Six Steps To Better Photos

By Lowell Anderson

Reprinted from Chicz magazine: “6 Steps to better photos in 2017”

  1. Learn how to use your camera
  2. Think like a camera
  3. Get close
  4. Watch the background
  5. Learn about composition
  6. Perspective

 

Learn how to use your camera

Almost everyone wishes they could take better photos. But if you really want to capture great images, you need to do more than just wish – you need to take some concrete steps to train yourself to be a photographer.

Over the course of this  year, I’m going to give you six steps to help you become a better photographer. Sure, there are a lot of other things you can do and learn to improve your photography, but these steps will put you head and shoulders above the average. If you focus on each one of these for two months, people will soon be wondering how you’re getting such great photos.

So, let’s get started: Step one is to learn how to use your camera.

Although this step may be seem boring and non-creative, it forms the foundation of everything else you do in photography. And It’s only a firm foundation that gives you the freedom to truly be creative.

The reason this step is so important is that without it you are only wishing and hoping to get a good shot. However, with a little bit of knowledge, you can create the result you want. Rather than relying on chance, you can start with a vision in your head and then set out to create it.

You don’t need a lot of in-depth technical knowledge to get consistent, planned results. What you do need is to be able to use the camera’s basic controls and have an understanding of how changing those controls affects the final photograph.

Even if you’re only shooting with a camera phone, you can get great photos by really learning how to use it. There are many good camera apps available that will go beyond what the basic camera app does. Don’t worry too much about filters and special effects – get an app that gives you lots of control over basic shooting functions.

In the next two months, learn about shutter speed, aperture (f-stop), ISO, white balance, focus and flash. Learn how to use each of these controls, what effects are created by certain settings, and how changing one affects the others. Your goal should be to look at a photo and know which control needs to be changed to fix a problem or get the effect you want. It’s fine to shoot on auto, but just make sure you can override auto settings when you need to.

There is no shortage of good information on the basics of photography. You can learn by reading your camera manual, getting a basic photography book, taking a class, or using online resources.

Learning the basics will take some work, but the sooner you know them, the sooner you can move from wishing, to creating your dream photos.

 

Think like a camera

Over the course of this year, we are progressing through six steps that you can take to become a better photographer. The first – which I hope you accomplished – was to learn how to use your camera.

The second step is to learn to see like a camera.

If you want to take great photos you can’t always go by what you see. In fact, you have to learn to not trust your eyes. That’s because we see things selectively, with our brains compensating for differences in brightness and color to make things look normal. For example, even in very dark or backlit situations, our eyes tend to focus on someone’s face and ignore everything else.

Not so with the camera. The camera captures images in a very scientific and objective way.

Probably the most important thing to remember is that the camera can only capture a limited range of brightness in one photo.  That means that anything that’s outside of this range will turn out either white or black.

Because the camera cannot set exposure differently for different parts of the scene, there is only one exposure for the whole photo. Depending on how you set it, the camera will either expose for one smaller area or will average all the bright and dark areas to make a determination about what exposure is best.  So, unless you tell it to expose for a certain area, it just makes a compromise.

As photographers, we need to accept that there will almost always be areas in our photos that are either too bright or too dark. Unless you are using flash or other artificial lighting, you will need to determine what needs to be correctly exposed and just let the rest go. Basically you are telling the camera what is important and how you want it to compromise.

The camera also sees the color of light objectively. Although light from the sun, incandescent lights and fluorescent lights are all different colors, our eyes and brains tend to correct the colors and see things the way we believe they should be.

However, the camera captures colors more objectively. For example, photos taken under fluorescent light tend to be more green or yellow, and photos in incandescent light tend to be more red. If you don’t take this into account and set the white balance accordingly, you may be surprised with unnatural looking colors.

The thing to remember in all this is that the camera is fairly predictable in how it captures images. You just have to learn to understand why the camera does what it does and what it’s limitations are. In addition to learning this through trial and error, you can do test photos in a variety of conditions and keep careful notes about settings, lighting and results.

