How to Take Great Photos (and Fix Lousy Ones), Part I: Composing and Shooting Your Photos



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Universal Programmers Toolkit
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Effective Proactive Debugging Techniques
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Good Programming Practices
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How to Take Great Photos (And Fix Lousy Ones), Part 1
Composing and shooting your photos

How to Take Great Photos (And Fix Lousy Ones), Part 2
Editing and postproduction

How to Take Great Photos (and Fix Lousy Ones), Part I: Composing and Shooting Your Photos


People often ask me how I manage to get such good photos from a point-and-shoot camera, whether film or digital. While many factors come into play, here are my secrets for taking great photos, and for turning your mediocre photos into great ones.


Keep in mind that experience, knowledge, skill, persistence, and even luck all factor into coming up with great photos on a consistent basis.


These certainly arenít the only things you need to learn to take great photos, nor are they necessarily the most important. Rather, they are the things Iíve learned to help you to take photos that look far better than the vast majority of mediocre photos out there.

This is not a beginnerís how-to for taking photos so Iím going to assume youíve done your homework and are already familiar with operating your camera and its different modes, as well as basic photography terminology (shutter speed, f-stop, etc.). For Part II (editing/postproduction) Iím going to assume youíre familiar with the ins and outs of your photo editing software.


Iím also going to assume youíre taking photos of either groups of people (e.g. at a social function), or inanimate objects (cars, buildings, etc.). Each of these two types of subject should be approached somewhat differently, so I will cover each of them separately.


Eventually Iíll add sample ďbeforeĒ and ďafterĒ examples to this article. Until then youíll have to use your imagination.


When taking photos at a party, youíll want to arrive early and take photos early in the event for several reasons:



The lesson here? Take as many photos as possible before people start drinking, and especially before they start eating.

General Technique

In general youíll want to take as many photos as possible and edit them later, in postproduction. I tend to do quite a bit of in-camera editing: after a few good shots of a scene Iíll quickly review them and delete the bad ones. This saves room in the camera, and also lets me know if I got a good shot of a particular scene so I can try again if I didnít. However, by taking time to review the past few photos I also run the risk of missing the next good shot.


Whether you should review shots as you take them or do it all in postproduction will depend on how much time you have and whether you want that immediate feedback. If in doubt, donít review or edit in-camera.


Assuming youíre taking photos of people (as opposed to animals or inanimate objects), how you act and interact with them can make a huge difference in how they respond to you, which in turn affects how your photos turn out. (Likewise, there are different things you can do to affect how the person viewing your photos interprets them; many of those things can be adjusted in postproduction, which is covered in the second half of the article.)


Several rules to keep in mind:



The advantage to shooting in this style is that because youíre not holding the camera in a traditional manner, the subject may not realize youíre taking their photo. Some cameras have a viewfinder or LCD that swivels, allowing you to better see it from an angle. This feature makes it easier for you to take a photo of somebody who is, say, to your right while you are facing straight ahead. Like learning to bank a shot in pool, learning to shoot from the hip when you canít see through the viewfinder takes some practice.





Avoid using a flash. Not only do flashes tend to wash out your subjects and cause harsh shadows, but also they can draw unwanted attention to you. Yes, there are some instances where a flash is unavoidable or even desirable, but in general you should avoid them whenever possible.


Look for people stationed near light sources. Usually this means people standing or sitting near lamps, but occasionally you can find other sources of illumination that cast your subject in an interesting light. (Television can make for a nice lighting effect, but people who watch TV often have a listless expression that doesnít lend itself to compelling photos, unless they happen to be watching something particularly entertaining.)

Position and Angle

The farther away you are from your subject the less distracting you will be to them but the more difficult it may be to get a steady, well-lit shot. If you get too close, lens distortion may cause them to look somewhat fatter. If in doubt, back up a bit. You can always zoom in closer if necessary. And if worse comes to worst you can always crop out extraneous stuff in postproduction (see Part II).


Place the camera low and aim upwards towards the main area of interest (usually your subjectís face) to make them seem more dramatic or imposing; place the camera high and aim downward for the opposite effect. However, aiming upward can make people appear fatter so use this technique with caution.


When photographing kids, get down to their level so you are shooting from around their chest or head level.


How you position the camera can make all the difference between an unflattering shot and a flattering one, and the difference between the two is often very subtle. By far the most common complaint that people have about photos of themselves is that they look fat. Even the skinniest of women tend to think this, and often with good reason: some photos simply arenít flattering. Here are the reasons this tends to happen, and how you can avoid these situations:



What you include in a photo and where you position the frame are probably the two most important factors in creating interesting photos.

What to Center On

Donít center your subjectís face in the middle of the frame. While itís true that the face is usually the center of attention, there are a number of reasons why you donít want it to be in the center of the frame.



When photographing a person, position them in the frame so that the top of their head is just below the top of the frame, i.e. so you can see as much of their body as possible. (This doesnít mean you have to zoom out to show their entire body; it simply means that once youíve decided how close to zoom in you should aim the camera so that as much of the body is visible as possible, at that zoom level.)

Interesting Compositions


There are several reasons to avoid group shots:



(See Part II of this article for postproduction composition tips.)



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Last modified: Sun 13 April 2008 05:13:34