s a balancing act and sometimes, a slight compromise in quality can be the difference in getting or not getting the shot. The aperture setting determines how wide the camera’s aperture is open thus dictating how much light enters. The effect is two-fold; it, like the ISO, allows for lower shutter speeds when wide open and secondly, in cameras with large sensors, it can blur out things that you do not want in focus. Wider apertures mean faster shutter speeds and blurrier backgrounds while narrower apertures mean slower shutter speeds (1/30 as opposed to 1/60 for example) and a background that’s sharp all the way through. Apertures range from f/1.2 (More light entering, blurrier background) at the widest to f/32 at the narrowest (The reason why small point and shoots can’t blur backgrounds is because of their smaller sensors; the light from all points whether far or near more or less converges at the same point). Smartphone users may have some of these options but most just have no-frills-attached settings like flash on or off and some basic ISO controls.
There are a lot of naysayers who avoid using image-editing software claiming to be “purists”. Well, here’s a wakeup call for all of you; post-processing techniques have been around since the days of film photography. Yes, it was harder to achieve back then but all the Ansel Adams of the time post processed their shots to improve them. Whether it’s cropping to overexposing certain parts of the film, the only thing that’s changed is the ease of execution. A whole post could be written on this topic so I’m not going to delve deep into it. A few rules of thumb though; as mentioned before, wasted space is something that you can do without. Try to crop images as much as possible, eliminating any elements that you could do without or that are superfluous. Don’t get overzealous though and remove elements whose absence could hinder the effectiveness of the shot. Next thing is contrast, mess around with the contrast of the pictures just to the point that colours start to “pop”. Again, don’t go overboard with it (Believe me, it’s very easy to). It’s important to know when to stop. The thing with post-processing is that it has to be sufficiently subtle so that people can’t tell you’ve post-processed. If someone sees your picture and the first thing that they say is that the picture is edited, you’ve lost what you were looking to do (This piece of advice comes from Ken Rockwell; one of the two people- the other one is my dad-from whom I learned pretty much everything I know about photography; definitely check out his site, it’s better than mine :D). The same goes for saturation. Sharpening can also be an effective tool to accentuate edges in certain pictures (Not always a good idea though). Be smart about editing, don’t overdo do but don’t write it off altogether either; you’d be a fool to do so in both scenarios.
This one was a pain. I was supposed to have it written and published on the night of the 21st but the sheer length of it and the fact that I hit a writer’s block means there was an inevitable delay. I hope it’s as useful to people as I meant it to be. Last thing to note; the only way you’re going to take good pictures is to ignore all that was said in this guide and to go out and experiment with a camera; photography is not and cannot be bound by set rules and guidelines. So yes, this post is redundant even before it came out. As always, feedback is welcome- the constructive sort- and I’m open to suggestions for future posts on any topic that I mentioned in the first post. Cheers.
NOTE: CLICK ON THE THUMBNAILS TO SEE THE FULL-SIZED PICTURES; THEY SEEM SOFTER WHEN VIEWED AS THUMBNAILS FOR SOME REASON.
EDIT: Added more pictures to the post. I’d also like to mention that a majority of these pictures were taken with a Canon A590IS which is an entry level point and shoot. Some pictures were taken with a Nikon D40 which is an SLR with a 50mm f/1.2 lens provided by my ever-so-helpful father. I’m saying this to further validate the point that your equipment does not dictate the quality of your pictures.