Better Photographs

Ten Tips for Better Photographs

By Dennis Ray Davis

1. Get closer to your main subject

Your photograph will be better if you make it about one main thing. Don’t try to get three people, the boat, the lake, the castle and the mountains all in the same shot. If you love all of those things make separate images for each subject. But if the subject of the photograph is people at a location, use the location as a backdrop for the people, instead of making the people tiny dark objects in front of a beautiful backdrop.

2. Look for beautiful light

The word photography comes from the Greek words “photo” meaning light, and “graphic” meaning to write, paint or draw. Since you are painting with light, it is important to understand light and appreciate its beauty. Overcast and cloudy days are great for photographing people, because the light is soft and flattering, and your subject is not squinting in the harsh sunlight. Adding a reflector on a cloudy day will help add directional light to people pictures. Beautiful portraits can be made late in the afternoon with the sun low in the sky, and your subject facing into the warm sunlight.

Placing someone under an overhanging roof or just at the edge of the shadow of a tree can create a beautiful portrait. Place your subject just inside the shadow, and turn their face so that one side of the face is lit by skylight, and one side is in shadow. Try moving them closer and further from the edge of the overhang / tree shadow until you get the effect you want.

3. Carry or find a reflector

A white wall or fence can often be used as a reflector, bouncing light into your subject’s face. Place your subject next to the wall so that the shadowed side of their face is lit by the light reflecting off the wall. Snow, white sand and other light colored surfaces can be used in the same way.

I often carry portable reflectors with me for outdoor photo shoots, made of fabric stretched on a collapsible frame. I have several with white fabric on one side, and silver or gold fabric on the other. These photography reflectors are very similar to the collapsible shades that people put in their car windshields to keep their car cool in hot weather. I sometimes use white or silver poster board when I don’t have my regular reflectors along.

To use a reflector, you can place your subject completely in the shade, and place the reflector in the sunlight and bounce light into their face. Or you can place your subject with the sun to their back or side, and bounce light from the reflector into the shadow side of their face.

4. Flash on for people in the foreground, off for scenery

If you are outdoors photographing people 5-12 feet from you standing in front of a large scenic area, turn the flash on even in bright, sunny weather. The people are the main subject, and the flash will fill the shadows on their faces. Turn off your flash when shooting large areas or scenery without people in the foreground. Leaving it on will cause the foreground of the photograph to be over bright, and the background to be dark and underexposed.

5. Give people something to do

People talking to each other, interacting, playing with something or doing something are more interesting than posed pictures. Give children a toy or animal to play with and your pictures will become more spontaneous and fun. Capture adults hugging, kissing, working, walking, playing sports or other activities to make pictures come alive.

6. Keep your camera steady

Plant both feet firmly, about a foot apart, and hold the camera with both hands. Press the shutter button gently. Whenever possible, support the camera on a tripod, a ladder, or place both elbows on the top of a chair, a wall or anything that doesn’t move. You will end up with fewer blurry photographs.

A sturdy but light tripod is the most important photography accessory you can buy; invest in the best one you can afford. I recommend carbon fiber legs, as they are stronger and lighter than metal.

7. If you are using a hand held long lens, use a faster shutter speed

If your camera allows you to adjust the shutter speed, always use a shutter speed at least as fast as the length of your lens when you are not on a tripod. For example, if you are using a 200mm lens, use a shutter speed of 250th of a second, or 125th of a second for a 120mm. longer lenses amplify your body’s movements, and the faster shutter speed cuts down on the effect of camera shake. Many camera lenses have internal motion dampening, which can be turned on and off. Make sure to turn it on if you are hand holding a long telephoto lens.

8. Give your subject a mirror

If you take out a pocket mirror, often your subject will see that they need to comb their hair, fix their makeup, clean the stain off of their shirt, or take off their jacket that doesn’t match their top. You can also show them their picture on your digital camera and ask them if they see a way to improve the photo. This works much better than making a rude comment about how they look, and could get you a kiss instead of a kick in the pants.

9. Place the main subject off center

Imagine the lines drawn for tic-tac-toe, or the # symbol. Imagine those lines drawn on your camera’s viewfinder. Place your main subject where one of those lines intersect, and your composition will be more interesting than if you place the subject dead center. This is only a guideline, and photographs with the subject in the center are not “bad pictures.” However, if you try this composition guideline you will like the results.

10. Look for a simple, uncluttered background

Try to keep other people, clutter, random cars, telephone poles or buildings out of the background of your photos. Ask your subjects to move to a place with a simple, uncluttered background and good light before you take your pictures.

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