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?

Join The Conversation

58 Responses

  1. I like the declutter tip. My pictures always have a ton of junk in the background. I love to experiment with level of exposure and shutter speed – makes great pictures. I would add buy a good camera 🙂

  2. This was a really good article. I am not a professional when it comes to photography although it is a dream to be someday. I had heard of several of these and others you just reminded me to work on. Like #7! I have seen people tilt their camera but have never done it myself. I love the way the photos always look when photographers do this. I’m going to make it a point to shoot something like this, this week! Thanks!

  3. I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks and wanted to say thanks for this list. Improving my photography skills is one of the things I would really like to do this year. A long with learning to play violin. 🙂

    1. I played the violin for 10 year! I keep thinking I might want to take it up again, but I never do anything about it. Good luck with that! 🙂

  4. Great tips. My photo skills are pretty pathetic, but I am trying to get better. I post a lot of recipes on my site and my biggest problem is the lighting. If I try to take a photo in my kitchen at this time of year past 4pm, they just turn out so dark. I am also guilty of trying to center everything and shooting pics at too far a distance. I need to really work on #2.

    Thanks for the tips.

    1. I didn’t go into this, but if you are shooting without flash in a darker setting, you can bump up your ISO to help compensate. This is where a better camera helps. On our older one, it would get grainy over an ISO of 800 and on my new one I can use ISO as high as 1600 without trouble.

  5. Great tips! I like the one about letting the subject ‘breathe’ by placing the open space on the side where they are looking. Such a small thing but totally works! Now if only I could get my point & shoot to focus on something on the side of the frame instead of dead center every time lol
    I have a great ‘almost’ DSLR but when I say almost I mean it takes film and there is no ‘preview’ screen LOL it scares the heck outta me to use that for blog shots so I stick with my point & shoot :-/

    1. If you focus on your object, in the center where your camera normally focuses, by pushing the button halfway down, then you can move the camera and place the object anywhere you want in the frame, but it is still focused on that object. Then push the button the rest of the way down to take the shot. I use this technique A LOT.

      I did just learn how to change where my new camera is focusing. It’s a pretty cool trick. But it’s still easier sometimes to just do that little trick I mentioned above.

  6. Thanks for the tips. We bought an SLR camera last year for Christmas and I still have it on the auto setting! I have been looking at books to learn more about photography, as I have always been a point and shoot camera person. With a nice camera I want to learn how to use it to the fullest. Do you have any recommendations for books that are good at explaining different ways to use the camera to get great shots (like your tips!)?

    1. Yep. Those Digital Photography books that I linked to at the top of the post. They are the best, as far as I know.

  7. Thanks for the great tips. I have one question regarding your tip “Now, set it to the lowest number your camera lens will allow. On mine it is 1.8. Yours maybe 4 or 5.6 or something in that range.” What do I set? I feel so stupid asking that question but maybe others are wondering the same thing. I have a Nikon D40. I’ve tried reading the manual but it makes no sense to me. Help!

    1. That’s a very good question, and I knew I needed to flesh it out more. I probably should have split this post into a series of 10, huh?

      On a Nikon, it’s the dial near the trigger button. Do you like my technical jargon? So you switch the mode dial to A and then on the right side, on the back near the top, right under the read-out screen, there is another dial that you can move to change the aperture. On my new Nikon, there are 2 of those dials – one in front of the trigger button and one on the back. I think the one in front changes the aperture on that one. You can take a look at your instruction manual that came with the camera for more specifics, but I’m looking at a picture of the D40 and it looks like you only have the one dial.

      Sorry, I can’t help the Canon owners out there, but there are awesome tutorials online.

  8. Ha Ha… I love that your children consider your camera as another kitchen utensil. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve stopped something in the kitchen to take a photo!

    Thank you so much for sharing these great tips. I often use the ’tilt’ tip, but love the idea of allowing breathing space in a photo.

  9. Can I ask for a camera recommendation? I am eventually going to need a new camera and want to be sure that I get something that will help me improve my photography. I am interest in playing more but my digital doesn’t always give me the creativity that I want. Thanks for the great article. I really want to practice more…you know, in the free time! 🙂

  10. Great post! My husband’s work gave us a super nice camera and I’ve always kind of felt like a baby trying to drive a Mack truck with it. I’ve learned a couple of these lesson’s along the way but I’m ready to move it off of the AUTO button! One thing that really bothers me when I look back through our digital photos is that there are about 4 pictures of me over the last 12 years. I don’t mean to sound selfish or vain, but if I ever kicked the bucket, after the party, they might wish there was more of a record that I actually lived in the house with them! Out of vanity, I never allow pictures because I just know it will end up as the dreaded, “before” picture. I think I’ve learned that if I just grab a kid and throw them in front of me, that I can, for the most part, be at peace with the picture. Maybe if I can get my husband to read this and learn some photoshop techniques, we’ll have more of a record of our entire family…Thanks again!!!

  11. I just got a Canon Rebel for Christmas and am both overwhelmed and excited to learn. Thanks for this lesson. I’d be happy for a more technical one too, you know, so you don’t have to whisper apeture and all….

    I too have trained my kids to not eat until I’ve taken a picture of their food. They don’t think it’s odd that I carry my food into a bench in the living room by a window to take a picture before taking it back into the kitchen to eat. Food blogger quirks.

