How to take good photos
The title of this piece is over-confident, as I don't know that much about it. Nor can following a set of rules ensure that you will take good photos. Anyway, these hints may be useful. Most of them apply to both digital and film.
1. Get in closer. I think this is rule number one. Let your subject stand out by making it big. Use zoom, macro, your legs, cropping or whatever to make the subject of your photo stand out as much as possible. If you are interested in a detail then just photograph it, not the whole object.
2. As I look critically at my photos I often admonish myself, "Take care, take more care". Both while shooting and when reviewing your images it is a good idea to think how they could be improved. Of course, one should photograph instinctively as well, and many situations require rapid snapping, but do reflect on how you can do it better once you have taken a few shots. My music teacher used to say, "If you want ordinary results use ordinary methods. If you want extraordinary results use extraordinary methods."
3. Composition is one of the basic skills, so try to cultivate this every time you press the shutter. Cropping is also important, whether in the PC, or with scissors (if all you can do is play with the print). Be clear in your mind exactly what is the subject of your image and what bits only distract from it. Avoid fitting too much into the frame. If you want to photograph two things then take two photos. While framing the shot try to be as aware of the background as of the subject, eg do you want a light or a dark background. Try to eliminate power lines, litter, cars and other man-made objects from scenery shots. A rule of thumb for composition is that the main subject should not be in the middle of the frame. A common mistake is including too much foreground, especially roads and lawns.
4. Think in terms of light. The more I photograph the more I realise how crucial lighting is to the final image. Be aware of shadows and speckling, as these will be more noticeable in the photo. The usual rule is, of course, to keep the sun behind you, but use backlighting where appropriate. The most dramatic shots are usually in the light of early morning or late afternoon. Bright sunlight is ideal for many subjects, especially if you want vivid colours, but beware of dark shadows and highlight clipping (pure white with no detail). People come out poorly in strong light, due to both shadows and to squinting (fill-flash in daylight can eliminate the shadows). Both film and digital are much less tolerant of lighting differences than is the human eye. If a subject is half in sun and half in shadow then it will not come out well.
5. Keep trying, repeat the shot to improve it, analyse what went wrong or what could be better. You will learn from mistakes - so start making them! Even if you have been photographing for many years, pretend that you are a beginner, as this is the best way to improve. Take a few extra shots - sometimes the last one of the shoot is the best. There is no shame in making 100 photos out of which only one is good. Taking photographs is like asking questions. The only stupid question is the one you did not ask, but should have.
6. Invite luck. Give new subjects and lighting conditions a try. Experiment, fiddle with camera settings, lighting angles, shooting angles (including high and low), unusual compositions, do tricks. Donít treat the camera as a serious tool but play with it, have fun with it. Take the camera with you whenever practicable. Donít assume that a shot you can take today will be possible tomorrow as well! Be an opportunist - a good image can be caught in unlikely places. Look at every scene from the point of view of photography, even when you don't have a camera with you. In my view, good photography is less about learning how to use a camera than about learning to see. Learning to see is like learning to listen. It involves becoming active and receptive.
7. Make it a habit to check the shot. One of the best features of digital photography is that you can immediately look at the photo. Check the composition and especially the exposure - is the subject too dark or too light? Some cameras flash blown highlights in alternating black and white - this is very useful for detecting over-exposure. Check that the shot was taken at reasonable settings of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Download your photos to a PC as soon as practicable, as only on the PC screen will you see exactly how they came out. The sooner you get feedback on what you did the more likely you are to learn from it.
8. A good photograph has two strengths: esthetic appeal and technical correctness, so don't neglect either. Be aware of the camera basics, which are the same for digital and film. These are shutter speed, aperture, sensitivity (ISO value) and focus. Make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to prevent blurring and that the depth of field (which depends on lens focal length, distance of the subject and aperture used) is sufficient. A small depth of field is useful for isolating the subject from its background. As a rule, focus on the closest object. Hold the camera as steadily as you can with both hands and use supports when they are available. If you want really sharp pictures then a tripod is a good idea. Be aware of the limitations of using the flash, which gives a harsh, washed-out effect. Use the camera's red-eye reduction for flash photos of people.
9. Pause and take time. If you photograph in a hurry then the results will reflect this. Examine various angles, look at the play of light, keep moving around. Pick out details of interest. Look down at the ground and up at the sky. Examine the scene at different scales, from macro and telephoto to wide vistas. Use the zoom. Plan your shots rather than just snapping whatever takes your momentary fancy.
10. Find your own subject. If you have a passionate interest in what you have chosen to photograph, this will help produce your best work. For me, the most fascinating subject has been water, so far, but I am seeking others.
11. Back home, look at your images with a keen eye. Part of being a good photographer is not just the ability to take good shots but to recognise them afterwards, whether they were due to skill, luck or - for the best shots - both. Occasionally, I find something in the image when looking at it full-size on the screen that I did not see when I took it. This may be more interesting than what I intended to be the subject of the shot. Most digital images are much larger than the screen resolution on a PC, so have a look at the image at 100% magnification (ie not downsized to fit the screen). You may find something that catches your fancy, especially in macro shots. Crop accordingly. You can crop with great precision on the PC, perhaps creating a completely different composition.
12. Digital post processing offers enormous possibilities for correcting, improving or even transforming your shots. Sometimes a photo that looks mediocre, badly framed or technically flawed as it comes from your camera can be made to look good, or perhaps even outstanding. The PC is a wonderful darkroom where you can easily accomplish what is difficult or impossible for professionals to do with film. Learn how to use Photoshop or the PC tools at your disposal. Make sure you know the basics: how to crop, improve exposure, sharpness and contrast. See UsingPhotoshop.
13. Learn all the ins and outs of your camera. Read carefully through the manual twice. Donít just read it, but actually try every option that you might find a use for. Otherwise, it wonít be part of your repertoire when you are out shooting. Make sure you know what every button does, even if you think you donít need a particular feature. You may find that many of the features that look abstruse and convoluted are actually useful in certain situations, such as night-time portraits, self-timed exposures, back-lit subjects or action shots.
14. Look at other people's work, go to exhibitions, ask friends for tips, and read up photography on the Net, eg Phil Douglisí site.
15. Buy a digital camera if you don't already have one! See DigitalvsFilm and ThreeCameras. Get better equipment - provided this is justified. You should upgrade when the limitations of your camera begin to frustrate you significantly. If you like close-up or telephoto shots (who doesn't?) then get the necessary equipment.
Written 3 Sep 2006
Last updated 3 Feb 2009