I recently spent nine days in 云南 (Yunnan), where I took about twelve hundred pictures. My girlfriend was an art major in college, and when she told me I was doing it wrong, I started thinking about what I could do to improve the quality of my pictures.
I figured I’d start simple with a list of technical things I should do every time I take a picture. The first issue of photography is learning the mechanics of the camera and making sure to check everything is in order whenever you take a picture. This includes the following:
- checking to make sure the camera is in the right mode (manual‽ Aperture priority is usually the most effective)
- checking that auto-focus is on automatic (a good default)
- checking the aperture setting
- checking the ISO setting
I’ve missed some great opportunities for a great picture before because I had set my camera to manual (shooting or focus) and had forgot to set it back when I was done. It’s pretty simple. Just look at the settings wheel.
I prefer shooting in aperture priority mode because aperture is what gives you control over the depth of field. The other semi-auto mode is shutter priority, but I don’t need to use it too much because I’m rarely shooting a situation where fast shutter speed is critical.
Being an idiot, I usually forget to check the setting before I shoot, however. This trip was no different. It’s abundantly clear in pictures like the selfie above, where I’m in focus, but my girlfriend a few inches behind me isn’t. I’m sure she appreciates this.
I also have to keep the ISO setting in mind. For a given situation, higher ISO means less required light, faster shutter speed, but also more noise. Noise in photos is what most people call “grain”, as in “that’s a grainy photo”. You can see this effect from hipsters on Instagram. It can look cool, but not usually from digital cameras. The benefit is faster shutter speeds, which usually means a less blurry picture, especially if the picture is of something moving.
There’s also lots to think about that doesn’t involve the mechanics.
- identify what you like about what you see—and cut everything else out
- change your perspective at least once—where you stand, height off the ground
- don’t be a photo sniper—take more photographs, not fewer; I follow this one by default, but it’s only useful along with the other tips
- There’s a large list of tips to make your photographs better at petapixel.com—I happen to like numbers 1, 2, 12, and 28
For this, let’s look at an example. Take the following photograph:
It’s a nice picture. Bonnie’s there, it’s a nice stone table, and… well, that’s about it. Nothing really special going on here. I took about thirty pictures more or less from the same position (again, because I’m an idiot), and this got on Bonnie’s nerves. She told me to give her the camera, and this is what she took:
There’s point number two at work right here. Of course, with both these images, I did do a little bit of development, but there are no significant changes to either of them: I corrected for lens distortion, leveled the horizon, and edited the shadows and highlights slightly.
I’ve got a lot to learn about photography, but I set out on this last vacation with the goal of taking great photographs, and overall it wasn’t a total failure. Moving forward, one of the best things I can do to take better pictures is to take some every day. I’m currently scheming about how I might be able to take my DSLR with me everywhere I go without being conspicuous…
If you want to see more pictures, I do have plans to add a photo gallery to my website at some point. I’m currently looking for ways I might want to do it. Stay tuned!