When you know how to use your camera controls and can predict how the camera will respond in certain situations, you will be well on your way to getting technically-good photos. That’s when the real fun of photography begins.

 

Get close

Now that you’ve learned how to use your camera and can predict how it will respond in different situations, there is one simple thing you can do that will set you apart from the crowd and give your photos real impact: Simply get closer to your subject.

One of the most obvious signs of poor photography is that the subject of the photo is unclear. And more often than not, the reason it’s unclear is because it’s so far away that it gets lost in the clutter.

While it’s true that sometimes you want to leave some space to show the subject in its environment, it is important to think about what really needs to be included and what is just visual clutter. If something in the photo focuses attention on the subject or tells something important about the subject, than leave it in the frame. But, if it is distracting or confusing, moving in closer will usually improve the photograph by simplifying it and making the subject clear.

When taking a photo, ask yourself: “What is the subject or the theme of this photo?” Then ask yourself “How can I focus attention on that subject?” and “Can I remove something that’s not needed to simplify the photo?” More often than not, the best way to focus attention and simplify is by just getting closer.

In step number two, we talked about how your eyes  see things selectively. That can also be a problem when deciding if you are close enough because we tend to filter out the clutter and see the subject only. To make better pictures, get in the habit of looking not only at the subject, but at the background and surroundings and asking yourself if everything in the frame is really necessary.

Often we find after taking a photo that a lot of what was included really wasn’t needed. A good example is a portrait of a person. Sometimes portraits include the person’s whole body, but many times they only need to include the head and shoulders, since the face most tells us who a person is.

There are two basic ways to “get close” to the subject: Either move physically closer to the subject, or use a telephoto lens to zoom in. Each one will give you a different effect, but either can be effective in eliminating distractions.

The last resort in getting closer is to crop the photo after it is taken. It’s very rare to find a photograph that can’t be improved by some cropping. However, don’t rely only on cropping to get close.

The one exception to getting close might be a wide-angle scenic, in which the subject is the whole panoramic view. However, even with these types of photos, you may want to include something in the foreground to add depth – and you probably want to move in pretty close to that object for the best effect.

So, If you really want to improve your photos, try getting closer. More often than not, great photos with real impact come from filling the frame with the subject and eliminating distractions.

 

Watch the background

Sometimes it’s the little things that can make a photo great  – or make it a huge failure.  All it takes to ruin a photo is a stray object that shouldn’t be in the picture or one person with their eyes closed. On the other hand, just the right smile or small changes in lighting can make one photo the clear winner out of many. Details really matter in great photography.

One of the details that often gets overlooked is the right background.  Often we are so intent on capturing our subject, that we completely forget about what is behind it. The selective vision that we discussed in the last two lessons can really be a problem here. We tend to focus so intently on the main subject that our eyes and brain filter out what is happening in the background.

Only later, when we look at the two-dimensional image, do we see the tree growing out of someone’s head, or the shadow the photographer made, or the cars driving by in the background.

One of our biggest problems might be that we tend to think of the background as a minor detail, when In reality, it’s more like 50 percent of your photo.

The right background focuses attention on your subject or adds important elements that help tell the story. The wrong background takes attention away from the subject and adds elements that make the photo cluttered and confusing.

Often the best thing you can do is to try to make the background as plain and undistracting as possible. One of the easiest ways to do that is by using a large aperture (f/2.8, f/4, etc…) to throw the background out of focus. This effect is maximized if you are close to the subject or if you are using a telephoto lens. Even a very distracting, cluttered background can be made to look good using this technique.

The other thing you can do is simply move around (or move the subject, if possible) to find a pleasing background. Often, all you have to do is shoot at a higher or lower angle to minimize distractions.

However, there are times when you want to include background elements because they show where the subject is located or help give important details about the subject. For example, someone who loves books might be photographed in a room full of bookshelves and stacks of books. In this case, all those books tell us something about who this person is. They don’t distract, they help tell the story.

