I can’t believe it’s almost been a year.
During the past 12 months we’ve been in 13 countries, and many of them more than once. I’ve had my camera attached to my hand just about every day, and as a result I’ve learned quite a bit about photography that I’d like to share.
One quick note before we begin...
Many of the photography tips here are suggestions on how I believe you can improve your photography, as they’ve helped me along the way. However, to keep the article from turning into a tome, I’ve minimized the depth of certain sections. I’ll expound on these topics in future articles.
Lastly, as always with tips and guidelines: Follow them, and follow them often, until you’ve internalized them. Then... break them willingly!
Alright, let’s get to it.
Tip #1 — Composition: What it is and How to Use it
Guidelines for framing your subject
Photography is like most other arts: follow tried-and-true guidelines long enough (while taking inspiration from those your admire), and in due time you’ll start doing your own thing. This is exceedingly true for composition in photography. And it’s important because for every photo that you take consciously, you will either be invoking some compositional guideline, or purposely breaking one.
So, if you’ve just started educating yourself on photography, what compositional rules should you follow?
The most obvious one is the “Rule of Thirds,” which will have you dividing the photo into 9 boxes, and placing the subject of the photo on one of the 4 intersecting points in the middle. So for example, if it’s a portrait, the eyes or the head lands on one of the intersection points. This is a great rule to follow when you just have no idea where to position everything... but it can easily lead to boring-ass pictures. Why?
Photos need balance. If you’re placing the main subject of the photo on one side, but the other two-thirds of the photo are boring, unhelpful, not telling a story, or even worse, messy and distracting… you’ve got yourself a weird-looking photo. I know because I’ve taken thousands of these.
Here’s what I suggest you do when you’re starting out:
- Pick a subject — i.e. what you want the viewer to ultimately see
- Break the photo into imaginary quadrants — halves, or thirds (or fourths!).
- The in-camera grid or level helps with this
- Place your subject along one of the dividing lines, or in the middle (effectively breaking the photos into thirds or halves).
- Position yourself or your camera so that what surrounds the subject either leads to it, frames it, or tells part of the story. We’ll go into this in the following tips!
These guidelines will help you until you find yourself naturally wanting to break away from them. In other words, they’re helpful until they’re constricting.
What I find works for me now is placing the subject in juxtaposition with the rest of the frame. If the “rest of the frame” is boring, then maybe I can fill the frame with more of the subject (tip #5); if the rest of the frame is interesting, I just have to make sure it isn’t too distracting, and that it leads the viewer’s eyes through the photo and to the subject. Speaking of leading...
Tip #2 — Find Lines Leading to your Subject
Look for patterns and objects in the background/foreground that point to your subject
Many photography rules and guidelines exist to help you accentuate your subject, or to help you tell your subject’s story in different/interesting ways. Thus, your photo should almost always feature a thing (a person, a landscape, an item) and should somehow stand out from the rest of the photo.
One of the best ways to accentuate your subject is to find layers/lines that converge towards the subject, or in the direction of the subject. In photography these are known as leading lines. These lines are often diagonal, and can consist of just about anything, including trees, winding roads, buildings, lines on the ground, etc.
Are leading lines always necessary? No. Often times a subject is obvious in the photo (in a minimalistic photo with a clean background, for example), and other times there are simply no background elements that can be used to accentuate the subject. That’s fine. Do keep in mind, however, that whenever you can use the surroundings to “point” to your subject, you probably should.
So if one of the goals in photography is to choose a subject to photograph and then find a way to lead your viewer to it… is there any other way to accomplish that?
Tip #3 — Edit Your Photos!
Decide what you want your photo to look like
If the photo is important to you, you should edit it — always. Editing can take anywhere from 10 seconds to an hour (or longer); it can be done on a phone or on an over-powered computer; it can be done on one app with the push of two buttons, or through five computer programs and 10,000 mouse clicks.
Editing can be as simple or as complicated as you want for it to be, but you should always do some editing if the photo matters to you. Otherwise, you’re basically letting the company that made your camera (Apple, Sony, Canon, etc.) create the photo for you.
Oh, you wanted a vivid landscape? You wanted a contrasty black and white photo? You wanted to show off the color of the sunset or the sand or the water? Nah, too bad. That’s not what your camera thought was best... and now your face is pee-yellow or snow-white or food-poison green.
