“A good snapshot stops a moment from running away.”
– Eudora Welty
Have you ever wanted to take better pictures, but were unsure how to do it? Here are a few basic tips to get you started. It does not matter whether you are using a fancy single lens reflex camera or one of the newer compact cameras. Even some of the latest cellular telephone cameras can achieve amazing results. Knowing a few of the basics will help you capture the ideal photograph and earn oohs and aahs from your friends and family. It is not that hard and with a wee bit of practice and experience, anyone can take better pictures.
Nikon D100 – 85mm f1.8 lens – ISO 100 / 1/350 / f10.0
Snapshots versus Images
What kind of results do you want? Knowing the end result will help you to close the gap from where you are today and get you to where you want to be.
Most folks take snapshots. These pictures are meant to simply capture a moment in time without serious regard to composition or creativity. These are the people who typically are heard to say, “I never take good pictures“. However, this is because they have stacked the deck against themselves before they even start. They are not prepared.
Cameras today are all very easy to use and highly intuitive. They are designed to fit the hand and promote the taking of stable shots. But, you still need to spend a few minutes to read the manual, play with the camera, get familiar with its knobs and buttons, experiment with it, and get to know how it all works. If the moment arises and you want to snap a picture, you are already in a losing proposition if you have to figure out how to work your camera before the moment passes. It just will not work. So, sit down with a tea or coffee and spend 30 to 60 minutes with your camera and familiarize yourself with how it works. Read the manual is the best advice anyone can hear.
Some people want to create amazing images, these are higher end snapshots with some creativity woven into them for good measure. Creating images requires the same effort to know your camera, but it may also means that you need a camera with some extra features and to understand how to use these features as manual settings. Beyond the camera itself, you want to take a few minutes to consider the image before you snap it. You want to look where the light is coming from, what is in the background, how to best capture the subject, what settings to use, and how to set the lens for the best framing of the subject. Your goal is to aim a little higher than basic snapshots so the results are better and that takes a little more effort than just taking rapid fire pictures and hoping for the best. Hope is not a strategy, you need to invest some effort to achieve great results.
Nikon D300 – 28mm f1.4 lens – ISO 800 / 1/100 / f6.0
Photography is a wonderful vehicle to tell a story and share emotions. It conveys to the viewer feelings such as sadness, happiness, great joy, or a melancholy mood. It can reveal both good and evil. Emotions are important to good photography. They stimulate the viewer’s reaction to the situation; to what they see in your image. Often pictures feed memories and amplify current emotions built upon past feelings. This can only be achieved if the picture effectively communicates what was felt in the past. The picture must tell a story to the viewer.
The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Just like a good image drives reactions to ponder and digest. It causes the viewer to ask questions. It makes the viewer ask: Why? What? Who? When? Where? Remember, Ansel Adams once said that “there are always two people in every picture; the photographer and the viewer“. So, take pictures with the viewer in mind.
Nikon D1X – 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 lens @ 300mm – ISO 100 / 1/500 / f11.0
Photography takes an instant out of time, forever altering life by holding it still. So, how do you define art? Is photography art to you? Some say yes, others no. Remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, an image that astounds one person may bore another. One of the great joys in life is the human diversity of opinion. Each person can say what they like and what they do not like, and all opinions are equally valid and should be welcome when it comes to art and creativity.
Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts (Evans). So, do not over think it all. Excessive thinking can be the destroyer of creativity. If you over think your photographic endeavours, then they will most certainly suffer. You can not try to do things, you simply must do them. Remember, every great artist that the world has known began their journey as an amateur. You do not take a great photograph, you make it. Just like you cook a great meal, drive a great race, sew a wonderful sweater, or teach a great class. It takes time to perfect the art of whatever you wish to do well. It takes effort and trial and error to evolve in any activity, just as it does in photography. But, most of all, creativity requires a careful balance between serendipitous spontaneity and careful planning. These two aspects are opposite to each other, but need to be pursued in harmony to seek great results.
Sometimes, creativity is not really required in every photograph. Some pictures are taken for technical reasons and are used for the simple recording of history, for record-keeping, and for future reference. Do these images need to be high art? Not really. But, they still need to be technically sound, perhaps even more so than artistic images. Why, because these images need to be faithful and trusted, so when they are archived and recalled years later, they can tell the story of the image, albeit not a creative one.
