How to take a better picture

Published 3:19 pm Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ever been here before or in a similar situation? Imagine you are at a family reunion and there are family members there you haven’t seen in years. You want to remember them and that day, so you take pictures, lots of pictures.

Then you see Aunt Mary. She’s quite the character and she was your favorite aunt, so you go to take a picture of her. You tell her, in front of the garden is a nice spot, and to stand there. Then you walk about 15 feet away, and holding the camera as they are designed, horizontally, you center her in the view finder and snap the picture.

Excited the next day, thinking you can enlarge the picture of Aunt Mary to give as a Christmas gift, you take the files in to be developed.

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When you get them back, you look at the picture and what you see is Aunt Mary alright, in front of the garden. But she looks so tiny. And she squinting because the sun is in her face. Oh, and next to her is the lawn mower off to the side, and the bumper of the truck is showing in the lower corner. And there’s the dog chasing the cat through the garden behind her, and to Aunt Mary’s left, little Johnny is snatching sister Jean’s doll away. Oh, and don’t forget the tree that appears to be growing out of her head. You wonder what happened, after all, you didn’t see all of that when you took the picture, but when they came back — there it all was.

We’ve all been there. How many time have you taken pictures in to be printed sure that what you have are masterpieces, or at least good, and when you get them back, you’re disappointed? I sure have.

As a professional photographer and former photography instructor at a community college in upstate New York, I use to teach several courses for Adirondack Community College from Photography 101 (Darkroom and basic black & white); to Photography 107 (Studio); to Photography 108 (Portraiture.) But, one of the classes I taught for their continuing education department was “How To Take A Better Picture.” In it, I taught students what to look at when taking an image, what to avoid, and how to get better control of their images.

During the four-two hour sessions, I gave them 10 easy guidelines to follow. Here are a few of those guidelines to help you take a better picture.

First, and foremost, turn off your time/date stamp feature. While it can be convenient for documenting an image, if you really want to be somewhat serious about your photography, that time stamp can ruin a potentially beautiful image. Think of it this way — you are on vacation, let’s say on a cruise ship, and you are standing on the bow of the ship and the sun, which is the most beautiful blazing sphere of orange and gold you have ever seen, is beginning to meld with the expansive horizon of aqua blue water. You are in awe at the beauty you are witnessing and wonder how it can get any better. As you pick up your camera to take a picture of it, you notice a sailboat gliding gracefully across the tranquil seas. You can’t ask for better. You pick up your camera, look through the view finder, and snap the picture, pleased to not only have your camera with you at that moment, but to have taken an image worth enlarging and framing. Maybe you can even sell it to a travel magazine, or the cruise line, or give framed prints as gifts.

You take the files to the store to have the images from your vacation printed and when the prints come back, there in the lower right hand corner, in great big numbers, is the date. Not so great. What could be an award-winning image is suddenly just a snap shot. And there it is on all your images.

So turn the time/date stamp feature off. You never know when that sunset is going to be one-of-a-kind, or your daughter runs her fastest time in barrels, or a bee lazily sits on a huge sunflower in a picture perfect moment.

Once that is done, if you follow these simple guidelines your images are sure to improve.

Keep it simple.

Before snapping that picture, look and see what is in the frame of the view finder. Don’t add unnecessary elements — the fledglings in the nest rising up to get a tasty morsel from their parent doesn’t need the swing set next to it included. Adding too many things in your picture tends to clutter it up. It is much like packing a suitcase. If you put too many things in it, finding what you want can be difficult. An image is the same way. You want the viewer to be able to tell right away what they are looking at, so keep it simple.

Get close, then get closer.

Too many of us tend to stand too far way when taking a picture and the results is often an image with much too much “stuff” in it. Zooming in on the subject gives the image more impact than just standing where you are and snapping the picture. If you must, take the picture from where you usually do and then step in closer a couple of steps or zoom in with your lens and snap the picture. Then take a step closer and shoot again.

Vary your viewpoints.

Too often we get lulled into taking our images from one point of view. Take out the last batch you had developed and look at them. Do you take them all from eye-level? Are more of them horizontal than anything else? Once you recognize if you tend to take your pictures pretty much all the same way, try looking at what you are photographing a little bit differently. If you seem to always shoot while at a standing position, try getting on a ladder and shooting down; or get down to a child’s level and take the picture from there. Look at other images for inspiration. Try some frames horizontal and then some vertical. Varying your point of view as often as you can will liven up your images.

Light is important.

The light on your subject will make or break the image. Portraits are warm when taken with a setting sun and “cool” when done in the early morning light. As a former wedding photographer, while the bride always wanted a bright sunny day for her special day, I loved overcast wedding days. The reason is the light. Outdoor portraits under a harsh mid-day sun is not kind to anyone. There are shadows and squinting eyes and a wash-out look to the images, especially portraits, taken in bright sunlight. Overcast days even out tones and lessen harsh shadows. Take the time to study how trees, and buildings, and grass look different following a rainstorm, or under the light from storm cloud covered skies.

Take the time to study the light on one particular object. Take a tree in your yard, or a barn you pass by every day, or a rusting car in the field, and look at it, really study it, under various lighting conditions and at various times of day. See how it looks different after a rainstorm; or with the rays from a rising sun caressing it’s surface, or from the soulful dusting of light cast by a full moon.

If you are taking portraits or a picture of someone and it is a bright sunny day, move them to a spot under the shade or turn their back to the sun. How light plays with the subject you are photographing will either make the image dramatic, or beautiful, or captivating; or it will make it dull, or boring, or ugly. Study the light.

The Rule of Thirds.

Almost every image should have the rule of thirds utilized. Too many of us center our subject in the frame, making for a rather uninteresting image. In the rule of thirds, frame your subject to the left or right of the center of the frame, placing them in one of the “thirds” of the picture. It doesn’t matter if you are shooting vertical or horizontal images, but utilizing the Rule of Thirds in your picture taking oftentimes creates images that are more interesting.

Try out these few simple guidelines and see if they help and I will follow with another article in a couple of weeks with some more tips on taking better pictures. Happy shooting!