You go into photography with the camera you have, not the camera you WISH you had…- E. David Luria, Founder and Director, Washington Photo Safari
Great pictures are created by photographers, not cameras. Cameras, no matter how expensive they are, are merely boxes that let in light. It’s the photographer who aims the camera to capture the subject at the right time, in the right light, and—as Henri Cartier Bresson would say—at the “decisive moment.”
Good photography is about composition, determining the subject of the picture, removing clutter from the background, finding the right angle, getting close, and looking for strong composition lines to run through the image to create a picture that clearly tells a story, gives a message, or conveys an impression.
Bigger, better cameras give you more options. They give you longer zooms, wider angles, faster and slower shutter speeds, more control over exposure and color filtration—but not necessarily better pictures.
The first step in taking good pictures is, of course, defining the subject. What’s the point of this picture? Why are you taking it? What are you trying to show? Who is the “client” for this picture? An architect? A nature-lover? The child’s parents? A magazine editor? If you’re your own client, what use do you have in mind for the picture? A family album? An email to friends? You need to have a clear purpose.
Instead of this…
Next, pick a time of day when you have the best light. For outdoor pictures, this is generally an hour on either side of sunrise or sunset and never any time in between.
After determining the purpose, get close to your subject. Eliminate any distraction in the background, so who or what the picture is about is clear to the viewer. A low angle helps you become more intimately involved with your subject, whether it’s a baby, a flower, a spouse, a cat, or a landscape.
Instead of this… Try this
Next, look for strong composition lines that draw the viewer’s eye into and around the picture. Lines that move diagonally from lower left to upper right, or upper left to lower right, tie in with our Western cultural training of reading from left to right. Look for lines that lead the viewer’s eye to the main subject, which should NOT be right in the middle but in the left or right or upper or lower third of the picture.
Then, look for opportunities to frame your subject using tree branches, archways, doorways, flagpoles, church columns, or any other available frame. Flowers or bushes on the bottom of your picture provide a frame of color.
Now, check your exposure. This step is very important. No matter how smart your fancy double-matrix, triple-bypass camera meter is, it knows only what it sees. Make sure it’s reading a medium-gray reflectance on your subject, a mid-point between black and white. If in doubt, use a gray card or a hand-held ambient light meter.
Then, check the depth-of-field of focus. Do you want the subject to stand out and have the background blurred? Use a wide aperture. Want everything in focus from front to back? Use a small aperture. Here’s a handy way to remember aperture. At F2, you get two people in focus. At F22, you get 22 people in focus. (Point-and-shoot camera users should look at the “Portrait” and “Landscape” icons on their control dial to achieve this same effect.)
Ready to take the picture? Make sure you’re holding the camera correctly, resting the body of the camera on the palm of your left hand, wrapping your left hand’s fingers underneath and around the lens, holding it very tightly to reduce camera shake. Better yet, use a tripod.
Wait! Before you push the button, make sure you like what you see. What you see in the viewfinder is the way your image is going to look. Do you like it? Okay, push the button. More importantly, if you don’t like it, DON’T push the button!
Lastly, look at all the pictures you’ve taken and remember that your worst pictures are your best teachers. Learn from your mistakes, so you won’t repeat them.