    1. Okay, cool. I’ll work on a series of more technical tips, perhaps? I don’t know much, though. I’ll have to learn as I go. 😉

  12. Yes! Ditch the flash! LOL. Actually, people can do a lot more w/out their flash by adjusting a few settings, if they’d take the time to learn about it. I thought you HAD a nice camera?! A friend at our church is a professional photog (like, he’s an older guy with grandkids and has already had a career as one) and he gave my friend and me a workshop. SO FUN. We’re going to do it again. So helpful.

    1. What a great opportunity!

      We did have a lower end SLR. We were getting frustrated with some of its limitations, so with my blessing, my husband returned the iPad I got him for Christmas, and got a better model. I’m LOVING it so far. The biggest improvement is that I can bump up the ISO a lot higher and get better indoor shots without flash.

  13. Great tips! I’ve been (slowly) working on improving my picture-taking skills as well, and the biggest thing for me to do is take MORE pictures. Practice, practice, practice.

    Also, the declutter by cropping it out technique? One of my favorites!

  14. Great advice. I’ve been practicing with the DSLR I got for my birthday. I think the shots I’ve gotten off manual mode are 100 times better than manual mode. It was scary, but I figured, what whould it hurt. Just give it a try. I just delete whatever isn’t good. I also invested in Lightroom, which I love. I was able to get the educator’s discount because I work for a University.

    1. I bought Lightroom months ago and haven’t opened it! For shame, I know, I’m just overwhelmed at the idea of another learning curve.

  15. GREAT tips, Jo-Lynne! Especially the A/Av one! I’ve been wanting to learn how to do that on my Canon, although it’s not a full DSLR. I’m stumbling this post so I can come back to it and try each tip!

    I learned the camera angle tip from Pensieve Robin, and I overuse it too, but it’s such a fun effect!

    1. That’s hilarious because I think she’s the first person who I saw do that too! At that first Blissdom – you and I were at the lunch table with her, remember? And she was slanting her camera, and I was like HUH? Now I love it. 🙂

      Thanks for the stumble. I was hoping it may get some stumble luv.

  16. Thanks for a good list. I dream about one day being the happy owner of a DSLR. Until then my point and shoot will have to do. I’ve come to enjoy the, uh what’s the little flower mode called, the really close up one, totally blanking. Anyway, I like that mode.

  17. These are awesome tips, Jo-Lynne! Casey (mooshinindy) once told me that when you frame people in a shot you can cut them off at their shoulders, waist, and knees. If you cut off between shoulders & waist or at the thigh or shins (which cuts off feet), it just looks weird. I’ve been trying to be mindful of that as I learn to take better pictures of people.

    1. Interesting. Scott Kelby said not to cut anyone off at the joints. I guess, as with many artistic endeavors, some of it is personal preference?

  18. Perfect timing! I got my new Nikon D3100 yesterday and am not as scared to take it out of the box. My post today was about my becoming a photographer, so thank you for these great tips in a language even this SLR newbie can understand.

  19. love the tips. I know we (husband and I) have a lot to learn with our new camera. Already, just having an SLR has produced pictures that are a million times better. Now, its all about picking up on tips and learning more.

  20. oh i am SOOOO happy you did this post, please keep them coming. My husband bought me a Canon Rebel T2i and i have no idea how to use it, i am looking for a class or workshop in my area. and for some reason anytime i try to take a picture in the Av or other settings they are all black and white and i cant figure out how to change that. anyhow thanks again

  21. Great!!!! That was so helpful! We just bought a new Canon Rebel and I am really making efforts to learn how to do everything on it. Your info was so simple, helps my busy mom brain to process everything…..heck you are better than the manual! 🙂

  22. Great pics and even greater advice. This was a fun read. I only have a point and shoot but I figure if I get better with that, I’ll be ready for the big guns. Thanks for taking the time to write this post.

  23. Really terrific post, and thanks for the shout-out, allow I feel bad about pointing that out!! I guess it’s a pet peeve of mine. Yes, you are correct to always use water as your horizon line, because water is always level! In fact, it’s mostly only photos with water in them where I notice it.

    Now if I could just be inspired to get back to writing a great post like this. *sigh*

    1. Don’t feel bad!!! I’m always glad to know ways I can improve my photography. I just wanted to give credit where credit is due, that’s why I called you out. 🙂

  24. Great tips! They don’t cost anything to implement and improve your photos dramatically. One of my favorite things to do is change the perspective of an image by getting close and using the wide setting or taking the same photo from farther away at the longest telephoto setting.

    Photos of people are also more flattering when you take them from farther away at the telephoto setting than up close at the wide setting. Try it and see for yourself. Your nose will shrink if you step back and zoom in. Depth of field is also shallower at longer zoom settings, so it’ll be easier to get those out-of-focus backgrounds.

    1. Yes, that telephoto tip is one that Scott Kelby mentioned in his book. I’m all for shrinking my nose, so I’ll definitely try it. 🙂

  25. I like the one where you go at it at different angles. It reminds me of my husband and his camera taking skills- which are much better than mine. He thinks “outside of the box” and I remember a trip we took to Vegas with friends who were renewing their wedding vows. He took a hold of our camera and started snapping away like crazy, getting up in our faces, our friends’ faces, etc. I remember thinking at the time how silly he was being, and then once he uploaded the pictures, I then remember thinking- wow, look at those! The beauty of digital is that you can take a gazillion pics and then just delete, delete, delete!

  26. I was just at the Apple store this weekend and found out that they just launched an App store for Macs and, if you buy from the App store, the Aperture software is now $79, down from $199 if you buy it in-store. I think I’m going to use my Christmas money to buy it.

    Does it mean you are getting old if you use Christmas money for software?

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