How To Take Good Pictures and Photographs
So you have a new camera, or perhaps you just want to finally learn how to use the one you’ve had for awhile. You may have read the little manual that came with, perhaps cruised a few websites looking for photo taking tips, but the pictures you produce just don’t look as good as how you imagined it. When you compare your pictures with the beautifully posed and lighted models that you see in magazines, you may start to wonder what you did wrong. You may ask, “Why don’t my pictures look like that?” Well, aside from photo editing software, those photographers may have had better equipment. They most certainly had better technique. You can learn those techniques, and you can become a better photographer.
The easiest way to began experimenting with photography is by going outside. The light is very good, and most cameras are designed to work well in outdoor conditions. This means that by simply going outside, your pictures will be better. Great equipment is nice, but is certainly not a necessity. So, go outside and find two things; first suitable lighting and second, a suitable background.
If you spend any amount of time looking at good photographs, you will notice that a great deal of the effect that makes them enjoyable is that the light is not constant across the subject of the picture. When light coming from one direction is stronger then the light from another, the entire photograph takes on a new dimension of interest and excitement. It is for this reason that on-camera flashes are to be avoided. The on-camera flash, while lighting up your subject, also gives them a flat, two-dimensional feeling. If nothing else, the eyes, mouth, and nose need to not be spots on the face, but intriguing areas, defined by shadow and expression. At the same time, you don’t want too much contrast in these areas unless you are trying to create a comical effect.
Okay, you are now outside, wondering how to get the light to come from only one side, right? After all, thanks to our nice atmosphere which keeps us alive the light outside appears to come from all directions. To begin with, avoid direct sunshine. Direct sunshine will cause the same effect that the flash does, and your subject will lose its dynamic element. Also, you do not want to have too much light coming from the overhead sun. The best time to take pictures outside is the couple of hours after sunrise and before sun down. Sunlight coming straight down from the noontime sun especially will intensify the lines under the eyes, and raise the cheek bones to an abnormal height. The overall effect of that will be that your subject looks much older, and rather grumpy.
Take advantage of objects with shadows. Look at things like buildings, trees, or clouds to get an amazing soft-box effect. I have heard many photographer refer to clouds as “nature’s soft-box.” This is because they produce a nice, even light similar to an expensive studio soft-box. If nothing else is available, you can always construct your own shelter from a sheet. A nice effect from a clean, white sheet is that it will produce a nice evenly diffused light, and not just a dark shadow. Be careful when taking pictures under trees though, because random patches of light that might filter down will provide unwanted light.
Of course, being outside you have a vast choice of backgrounds to select from. You might select an ivy-covered wall, a large tree trunk, a bush, a rock, an interesting wall, graffiti, window openings, doorways, or any number of architectural or natural features. It is important that the subject of your picture stand close to the background, so that you can put both into focus. Be careful not to select a busy background though, because, unless you are photographing for Where’s Waldo you want your subject to stand out, not be lost in a confused background.
The first step to posing your subject is to decide what kind of a picture you will be taking. Typically, you select from a full length standing pose, a full length sitting pose, a half-length pose, or merely the head and shoulders. Each of these poses creates its own artistic flair, and what you decide will be dependent upon what you want to achieve with your picture.
It is in posing your subject, that the photographer must demonstrate artistic feeling. It is the act of posing that will allow you to differentiate your photograph from the crowd. It is this activity that makes the photograph great.
There are a few different poses to try. You can have the subject look directly into the lens, or to one side or the other. The subject can slouch in the chair, or sit rigid straight. Particular attention should be placed to the hands and feet, as you want the person to appear natural, and not to be “posing and smiling for the camera.”
Your camera needs to be placed at face level to the subject. This means that you will need to adjust the legs on the tripod, or if your are shooting hand-held you will need to adjust your body to get the camera at face level with the subject. Also, remember that in full sun to set your aperture to f/16. This is commonly known as the sunshine aperture, or sunny f/16. Of course, you can always make adjustments from there, but it is the place that you will want to start from.
When focusing your camera, make double certain that you have the eyes in focus. It is a rare portrait that does not include detail of the eyes.
Of course, you cannot always be expected to take a picture outside. Often you will want to take a nice portrait in your own home. This doesn’t mean that you can’t take advantage of the sunlight. If it is daytime, pose your subject near a window, in order to take advantage of the natural lights and shadows that will be cast. You may want to use a fill flash to provide a bit more detail in the shadows. Of course, using your artistic flair you might decide that you want your subject to be bathed in heavy shadows, with only a few features in sharp detail.
Another trick you can try is to bring that sheet inside with you. Have an assistant hold a white bed sheet or piece of white tag board up and reflect some light back to the face of the subject. This works better with a slower shutter speed, but if done right will provide a nice soft bounce light by reflecting the sunlight onto the subject.
When you are photographing a person, it is sometimes nice to use a prop in the photo, which will give an element of story, or other interest to the picture. Such props may include an object to be held, such as a ball or other toy. To get some ideas about interesting props, it is handy to take a look at what other people are using and springboard your own ideas from there.
I read a suggestion once in an old book that photographs should tell a story. The goal is not to just show what the person looks like, but to know what the person is like. Photography should evoke an emotion, tell a story, or provide a bit of mystery and wonder. Like a good mystery story, photography should ask as many questions as it answers.
How you chose to present your subject is completely up to you. Just keep in mind some of the basic suggestions that I have shared with you. I will be exploring these and more advanced concepts in upcoming articles.
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.