Find a program or two that works for you, learn it, and use it on all of your photos that matter.
Here’s what I use: If you’re on mobile, the Apple Photos and Google Photos apps are great for simple edits (they’ve got great “auto” buttons), while the Lightroom mobile app, VSCO, and Snapseed are fantastic for extensive, detailed edits. If you’re on a computer, Adobe Lightroom Classic CC is great for just about all kinds of edits, while Photoshop is perfect for pixel-level fixes/erasing distracting elements from photos. Computer programs will offer you more precision, while phone apps will generally provide you with a faster workflow at the expense of some quality.
Use editing to accentuate your subject (vignetting, improving lighting, etc.), to remove distractions (black-and-white conversions, erasing things, cropping), and to edit the colors and details to your liking. And straighten the horizon. Please straight the horizon. In fact…
Tip #4 — Straighten the Horizon
No crooked photos
One of the quickest things you can do to make a photo go from amateurish to decent — or even great — is to straighten out the predominant lines in a photo.
The strongest line in a photo is typically the horizon, i.e. where the earth and the sky meet. This mostly applies if you’re outdoors and you can see the horizon; if not, you align the photo with nearby walls, buildings, the floor, or whatever you can find that is running parallel or perpendicular to the frame of your photo. Doing this gives the photo an added layer of structure and stability, and is subconsciously more pleasing to the eye for the viewer.
You can do this either when taking the photo (with your in-camera level or grid) or afterwards when editing the photo. Remember though, the more you can do in camera, the better.
In any case, let’s say you just took a beautiful photo of the beach you spent the morning at, but because you were in a hurry, the horizon is slightly slanted. If you’re going to post it, don’t leave it like that! The photo will be much better off if you take a few seconds to pop into any one of the editing programs I mentioned above and either hit the auto button or rotate the image a few degrees manually to straighten it out. Bonus points for using “auto” in Lightroom, as even the mobile app now has the tools to fix the vertical and horizontal axes (most useful in architecture photography).
Keep in mind that many times, you won’t have a horizon or an upright building to guide you. In these cases, do your best to use trees, poles, and any other lines to straighten the photo.
One last note on straightening your photos: not all photos need stability and structure. Sometimes you want a feeling a liveliness and dynamism… like for the portrait of a girl on the shore of the beach, kicking up water (older IG photo). You can use a dutch angle — an intentional slant — to invoke that sense of liveliness.
The other exception is when you’ve taken a photo with an ultra wide-angle lens, or from an angle that distorts the image too much. For example, if you use a GoPro to take a selfie with the horizon in the background, chances are that even the horizon with be distorted (i.e. bent). Don’t bother bending the horizon into place because the rest of the image will suffer.
This brings the next point to mind: Unless you’re taking one of these impromptu I’m-on-top-of-the-world selfies…
Tip #5 — Fill the Frame
Bring the viewer in closer to what you see
This is another piece of composition advice that’s tried-and-true. You’ll see it everywhere, and for good reason. One of the best ways to accentuate your subject and increase your chances of having a meaningful, interesting photo is to get closer to what you’re photographing.
Once you know what your subject is, where you’re placing it, and the elements that lead to your subject ("leading lines"), try to remove everything else out of the photo. Your best option is to do this while taking the photo by simply getting closer, and failing that, to crop into the photo while editing.
This is another reason why editing is so important and useful. Sometimes you’ll catch another photo within the photo you’ve taken, and this is especially true when taking photos with a higher-megapixel camera (20+ mp) and a sharp lens. In any case, show the reader what’s important and cut out the excess.
BONUS TIP: Always look at the edges of the frame when shooting! This is so important in photography, and goes hand-in-hand with Tip #5, because you can avoid distractions in your photos by simply noticing them when you’re taking the photo. Wait for the person in the corner of your photo to walk away, or step in closer and avoid having to erase a 6-pack of Corona from the edge of your photo later.
Speaking of 6-packs…
Tip #6 — Eliminate Unnecessary Merging and Overlapping; Learn Layers
Everything in its place
Sorry, this tip has nothing to do with beers or a 6-pack. Instead, it has to do with the 3-dimensionality of photography… much more fun, I know.
