10 Simple Tips for Taking Better Pictures

on Sunday, May 26, 2013

The term photography literally means, "to draw with light". In its essence, photography is the most primitive way we have to preserve and document the world around us. One snap, and a single memory, a single experience is captured forever. 

You learn a lot working as a yearbook photographer for the past two years. While the majority of my experience came with shooting live events like football games, graduations and pep rallies, I have compiled my Top Ten Tips for Taking Better Pictures: a list that lends itself to any photographic situation. This list came about through much editing, and as a result, contains the essentials for a better, more enhanced photographic experience. Enjoy!

Tip #1- Be Prepared!

There is nothing in the world more frustrating than showing up to an event, where I'm expected to cover what's happening, and I find that my last SD card is nearly full, or even worse, my battery is about to pass out and die in my arms à la Dobby from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Yes, it has happened. It is not good. Additionally, make sure ahead of time that you have all necessary equipment (lenses, backup batteries, etc.) on hand so you're not kicking yourself later, when something bad happens. (Yes. I said when, not if.) Oh what's that? How does this help to make your pictures better? Well, look at this way: If you're not standing there with your head down deleting pictures to make room for new ones, or running around like an escaped prisoner looking for an outlet to charge your beloved camera (Yes, that has happened too), you're in a far better position to focus on what's important. Getting great shots.

Tip #2- The Golden Rule (of Thirds)

Imagine, for just one second, that there was a grid. No, not just any grid. A magical grid. And let's say this grid helped you (the photographer) dictate how your picture should be composed. What if I told you this grid actually existed. (Your jaw should be on the floor right now). We here in the land of photographers call it the "Rule of Thirds", and this is usually the first thing you'll learn in a photography course. The Rule of Thirds (henceforth referred to as ROT), is a simple rule that states that the focal point of a photograph should lie on (or near) the intersection of two of these lines on this imaginary, yet magical grid. Thus, creating a far more interesting composition in your photo. (See the above image to see what I mean). But, here's the best part. Most cameras today allow you to place this grid over your LCD screen and many viewfinders have an ROT grid built into them. On my camera (a Sony a55) all you had to do was go to Menu> Options> Grid Line> Rule of 3rds Grid, and BOOM. Magical grid-ness. 

Tip #3- Know Your Numbers

Many people purchase pricy DSLR cameras without knowing the in's and out's of what it can do, and the type of control they have over the camera. This is perfectly OK, photography is about experimenting and learning, right? I didn't start shooting full manual (I know. Hardcore.) until about 2-3 months after purchasing my camera. I had the privilege to be taught at a high school yearbook convention during a photography class. However, if you're reading this, it means you, more than likely, were not afforded the same privilege. Have no fear! I (and this handy dandy cheat sheet. Thanks, Pinterest) am here to save the day! Heres what you need to know: ISO is a fancy abbreviation for how light or dark your picture will be. The darker the lighting situation, the higher the ISO and vice versa. Just don't take it too high! You'll end up with a lot of graininess in your picture. Yuck! Shutter Speed is pretty much what it sounds like. The higher the number, the more motion you will capture. Lower shutter speed, the object in motion that you are capturing will be blurrier. Aperture is what determines the depth of field of your photo. The lower, the aperture, the blurrier the background, and vice versa. Now, learning and memorizing all these numbers and settings can be tricky and frustrating. Save yourself some hair pulling and print out the above "Photography Cheat Sheet", and keep it in your camera bag to reference on the fly. (Thank me later when you're happy you have the right ISO setting.)

Tip #4- Be Vigilant

In any photographic situation, vigilance is imperative. Not only will keeping an alert mind ensure that you know what's going on, but also what types of shots will come your way. Pay attention to everything. Look around; look at what other people are looking at. Find visual cues that help you understand the situation you're in. Don't stand there and wait for the fans to start screaming excitedly so you can turn around and try to get the touchdown dance shot. Know where your subject is, follow the ball, and prepare for the shot before it happens. Yes, I know you're not a Time Lord and maybe you don't have your trusty time turner in your camera bag today, but that's ok. If you simply pay attention, the perfect shot will come to you. (In case you're curious, the above shot was taken at my school talent show. I saw they were turning down the lights before this kid started performing, and snatched the opportunity for a cool silhouette shot. See, people? Vigilance!)

Tip #5- Be Brave!

