Photography - Basics

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The simplest thing you can do to take better pictures is to simply be aware of your technique. These are some common things to watch out for. There are other things to pay attention to when trying to improve your picture-taking, but these will get you started.

Fill the Frame with your Subject

The Entire Yard
The Entire Yard
Forcythia Bush
Forcythia Bush

I liked the look of this forcythia bush in bloom. The image on the left shows the boulders that so typically protrude from the ground in Rockhill Township, a clothes-line support pole on the left, a child's toy lawn mower, the remnants of last season's inflatible swimming pool on the right, and that dreadfully bleak early Spring tree line filling half of the shot with brown. Oh, yes, and a forcythia bush. The picture on the right clearly is an image of the beautifuly bright forcythia bush.

Make Sure There is Ample Lighting (or use a Flash)

Lunchbreak Original
"Lunchbreak" - Too Dark

Here is a picture I took while on vacation last year. This is not an actual worker, but a statue named "Lunchbreak" in the Paris Las Vegas hotel. It is not in a very well lit section of the casino, and the bakery behind the bench is closed for the night. (At 1:00 in the morning, the casino is still doing a booming business, but there are fewer tourists obliviously wandering into your shot. Just a little travel hint.) I took the picture without a flash and allowed the shutter to stay open longer to capture more of the ambient light. In hindsight, I should have just used a flash. As you can see, the original turned out a little too dark. (To find out what can be done about it, see the Editing page.)

Hold the Camera Steady and Level

Blurry Squirrel
Blurry Squirrel
Sharp Squirrel
Sharp Squirrel

There was a squirrel outside the window on a nearby tree. I took the first picture by holding the camera up to my face and clicking without any preparation. I obviously moved the camera while taking the picture. One look at the preview image on the back of my camera told me that I needed to steady the camera and try again. There was no time to find and set up my tripod, so I did the next best thing. I stabalized the camera by holding my right forearm firmly against the window jam, resulting in the picture on the right. I was just lucky that the squirrel stayed in one place long enough for me to get a second shot.

Accessories

The most basic accessory people usually buy for a camera is some sort of tripod. This will eliminate motion blur caused by holding a camera in your bare hands. (See squirrel above.) Prices for these start at US$20 and go up to as much as US$300 depending on manufacturer, materials and strength. If you have a point-and-shoot camera, you probably don't need a top-of-the-line tripod. (Hint: If a tripod costs more than your camera, perhaps you want the re-think that purchase.)

It is also a good idea to get yourself spare rechargable batteries for your camera. Most consumer-level cameras on the market today take AA batteries. A pack of 4 AA Alkalines will cost about $3 to $5, depending on the store. The rechargables will run between $10 and $15. (The charging unit will probably cost between $25 and $40.) It may sound more expensive up front, but since batteries only last for between 100 and 200 pictures, you can be changing batteries a couple of times a week. A set of rechargable batteries can be reused hundreds of times. The cost savings add up pretty quickly. (Since they have a long shelf life, I do keep a seldom-used set of Alkalines in my camera bag as emergency backups.) Professionals keep three sets in circulation, and use them in this way: one fresh set of batteries in the camera (A), another freshly-charged set in their pocket or fanny-pack (B), and the third set sitting in the charger back in the hotel room (C). By the end of the day, they have used up both sets of batteries they are carying (both A and B). The (by now) fully-charged set (C) is put in the camera for tomorrow. Set (A) is put into the charger over-night. In the morning, (A) will be the spare set in the fanny-pack, while (B) goes into the charger for the day.

If you plan on getting batteries, spare flash memory cards, lens cleaning cloths, etc., you might want to get a case to put all that gear in. Consider how much gear you have, and don't get anything much bigger than just what you need. Staying small will make it easier to take along, and keep the costs down. (FYI: DO NOT put a cold bottle of water into your camera bag! Water is not good for sensitive electronic and/or optical devices. Digital cameras are both.) If your camera is compact, you have only 1 set of batteries and no extra cards, then perhaps a small fanny-pack, or a pocket in your purse or jacket will be all you need.

Get a Change of Scenery

Travel is often a good thing for a photographer. It allows you to take pictures of subjects that you just don't get exposed to by staying at home. If you live in the suburbs, try driving to the country or to the city. If you live in a city, go out to the suburbs or even take a bus to the other side of town. Vacations to beautiful destinations are also great for taking photographs.

Watch what Others Do

One of the best things you can do to improve your picture-taking is to subscribe to a magazine about it and look at what other people are doing with their cameras. Specificly, read the photographer's description about what he had in mind when he took the shot. Then try to duplicate that effect yourself. You will learn more by trying to duplicate something than by reading about someone else who already did it.

How do you get to Carnagie Hall?

Most important of all, pull out your camera and TAKE PICTURES. Even if most of the pictures you take are bad, you are learning by your mistakes. The truly awful ones can always be erased later. The important thing is to gain experience with composition, lighting and choosing the subject. Also, the more you use the camera you have, the more familiar you will get with the features that camera has. If you have used the slow-syncro, macro or fill-flash feature of your camera often enough to know what it is and is not capable of, you are better prepared to quickly decide whether or not you can use that feature in a particular environment to make the most of your photographic opportunity. Chances are that you may never get that particular subject in that location with the light that way ever again. Make it count.

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Updated:
June 12, 2005