It seems everybody's capturing images these days: from people who use fancy, expensive digital SLR cameras, to people who have tried-and-true point-and-shoots, to toy camera enthusiasts, to smartphone camera users. In fact, as I sit here and think about it, I don't think I know a single person in my life who doesn't take a photograph at some point in any given month, even if that person wouldn't think about calling himself a "photographer." Cameras have come such a long way nowadays, that it is truly possible for anyone to become really skilled at photography.
But just because it's possible for anyone to get good at photography doesn't mean it will actually happen.
I've noticed recently that are tons of resources out there on how to shoot with any particular camera, whether it's an SLR or a camera phone; hell, even I, back in 2010, I wrote a post with 7 photography tips for anyone who really wants to learn how to take good photographs (although, to be honest, the title is a bit misleading: those tips were primarily for people who were particularly interested in learning how to use a dSLR camera). But today, I thought I'd update my previous post, sharing my top 10 photography tips, no matter what kind of camera you're using. Because it turns out there are things you can do to improve your shots that are pretty universal, whether you're shooting with a smart phone or a $36,000 digital Hasselblad. So before you start shelling out some cash for photography resources, try doing the following first -- once you get the hang of these tips, you should be able to more specifically pinpoint what additional in-depth photography information you need.
1. Learn your machine.
I know, I know -- reading the manual is so boring, isn't it? But the fact is that every camera -- whether it's your iPhone or your Nikon or your antique Polaroid -- has a few tricks up its sleeve, and you're selling yourself short of you don't at least become familiar with everything it's capable of doing. Keep in mind, I'm not necessarily saying you need to read every bit of documentation that is enclosed in the box or is published on the web; but honestly, a good 15-20 minute scan about what your camera can do will do wonders for your photography. This is also true of any camera phone apps that you download -- a few minutes of research will be worth the trouble, I promise.
2. Look for the light.
I know I've mentioned this several times in the past; however, this, my friend, is the number one trick that all good photographers do: they make the light the main character in their shots. In fact, the light is the first thing you should examine when taking a shot: look for the kinds of shadows it's casting, whether it's dappled and causing strange patterns, or actually adding texture to the image (for example, in the shot above, notice how the many spotlights in the restaurant add to the mood of the shot). Light is everything, no matter what kind of camera you're using, and it's always a great idea to make sure you look at it.
3. When it comes to ambient light, remember: natural light is always truer than artificial light.
Cameras, no matter what kind you're using, tend to be calibrated so that they read natural light the absolute truest -- incandescent light (the kind that is probably illuminating your home) tends to read very yellow, and fluorescent light (the kind that was probably illuminating the dressing room the last time you went swimsuit shopping) tends to read very green. This isn't to say that you might not want the images to be yellow or green; however, if you want the image be as true to what you're seeing as possible, then try to move your subject closer to a window or outside, rather than illuminating it with a lamp, or by turning on the overhead lights. (Note: when it comes to flash, understand that while the flash is calibrated to have the tone of sunlight, it won't fall like natural light unless you're very, very good. Learning how to use a flash properly is a whole other discussion.)
4. Pick a subject.
This sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, but I think one of the biggest mistakes that I see is when a photographer has failed to pick a subject. Here's what I mean:
Let's say, for example, you want to take a photograph of your family in front of the Grand Canyon. To do this, you can do it two ways:
a) Make your family the subject of your image, in which case, have your family gather around, smile, and get close enough to them that the viewer will actually see their expressions of their faces. The Grand Canyon will be behind them, and you should frame the shot so the viewer is still able to tell that it's the Grand Canyon, but you're not going to get the whole Grand Canyon. Still, for the viewer of your photograph, it's clear that what you're showing is your family, having a whale of a time in the beautiful setting.
b) Make the Grand Canyon the subject of your image; in which case, back up far enough from your family so that you can maximize the vastness of the Grand Canyon, and the presence of your family will simply add scale to the image. In fact, you might even have your family turn their backs to you, and look out into the Grand Canyon, which will help the viewer's eye focus on what the subject of your image is. But if you have your family standing facing you, and they're just simply tiny smiling dots in your final image, you're going to find yourself frustrated that they look so small, and the viewer of your image will be confused as to what he's supposed to look at.
Similarly, if you're taking an image of a large, scenic landscape, still make a point of picking out something in the landscape that you want to be your focal point -- the sun in the horizon, or a particular tree, or the columns of the church façade outside your Washington D.C. hotel window (like in my iPhone shot above), or whatever. Picking a subject will help you frame the shot.
Okay, so now that you've picked a subject:
5. Don't get too far away.
It's not uncommon for new photographers to stand too far away from their subjects. Resist that urge -- get as close to the subject as you dare, so that it's incredibly clear what your subject is. Fill the frame with your subject, if you can. Remember this: err on the side of being close.
With the only exception being ...
6. Don't get too close.
Here's the thing: every lens, no matter what kind of camera we're talking about, has a point where if you get too close to your subject, the lens won't be able to focus. The only lenses that can get really, really nice and close are macro lenses (and even they can get too close to a subject, so that they are unable to focus). As you get close to whatever it is you're shooting, be mindful of how the lens is focusing. If it stops focusing, back up a bit.
7. Don't ignore the background.
Another common mistake: focusing so much on the subject of your shot, you forget to look behind him or her, to make sure your image isn't going to be spoiled by garbage cans, or obscene gestures, or whatever. Whenever you're setting up a shot, before you squeeze the trigger, look behind your subject: make sure it's clear of anything you don't want in the shot, check to see the main colour behind your subject works with your subject (for example, I loved how the green behind Alex complemented the blue of her dress, above), see if there's anything extraneous hanging around in the background, and adjust your shot accordingly. Nothing's more disheartening than looking at the results of what you thought was a perfect image, only to find that a stray object in the background marred what you were trying to achieve.
8. Focus on the eyes.
There's a reason they say that the eyes are the windows to the soul -- because they are. No matter what else you do, or what kind of camera you're shooting with, always make sure that the eyes of your subject(s) are as sharp as possible, even if nothing else is. It will absolutely make your photograph.
9. Process the shot before you squeeze the shutter.
It can be very tempting to think to yourself, "I can fix that in Photoshop," but the truth is that it's far more work to fix an issue on your computer after the fact, than doing so with your camera. If something unwanted is in your frame, change your perspective. If there's a weird shadow falling on your subject, then move the subject. Do whatever it is you have to do to make your photo as perfect as possible before you squeeze the shutter -- you'll be grateful afterwards.
10. Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot.
Hands down, the very best way to improve your photography is to shoot as often as you possibly can. Create a practice of photography. Shoot daily if you can. Share your images -- on Facebook, on Instagram, or start a photoblog, so that you're incentivized to share your best, and so that you can get feedback from your viewers. Because here's the truth: there is nothing I can tell you, nor is there anything you can possibly read that will teach you more about photography than actually going out there and shooting as often as possible.
So those are my top 10 -- what about you? Have you found anything works particularly well for you in improving your shots? And while we're on the subject, what's your camera of pleasure?
(And incidentally, tomorrow I head to Park City, Utah, for the EVO Conference -- and as it happens, I'll be leading a photowalk while I'm there. If you'll be there, I hope you'll join me!)