To really improve your photos, start thinking of the background as one of the most important elements. Train yourself to constantly notice the background, and then think about whether it adds to or detracts from the photograph.

By choosing the right background – especially when combined with getting close – you will dramatically improve your photos, which will then give you a good foundation to start working on the smaller details.

 

Learn about composition

Throughout this year, we’ve been discussing six steps you can take to make better photos. If you’ve been doing your homework, you now know how to use your camera and to see as the camera sees, as well as how to get close and watch the background. Just those last two steps alone will set you apart from most other amateur photographers.  

Now that you know the basics, you can start working on the little things that make a good photo great. One of them is knowing and applying the rules of composition.

This is one of the areas where you start moving from just making a photo that communicates clearly, to one that is artistic and creative. For the most part, not using the rules of composition won’t make your photo bad, but it won’t be as interesting and effective as it could be.

There are many compositional techniques available to a photographer. Information about them is available in any photography book or on the internet, so I won’t go into much detail. But, some of the most important include the following:

Rule of thirds – Divide the picture into thirds both vertically and horizontally and place the main elements either on the lines or at the intersection of the lines.

Movement – Place objects or people so there is room for them to move or look into the photo, rather than off the edge.

Framing – Use objects near the edges to frame the main subject and give it more emphasis.

Depth – Include far and near elements to give the photo a sense of depth.

Leading lines – Use lines and other objects to direct a viewer’s eyes where you want them to look.

Diagonal/ horizontal/ vertical lines – Horizontal lines impart a sense of stability. Vertical lines give a sense of height and tension. Diagonal lines can communicate a sense of dynamics or movement.

One of the best ways to learn about these rules is to study them and then whenever you look at photos, art, movies or TV, try to identify some of the compositional techniques you see. Just by becoming aware of these rules, you will start to use them automatically in your photography.

Another good way to learn, is to pick one of the rules and then try to use it in all your photos for a while. By focusing on one rule, you will get very good at applying it, and then you can move on to another.

Of course, these aren’t really “rules,” but more like guidelines. Once you’ve learned them, then you can start breaking them when you have a good reason.  When you know when to break the rules to achieve a certain effect, then you are truly becoming an artist.

 

Perspective

It used to be that if you wanted to take pictures, you had to bring a bulky camera with you. Now, nearly everyone constantly carries a cell phone with a built-in camera. And because of the amazing technology these devices contain, almost anyone can take a decent photo. Add to that the ability to instantly post these photos online for everyone to see, and the result is that we are flooded with good – but often often ordinary – photos.

With so many people making and showing off their photographs every day, it can be a challenge to get a photograph that is unique and which really stands out.

One way to set yourself apart is by mastering the previous five steps: learn how to use your camera, know how the camera “sees” things, get close, watch the background and learn about composition.

However you can also overcome the plain, ordinary photo that everyone takes by finding a new perspective or viewpoint.

Instead of just shooting everything at eye level or from the direction from which you would normally see it, get down on the ground and shoot up, or climb up on something and shoot down. Move around and change the background. Use your legs to get into the right position. Wait for just the right moment to snap the picture. Try different lenses. Try a different time of day. Try getting really close to the subject. Use a slower shutter speed, or change the depth of field. Think about new possibilities. Break the rules.

In other words, experiment. Don’t just be content with an ordinary snapshot, but try to create something artistic. Strive to see things in a new and different way.  

Art doesn’t happen by accident: it takes thinking, planning and hard work. If you want to create a photo that stands out, you can’t be content to just take one or two snapshots and then quit. Good photos require time, patience and lots of shutter clicks. While shooting, look regularly at the resulting photos to see if you are capturing what you want, then make changes and keep shooting.

Learn from your mistakes. When something doesn’t turn out, ask yourself why. Then go back, make changes and shoot it again until you get the result you want.

Finally, learn how to use some photo editing software. It’s a rare photo that can’t be improved by some cropping, toning, sharpening or color adjustment.

What’s next? Just keep on learning. Although this is the final step in this series, there’s always more to learn in photography. It could easily take a lifetime to master.