Making better photos

I am a photographer, both by trade and by heart.  My camera is part of who I am, and taking photos during “moments” in my life enhances the experience for me even if I never look at those photos again.  Wearing a camera publicly all of the time seems to invite comments from clients, friends and random strangers that go something like this “Your camera takes such great photos” or “I need to get a better camera so that I can take better pictures” or “Wow, that big lens must take great pictures”.  As I mentioned in my last blog post, images are made, not taken.  In this blog post I’d like to add “images are made, not taken AND it doesn’t matter what camera you use”.  Pause for effect…

I know, I know.  Coming from someone that carries thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment everywhere she goes, this may seem to be a shocking statement.  One might even say hypocritical, given that there are few things in life (besides my family) that make me happier than trying out a new lens for the first time.   But it happens to be true.  Just look at all of the phone apps related to camera phone photography.  I personally use Instagram, but I could devote more than a few blog posts on the subject of camera phone photography and apps. Even many of the big name photographers are publishing their camera phone pics online because its quick and fun, and they still make great images even with a less-than-great camera.

Instagram photo by Anita Woo

“The camera doesn’t make a bit of difference. All of them can record what you are seeing. But, you have to SEE.”  – Ernst Haas

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” – Ansel Adams

Now don’t get me wrong, there is still a place for more mega-pixels, better quality lenses with less distortion and technical flaws, and cameras with more elaborate metering and focussing ability.  For a professional that uses these tools every day, better cameras and lenses make the job easier, faster and more reproducible.  But a simple point and shoot camera can certainly do a great job for the average person in most circumstances.   It’s like this – buying a new car with GPS, back-up camera, DVD player, heated seats and Bluetooth capability might be nice, but my 7 year old van still gets me where I’m going.

7 mile beach, Negril Jamaica (taken with my iPhone)

So the next question is, how can I take better photos if buying a new camera won’t help? Here are a few tips on how to improve the quality of your photographs with whatever camera you are using.

1)  Read the manual

Pretty boring advice I know, but understanding how your camera works and how to use the advanced features can only improve the photos that you make with it.  Things to pay attention to when reading your camera manual

  • how does your camera focus, and can you choose/change what the camera focusses on
  • how to make the on camera flash fire, or not depending on the image you are making
  • what preset functions are available (for example, my p&s camera has presets like beach, sunset, portrait, indoor, etc) and how and when to use them
  • how to adjust the exposure if your images are too light/too dark on the screen

2) Steady the camera

One of the first things that I learned when I bought my first film SLR many years ago was how to hold the camera steady so that motion blur would not be introduced when the shutter was pressed.  Of course there are other factors in preventing blur in your images and sometimes you might even want some blur for motion effects, but in general motion blur in a photo makes your subject look fuzzy and out of focus.  Back in the days when we were all using cameras that had a viewfinder, it was much easier to steady our cameras because they were pressed against our face, and our arms were bent along our sides to provide a nice base of support for the camera.  Now we hold our cameras out at arms length, waving them up and down as we try to frame the image on the screen and then wonder why most of our photos are out of focus.

Here are a couple of tips to help prevent motion blur in your photos

  • if you are using a camera that has a viewfinder, use it
  • if your camera does not have a viewfinder, try holding your camera closer to your face with your arms bent at a 90 degree angle and your elbows pressed tightly into your sides
  • hold your camera steady (even hold your breath!) when you depress the shutter

3) Pay attention to the light

Trying to sum up the subject of light in a paragraph is like trying to teach someone to cook in a 5 minute segment on the food network – it’s not gonna happen.  But let me give you a few things to think about the next time you pull out your camera…

  • look for the direction of light, and pay attention to shadows

Gradation of light and shadow in a photograph create depth, shape and interest in a photograph.  When the sun is high overhead (like at noon) on a cloudless day, shadow/light edges are hard and crisp and unflattering.  Early in the morning and late in the afternoon light is more directional and less harsh, and so makes for better photographs.  One of the best types of light for portraits is outdoor light on a cloudy day because the light is soft and diffuse, and no one is squinting.  Try to position your subject so that the light is coming across the face, creating gradation of light and shadow across features like the nose and chin for flattering portraits.

Late afternoon light (photo by Anita Woo)

  • use fill flash

If you must take photos in midday sun, try to find a location in the shade and then add a bit of fill light with your flash (here is where reading your camera manual will help out!)   If shade is not available, place your subjects with their back to the sun and add a bit of flash to open up the shadows on the faces.

Backlit portrait with fill flash (photo by Anita Woo)

4) Get closer

We’ve all taken snapshots where our subject is a tiny speck in the middle of a huge background.  Of course there are circumstances where we physically can’t get as close as we’d like to the action (your kid in the back row at the school Christmas concert…) and here is where owning a 300mm zoom lens would help.  But most of the time there is really no good reason to make an image where the subject does not occupy a good chunk of the frame.  So get closer.  Try getting in so close that you have just a head in the frame, or even just the eyes and nose.  Try shooting the same subject with different framing.  Place the subject in the centre, off centre to the right and left – and see which you like best.

Get close! (photo by Anita Woo)

5) Practice

I say this to my kids all the time – how do you get better at doing something??  Practice!  Take that camera out as often as you can and experiment with framing, angles, and lighting, try out all the different program modes so that you know how and when to use them, and just make a whole lot of images.  The advantage of today’s digital cameras is that our memory cards can hold hundreds of photos at a time and if they don’t work out we can just delete them, so there is virtually no cost to making as many photos as we have the time to make.  So get out there and shoot.

I hope that some of these tips will help you to improve your photo making, whether you own camera gear worth thousands of dollars, or a plastic toy camera worth a few bucks.  And remember, the best camera is the one you have with you!


About anitawoo

A photographer & mom with a passion for capturing life's moments with my camera.
This entry was posted in Anita Woo, Photography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Making better photos

  1. EternalForms says:

    All wonderful tips and advice, Anita! The quote you used about “SEEING” is so pertinent. Sometimes, all I have with me is my little point-and-shoot, but it is so easily portable and not bulky like my DSLR that I am able to get some great photos with it precisely because I have it when the “I must take this photo” feeling takes a hold of me. A great photo doesn’t mean you have to have the most expensive camera and lenses, rather, it takes a careful cultivation of feeling the image first. Great post.

    • anitawoo says:

      I think that really seeing the world is probably the most important thing that I have learned from being a photographer. There is such beauty in ordinary things, and taking a few moments to appreciate that, for me, adds so much to my life. Thank you for your thoughtful comments!

  2. Great blog Anita! Some really great tips here. Can’t wait to grab my little Canon when I get home and play around.

  3. Diana Harris says:

    Fantastic blog Anita! I’m ready to get out there and shoot!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s