If you have years of schooling and experience in photography, thousand-dollar lenses, and a half-million dollar studio, that’s great. But most of us have to make do with what we have. Many people make up for this by digitally altering the photographs they’ve taken — not as enhancement, but as repair. Wouldn’t it be nice to take a photograph that doesn’t need anything but a frame?
Here are six tips (and one piece of unsolicited advice) you can put into practice right now no matter what kind of camera you have. You’ll instantly improve your photographs and you might not have to spend as much time in your photo program fixing pictures. Most of these tips can be applied to landscapes and wildlife, but the primary focus (no pun intended) of this article is how to take better pictures of friends and family.
As proof that the photographer matters more than the camera, and in hopes of encouraging those who are short on money and long on desire, all the photos I’ve used as examples were taken with available light (no flash), expired film (because it was cheap when I had little money), and a low-end point-and-shoot camera.
Flash is the Devil
The flash that’s built into disposable cameras and less expensive digital cameras is intense and not adjustable. Red-eye is the result of direct flash. If you simply must use flash, take the picture when your subject is looking away from the camera.
In addition to the red-eye plague, flash often washes out most skin tones, and can distort makeup just enough to make a person look clown-like. It makes darker people look even darker (hiding facial features and emotion) and makes lighter people look sick.
Use the light you have for indoor shots. This includes daylight — direct or by window — candlelight, and lamps. Overhead lighting is not recommended because the shadow it casts on faces is unbecoming.
Unless you’re going for a silhouette effect, make sure the light source is behind you, not your subject. At the same time, don’t expect a person or animal to look directly into the sun. Sometimes a photo comes out fine with nothing more than a car’s dome light (see darker photo above).
Most people don’t think to do a quick scan of the area before taking a picture, because they are focused on their subject rather than the area around their subject. This is why a picture of a cute baby on a park swing also showcases a man scratching his crotch not 30 feet on the other side of the swingset.
The park isn’t the only place you’ll find visual debris. Set your cute baby on the couch and then look through the camera at her. Now check the entire frame for other people, trash, toys, dishes, and laundry – and stains on the couch that you’re so used to you don’t see them anymore unless you’re looking for them. Cover those stains with a baby blanket.
Tic-Tac-Toe Makes a Great Phoe-Toe
Most people know you can win a game of tic-tac-toe by placing your X or O first in the center square. The opposite is true of taking pictures. As you look through the camera at your subject, imagine the entire field is the nine squares of a tic-tac-toe board. Never place your subject in the center square. Ever. I’m pointing my finger at you. Never.
When photographing someone’s face make sure their eyes are not in that center block. There are very few exceptions to this rule. If you want to know the exceptions, take a class or buy a book; otherwise, enjoy the improvement on your technique and don’t try to fix what isn’t broken.
A symmetrical photograph is a boring photograph. Our desire for symmetry generally only applies to the faces we see, not the photographs we take of the faces we see.
Compare your own or anyone else’s photographs, being mindful of the ones you like the most. The ones you like most are more than likely of an off-center subject. When taking a picture of a person, make sure not to center their face.
Ask anyone (who isn’t one of the 100 most beautiful people in the world) to show you a photo of themselves that they like. I will eat my camera if you can see the underside of that person’s chin. Nothing says, “Look how old and unfit I am” like a picture of our necks. This is made worse when amateur photographers center the person’s face in the picture — because now our eye is drawn to that which is not centered: the not-so-tight and/or double chin.
For many people, the neck seems to age faster than the face; it tends to reflect our lack of fitness more accurately than any other body part we’re willing to make visible. Take pictures of people when they are sitting down and you’re standing up, or have them tilt their head down a bit. If your subject is wearing glasses, tilting the head can help keep light on the lenses from hiding their eyes.
The neck-hiding rule does not apply to babies and small children. Most pictures of the younger set are taken by someone who is hovering over them. These are bad pictures. To take a good picture of a baby or child, get down on their level, whether you are up close or at a distance.
For some of the most intriguing pictures, photograph people who aren’t looking at the camera at all.
Up Close and Personal
So you want to take a close-up of your cute kid. Get her in view. Now move closer. Closer. Closer still. Move in just a bit more. Now click.
Most people are sure the best photograph of a face or object is best within a frame of whatever is in the background. Forget about framing (which is to say centering — which is bad!) your subject with background. It’s okay if the entire subject is not in the picture.
Just in case it must be said, do not use a flash for a close-up. It might make a baby or small child cry because it can hurt; and if your subject is old enough, you might just find yourself camera-less after they recover.
Let’s Be Candid
The planned photo is nice. The unplanned photo is better. This better photo is sometimes the result of several shots taken in a row. If your camera allows, use it like a machine gun and pick the best picture(s) from the lineup.
Candid hint 1: Babies don’t ham it up in front of the camera, but even a two-year-old is likely to lose all composure when the black or silver box comes out. I got my kids used to the camera when they were very young by taking hundreds of pictures without film. They eventually came to ignore my camera and me; I have been able to get the best pictures of them ever since.
Candid hint 2: When dealing with someone else’s children — and hammy adults — ask your subjects to discuss something between them. To get the image below, I asked my kids to tell each other something they didn’t want me to know. (I would learn years later the two of them were discussing the day they took a box of popsicles to the playground by our house and ate all of them in one sitting).
And now for that unsolicited advice:
Digital Killed the Photo Album
Digital cameras take digital pictures that often dead-end on the photographer’s computer. Posting images online and sharing with others by email who are far away is all well and good; for most of us, though, not everyone we know is far away. Resigning your collection to a perpetual computer existence doesn’t use the full potential of good photographs.
Very few people go to the trouble of printing photos they’ve taken and then placing them in frames and photo albums. This is unfortunate because one of the biggest reasons we take pictures is to remember moments in time. Sure, all your friends or family could crowd around the computer and browse through your photo folder, but it’s not quite the comfortable, cozy activity of breaking out the photo albums and passing them around for all to enjoy.
Those who are not inclined to scrapbook need not perish. The benefit of knowing how to take better pictures means they will tell their own stories. A good photograph shouldn’t be dressed up at all.
The sheer volume of pictures a digital camera allows us (versus the limited number from a standard roll of film) can make sorting, printing, cutting, and placing photographs a daunting task. Too, the cost of paper and ink can be a little much for those who broke the bank just getting the camera.
So maybe don’t try to tackle it all at once. Depending on how many photographs you already have, take just an hour or two this month sorting out what you will print. Move or copy these into a sub-folder of your photo folder and call it “Print.”
Save a bit of money this month and the next for ink, paper, a manila envelope, and one or two photo albums. Keep the photos protected in the manila envelope until you have time to place them in the albums. Try to make time the next month to do just that.
If you do manage to get it all done and you’re feeling celebratory about your accomplishment, host a get-together at your house. Ask each friend and family member to bring a little something to eat and drink (because your photo project might not have left you with much money for refreshments), and leave the photo albums out where they can be shared. You might even want to take more pictures!
All images © 2008 Diana M Hartman