How to Take Great Photographs

I am not a professional photographer. Far from it. I might be called a professional photography buff. But I do get kudos from others on my photographs with phrases like, "that looks like a travel catalog photograph", "Send that to National Geographic" and "beautiful".

Do I win prizes? No. Will you see my photography in a gallery? Should you hire me for your wedding? Can you enlarge my pictures to billboard size? National Geographic knocking at my door? No, No and No. I will leave that to the professionals who take photography to a whole different level than I can.

No, my photographs are not GREAT. What they are is better than average, maybe much better than average. This article is intended for someone who just wants to take better pictures and get a "wow" now and again.

Take some of my advice and you will start taking photographs that stand out, that people want on their mantle and that remind you of the things that you did in a beautiful and memorable way. Let's get started.

The Camera

People seem to think that taking great photographs means buying an expensive camera and will guarantee great photographs. Sorry, but no. An expensive camera can help capture a fast moving subject, take a photo in a low light situation, and/or provide you with a computer file that you can blow up to gigantic proportions, and generally allow you to "point-and-shoot". But it won't make you an Ansel Adams. My camera? A 12 mega-pixel, Canon SX-50IS. Nothing really special. Fairly small and light for something that looks like an SLR. But there are two key attributes that I think are absolutely necessary for good photography.

Size Does Matter - Sorry, but I don't think that you can't get great photographs (besides portraits ... maybe) with one of the small pocket cameras, no matter how many mega-pixels the advertisements proclaim. Mega-pixels do not give mega-photographs. If an itsy-bitsy camera that fits in your pocket is the end all and be all to you, you might as well stop reading now (unless this is your backup always-at-your-side camera - more later). Nor do you need a huge SLR camera with interchangeable lens and every bell and whistle (though you might grow into that) with which you loose portability. What you really need are the next two items which simply don't come in micro-cameras.

  • A Viewfinder - I really think that you must have a viewfinder. Why? Because you will be able to see more clearly what you are taking a picture of. It allows you to get the picture in all types of lighting conditions, especially out of doors in bright sunlight which will wash out an LCD screen to the point of invisibility. The added plus is that looking through a viewfinder means holding the camera against your cheek which is a good way to steady yourself and lessen the chance of a picture with "the blurs". All viewfinder digital cameras also have a screen in the back, so you really have the best of both worlds. Many Canon's (and others now) have a fully articulated rear screen for taking pictures up high, down low or even "selfies"- very handy.
  • A Long Lens - I believe that you need at least a 12x zoom and you won't find this in a micro-camera. This is critical. Zooming in has multiple advantages which I expound on later. Longer is better to be able to stand your ground and "reach out" to get a shot without having to move forward - possibly scaring the subject (an animal or small child), loosing the "moment", or ending up with a "what is that?" picture because the important thing is only a dot in the middle of the frame. Then again, don't over-zoom and loose the majesty of the mountain range as you concentrate on the snow covered peak. You can always crop the image later (within limits) and have two pictures for the price of one!

    To get a >500mm long zoom in an SLR you will need to spend more than the camera cost and it would WEIGHT A TON. Also, don't be fooled by specifications of "digital" zoom (zooming electronically past what the lens is really capable of). Only rely on the "optical" zoom range.

    I currently own a Canon PowerShot SX-50IS which has a 50x zoom - a 35mm film camera equivalent to 1200mm (ZOOOOOOOOM!). For smaller cameras with the same articulated display, I really like the Canon G series. I also have a backup point and shoot camera, the Canon PowerShot SX-700 HS, which zooms to 30x (750mm) - but no viewfinder.

    You might ask how I can hand hold a 50x (1200mm) camera steady enough to not get blurry pictures due to camera shake. You could use a tripod. But the real secret is the "IS" in the camera's name which means "Image Stabilization". This is a definite help when filming movies.

    OK there is a downside to these non-SLR lens cameras. Almost always the light gathering capability of the SLR lens is better than a built in lens. This translates into faster shutter speeds in all light conditions and fewer out of focus results both for taking pictures of fast moving things (cars, toddlers) and low light situations (evening, indoors). Then again sometimes blurred pictures (intentionally or by accident) can be amazing!

That's it. Two things. A viewfinder and a long lens. Easy and not very expensive. Expect to pay $200-$300. What I generally don't use: Camera bag/case (only gets in my way), removable lenses, big flash, or big tripod.

Wait, just a few more less important things.

  • Start up speed - If you are in a rush to get that magical shot but the camera takes 15 seconds to get going, you will miss that shot. Test how fast the camera starts. 5 seconds maximum.
  • Feel - How does it feel in your hand? Too heavy? Too large? Too smooth and you might drop it?
  • Controls - Do they seem to be in the right place to quick action? Is something that you need to use often buried in a menu and time consuming to get to? This might be one of those areas that you won't know until you have more experience.
  • Too simple and want to know more info? Then click here for advanced information shown below. Not necessary, but might be useful.

    The Secrets - So, here are some key ways that I get great shots.