Nikon D800 – 70-200mm f2.8 lens @ 200mm – ISO 100 / 1/250 / f8.0
In my own photographs seen in this article. I am often accused of leading the viewer’s eye. Of forcing them to look only where I want them to look. I do this with the use of longer telephoto lenses and excessive use of cropping techniques. Not everyone appreciates this approach, but it is what I like. To me, it is simple. I isolate the subject and this approach helps me to tell the story better. It is my style.
Others have different approaches. Others allow the viewer’s eye to wonder. They let the viewer look wherever they want to look. I think of these photographers as being fans of wide angle lenses. To me, these images are often too busy and confusing to look at. I am unsure what the main theme of the image is, as there are just too many things to look at and to consider. However, in landscape photography this is exactly what you want to do. So whatever your main style is, you need to know the other schools of image composition as some pictures demand different styles to be used to achieve the best results.
“The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.”
How you frame the image is critical. Most snapshot enthusiasts place the subject right square in the centre of the shot. But, good photographers use the rule of thirds (see below). The rule of thirds divides the frame into nine equal parts, much like a checker board. If you use the lines that divide these squares to align your subject offset of the centre of the image, then it can be more interesting to look at and give the viewer more to consider. The giraffe picture used as the cover image above is deliberately offset to stimulate the viewer whereas the basketball shot below is deliberately centred and the action is the important attribute for this image.
Nikon D3 – 70-200mm f2.8 lens @ 150mm – ISO 800 / 1/60 / f4.0
There are many places for you to learn the technical aspects of your camera. The owner’s manual is the best place to start. Leading photographic companies like Hasseleblad, Leica, Sony, Panasonic, Pentax, Nikon and Canon all do a wonderful job of providing well documented instructions describing how to use your camera. So, I will not spend too much time defining basic terms like aperture, shutter speed, and focus. Instead, let’s consider the effects of these adjustments and how they can add value to your creativity.
The Rule of Thirds
Nikon D2X – 135mm f2.8 lens – ISO 125 / 1/80 / f5.0
- Focus is critical to your photographic success. What is in focus and what is out of focus is a part of the creative process. Use focus to guide the viewer’s eye. When shooting a portrait, be sure to focus on the subject’s eyes, When you look at someone, you look at their eyes. So, a good tip is to set your focus on the subject’s eyes, otherwise, focus wherever you want the viewer to look. Many cameras permit you to set focus, lock it, and then move to frame the shot in a different manner. This is a great feature to aid your creativity. A number of higher end cameras and even some simple point and shoot cameras have computerized focus capabilities that do facial recognition and then sets the focus precisely on the subject’s face for you. These focus features are great for quick snapshots.
- Exposure is mainly a technical feature that adjusts the right settings to capture a good picture with the correct balance of light and the best detail in the image. But, exposure is so much more than just the settings for optimum exposure. It can result in more impact to the image than a simple adjustment of the combination of aperture and shutter speed provides.
- The aperture creates depth of field (DOF) and this is a powerful effect to help lead the viewer’s eye. In DOF, you can narrow the depth of the field of focus to bring some aspects into sharp clear view and blur other aspects so as to de-emphasis them. DOF is the foreground to background plane of view. The blurred background is called bokeh. The definition of bokeh is “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light”. If you look again to the first image of the giraffe, you will see that the greenery in the background is out of focus which drives the eye to the giraffe. The same is true of the little white dog in the rule of thirds example. This is effective use of DOF and the result is soft bokeh.
- The shutter contributes to the exposure too. But, it also effects the manner in which the camera captures motion in an image. A fast shutter speed will freeze motion whereas a slower shutter speed will blur motion. Both effects are powerful creative attributes for the artist within you. In the basketball scene above, the players and the ball are all frozen in place as they jump for the hoop. It is the same for the polar bear triptych images whereby the water droplets thrown from the bear’s face are stopped mid-air to capture the action. These images use a faster shutter speed. In the image below of the fast flowing water, the water is blurred as its rushes over the barrier. The water is much faster than the speed of the shutter, thus the blurred effect depicts motion.
