Improving Your Image – A Guide to Taking Better Photographs

Photographs are all around us. From advertisements, to Facebook, to pictures on restaurant menus, we live in a world painted in the color of images.

The art of taking a still image is something that deserves to be learned beyond those with dreams of working in photography. Pictures are visual memories, and with the scope of today’s high resolution photographic technologies extending all the way to the phones we carry around with us at all times, the ability to make these visual memories is becoming easier by the minute. Sites like Flickr and Facebook are loaded with pictures, personal and artistic, and the world is becoming used to having nearly every second captured in still form.

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With this growing number of images comes a growing demand for image making skill. Pretty much anyone can take a picture nowadays, but not anyone can be a photographer. The proof is in the pudding. Composition, color and content are all key aspects good photographers keep in mind when they shoot. Images with practiced and knowledgable skill behind them stand out. They make a difference to a viewer.

Whether you’re an experienced camera owner or a first time iPhone user, understanding how to take a better photograph is something you’ll find use for in your daily life. From capturing important family moments to the beautiful sunset on your drive home from work, the art of taking photographs is a skill worth learning for all.

Composition

Regardless of how you want to approach photography, composition is a crucial component. Well composed images are more appealing to the eye, gain more viewing traffic and are better at telling the narrative that the image is waiting to share.

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How you frame a picture is key, it’s the plot outline of your visual story. On a basic level, it’s deciding what you put into the shot. Did you make it level? Did you include everything you wanted? Did you cut off the top of grandma’s head? But composition is also important in what’s not in the picture as well.

Understanding what you don’t want in the picture is just as important as knowing what belongs. For instance, a nice family photo can be ruined by a strange man on roller skates in the background, or a poorly timed photo-bomb. Repositioning yourself to take the image without the undesired aspect, or even using something in the image such as a tree or grandma to cover it, can help create a stronger, more powerful picture for your scrap book.

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Get low, get high, anything other than eye-to-eye

If you want to make an image look more interesting, you physically need to maneuver yourself into an interesting position to take that image. The tendency for most people taking an image is to stand flat in front of it, holding the camera at eye level and pressing the shutter button. However, the problem with that is, it’s boring. We’re used to seeing things from eye level all the time. If you look at most eye catching images, you’ll find that’s not how the photographer had themselves positioned.

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Don’t be afraid to move around to get a new angle. If your subject is a crazy, frantic toddler, get down on their level. Show the later viewers what life at 3 feet tall was like with your image. Subsequently, you can also get higher to frame the subject. When taking shots of of big groups, grabbing a chair and elevating yourself above them not only helps provide a refreshing new angle, but also helps you see everyone’s smiling (or not smiling) face.

Understand your equipment 

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This is especially important for those just entering the world of photography. Understanding how to use that shiny new camera is the first step in making beautiful images with it. All the buttons, knobs and fancy menu systems may seem intimidating at first, but there are plenty of resources to help you learn how they work.

Every camera comes with a manual, but reading that can be like trying to learn Chinese. They’re overly technical and incredibly dull. However, there are plenty of books available for how-to’s on every kind of camera, as well as numerous internet options as well, some with easy-to-watch and humorous elements to them such as Kai in the DigitalRev Youtube series. And once you learn the basic functions of a camera, it doesn’t change much from model to model, just button placement.

Don’t shudder at shutter

Shutter speed is nothing to be too afraid of. When looking at a camera and seeing all the numbers, especially if you aren’t a particularly math minded person, seeing fractions thrown in front of you can make you weak in the knees.

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Represented as a fraction, such as 1/250th, shutter speed directly relates to how long the shutter is open, exposing the film negative or digital censor to light. So a shutter speed of 1/250th means the shutter is open and allowing light in on the censor for 1/250th of a second. A shutter speed of 1/50th is slower, meaning the shutter was open for 1/50th of a second. A shutter speed of 1/3 is very slow, and means the shutter was open for 1 second.

Understanding shutter speed is important, because it can drastically change your image. Slower shutter speeds will cause motion blur in images, which could be fatal for sports or fast action photos. Similarly, that technique could be used for a stylistic approach, such as having the shutter open for 1 minute and waving lights in front of the camera, which causes light trails to appear in the image. For shots that slow, a tripod is necessary unless you’re super human and can hold a camera perfectly still for that long.

