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Over time, I've found there are a handful of really simple things that anyone can do to take better pictures.

What are your favorites?

  • Understand the basics of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

  • Take your camera everywhere, including when you don't intend to use it.

  • Take a lot of pictures. If you find what you could perceive as an interesting subject or image, take many images varying angle, height, framing, working distance, aperture, focal length, etc.

  • When reviewing your own pictures, think about what you like and don't like for each one. What could be done to improve it (not just in post process, but when you were taking it, or even stuff like if that tree wasn't there, the clouds were better, a certain facial expression, etc).

  • Also look at photos and photogs that you like and try to understand why you like the work and how to do that.

  • Submit your good ones to critique forums and websites.

  • Critique other people's photos, it will help you see and take better pictures.

  • Participate in photo challenges. Once you spend a week agonizing over a good concept for a theme, you can look at what other people did. The pains of your own creative process combined with great ideas that others have executed will give you new insight.

  • Forget about gear.

  • For a day, limit yourself to one focal length.

  • Limit yourself to a certain number of pictures (once you have started to develop a photographic eye from taking and looking at many pictures), it will teach you to be careful and deliberate about creating a photograph.

  • Have fun.

  • "check your edges" -- think about everything that's inside the frame, and make sure you want it there. ("check your edges" meaning to look around the edges of the frame -- often things that straddle the edge of the frame are good candidates for either bringing further in (tops of heads, say, or feet sometimes) or excluding (random objects, a transition that doesn't need to be there, etc.)).

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locked by John Cavan Feb 8 at 17:19

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Should be a community wiki –  txwikinger Jul 15 '10 at 20:40
5  
This is a rhetorical question used solely to start a discussion, but this is not a discussion board and discussion lists aren't really what we want. –  Roger Pate Jul 16 '10 at 3:50
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This is a good question (provided that it's a community wiki which it is) and has already provided a bunch of excellent answers so it definitely shouldn't be closed. –  gabr Jul 17 '10 at 21:53
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@Roger Pate - the second link you have says a key question is "can an average user learn something from this question?" and for this question the answer is definitely Yes. –  Hamish Downer Jul 24 '10 at 13:47
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Excellent question! –  Jarrod Dixon Aug 5 '10 at 6:28

42 Answers 42

One of the best ways to learn anything is to teach others. Teach your immediate family to shoot based on what you yourself have learnt.

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I think the best way to learn to take good picture is to look at all the professional pictures first, then start learning how to frame a picture by taking a lot of pictures. After that, you learn the technical side. Practice is the only way to become better.

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Actually look through the viewfinder. What you see in there (at least with an SLR) is what you're going to get. Check for telephone poles sticking out of the top of people's heads. Check for litter on the ground in front of your subject. After you take the photo, check to see if somebody blinked or looks like an idiot (taking a sequence of three or so frames helps there).

Check for distracting items at the edge of the frame particularly - either reframe to omit them, or actually include the object in the photograph.

Plenty of folks have already suggested using photos you don't like as learning experiences. That is really good advice; figure out why you do/don't like examples of your work. Something that's helped me in this is to use software in which I can rate and tag photos so that I actually think about how pleased I am with a particular image. I use a rating scheme like this:

  1. made a technical mistake (e.g. subject is out of focus), the photo failed in its intent
  2. competent but boring
  3. LI had an emotional reaction to the content of the image
  4. I think this is among my best work
  5. I haven't used this rating yet!
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A tip for learning composition from other's pictures: Read magazines upside down.

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Look at photos.

Okay, do more than just look. Use your brain and photographer's eye. See which ones you like or don't like, and ask yourself why. Try and figure out how the photo was taken. Low angle, high angle, framed, with flash, etc. When you read magazines, look at advertisement photography. What makes you want to look at one ad versus another.

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Imagine the photo you're about to take... Imagine it being used in a Newspaper article, a magazine story, or hanging at an art exhibition. What story does it tell?

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Photographing people:

  1. The face is NOT the only part of the human body that expresses emotion.
  2. A photo is NOT considered good only when it includes a human head.
  3. people need NOT be in the centre of the photo. think about the attention to people and their environment around them.
  4. it is NOT necessary to take pictures at eye level, parallel to the ground. you live in a 3D world, take advantage of your six degrees of freedom.
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Back up your digital photographs to multiple locations.

