In the past 5 years, I’ve traveled to over 30 countries, which has brought a constant opportunity to practice photography in unique settings. What started out as an attempt to document our journey as a family keepsake, has become an engaging and artful hobby that I love to indulge in. Having taken tens of thousands of photos, I can see how my skill has improved with time. And while I don’t consider myself an expert photographer, people regularly give compliments on the photos I’ve taken. So today, I’d like to share some of the processes and tricks I use to produce what I think are beautiful photos.
Whether on a mobile phone camera, or an expensive DSLR, it seems nearly everyone these days is taking photographs on occasion, and I love to see inspiring and beautiful photos from others. While a photo can’t capture everything about being in a place, the more we develop our photography skills, the more we’ll be able capture, communicate, and remember about it. These skills are learnable. Sometimes all it takes is a small tweak to make a big difference in the result. I hope these tips will help you as they’ve helped me, to share more of the world’s beauty through your own perspective. Now, here are my 6 Tips for Taking Great Photos:
1. Choose a subject that inspires you.
Because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the person behind the lens, you get to call the shots. So if you pass a scene that causes your heart to jump, or notice a detail that makes you sigh in a moment of reflection, this may be a good indication of a subject worth capturing. Some subjects lend themselves naturally to photography, and are difficult to take a bad picture of. Others may require more effort to capture what inspires you. Pay attention to how your body responds to your surroundings, and to the thoughts and emotions that come in response to it. Walk around your subject, and look at it from different angles (including above and below, if possible) to see what stands out to you.
This old farm wagon called to me at the Bunratty Castle grounds in Ireland. I liked the subdued and complimentary colors, as well as the texture of the bricks and grass, and the wooden green door in the background. Notice that I also tried to follow somewhat the oft-repeated “rule of thirds”, where the main subject should be 1/3 or 2/3 from any edge of the image. However, I failed to properly focus on the wagon, and instead focused on the bricks. Oh well… next time.
2. Take several pictures
Sometimes you’ll get it right the first time, but unless you’re experienced at reading lighting and adjusting the appropriate settings on your camera to match it (I’m not), it’s often helpful to take several photos of a subject from different angles with different settings, different focal points, and even different lenses (if available) to get it just right. When I get home, I’ll usually go through and delete most of the duplicates, but I’m more likely to have one I really like when I have more options to work with. But don’t just snap randomly. Take time to set up your shot well so you’re more likely to have some good ones in the end. Sometimes I know a good shot as soon as I take it.
I took this photo in Colmar, France. We were only there for a few days, but I so loved this spot, that I came back to it several times during our stay to see it at different times of day, and to try to capture the different emotions I felt in this picturesque place.
3. Take advantage of good natural light.
It’s amazing what a difference lighting makes. Good lighting can make a lousy camera turn out amazing pictures, and even the best camera won’t do as well in bad lighting. In general, it’s best to shoot looking away from the light rather than toward it, unless you want that effect. This better preserves the colors of the image without them getting white-washed. Times of day where the light is softer, such as the hours just after sunrise or just before sunset are ideal. Lightly cloudy days, or slightly shady spots such as under trees where only some light is allowed through, can also be very nice. If the light is too hard, such as direct sunlight on a subject, it can sometimes lead to unpleasant contrasts. And low light photography generally requires a longer shutter speed, which increases the chance of blur. This can be mitigated by using a tripod and a timer.
While beautiful any time of day, this bay in San Sebastian, Spain was gray and nearly colorless on this rainy day, until some of the thick cloud cover began to clear, allowing for the sun to come through.
4. Blur the background to make a subject “pop”
I love this effect, especially for portraits. This is done by using a low aperture setting. I bought a 50mm portrait lens for my camera (the Sony NEX a6000) that shoots as low as 1.8 aperture. But a similar effect can be achieved by using a high zoom setting on point and shoot cameras. You may notice that the more you zoom in, and the closer you are to a subject, the more the background blurs. For cameras without an aperture or optical zoom option, moving closer to an object can help, but a blurred background effect could be achieved in post processing with a bit of effort.
This is a picture of my daughter, the day before my sister’s wedding in Idaho. Notice that her face and everything around the same distance from the lens is in focus, including the chair. But her knees, and the flowers, wheel, and wall in the background are blurred. The further away the background objects are, the more blurry they will be.
5. Enhance your photo with post-processing
Some people see this as cheating, but I see it as art. Post processing can turn a bad photo into quite a good one, and a good one into a great one. I’ve been able to salvage several photos this way. There are many photo editing tools you can use for this, but I’m currently using Adobe Lightroom. Some of the settings I like to check with each photo are:
- Leveling, to make sure the horizon is actually horizontal.
- Exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, and blacks to adjust the amount of light and dark in the image. This can help bring out extra detail that may have been hidden due to poor lighting.
- Clarity and vibrance to enhance outlines, textures, and make colors slightly more vivid. I generally avoid the “saturation” effect because it tends to make photos look too colorful to be real.
There are many other settings to play with, and more advanced things you can do, from editing out dust specs, zits, or even people from your scenes, whitening teeth and enhancing eyes, changing the color of the sky or someone’s clothes. The possibilities are endless depending on how much time you want to spend editing an image. Most of these aren’t necessary for what I’m doing, but I mention them so you know what’s possible.
Here is a photo I took at Times Square in New York City both before and after processing. Notice how dark it was in the original. The details were still in the image, but had to be pulled out by increasing the exposure and bringing up the shadows. To compensate for this change, I also lowered the highlights and darkened the blacks. I used the “clarity” effect to enhance the textures. I didn’t use any vibrance to enhance the color, as I thought it was already bright enough. I also rotated the image to make it more level.
6. Use slow shutter speed and a tripod for night shots
In low light conditions, it can be difficult to get a clear image without a tripod. I do use a night mode for handheld shots that takes several pictures in rapid succession and then saves the clearest one automatically. But for better shots, especially ones where I want more light, color, or an effect that smooths water or light, a longer exposure time is helpful, and for this, a tripod (or setting my camera down somewhere) is essential. I also usually put my camera on a timer of 2 seconds to reduce the possibility of moving the camera when pushing the button. I’m currently using the Ultrapod II, which is very portable and can be setup as a tripod, or strapped to a tree branch or small pole.
I took this picture of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge with a 20 second exposure, making the water very smooth and lights show more clearly in the reflection. It also helped bring out the color in the sky.
So those are some tips I’ve used to take great photos. If they work for you, great. But in the end, this is your art, so do what you think looks good, and let your creativity flow!