Quick Tip Tuesday: How To Take a Better Photograph

Many times a blog post, web page, or other piece of written communication cries out to be improved with a photograph or two. But no photo is available.  In these situations, the natural inclination is to grab a smartphone or a small camera and go shoot a quick snapshot of the subject that needs to be photographed.

But the results aren't always so wonderful. We've all seen photos of people with eyes half closed, telephone poles growing out of their heads, or looking like they're standing behind a piece of gauze because the camera wasn't properly focused. Product shots and exteriors of buildings and other outdoor objects are even more difficult to photograph well. By some measures, a "head shot" or attractive portrait of a person is the most demanding photographic challenge.

Fortunately, unsatisfactory photographic images can very easily be improved if you pay just a little attention to a few of the basics that make for good photography.

So before you press the shutter next time, first consider the following:

1. Why are you taking this photograph? What are you trying to show? To whom are you trying to show it? A little thinking before you shoot makes for much better pictures afterwards.

2. Is the camera properly focused on the main subject of the photo you're trying to take? Cameras and smartphone cameras have many different systems for setting accurate focus. Take a minute to figure out how yours works, and then fiddle with the gizmo until the photo you're trying to take is well focused. It takes very little time to achieve, but sharp focus makes for a much more informative and compelling photograph. 

3. If you're doing a "product shot" or otherwise illustrating some work you've accomplished, take some photographs "before" you start work, as well as "after" you've finished. The changes between the two will help to highlight the value and impact of your work.

4. Consider the perspective from which you're shooting. You want the subject of the photo to look good, so walk around it and study the angles, the lighting, the shapes and colors, and see where you want the camera to be in relation to the subject to make it look great in your photographs. Better yet, take several photographs from different angles, different heights, and different distances from the subject (making sure they're all in focus!). Later on, you can decide which one(s) you want to share with others.

5. Study the background behind the photo subject. When you're just looking, your eye and brain naturally filters out the clutter in the background so you don't notice it. But once you reduce the scene to a two-dimensional photograph, all that clutter becomes just as vivid and visually prominent as the subject of the photo. So make sure the background of the photo you're planning to shoot doesn't interfere with or distract from the primary subject of the photo.

6. Look at the lighting. If the subject is dark, or most of the light is off to one side or comes from behind the subject (that is, the camera is pointing toward the main lighting source and the subject is between the camera and the light), the photograph may turn out murky, obscure, or just not very interesting. To improve the lighting situation, try:
  • turning on more lights, opening the shades, or bringing in additional lights (if you're indoors)
  • moving the camera so the sun is mostly or entirely behind it as it faces the subject (if you're outdoors) 
  • using one of the gizmos on your camera, such as "backlighting" or possibly a "scene" adjustment (if your camera offers a suitable capability) to compensate at least somewhat for the unflattering light
  • learning a little more about what a camera can do. Canon offers a good “practice” page so you can see the impact various control adjustments will have on the pictures you take, no matter what brand of camera you're using.

7. Get a little artistic. The natural impulse is to point the camera so the main subject is right in the center of the frame. But that's a mistake. You'll take better photographs if you imagine the photographic frame is filled with a tic-tac-toe board, and you aim the camera so the main subject is at one of the places where two lines cross each other. There's no room here to explain why this works. Just try it and you'll see that it makes for much better pictures.

So there you have it: a little thinking, a little studying, a little focusing, a little extra shooting, a little camera movement, and a little artistic license will produce much better pictures than those snapshots that have been disappointing you since you got your first camera. Good luck, and good shooting!

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