Don't just leave them on your hard drive. Disaster could strike at any time.

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I think that the most important rule is `Violate any rule if the photographic situation or your intended effect requires that the rule be violated.'

A really useful exercise is to take a rule (better: guideline) and give yourself half an hour to take 15 photos that violate it. So, for the rule of thirds, you might take only photos with the centre of interest in the centre of the frame or the edge of the frame. Another time, you might try taking portraits that are all back lit, and so on.

Much of the time, the exercise will help you understand why the guideline is there, much more firmly than if you'd merely read and followed it. Some of the time, you will discover something that you like that you only found by the willful flouting of the guideline. In that case, the follow up exercise is to spend time exploring what it is that you liked about the results by violating the guideline some more. You'll understand the guideline better and you will understand how better to exploit its violation.

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This very much resonates with the three levels of learning: As Beginner, you have to follow the rules to the letter. As Intermediate you have to break all rules, to achieve the understanding of a Master. –  David Schmitt Jul 23 '10 at 6:44

Learn all the rules of composition, then break them.

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When you upload your photos, don't make all 400 of them public. Just choose the ones that stand apart and make those public.

I learned this the hardway.

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Shutter speed should target the inverse of your focal length. (The inverse holds true as well.)

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I'm not really sure the inverse holds true. You should be free to use whatever focal length you wish, regardless of what your shutter speed is. The general rule of thumb is that to avoid hand-held camera shake, you need to use a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of the focal length. –  jrista Aug 8 '10 at 20:33

Read the book Understanding Exposure.

Take your camera everywhere, including when you don't intend to use it.

Take a lot of pictures. If you find what you could perceive as an interesting subject or image, take many images varying angle, height, framing, working distance, aperture, focal length, etc.

When reviewing your own pictures, think about what you like and don't like for each one. What could be done to improve it (not just in post process, but when you were taking it, or even stuff like if that tree wasn't there, the clouds were better, a certain facial expression, etc).

Also look at photos and photogs that you like and try to understand why you like the work and how to do that.

Submit your good ones to critique forums and websites.

Critique other people's photos, it will help you see and take better pictures.

Participate in photo challenges. Once you spend a week agonizing over a good concept for a theme, you can look at what other people did. The pains of your own creative process combined with great ideas that others have executed will give you new insight.

Forget about gear.

For a day, limit yourself to one focal length.

Limit yourself to a certain number of pictures (once you have started to develop a photographic eye from taking and looking at many pictures), it will teach you to be careful and deliberate about creating a photograph.

Have fun.

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Don't just look where you're going, look either side, up, down and behind you too. You may spot something that most people miss.

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Animals, people and moving things need space in front of them to look/move into.

Someone told me this after a year or so of photography and it was a real palm meet forehead moment for me.

If you photograph an animal from the side it's tempting to mostly fill the frame with the animal as they are the subject. However the photograph will work better if you have the animal off center so as to leave space in front of the animal. If you don't it feels like they are bashing up against the edge of the photo.

This also applies to anything that is looking or moving. A more subtle example would be a parked vehicle, people view car grills as being like faces and so they need space to look into.

Here is a classic example of what not to do straight out of my flickr.

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For people who are not interested in photography:

  • Framing, composition and background


If they intent to be photography enthusiasts:

  • Shutter speed, aperture and exposure


Either way:

  • Get inspiration by looking at professional (and good amateur) pictures
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Heck, go one step farther and be inspired by bad pictures. A photo doesn't have to be good to have a part of it you like. –  chills42 Jul 28 '10 at 2:38

Learn to use a tripod (or other support) -- compare handheld shots with tripod-mounted shots in different lighting conditions to learn when the extra stability is important.

A useful rule of thumb is the one over focal length rule: for handheld shots, the shutter speed should be faster than one over the focal length (for 35mm cameras). A DSLR's sensor size and any image stabilization features will influence the results, but it's a good starting point.

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I've been asked this by readers of my photography blog and my students many times. I've found that formula that has resulted in the fastest results has been to start with these quick and easy books to read (even if you aren't a book person - they aren't theory books), and then get out and shoot.

You can learn a lot by looking at your bad shots afterwards and see what went wrong by looking at the EXIF metadata (viewable in Bridge, Lightroom, and Windows Explorer). It's also good to have someone (for me it's my wife) who has a more creative eye than your own give you compositional feedback as that super sharp shot of the bolt on your furnace might look awesome to you, but that person will generally give you good realistic feedback (i.e., "what's interesting about a dimly lit bolt in the dead center of your picture?").