In short, because photography is a 3-dimensional medium that’s displayed on 2-dimensional surfaces (displays and paper), you’ll often have many layers in a single photo. Many things from the foreground collide with the background, and vice versa.
The goal is to not put your subject (a person, in this case), in front of a layer that’s distracting. For example, don’t put the person directly in front of a tree or building that's off in the distance, because the two will merge and your subject will all of a sudden have a funny-looking hat or alien antennae. Not a good look. Another one that quickly comes to mind is placing your subject in front of a color that match the colors on your subject. In other words, if the person you’re photographing has a green shirt… don’t place him/her in front of similarly-colored bushes. Also not a good look.
This type of unhelpful merging isn’t very obvious when you first start taking photos. But once you start bringing them over into the computer and noticing that — hmm, that’s weird, this picture is perfect… if it weren’t for the big-ass arm growing out of my wife’s neck — then you start trying your best to eliminate the merging.
A layer that clashes with another layer can ruin the intention or clarity of a photo (or make it comical, which may not be your intention). This is an important tip to keep in mind so that you choose a backdrop that’s suitable for your subject, and a spot within that backdrop that doesn’t detract attention.
While we’re talking about 3-dimensions…
Tip #7 — Add Foreground Elements to Your Photos
Tell a deeper, more inviting story by adding depth to your photos
Much is said about the subject and the background, and not enough is said about the foreground. What am I referring to? The easiest way to imagine “adding foreground to a photo” is to simply imagine taking a photo through something, or positioning yourself so that something comes between you and the subject: leaves, a big hole in the wall, a window, etc. Additionally, shooting close to a wall or railing will often give you the effect of leading lines and a foreground element.
The main reason to do this is simple. When you add a relevant foreground element, you add to the story that you’re trying to tell with your photo. With that being said, this tip isn’t applicable to all photos; it’s a tool in your photographic arsenal that’s useful to have.
Here’s how I process all of this thus far: First, I scan the background/frame in search of distracting elements and bad overlaps (tips #5 and #6). Then, I look for foreground elements that I might be able to add into the photo — sometimes in an attempt to cover something distracting in the photo.
Tip #8 — RAW vs JPEG
Control vs. Efficiency
First, some practical definitions. When you set the camera to JPEG, you’re telling the camera to capture all of the information, process it for you in the camera based on what it’s interpreting and the parameters you’ve set, and then spit out a finished product. JPEG files are packaged and compressed, which means two things: files sizes are smaller (thus less hard drive space is taken up), but there’s less latitude for editing before the photo starts to fall apart.
Now, when you set your camera to produce RAW files, it will capture all of the information and… give you all of the information, via an uncompressed file. The files are larger and take much more computational power to edit, but they have an infinite amount more latitude for editing.
For reference, all mobile phones shoot JPEG files by default, with some of the higher-end phones having the ability to shoot in RAW.
What to do: Set your camera to shoot both. Done. Practically all cameras have a RAW+JPEG setting, which allows you to use JPEGS for quick editing and sharing, and RAW files for extensive editing when you deem it necessary. If you have a phone, continue to shoot JPEG; the RAW files aren't as capable as the ones produced by stand-alone cameras yet.
Storage might be a concern, but I would recommend setting aside a portion of your camera buying budget to also get a hard drive or two, as they're fairly affordable these days.
Oh and about camera gear…
Tip #9 — Camera Gear: You’ve (Probably) Got Enough
This is the something many photographers waste their time on: buying extra stuff. Or rather, wanting extra stuff. (I would know.) As an amateur/hobbyist, if you don’t have the newest camera, you want it. If you do have it, you want that extra lens that you swear will help you get the best photos. And then if you have that too, you’re basically a painter with 974 brushes… so good luck trying to figure out what to use every time you want to start painting. Or, you realize you want to start painting with oils instead of watercolor (i.e. switch camera brands and start all over again).
The point is: The cameras we all have available now (even on our phones) are amazing; learn to do more with what you have instead of looking for the next best thing. This is particularly difficult for me, because the technology inside these cameras is what drew me to photography in the first place. However, there is a very real ROI drop-off once you start looking at some of the “prosumer” cameras.