    Secret Description Good Bad
    Take lots of pictures There is an adage in photography, "quality from quantity". If you take enough pictures, there are bound to be some good and great ones. Don't take just one shot of your friends while you wait for all of them to get to just the right position (especially children and animals). Just hold down the shutter button and take lots of pictures! Think of professional modeling photographers and their encouragement to "work it!". They take lots of pictures and throw away most hoping for just the one really great one. good image bad image
    Camera always at the Ready If the camera is in a case, backpack or purse, you won't take it out to take pictures...and you won't get great shots. One camera manufacturer had a "Ever Ready" case which the pros called a "Never Ready" case. When you are out, keep the on your shoulder and camera ready for action at all times. BTW: I know that this will sound like sacrelage, but I typically don't use lens caps. With my camera always at the ready, my lens cap is usually in my pocket (or lost) anyway. good image bad image
    Backlighting Interesting things can happen when the sun or light source is behind the subject. Typically the subject is silhouetted as a dark shadow against the light. Try it. You may have to fiddle with your camera's manual modes (aperture priority) to get a good shot. Another idea is... good image bad image
    Candid Camera Standing 20 feet away, and zooming in, is the best way to get some great intimate people shots. Find people in conversation. Look for children playing. In both cases they are focused on their immediate area and not on you. To be in stealth ninja mode, make sure to turn off all the camera sounds/beeps that you can in the setup menus (i.e. shutter click, button press, etc) and turn off the flash. good image bad image
    Fill Flash The is basically the only time I use a flash. Let's say you have a strong backlight and the subjects are coming out silhouetted black against a light background...but you want them to be visible. The trouble is that the background has lots of light and needs a short(er) shutter speed (which makes the subject under exposed), while the subject has little light and needs a long shutter speed (which makes the subject over exposed). Using a standard flash will certainly make the subject visible, but the background (a beautiful sunset) will be toast. A standard flash says, "open the shutter, trip the flash, and close the shutter very quickly", but too quickly for the background to be visible. That is when a "fill" ("Slow Synchro") flash comes into use. A fill flash does two very different things. First, the camera uses a longer shutter speed to capture the light of the background. Unfortunately, slow shutter speeds may cause the subject to blur. Here the fill flash trips and "fills good image bad image
    Lighting The general rule is to have the sun over your shoulder. This creates well lit subjects and strong shadows. The sun directly overhead will wash out the texture of the subject. If the subjects are squinting into the sun, move to the left or right by 45 degrees. good image bad image
    Lights Out Turn that flash off. I first did this just to save batteries (disposable era). Then I found that I got better pictures. You will get much warmer colors. No red eye issues. You are more inconspicuous. Flashes wash out features and make for flat non-3D feeling images. Your battery will last longer. Of course, there are some times when a flash is required, but not often. Unfortunately, built in flashes are too close to the lens and can't bounce off the ceiling (which softens the effect). But generally, no flash, which leads me to... good image bad image
    Slow Down Find out how to take a time exposure (manual mode and slow shutter speed) with your camera. Then use it to take pictures of fireworks on the 4th. Another interesting effect is to take a "slow" picture of a "fast object". You will need to pan the camera as the object moves past and then trip the shutter at just the right time. Expect lots of failures. good image bad image
    QUIET on the SET! Turn off the sounds that your camera makes so that you don't disturb the subject with the bells and boings that are the default for many cameras. Shutter (fake) sounds are especially annoying. Button pushing clicks and startup/shutdown sounds are too. good image bad image
    Odd Weather Interesting weather conditions (clouds, fog, rain, sunset, sunrise, etc) can really enhance and image or make it distinctive. good image bad image
    Off Center Shots Sometimes the focal point of the image must be in the center. But many/most photographs are taken from the photographer's standing eye level with the subjects standing with shoulders perpendicular to the camera lens. This can be boring. Get high and shoot downward. Get low and shoot upward, maybe even straight up. Move to the left or the right while the subjects only move their heads, keeping their bodies stationary. Just going on one knee may make the shot more interesting. good image bad image
    Quality from Quantity If you take enough pictures, you WILL get great some shots. Film was expensive. Digital is cheap (basically free). Take 5 shots of the same thing from different angles. Take pictures of anything and everything. Then sort the wheat from the chaff. good image bad image
    Slow Down Find out how to take a time exposure (manual mode and slow shutter speed) with your camera. Then use it to take pictures of fireworks on the 4th. Another interesting effect is to take a "slow" picture of a "fast object". You will need to pan the camera as the object moves past and then trip the shutter at just the right time. Expect lots of failures. good image bad image
    Steady as She Goes No flash means that you have to hold the camera steadier in medium to low light situations. Hold your breath. Brace the camera against a tree, wall or fence. Use the house lights as you in the image at right. Set it on something and use the timer so you don't shake the camera when you trip the release. Get a micro-tripod that you can carry anywhere. I like the kind that can attach to trees, fence posts or lamp poles by using a velcro strap - see the Ultrapod I & II. good image bad image
    Time of Day Have you ever heard of the "golden hour". That is the hour just before sunset and just after sunrise. The natural lighting is soft and defused, with warm colors of red and orange. The eastern face of the Grand Tetons are lit from the top downwards by the rising sun. A beautiful sight. Even just watching a city you are visiting wake up is interesting. good image bad image
    Walk Around by Yourself and Sit & Wait I have taken my best shots when I go off by myself and spend some time watching and waiting. I can't expect others to stand by while I fiddle with the camera, take shot after shot or wait for "just the right moment". It makes me hurry up. good image bad image
    Zoom In Your long zoom will allow you to reach out and capture things in a way that you simply can't with a small camera. You can frame images and change a shot dramatically, all without moving. Zoom in on the tiger in the zoo or the mountain top across the valley. With children, taking a picture from across the room gives an intimacy. But it isn't just for something far away. You can zoom in on a flower that may be just feet away (rather than using close up macro focus) which can produce some interesting effects. good image bad image
    Zoom In Zoom in on the big cat at the zoo or the bridge across the valley. It will add punch. Oddly, not using macro-focus (close up) but standing back and zooming in on something like a flower can take some magical images with a narrow depth-of-field. good image bad image
    Zoom Out A wide angle shot can create some great effects. Any camera can do this but those that say "wide angle" are the best. My Sony DSC-H2 isn't wide angle but as you can see at right, it can do the job to get a wonderful panarama of the Kuala Lumpur skyline. In this case it worked best because of the mountains in the background, the clouds across the skyline, the bright sunny day and the interesting elements. I also was on a high perch (the observation deck of the KL Tower) and I waited to go there when the weather was correct (sunny, brooding clouds). It helps to be able to visualize ahead of time what the picture will look like from that vantage point. good image bad image
    Strap Ditch the thin, shoulder cutting, falling off, strap that came with the camera. Get a wider after-market strap. You might also think about the nice "quick draw" camera straps in which the camera rests near the side of your waist/hip at pants pocket level until you need to bring it to your eye. You'll look like a pro. good image bad image

