A camera is only as capable as the person using it, but snapping some awesome images doesn't require years of training. Here are five photography pro tips that everybody ought to know.
Photo by Mushakesa (Shutterstock).
Think Before You Shoot to Compose Your Images Like A Pro
Taking lots of pictures may seem like a good idea when you're trying to capture the perfect moment, but when you transfer all those photos to your computer and start looking through them all you're going to wish you hadn't. Too many images is always a burden later. Unless you need to act fast, it's almost always better to think before you shoot. If you take the time to compose your shot, rather than hold down your shutter and hope for the best, you'll end up with the photo you want and less work to do when you're back at your computer.
The most common composition technique is known as the rule of thirds. The basic idea is that you split your frame into three equal horizontal sections and three equal vertical sections. This creates a grid of nine boxes and four main points of intersection, as you can see in the example on the right. Those four points of intersection are areas that tend to draw the eye, and that's where you want to place your subject. As you can also see from the example, there's a star on the point of intersection that draws your eyes right to my friend's face (or, more specifically, her eyes). Your goal with the rule of thirds is to do the same.
Another option is to use a Fibonacci spiral to find an optimal location for your subject. If you imagine the spiral on top of your frame, you'll want to place your subject in the smallest point. This is where the eye of the viewer will go. You can see an example to the right.
These are just a few simple tips for getting better composition, but composition involves more than just knowing where to place your subject. Perspective, objects other than the subject, and the message you want to convey all play a role in creating great images. For more helpful composition tips, read our detailed guide.
Shoot With The Light Behind You
If you've ever looked directly into a source of light, you know it's not only unpleasant but makes it harder to see much else around you. This same problem applies to your camera. If you point it at a light source, it'll have trouble seeing everything else. Whether it's the sun or just a bright lamp, whenever you notice a bright light in your frame just move so the light is behind you rather than your subject. Sometimes this will take a little rearranging, but it will make your image more visible (because it isn't being backlit) and generally add nice light on your subjects. It's a win-win.
Know Your Settings To Achieve Better Low Light Images
Nobody is carrying a lighting kit around on their back for everyday photos, and most people don't want to use a flash to brighten up a scene because it washes out the photo and generally makes things look worse. That said, you have to do something when you're in a low light situation or your image will end up too dark to be worthwhile. Pros know how to optimise their camera's settings to make the best of a poor lighting situation and you can use that same knowledge.
The video on the left will explain these different settings and what they do, but here's the gist. The three settings that matter are aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Almost every camera (with the exception of some mobile phone cameras) will allow you to control the ISO. This is a number that represents how sensitive each exposure is to the light it captures. The higher the number, the more sensitive it is. In general you want to use a lower ISO because higher ISOs result in noisier photographs and lights that look like they're blown out. That said, that extra sensitivity can be a huge boon when you're lacking illumination. Simply set your cameras ISO to a higher number (400 is pretty standard for indoors, but you might go up to 800 and 1600 under darker circumstances) and snap the photo. This will help pull a little more light out of each picture.
Aperture and shutter speed are not user-settable on every camera, but they are on some. Aperture refers to how wide open the lens is, and a shutter speed refers to how long you expose the camera's sensor to light. A wider aperture means more light is let in to the camera. This also produces a more shallow depth of field (meaning less of the photo is in focus, which is often a desired result). If you can widen the aperture on your camera, you should when you need more light. This offers the fewest compromises in quality.
If you still need more light, reducing the shutter speed can help but it comes with the disadvantage of potentially blurry photos. You can usually get away with a shutter speed as slow as 1/30th without worry about camera shake. That shutter speed will be too slow if you have a moving subject, however, and so you'll have to boost it up in that case. In general, 1/250th of a second is sufficient for capturing motion realistically. If you're using a slower shutter speed to capture images in lower light and you are experiencing blurring because you can't keep the camera still, pressing the shutter while exhaling can help to solve that problem.
Overall, low light photos are always going to turn out better if you've got a camera that's able to handle it. Nonetheless, utilising these settings to your advantage should help you get better photos despite minimal illumination.
If You Have To Use A Flash, Use It Properly
As previously discussed, flashes bring about all sorts of problems. You'll generally end up with washed-out subjects who are far more illuminated than anything else in the image. Flashes are also the main cause of red eyes. In general, it's best to avoid them whenever you can but there are some things you can do to get a better image if they're your only option.
In general, diffusing the light is your best bet and something any camera can do. If you've got a nice big flash, you can build a DIY softbox out of a piece of paper. It doesn't really get any cheaper than that. If your flash doesn't stick out or pop up, but rather is a little LED light integrated into your camera's body, you can still diffuse with paper (or white sticker or even a spoon). All you have to do is cover the flash with paper and your flash will produce softer light. Diffusion will reduce the brightness of the light your flash produces, but this change is minimal and should only make a positive difference.
If you're using a big flash that has an adjustable head, you can point it towards the ceiling. This is very useful because it bounces the light off an empty surface and spreads it across the room. Much like diffusion, this will provide less light than if you pointed the flash at the subject directly, but if your flash's head is adjustable it's most likely bright enough to compensate. This is one of the best and simplest tricks for flash photography that doesn't require any attachments.
Keep Your Lens(es) Clean
This may seem obvious, but dust and smudges can ruin photos (or at least offer up some tedious work in Photoshop later). It's important to clean your lens(es) regularly and know how to do it properly. For the most part, you can get by with a soft cloth (microfiber is ideal) and some rubbing alcohol. Simply apply a little rubbing alcohol to the cloth and wipe your lens' glass in a circular motion. As you get to the edges, try to pull the dust off as you lift up. Check out the video to your left for some additional tips and tricks.
Got any other great pro tips for the everyday photographer? Share 'em in the comments!