Professional photography is a skill that requires detailed knowledge of all sorts of technical things like photographic lenses, apertures and shutter speeds, but there are simple things every one of us can do to ensure that our snaps turn out that little bit better.
Do You Have Film and Batteries in Your Camera?
This may sound really obvious, but many people take immense care over their shots and then find that either there is no film in the camera or that it isn't loaded properly. In some cameras you can see the film through a window in the back. In others, you can see part of the camera turn as you wind on the film. It is always worth checking.
Modern cameras almost always require batteries. Carry a spare set, particularly if they are an unusual size. Lithium batteries are the probably the best kind if you can get them, and they can last up to three years in a camera which is used regularly.
How to Push the Button
People always talk about pushing or pressing a button to take the picture, but this can cause the camera to shake, giving a blurred picture. You should instead think of 'squeezing' the button, by gripping the point on the camera directly opposite the button and then tightening your grip1.
The Perils of Autofocus
If your camera is autofocus, always be aware of what it is focussing on. There's no point in taking a beautiful artistic shot of a lighthouse if the camera is busy focussing on a blade of sea grass in the foreground!
For those of you still using film2, there are different types of film available. Some are more sensitive to light than others. The sensitivity of film is known as 'speed' and is denoted by an ASA number - 200 ASA is the typical everyday film. Faster film such as 400 ASA and 800 ASA is more sensitive and can be used in darker situations, or when taking pictures of moving objects.
Really fast film such as 1600 ASA can be used for action shots. It is also so sensitive that it can be used indoors without flash, but the pictures usually look a very peculiar colour. Indoor lighting is actually yellow. Your brain compensates for this and you don't notice, but the camera can't compensate, so the pictures look yellow. Avoid this type of film unless you want the subject of your pictures to look jaundiced.
Look at the Subject
You should be close enough to the subject so that he or she appears to be large in the photo, but make sure that you don't cut essential pieces off by being too close. It's OK to miss out someone's feet, but not their head!
Many cameras have lines engraved in the viewfinder which show you where the edges of the picture will be. These allow to frame the picture more accurately, so use them.
Look at the Background
Try and get a neutral background behind the subject. Don't let detail in the background distract from the intended subject of your picture. The last thing you want is a pot plant growing out of someone's head. If necessary, move the subject to a less distracting location - most people won't mind.
The Squint Test
The human brain does a wonderful job of interpreting the signals it gets from your eyes, getting much more from them than might be expected. Unfortunately, the camera does not, so what looks like an interesting subject can look bland, tiny or badly lit when it is captured on film.
One way to overcome the brain's processing and see the picture as it really is while you are taking it is to squint really hard. That is, close your eyes tightly so that only the tiniest amount of light gets into your eyes. You should see the picture reduced to plain shapes in solid colours.
If the subject is completely black, then that's the way it will appear in the photo: the background is too bright and the camera will compensate by making the subject far too dark. Either move the subject or use flash to illuminate the subject.
If the subject appears to be tiny, then you'll have to move closer or use a telephoto lens.
When photographing people, your camera should normally be on the same level as their heads. This means that to photograph a child, you will have to crouch down. The exception is if you want to accentuate the smallness of the child.
Don't Confuse the Meter
If your camera has a light meter built in, it will probably be confused by large amounts of white or black. Try to avoid these. People photographed against a white wall will look black while people against a black wall will look white. Avoid this by choosing a background which is a neutral darkish colour such as green grass or trees, red velvet curtains, deep blue sea etc.
When photographing dark-skinned people, pay particular attention to the light, because they will probably come out too dark. You may need to use the flash, even in daylight, to compensate.
Try to Avoid Posed Formal Shots
Get everyone to pose in a formal position, then tell them you've taken the picture. As they relax, take the actual shot. People will have much more natural looks on their faces.
Try photographing people as they are doing something to avoid the 'cheesy grin' into the camera.
Very strong sunlight can pose a problem. If it shines straight into the lens of the camera, it can cause reflections which look like glowing balls to appear on the photo. On the other hand, if the sun is directly behind you, people's faces can look flat and featureless because of the lack of shadows. Ideally the sun should be to the side, to cause some shadows and to give shape to the subject.
Be Quick When Snapping Children
When photographing children, settle for second best. Don't waste time trying to get everything exactly perfect, as children get bored very quickly and will start to mess about, look cross or wander away.
Flash Photographs at Night
When taking a flash photograph of a person, make sure the background is not too far away. Ideally the person should be as close to the background as they are to the camera. If the background is any further away, it will appear too dark and the camera will compensate by making the person look white and washed out.
Take More Than One Shot
There are so many things that can go wrong when photographing groups of people, from Granny's mouth falling open to the dog doing something you don't want in the foreground, that you should take two or more pictures and throw away all but one. In these days of digital pictures, this is even easier to do.
The Law of Thirds
When composing a photograph of a landscape, use the 'Law of Thirds'. Avoid any sort of horizontal line3 across the middle of the photo. Try and position the horizon either one third of the way up or two thirds of the way up the picture. Similarly, if there is a noticeable vertical object such as a tree, position it one third of the way from the left or right side. It really will make the picture better.
Include a Subject
A view of nothing but distant scenery can look great at the time, but will usually look very boring when captured in a photo. It is necessary to have some sort of focal point in the picture: it can be a person, an animal, a solitary tree, a house; anything at all that will draw the eye to it and add interest to the picture. Remember to position it using the Law of Thirds.
While strong shadows should be avoided when photographing people, they can add a lot to a photograph of scenery. The best time to take landscapes is the morning or evening, when the sun is low and there are more shadows to give a bit of interest to the picture. Otherwise it can look very flat and boring.
If you're taking a picture of anything more than about 10 feet away at night, there is no point in using flash. It won't reach that far. So turn off the flash and rely on the light that is there already. The camera will probably open the shutter for a long time to collect enough light, so it is important to keep it as steady as possible. Use a tripod if you have one.
Turn off the flash if you're taking pictures of fireworks. It's the fireworks you want to see, not your own flash reflecting off a cloud of smoke.
While you may not know your f-stop from your elbow, you should still be able to use these tips to take some good shots. Just remember to keep your thumb away from the lens!