Courage is something everyone needs. And although I spend 80% of my time indoors and behind a computer, I (and you too!) am no exception. When shooting, NEVER let the fear of making a mistake, embarrassing yourself, or making yourself look strange get in the way. Get close to your subject. Really close. Climb on top of something (or someone) and shoot from a bird's eye view angle. Get low, and shoot from the ground up. There's nothing like a little astro turf in your undies to make you feel like a real photographer. Get in someone's way, it's ok to make people mad for the sake of a great shot. The above picture was taken while I was waiting for a plane in Los Angeles International Airport. This soldier was on his way to training (or something) and was skyping with his girlfriend on his tablet before departure. Be aware of photographic opportunities around you and don't be afraid to whip out your big noisy camera and snap a picture of a stranger. As long as they don't chase you afterwards. In that case, its OK to be scared. 

Tip #6- Be Patient

Patience is a virtue, my friends, and there is no exception in the world of photography. Many professional photographers will say the best shots just come to you. Guess what? They're lying. You may be satisfied with a particular shot, and it may seem just fine to you. But if you slow down, wait a little longer, and follow your subject for another moment, that "just fine" shot may turn into a great one. Also, never let yourself get discouraged if you've been striving for that perfect shot for forever and a day. It's coming. Just wait. (By the way, the above shot was taken at a yearbook workshop last summer. The campus where the workshop was held had free roaming peacocks. I followed these suckers for at least 30 minutes until they all lined up how I wanted them.)

Tip #7- Look For Emotion

Emotion in photography is absolutely essential. Hands down. No questions asked. Let's face it, a photograph of a football player in tears because his team lost the championship game is a heck of a lot more interesting than a photo of the same football player sitting on the bench emotionless. The way a subject looks in a photograph has a lot to do with the way the viewer feels when they see that photograph. Look for smiles, hugs, tears, reactions or anything that involves an expression on the subject's face. Not shooting people? Think of ways that certain colors or shapes can evoke an emotional response from your viewer. The above photo was taken the night my school's football team lost (again) to our cross-town rivals. Texas high school football is taken a little too seriously, as we can see. 

Tip #8- Always Overshoot!

It's the same with bacon, and it's the same with photography. More is always better! Never stop clicking that shutter button, especially in "time sensitive" situations, where you're trying to capture a specific moment or a specific reaction. Once all your settings are in place, and you're positioned where you need to be, start clicking and don't stop! This will ensure you get that "money shot" you were looking for. Plus, having a large pool of photos to choose from ensures variety and that you captured every second of a particular moment. Sure, editing may take a little longer, but you'll be so glad you have tons of images to choose from. Your hard drive can handle it, I promise! If there's any one tip I can stress above all the others, it's this one! (Above is an iPhoto screenshot of me going through pictures of the crowning ceremony for Homecoming Queen. I took over 500 shots from this one moment!) 

Tip #9- Edit Effectively

No time to dilly-dally with filters and crazy saturation! Keep editing to a minimum for authentic looking photography. (Unless you're creating a photo illustration or other artistic piece, but don't get me started, that's for another post!) When it comes to plain vanilla photography, less is more. All you need to do is crop where needed, adjust the white balance (using Levels in Photoshop), make SLIGHT changes to brightness and contrast, and that's it. Put down the mouse! Hands off the keyboard! Stop! When it comes to editing the quantity of photos you've taken, be just as diligent. Do an initial run-through of your latest batch of photos, and delete any and all shots that turned out blurry, selfies you took during down time, or any "oops" shots of the floor or when the lens cap was still attached. (How embarrassing!) After your initial run-through, go back and try to whittle your total number of photos down to 50. Not 49, not 51, 50! Then go back in again. This time, aim for 30. Do it again, and try to narrow it down to your top 10-15 photos. (All depending on the situation, of course. You'll have more photos from shooting someone's wedding than you will at your nephew's little league game.) 

Tip #10- Go With Your Gut

In most cases, your instincts have a pretty good idea of what's best for you. And if your instincts tell you it's a good idea to shoot from the opposite side of the field- it's a good idea! Don't really know how to describe this one. As you go, and as you learn, you develop a sixth sense. A "spidey sense" for photographers, if you will. Get in touch with the photography gods, and trust them! But, above all, have fun doing so!

I really hope this little list I've compiled can help some of y'all out there who may be struggling, or wondering how to take your photographic talent to the next level. We're all still learning, so we might as well learn together. Thanks a ton for taking time to read this post! :) 


Unknown said...

good tips thank you for the post! love the silhouette shot!

SlowSally said...


Anonymous said...

This was great. Simple to read. Funny. Great tips. I have a fancy wancy camera and no flippin' clue how to use it. :) Reading, searching, learning. Thanks for the tips!

Unknown said...


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