How To Take Better Pictures Instantly

This topic is far from original, but I thought I’d put my spin on it.  I’ve been working hard on improving my photography skilz, and I’ve come a long way, if I do say so myself! I never really had a knack for photography, but I’ve been trying to learn.

For Christmas this year, my husband treated us to a new camera, and I spent half of our week in Virginia reading Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography books. They are fantastic — easy to read and to apply. I highly recommend them to anyone wanting to improve their photography skills.

In this post I will share my favorite tips and tricks. Don’t worry if you don’t have a fancy SLR. Most of these tips are so simple that they apply to all cameras. I promise not to use any fancy technical terms like aperture and ISO. Of course, practice makes perfect, so be sure to take lots of pictures. After all, it doesn’t cost you a dime. That’s the glory of digital photography.

10 Tips to Better Photos

1. Get rid of the red eye.

This should go without saying but I’m always amazed at how many people post pictures with red eye, so I had to get this one out of the way right up front. It is such a simple thing and yet it is so crucial. I mean, really. Why bother posting a picture if the subject is going to look like he’s possessed? Unless, of course, you have a personal vendetta against him.

See, look at this. I love this old photo, even though the quality is sorely lacking. I caught her red handed, sneaking Easter candy, and yanked out the camera. Unfortunately, she looks possessed.

Ahhh… much better! And it took me all of 5 seconds.

If you don’t have a photo editing program, check out Picnik. Picnik is a free web-based photo editing program, and you can do tons of amazing things with it. If you use it for nothing else, use it to remove red eye from your pictures. (If you want something better, I highly recommend looking into Photoshop Elements; it’s much cheaper than Photoshop, and it’s really all an amateur really needs. I also use iPhoto a lot since I’m on a Mac.)

2. Make sure your photo is straight.

This is especially true for horizon shots, but it’s helpful for people or food shots too. Sarah taught me this trick. She pointed out my crooked horizon in a photo once long ago, and warned me to watch this minute but powerful detail. I straighten all my photos now. Picnik has a Straighten tool under the Rotate tab in the Edit menu.

See, a tilted horizon just looks like a crappy snapshot.

But when you straighten it out, it looks so much nicer. (I used the line where the water meets the trees. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.)

One more note about horizons.  Scott Kelby pointed this out in his book, and I can see what a difference it makes — never put your horizon in the center of the photo. That’s a mark of an amateur. Always place it in the top 1/3 or bottom 1/3 of the frame. Think about the part of the photo you want to emphasize, and make that the bigger third of the picture.

In the case of the above, I realized that I should have emphasized the lake rather than the sky. This is a much more pleasing photo.

Now I just need to fix the lighting! (Lanscape shots are best taken at sunrise or sunset, by the way. There, that’s 11 tips for the price of 10.)

3. Get close to your subject.  And then get a little bit closer.

Have you ever noticed that some of the most striking shots of people are close-ups?  Don’t be afraid to get close, even if it means cutting off the top of one’s head.  Just don’t cut off the chin, according to Scott Kelby.

This picture is cute, right?

But then take a look at THIS ONE.

SO much better, right? Again, the lighting isn’t great, but you get the idea.

You may think today that you want to remember that cute knit cap or the details on the coat, but when you look back at this picture, it’s the face, the eyes, the freckles that you will care about. Obviously the exception to that rule is if something is particularly sentimental. If your Great Aunt Matilda knitted that cap the day before she died, then you may want to consider keeping the first shot. Otherwise, crop it out and focus on the face.

This is also true of food shots. Ever notice how on really popular food blogs, they get in SO CLOSE to the food, even cropping off a portion of it? I’m trying to get better at that, but it takes some practice. Ree, of course, is a master at food photography. Study her shots and then try some of those techniques out on your own food. That is, if you’re a crazy blogger like me and you take photos of your food before you sit down to eat it. My kids are used to this now. They think the camera is just another kitchen utensil.

4. Declutter the area.

So many times there is clutter in the background that you don’t notice until after you take the picture. I know how it is, with kids moving all over the place, trying to capture The Shot before it’s gone.  But if you can afford the time, look around and see what is in the background of the photo and try to clean up the area.

