As 2016 gets underway, I’d like to share 8 tips on how to take and make better images. To prove that this has nothing to do with how much fancy gear you have, all these tips can be applied to any camera, and all the example images were shot and edited using only my phone.
Tip 1: Teach yourself to recognize good light
I’m putting this up front because I can’t emphasize it enough, and it’s something you can practice every minute of the day, with or without a camera. Photography means, ‘writing (graph) with light (photo)’. Any camera you own is only a light proof box which captures light coming in. Some are fancy, some are simple, but this is always the essence.
The single biggest tip I can give you is ‘learn to recognize and appreciate good light’, then capturing it becomes the easy part. Is the light coming in through the trees in a beautiful way? What is the color of the light? Is it bouncing off a reflective surface and doing something interesting? Is it creating unique shadows? If you can learn to see good light you are halfway to becoming a good photographer.
Tip 2: Compose your shot
There are many schools of thought on how to compose a photograph, but a solid basic principle to start with is the good old ‘rule of thirds’. You want to imagine breaking your frame up into 9 blocks of equal size, and the easy way to do this is to mentally draw two vertical and two horizontal lines across the thirds of the frame.
Now to use this pattern in your framing you either want to compose any interesting vertical or horizontal lines on these imaginary thirds, or you want to place any points of interest on one of the four intersections of these lines. It sounds complicated but the idea will click quite quickly if you give it a go, and it will serve to get you thinking about how shapes intersect and arrange within the frame.
On top of this it will give you a more pleasing composition than just pointing your camera straight at a subject. The trick then is to learn this, and other techniques which get you thinking about arranging elements within the frame, and then learn when to break the rules. Here are a couple of examples of using the rule of thirds:
Tip 3: Content is king
It’s almost a cliche at this point but it’s as true as ever. You have to ask yourself what you’re shooting. What is your subject? Is it interesting? Is it too obvious to say that shooting something engaging will make for an engaging photo? It may be redundant but if you think your shots are too boring, the problem may be this simple. Shoot something which tells a story, or freezes a moment in time. That day the kids were playing with that pile of leaves. That light setting over those hills. That guy on the street in that crazy hat.
Remember that what you put in front of the lens will make the photograph, not the camera. You can’t blame the gear. Better cameras only make incremental differences to the quality of the capture, but it cannot make up for a boring subject. A boring scene shot on the best camera in the world is still only a boring photo, but a compelling scene shot on a mobile phone can win awards.
Tip 4: Don’t neglect your background
You may be out shooting a particular person or thing, but your subject will only make up a portion of your frame. Ask yourself what you are filling the rest of the frame with. By rotating around your subject a bit you will totally change the background they are set against in the composition.
How bright or dark is the background? What is the dominant color of the background? Does it serve to separate them and highlight what’s going on, or does your subject get lost against the scene behind them? If your background isn’t working, notice it, and shift position. You have a subject, now move and frame them to place them in the scene.
Tip 5: Look at something from a different angle
We are used to viewing things from 5-6 feet off the ground but you may discover a unique shot if you can find a way to get above your subject, or shoot it from below somehow.
Perhaps you can get right up close, or shoot it from an interesting angle. Remember to think outside the box and experiment with where you place the camera to give us a fresh vantage point on a familiar subject.
Tip 6: Catch the detail
On top of shooting people and places, notice the little things. Keep your eye out for the small details we all walk past everyday. By getting in close with your camera, you could be giving us a glimpse into a world we never stop to notice. Think about textures in the concrete, patterns on the leaves, insects, shapes in bark.
Most mobile phones today will allow you to get very close and maintain focus, with the added bonus that you will force the background out of focus, giving you that sexy blur for your shot which people associate with higher end cameras. Give it a go.
Tip 7: Look for lines
Everywhere we go we are faced with lines. Telegraphs poles. The horizon. Chem trails in the sky. Tree trunks. Roads. Think about how you can use these lines to point out your subject or create an interesting shape in the frame.
Sometimes you can use these lines to literally point at your subject by placing them at the convergence of these lines within the frame. Sometimes you can use the lines to create a frame around the subject. Start to notice the lines around you, and use them to your advantage.
Tip 8: Wait for the decisive moment
This is where all the tips above come together in a moment. Many times people will put the camera to their eye to take one picture. For example, Mom wants to snap a picture of her kids playing in a stream. She lifts the camera, clicks, and thinks ‘job done’. But what if you watch a little longer, adjust your position, look at what the light is doing, observe how your subjects are moving, and wait for the moment something magical happens? This is the difference between simply taking a picture or actually making a picture.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is considered the father of street photography, coined the phrase ‘the decisive moment’ to express that confluence of events which make a good shot. He would camp out in a spot where he knew the light was good and the composition worked, and then wait for the magic to happen. Obviously we don’t all have the time to shoot like this, but maybe his attitude helps us take a small step away from a ‘quick snap’ mentality, towards actually creating a memorable image by staying with the moment and remaining aware of all the elements we’ve spoken about, to create a unforgettable photograph.
Best of luck. Share what you come up with, and happy light-writing in 2016!