- Light is the most critical aspect of photography. A camera is simply a tool to capture light. Too often we see pictures of people with the sun in the background which results in a shadow on the face and a flat undesirable picture. Light needs to be managed for best results. But, how do you move the sun? You can not, so you move the subject, or add light to enhance the exposure. Light is reflected off of the most unusual surfaces so almost anything will suffice to backfill an image foreground. One the easiest tools available to every photographer is the built-in flash on the camera. Even smartphones have a simplistic flash, so use it. Most feel that it is counter-intuitive to use a flash outdoors while taking a picture of a loved one with some majestic vista behind them. But the flash will augment the daylight and fill the front of the subject. Give it a try. Another important aspect of using a fill-in flash is to create shape and dimension within the image. Most snapshots are flat and two dimensional. To create dramatic 3D images, the flash will help to create shape and roundness by casting soft shadows or softening existing hard shadows. The flash should be used a lot outdoors, perhaps more than you might think. It is a powerful tool to bring your travel snapshots to life.
- How we frame the image is important too. Where you place the subject in the shot will say a lot about the importance of the subject. Framing will drive the eye to the subject, especially if you offset the image using the rule of thirds. The picture of the little dog on the grass above has yellow grid lines shown to represent the boundaries for the rule of thirds. You can see that the dog was set to the right side of the frame so there was more space in the direction that it was going then from where it came, this helps to indicate that the dog is in motion and is headed some place.
- Today, modern cameras can be fitted with a stunning variety of optics to help capture your image, If you have the money, then there is a lens available to do whatever you can dream. The primary camera vendors offer vast assortments of quality lenses. As well, third-party manufacturers like Sigma, Tamron, Zeiss, and Tokina make interesting optics to fit most brands of camera. Some of the after-market optics rival the quality of the original manufacturers listed elsewhere in this article. Prime lenses are of a fixed focal length and offer optimized performance, while zoom lenses offer greater focal length flexibility but are often compromised from an optical performance perspective. Lenses today cover a wide range from ultra wide angle to super telephoto. Specialized lenses are available for macro photography and other unique lenses with tilt/shift functions help to correct perspective issues. The options are almost unlimited. Lenses are made from many forms of glass and various mixtures of plastics to create optical elements that can produce sharp images. More and more we are seeing image stabilization solutions incorporated into the lens to produce rock steady shots. Computerization of the lens and the seamless integration with the camera body bring it all together into one holistic package to deliver excellent results regardless of the skills and knowledge of the person taking the picture.
- It is a simple comment to recommend the use of a stable tripod for most pictures. Tripod use is a photography fundamental that will yield greatly enhanced results. However, for most pictures, it may not be practical to use or carry a tripod. But, if you want great pictures, use one.
Nikon D1X – 28-70mm f2.8 lens @ 70mm – ISO 100 / 1/320 / f8.5
Sometimes, a snapshot is all that you need to capture a fond memory and record it forever. This way as we grow older, we can look back with great fondness at the many wonderful times spent with good friends while pursing great adventures. It allows us to remember. It brings a warm smile to both the face and the heart. The foundation of the past underpins the creation of our lives going forward. It is important, and so are basic snapshots. Do not disparage simple pictures just because they will not all be great art. But, more than you realize the value of these snapshot images will be close to the heart.
Nikon D2X – 28-70mm f2.8 lens @ 60mm – ISO 100 / 1/125 / f8.0
As a final comment. it is recommended to develop a methodology for saving and archiving your photos. In this modern consumer driven world, things are becoming disposable. The use of photo albums is being lost and images are stored in somewhat disarray on computer hard drives. If the drive fails then the pictures are lost. So, back-ups are critical to preserving the library of images. A good colour printer is useful to build photo albums but having a back up drive may make an old photo more valuable than you can imagine later, especially if someone close passes away and these memories become personally important. So, consider how to best protect these valuable assets.
Michael Martin is a business guy who holds many passions outside of his work life. He possesses a diverse set of interests that include, but are not limited to: travel, sailing, animal welfare, photography, camping, family, life-long learning, a passionate lover of all things technology, and now, a pilot too.
All photographs in this article were taken by the author and all rights are reserved. December 25, 2014