This is especially true when you’re eating out.  I am famous for taking a great shot of someone, and then realizing when I upload the photos that there was a big ugly Coke glass sitting right there in front of the whole scene.  It only takes a minute to clear the area, and your photos will be so much nicer.

Neither of these photos is great, but they illustrate my point.  One night when I was making cookies with my daughter, I grabbed the camera and started snapping pictures.

When I realized what a mess the background was, I scurried around and picked up the counter. As for the crap on the table behind her, I used the oh-so-professional declutter-by-cropping-it-out-technique after uploading the photos to iPhoto.

5. Take time to frame your shot.

When taking full length body shots, try not to cut off heads or feet, if you can help it.  If you’re zooming in really close to someone’s face, you can crop off some of the top of the head, but in 3/4-length or full body shots, it just looks like a mistake.

Like this one.  Drives. me. crazy.

Worse is when people take a full-length shot of someone and focus their head right in the center of the frame, leaving a lot of sky at the top, and cutting off the feet at the bottom.

That one isn’t SO bad because the background adds some interest, but still.  It’s best to make the body fill the frame.

See how much better that is?

6. Place the object of your focus on the left or the right rather than the middle.

It’s typical to place the object in the center of the photo, but a more interesting way to take a picture of a single object is to place it to the right or the left in the frame.

If you’re taking a picture of a person, make sure the extra space is on the side the person is looking at.  Give them room to breathe, as Scott Kelby says.  See, this picture is cute cropped like this, but it’s stifling her.

Try it this way instead.

7. For a little whimsy, try tilting your camera at an angle.

I love this technique although I probably over-use it.  But it’s fun and different, and it adds interest.  Try it sometime!  The trick is to tilt it enough so that it doesn’t look like a mistake.  See rule #2.

8. Try new angles.

Don’t take all of your pictures from your typical vantage point. When taking pictures of kids, get down on their level. When taking landscape or travel photos, try shooting a scene from above or below. I was on the floor, looking up at my son who was sitting in a chair when I took this picture.

I took this picture of my neice from the top of the table that she was laying on.  I knelt down and set the camera right on the table.  That helped keep it steady as well as gave me a better angle to capture her face.

9. Take your camera off the Auto setting.

Okay, stop squirming! I know, it’s scary, but what’s the worst thing that can happen? You get a blurry picture? Pshaw! Live a little!

Let me share my favorite setting with you. I learned this trick at the Photography Wisdom Workshop at Blissdom last year. This one probably only applies to SLR cameras, but point and shoot cameras may have a way of doing this too, I just don’t know what it is. Feel free to chime in if you know.

I love to take close-up pictures where the object is in focus and the background is blurry. Here’s what I do. Turn the dial from Auto to the big A. (It’s A on a Nikon and Av on a Canon. That stands for aperture priority, by the way, but I’m whispering because I promised not to use any fancy technical terms.)

Now, set it to the lowest number your camera lens will allow. On mine it is 1.8. Yours may be 4 or 5.6 or something in that range. Then start clicking. Get close to your subject and fill your frame. Remember rule #3. If you have enough light, it should turn out perfectly. That’s how I got the PSP shot and the one of my niece.

If you want everything to be in focus, you’ll want to raise that number to about 11. You’ll definitely need good light for that setting, though. Which leads me to #10.

10. Turn off the flash and use natural light.

It’s not always possible, but when you can, ditch the flash — especially if all you have is the built-in pop-up flash. Use the technique I explained in number 9 to allow the maximum amount of light into your lens. Take pictures near windows where there is indirect sunlight, or go outside. Outside shots are best early in the morning or late at night. Inside shots are best during sunlight hours when you’re near an indirect light source. Sit your subject so that the light is coming in on the side of her face, not directly into her eyes or behind her. Experiment and see what works best.

My husband took this picture without the flash at about 4pm, with indirect sunlight from a nearby window.

There you go! Ten tips to instantly improve your photos. Do you have a tip you would add to this list?