    • Get the Odd Shot - Look for that different view which will make your images stand out.
      • Stand on top of something and shoot down.
      • Get on the ground and shoot up.
      • Move the key element off center.
      • Zero in on a small element of the whole (a person's hand, bicycle spokes, brick work on a building.
      Learn Your Camera - Take some time to find out what your camera can do. Find a feature that you don't know anything about and study it. Later you might be taking some pictures and remember a feature which would be useful or fun.
    Advanced Things

    Advanced Camera Attributes to Look For.

    • Brand - Nikon, Canon, Sony, Leica ($$$).
    • Resolution - Every new camera for sale today will have more than enough mega-pixels for everyone short of the professional.
    • Movies - Every still camera take movies but generally doesn't take great movies. I didn't think that I would use that feature but it really adds to my vacation presentation with a few short clips. Taking still pictures with a movie camera is VERY limiting.
    • Aperture -
    • Shutter speed - It is less about how fast the shutter clicks (they all can do 1/1000 or 1/2000 second) but how fast/sensitive the imaging sensor is. If the camera can only take a 1/1000 shot if there is enough sunlight to fry an egg, then it isn't much good. Unfortunately, trying to divine this quality from the specs is very difficult. Better to test in a store by pointing multiple cameras at the same scene in automatic mode (or aperture priority at a specific aperture) and see what shutter speed the camera says it needs. The higher (faster) the better. Best bet: stick with top name brands that put very good sensors in their cameras.
    • Lag time - Nothing is worse than waiting for a critical instant for the perfect shot, only to have the camera decide to take eons before the shutter actually clicks (mostly it's trying to focus). Dig for this detail. Smaller (faster) the better. Many cameras allow you to pre-focus by holding the shutter button half way down, then pressing all the way at the right moment.
    • Manual Mode - Over time I have found my way to using many of these features to control the picture I am taking. If nothing else, being able to take a time esposure (bulb) is handy for fireworks (10-20 seconds) or an intentionally blurry photo to show motion (1-2 seconds). While the Sony DSC-H2 has this feature, and it easy to get it on fully manual, it is difficult to change shutter speed and apeture. See how easy it is to go to fully manual and change settings before you buy.
    • Manual Focus - There are times when I would really like this feature which I don't have. There is no waiting on the camera to figure things out - avoiding missing a shot. I have simply learned to pre-focus.
    • Filters - I am not a filter guy except for a polarizing filter. This has too nice effects. First, it will enhance clouds (brighter) and skies (deeper blue). Second, it will reduce or eliminate glare/reflections from water, windows, etc. An example is my trip across the Alps on a Swiss train with panoramic windows. I was getting reflections in the windows from the inside of the train (people, seats, etc) which was eliminated with the filter. These filters rotate in a frame so that you can optimize its effect.
    • Turn off the review - Most cameras come with a default that after you take a picture it shows it to you for several seconds. What a waste of time because you can't take the next picture until that review is finished. Turn that feature off! Take that next shot! Get faster!

    Advanced Techniques

    • Slow as you go -
    • Know your camera
    • Photoshop?
    • Crop
    • memory cards
    • Depth of Field -