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As a general rule, shutter speeds under 1/50th tend to get blurry if they’re handheld. A second general rule to follow is try not to use a shutter speed that is lower than the length of the lens you’re using. So if you’re using a 50mm lens, shooting down to 1/50th will be fine. However, if you’re using a telephoto 180mm lens, shooting at 1/50th will provide blurry shots. The best case scenario would be to shoot around 1/200th as your slowest speed for clear shots.

Become familiar with aperture

Although all photographic processes are important in taking better pictures, understanding aperture is is the most instrumental in making your pictures stand out. Good control over your aperture is how you can make your photos pop, giving them a “blurred background” appearance or getting every single little aspect in focus.

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Aperture itself is like the eye of the camera, determining the amount of light a lens lets in and signified by f plus a number. A smaller number is a larger aperture, which lets more light in. So f1.8 is larger than f22, with f1.8 having the lens open wide and f22 having the opening be nearly a pin prick.

This ties into depth of field, which is most easily described as how much is in focus in the shot. A shallow depth of field comes with a larger aperture, such as f1.8. This means there is less in focus. When you see a portrait of a person and it has that blurred background look, that’s shallow depth of field, taken at a large aperture.

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Smaller apertures, such as f22 offer a wider depth of field, meaning more is in focus. Used in a lot of landscape and architecture work where the photographer wants every detail shown, smaller apertures require more light as they let less in through the lens. Usually when shooting at a very small aperture the photographer will be using a tripod to keep the camera steady, as longer shutter speeds are needed.

Get to know light

In photography, light is everything. It’s how an image is made, by the light hitting the sensor or film negative. Interesting lighting situations yield interesting photographs, and poor lighting will result in boring or completely useless shots. When taking photographs, it’s a constant battle for good light.

Is it direct, bright sunlight overhead? Chances are there will be heavy shadows, which could hide the faces of your subjects. Is it cloudy and kind of dim? That makes for even lighting, which means no shadows and more detail. Is it pitch black? So is your image.

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You can rely on daylight to photograph, or if you want better results, you can simulate your own light using strobes and modeling lights which cost money and are a pain to lug around. However just understanding how lighting works, and how you can use the daylight provided can make a world of difference in your images.

In the end, though you may get angry and frustrated with it, light is your friend. Without it, you wouldn’t even have photography. You should get to know it.

Just keep shooting

Photography is not an exact science. Even if you get your set up perfect, you’re in the right moment with the right subject and you press the shutter at the perfect time, something can go wrong. The person may blink, or someone could bump you, or you’re just a fraction of a second too late and the kiss is over. The remedy to this? Keep shooting.

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This doesn’t mean follow a spray and pray method, but don’t be afraid to keep pressing that shutter button. Professional photographers don’t only take the final shots they later show off. They take hundreds, if not thousands. Dennis Vandal, a photojournalism teacher at the University of Massachusetts would always tell his classes to “shoot heavy.” In the digital age, we can easily afford it, as memory cards aren’t nearly as expensive as film.

When photographing people, shooting heavy is a useful tactic because it gives them time to let their guard down. When you’re holding that camera with the huge lens and flash on it and pointing it at people like a gun, they get nervous. Or if they have any experience being in front of a camera, like as a model, they get into their modeling zone, and that genuine smile they have is now overshadowed the by tried and true mirror-practiced smirk. And what you get from either of those experiences is a not-genuine image.

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If anyone ever tells you “boy, you sure take a lot of pictures,” then you’re doing it right.

Take your camera out with you, everywhere

You can’t take pictures if you don’t have your camera. The most important aspect of taking better pictures is to take pictures to begin with. You would be amazed at how many interesting things you can find yourself doing when you follow the desire to photograph something. Have camera, will tress pass.

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So go get that camera of the shelf in your room, it’s not going to take any pictures for you while it’s gathering dust. Bring it with you to lunch, to class, to parties. Sometimes the best photographs are found en route to something else, and many times they can’t be recreated. You can’t photograph the moment if you don’t have your camera.

And if nothing else, a camera is a great conversation piece.

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