If you feel you’ve maximized what you can do with your phone, I recommend getting a point-and-shoot — that’s what I did. (A used RX100 did it for me.) The fact is, a decent point-and-shoot is more than enough for most casual/vacation photographers, while this is all most casual photographers might need, along with an additional prime lens or two.
All in all, the takeaway here is to try and spend less time fawning over new cameras and more time appreciating yours, while getting to know all of the limitations of your camera. Which brings me to my next point…
Tip #10 — Get to Know Your Camera
Wherever you go, your camera goes
This is one of the most important tips on this list.
Like a musician, your camera is your instrument. What’s important isn’t that you have the perfect camera, or the most expensive one… it’s that you know exactly what you can produce with your camera. The only way to accomplish that is to learn your camera, inside and out.
Learn the limitations of your camera, the pros and cons. If your camera focuses really slowly at night, figure out how to get it to focus faster, or better yet, start focusing it manually when necessary. If the quality of the photos your camera produces at night is poor, start looking for better light sources around you once it gets dark. If your camera has a mushy button that occasionally gets in the way… just know about it. Try to remap buttons if you can. No camera is perfect, so the sooner you learn the workarounds to your camera's issues, the sooner you’ll be creating consistent photography.
BONUS TIP: One of the best ways to get to know your camera better is to see what others have been able to create with your camera. If you have an iPhone, look up iPhone hashtags on Instagram and check out what others have uploaded — this will give you ideas on perspectives and apps you can use to perfect your iPhone photos. This is how I realized that you can hold your phone upside-down to get a perspective closer to the ground (perfect for puddle-reflection photos!). Similarly, look up YouTube videos on your camera/manufacturer to find hidden apps and settings.
Tip #11 — AFS, AFC, DMF… (Learn Your Focus Modes!)
Tell your camera what to focus on.
Learning your camera’s different focus modes goes along perfectly with getting to know your camera well, but it is consuming enough that I consider it to be an entirely different topic.
Many will set the camera on “Auto” focus and pray that the camera does what they want. I know I started this way: when I first bought an RX100, I turned on the camera and saw 30 icons on the screen that looked like modern hieroglyphs (thanks, Sony). For some time, I was happy just trusting the camera to do what it thought best — they’re modern enough to make really good decisions most of the time. And that’s just it… if you want consistency in your photography, you need to start exploring what the camera can do with you behind the wheel.
This will depend on the model of camera you have and the lens attached to it, but it is extremely important to understand the differences between each focus mode. In general, here’s what each one does:
AF-S (or single shot), will tell the camera to find the highest contrast area (think bright against a dark background) in the photo and focus on it. It is comparatively slower than the following AF-C, but more accurate because it finds what it needs to focus on, and stays focused on that.
Note: Cameras have developed incredibly in recent times, and so they now detect faces and smiles and puppies and food. However, there are many times when the cameras will focus incorrectly, like if the background is too contrasty (sunny/bright), leading the camera to focus on the background and not your face/subject. This can sometimes happen even if you choose specifically where the camera should focus. All in all, it’s important to know when your camera may falter (see tip #10).
AF-C (or continuous focus/AI sirvo) will use various “phase-detection” points to continuously look for focus, which makes it less accurate for something that’s, well, stationary. The smarter cameras will also do an amazing job at finding moving subjects within the frame and following them. This focus mode is perfect for moving children, sports, or anything else that that may be moving***.
***Note: It’s important to know when this is useful. Without getting into it now (another article will delve deep into it), just know that if your subject is moving towards you or away from you, it is probably a good idea to use AF-C. If the subject is just moving side to side, you likely don’t need to continuously focus.
DMF (or direct manual focus) is a focus mode that combines AFS and manual focus modes. It trades speed for accuracy by letting you zoom in and check focus after the camera has focused on something. This is ultimately useful for stationary objects where pinpoint focus is paramount. This becomes even more useful on full-frame cameras where the focus plane is essentially hair-thin.
Manual focus is as the name says — a manual mode. Depending on your camera and lens, this mode is dependent on you turning the focus ring to move the focus plane to where you want it. Typically, your camera will zoom in on where you’re focusing (useful) or color in the focus area (“peaking,” not useful for photography on Sony cameras). After attaining focus, you tap the shutter button to zoom back out, compose as you wish (tip #1), and shoot. Although this focus mode sounds like it would be slow, outdated, and useless, it is useful for landscapes and street photography, among a few other things.
