I don’t ever fool myself into thinking that I’m a good photographer. I know that I’m not. This is not me being falsely humble, it’s me being real. I don’t know the first thing about operating a film or DSLR camera, I haven’t studied photography techniques and I know that my photos are not technically strong, in fact, they are probably weak. What I do know is that people, generally, respond well to my photos and some would say I’m good at photography. I’m not, but I’m good at faking it. What I’m good at is making pretty pictures – I can compose a frame that is visually appealing, and hopefully also tells a story. At least that’s my hope.
Until about a year ago, all my photos were taken on a several generations old Blackberry. Sorry, Blackberry, but your camera is pretty awful. I now photograph and edit exclusively with an iPhone and it has made a huge difference, especially with regard to the number of photos I need to take to capture a good image (less blur, less grain, better, more natural colours). Boy, did that Blackberry make me work hard at figuring out how to capture an image in a smart and strategic way, to disguise both the fact that I’m not a skilled photographer and that the camera itself was very weak. (In hindsight, working with a bad camera probably was the biggest help to me, it made me learn some key principles of photography and how to creatively get around difficulties). I got by and managed to take some beautiful images with the Blackberry, by practicing and being persistent, and by following a few simple rules.
Pick a beautiful subject: This might seem obvious, but it bears being said. Your photos will look better when you pick beautiful things to photograph. How often does a flower or a natural landscape look bad? Similarly, when photographing children take a moment to wipe the peanut butter off their cheeks and straighten their hair band. Unless you are going for that authentic childhood look.Work with interesting backgrounds: While having a beautiful subject to work with helps immensely, don’t forget that a stunning background can also take you a long way in making a beautiful photo. Look for pretty murals, brick or stone walls, gardens, ivy, fields, these will give your photo more visual impact and interest. Whenever I am walking around town, I take mental notes of interesting backdrops for photos.
Take lots of photos: On average, I take about 10 photos for every one photo that I like or would bother saving. With digital cameras we are fortunate that we don’t have to be as conservationist about our roll, like we would have been with film. If there is a moment you want to capture, snap a series of 10-20 photos in a row in rapid succession (maybe from different angles). When you look at your roll you will probably have a good one there. You don’t need to put all your eggs in one basket, take a few photos so that you are more likely to get something you like.
Photograph in natural light: Every photography tips list will tell you this. Why? Because it is the most important thing if you want crisp lines, clean colours, natural looking images. This is one of the reasons you almost never see a photograph inside my home. Our home does not have a lot of natural light, and with yellowy-white walls the tones in photographs do not come out well. If you do have a penchant for the indoors and want to capture these moments, try photographing near a window or skylight. If you are still getting yellowy tones that you don’t like, you can try editing the photo in black and white and this can often make the photo look beautiful. Painting your entire living space white, including the floors, also helps, but probably not an option for most of us.
Edit: Virtually all professional photographers edit their photos. This is not cheating or hiding mistakes. Okay, maybe sometimes it’s hiding mistakes. But the point is, try editing your photos, it can make a huge difference. I like to use VSCO, which is an app for iPhone or Android, because it has a wide range of filters (overall colour treatment for the photo) and tools to adjust the image (such as grain, white balance, saturation, straightness). A good friend once suggested to me to use the tools first to adjust the image and then apply a filter, and I agree, this is generally a good way to go.
Don’t over-edit: Edit, but don’t go nuts with all the options. I usually use the rule of making 2-3 adjustments to the image and one filter, as a maximum. Otherwise the image can begin to look too processed. For me, the story of the image is more important than the beauty of it or the technical ability of the photography, so I don’t want editing or technical skill to stand out more than the story.
Style your photos: Take a moment, where possible, to style the photo. For me, this means before I take a photo I look at the subject on my phone screen, and then adjust the placement of things to make a better picture. This might mean moving the hair off of Sen’s face when he is napping, or straightening his shirt a little. It might mean adding or taking away some element, such as removing a dirty sock, or adding a flower to the frame. Basically, adding visual interest or removing distractions. I take a fairly laid back approach to styling. I style “light” because I want my photos to be as natural as possible, so my tip would be to try not to overthink the styling. Most moments don’t need any styling, but sometimes removing a food wrapper can make all the difference.
Think about composition: Similar to styling your photos this tip is about the overall balance in your photo. So, looking at your screen or through the lens of your camera, look at the whole frame, not just the main subject. Is the image too busy, with patterns and textures, does the eye know where to look? Or is the eye overwhelmed? Typically if I have a simple subject I like to contrast this with a textured or patterned background, or vice versa. You will develop your own composition style, there is really no right and wrong here, it is more about thinking and considering the whole image as composed and balanced.
Cropping can make all the difference: This goes back to editing, but cropping is especially important. All too often people will delete or never share a photo because there is something awkward or ugly in frame. Hello?! This is what cropping is for! I have photos where one of the children is making an awkward face, but sometimes cropping can save it. Read: crop their face out of the frame (It doesn’t make you a bad parent!). Sometimes unconventional cropping can make the photo more interesting, so use it to your advantage.
Straighten the horizon lines: Again, editing. Straighten out the horizontal plane on your photos, it is so easy to do, whether in your photo editing app or directly in Instagram. Straighten the landscape out, or whatever horizontal lines are in the background (fence, book shelf, house, etc). This will keep from visually distracting the viewer, so they can focus on your adorable kids or the delicious food in your photo.
Find interesting angles: Sometimes all you need to do to get some visual interest in an otherwise boring or mundane moment is to photograph it from an unusual angle, for example, from very low to the ground or overhead. No matter how beautiful the subject is or how technically perfect a photograph may be, after a while images that are photographed head-on at a flat angle get a little boring, especially on repeat.
Break any of the above rules if your visual instincts and intuition tell you to: Having explained some of my rules, I should also admit that I often break them. I do this when, in my opinion, the image loses impact or honesty when I apply a particular rule or edit. When my instincts tell me not to edit or follow a rule (for example, horizon line straightening) then I go with my instincts, for better or for worse. I figure that my intuition knows something that my conscious self hasn’t figured out yet.
So, there you have it. A few of my tips for improving the look and quality of your photographs. I would love to know if this is helpful or if you have any tips to add to this list, I still have lots of room for improvement.
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