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Learn the limitations of your flash. Realize when it helps, and realize when it doesn't. Photographers love to hate on flash, but there are times when a picture is possible only with the flash: backlit subjects, hard light, etc. Knowing when to use fill flash will improve your daytime and evening photos.

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Get a digital SLR for better control. Then, go out and use it!

I had unspeakable depressing results shooting with the ever-present mini digital camera (e.g. Powershot) that didn't have the shutter speed, lens option, or sensitivity control until I moved up to a digital SLR. Getting a picture when you press the capture button is paramount in shooting photos and developing your "eye".

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  1. Turn off the flash (unless it's really dark)
  2. Get your subject as far from the background as possible
  3. Fill the frame with your subject

A waist-up shot of Uncle Joe standing in front of a wall with flash-glare on Uncle Joe and a flash-shadow on the wall will look horrible. A head-and-shoulders shot of good ole Joe with no flash and nothing behind him for 10 feet will look much better.

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Know how to read the histogram. It might seems a bit of an more advance advise but it's actually not that hard and I wish I had learned it earlier. The histogram tell you in a quick glance if your photo is correctly exposed.

Here is a link for a quick explanation: http://www.basic-digital-photography.com/how-to-use-the-camera-histogram.html

The sensor is a linear device and can only capture over a specific range. The histogram will tell you that you've lost some information that you won't be able to recover. This is when the blue sky look white in your photo.

Now that you know how to detect a incorrectly exposed photo. Now you can correct it by changing the exposure compensation. Take another shot and tada! the sky is blue.

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TURN OFF YOUR FLASH. And then set your ISO to the lowest setting you can without the photo being blurry (but don't be afraid of using a high-ISO - I'd rather have a 'noisy' shot without flash than a blown-out one with flash)

Nothing ruins a shot more than a poorly used/placed flash (which is 99% of the time)

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:) DSLR flash, the universal sign of someone who paid thousands of dollars for tool they don't know how to use. –  tolomea Jul 29 '10 at 12:14
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Or just take your flash off-camera. It's the "on-axis" flash that looks so horrible to us. We're not used to having our forehead be the source of illumination in a scene. :) –  lindes Dec 1 '10 at 5:00

Stay active, take more pictures.

Once you've taken them, review them and think about what you like/don't like about them.

Also, give yourself a project to work on. It doesn't necessarily have to be anything big, but having a goal will help motivate you to keep improving.

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Take a picture first!

Then take a breath, compose the picture properly, check the camera settings and start shooting "for real".

Too many times a picture is not taken because the golden moment is lost while the photographer is preparing to take a photo.

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The most important tool to improve the picture composition are your legs!

Legs will remove obstructing elements from the photo. They will add a foreground interest. They will provide a framing to focus the viewers attention on the main object.

Don't be afraid to move close to the object. Don't be afraid to take a very low or high viewpoint.

A small change in perspective can make or break the picture.

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Take your camera everywhere. You should always be on the look out for something to shoot. The more you look the better your eye gets at spotting worthy things to take a picture of and the better your shots get.

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LIGHT - Learn how it impact the photos you shot. No matter what camera and what your skill lever is the light is the most important factor.

I you do landscapes for example, get up early in the morning when the sun is very low and I guarantee you photos will look much better than if you were to take them in the middle of the day.

The light before the sunset will give you photos a warm feeling - nice for portraits.

Generally shooting photos when the sun is low - will give much better 3D look to you photos.

Experiment, shot against the sun for example, if the some object are too dark use some sort of reflector or fill in flash.

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Read the manual

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Sometimes it happens that you will overlook some of the functionalists that your camera provides. Its better to know well in advance what a button does before realizing that it was there all the time –  GoodSp33d Jan 3 '13 at 10:21

Learn how to perform post-processing on your photos. You don't need Photoshop or anything expensive like that; great things have been done even in free tools like GIMP and Paint.net. Just basic editing like cropping, brightness\contrast adjustment, and color adjustment will greatly improve a lot of photos.

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... and then go back and figure out how you would have gotten the same effect in-camera! I've recently discovered manual exposure correction and reduced the amount of post-processing needed significantly. –  David Schmitt Jul 21 '10 at 15:53

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