The short of it is that you’ll typically only use one of these the majority of the time (probably AFS), and occasionally use the others when they’re needed (AFC and manual). But it’s important to get to know all of them so that you know what tools you have in your arsenal. I’ve used all of them for at least a month each (I manually focused just about all of my photos in Malaysia, for example), just so that I would feel comfortable with all of them. Plus, I found out that one of my lenses performs better (i.e. it’s sharper throughout the frame) when I focus it manually. So… there’s that.
Tip #12 — Look for Light
“Wherever there is light, one can photograph.” — Alfred Stieglitz
Light is one of the most important aspects to photography, if not the most important. It comes in all shapes and sizes (the sun, neon lights, camera flashes, etc.), and can effectively make or break your photo. While lighting can be a complex topic, let’s boil down some of the useful tips in reference to natural light (lighting with flashes isn’t my forte, and definitely requires its own article).
First, the easiest tip to give and follow: If you want better looking photos, go out during golden hour or blue hour (the hour just before sunset and after sunset or sunrise). The infinite variation of colors and clouds along with the blending of natural light and artificial lights is one of the best ways to make your photos stand out.
- BONUS TIP: Just after the sun has risen or an hour or so before it sets is the best time to use the sun as a background element. Position yourself so that the sun is breaking through tree branches or window panes, or overexpose the photo to bring in sun flares.
Second, the most flattering portraits and photos will come from having the sun behind you (the photographer), while placing your subject under some shade to avoid having the squinty-eye, I’m-about-to-go-blind or I’m-really-drunk look. This is a guideline that can be followed or broken; placing the sun (or light in general) behind the subject will tend to give you a cool silhouette effect… but you’ll have a hard time seeing all of the sky and your subject. (In this case, multiple exposures/HDR would do the trick).
Third, use flash in the daytime! Given the power of sunlight, the flash you have on your camera by default won’t get very far, but it will help with photos where the subject is closer. By using the flash, you remove some of the nasty shadows that the sun casts when its overhead.
Fourth, observe light. Always be on the lookout for good, soft lighting that you might be able to use for photos, solid lines of light coming through window panes, and overall interesting lighting that catches your attention. Once you start to see patterns of how certain sunlight affects buildings, plants, curves and corners, you’ll be able to use it to your advantage.
Tip #13 — Shoot Often, Shoot Purposefully
Why are you taking this photo, and who is it for?
Our last tip here is something I’d recommend to anyone that’s trying to improve their photography: take a lot of photos. And for the purposes of practicing, it doesn’t matter what camera you use, be it a really old phone or an enormous, pricy camera. Take photos of things you enjoy photographing, whether that’s cars, people, architecture, landscapes, etc. Just like with any art form, there’s no way to improve if you’re not obsessively practicing.
So… What’s the most important question you should be asking yourself when taking photos? Whether it’s for a client, a family member, or yourself, ask yourself: Why are you taking this photo? And not in a theoretical way, I mean the real, practical purpose behind taking this photo.
Examples of end-uses include:
- Social Media/Website: If you’re taking photos that will end up on Instagram or social media in general, know how your photos will be cropped. Stories are a vertical 16:9, while Instagram posts are either 4:5 (vertical) or 2:1 (horizontal – this typically isn't an issue unless you're uploading a horizontal panorama). So, if the main purpose of your photo is to end up on social media or your website, make sure you leave room for proper cropping.
- Client Work: Know what the client wants ahead of time and what they’re planning to use the photo for. Whether they’re printing, putting it up on social media, or looking to revamp their website banners, this can influence what you shoot and how you frame it.
- Practice: Go out with a theme in mind. “Today I’m mainly shooting… people in motion; long exposures from various angles and of varying subjects; flowers and bugs; busy architecture; the color yellow; etc.” Going out with a particular goal in mind gives your photos cohesiveness and trains your eye to look for things you otherwise wouldn’t have. As the saying goes: If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re much less likely to get there.
Doing this will keep you from overshooting (taking photos you’re likely never going to have time to see) and from taking photos “incorrectly” for the intended medium.
I hope these tips were helpful! This has been an incredibly enlightening year for me, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned little by little via photography articles. Is there anything you’d like to know more about in regards to taking photos? Let me know down below!