Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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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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12  
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

Force yourself to shoot in manual for a month, and expect everything to suck. Then force yourself to shoot in raw after that.

Make sure you understand the three legged table relationship of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

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+1 for ISO, shutter speed, aperture relationship. Shooting RAW is a good idea too, so you can edit later. Post-processing is definitely something I need to learn. –  Scott A. Lawrence Jul 16 '10 at 18:00

To make more interesting photos, focus on going more interesting places, take lots of photos and iterate, and learn from great photos that inspire you (galleries, Flickr, etc.).

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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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Rule of thirds - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_thirds.

Compose your photos so that the main subject is on one of the intersection points. Don't center your subjects (until you figure out when to break the rule).

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7  
Very true about knowing when to break it. It's important to try really hard to think of thirds as a tip, and not as a rule. I see so many people fall into the trap of only shooting this way and limiting their creativity. There are many fantastic reasons to ignore this "rule", and finding out about those exceptions is all part of the fun. :) –  Rog Jul 19 '10 at 7:33

Where ever you go take your camera!

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And then remember to take pictures with it! –  snostorm Jul 16 '10 at 13:24

Err on the side of zooming in less - I can't count the number of times I've been sorting out an album, and wished I had a bit more image surrounding the subject. You can always crop afterwards, and it's quite rare that every single pixel will be needed in the final pic.

Never be afraid to ramp up the ISO rather than lose a moment to unwanted blur.

Do something with your photos - don't leave them languishing on your hard disk because you can't find the time to do all the processing you need, at the very least choose a handful to show people who would love to see them!

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With regard to zooming, what I do is take a shot at the crop I think is right, then back it out a step and take another. –  tolomea Jul 28 '10 at 11:09
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Even better: move yourself. Too many times I have realised I'm zooming when it would be easier to move position. –  Richard Aug 8 '10 at 15:34

Switch one automatic setting on your camera to manual per month (or week, or whatever interval you choose).

This makes it easier to figure out how that one setting impacts your photos.

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1  
I think this is a much better suggestion than shooting in manual for a month. This is how I got to grips with my camera. –  DrDanielSwan Jul 15 '10 at 22:55
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@snostorm This might be true if they start with an old p&s, but not otherwise. The only feature that seems to have gone out of fashion with today's p&s cameras is optical viewfinders. The Canon Powershot S90 I bought a couple of months ago lets me control almost as much manually as my old Nikon D70s. –  Scott A. Lawrence Jul 16 '10 at 17:53

Change your Perspective

For beginners, it's much more about technique than equipment. Try taking the photo from a non-standard angle. That is to say, don't just stand there and take the picture from eye level. That's the point of view that everyone has anyway. It's not that interesting. Crouch down, stand on something, tilt the camera. Anything to take your photo from a perspective that's different than what people see everyday.

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Very nice - I need to do this much more often! –  Jarrod Dixon Aug 5 '10 at 6:28
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+1 This is clearly the best beginner tip, because it can be applied instantly. There is no need of buying or studying about it, also it's very simple. :) –  Nathan Campos Jan 8 '11 at 15:48

Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

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This was (likely) said about film. With digital, and especially a camera that can shoot so many frames per second, this probably translates to more like "your first 100,000 photographs are your worst". I've shot 40,000 in four years so I imagine I am like 40% of the way through the mediocrity stage. –  Jared Updike Jul 20 '10 at 23:15
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I'm reminded of the 10,000 hour rule... See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outliers_(book) –  lindes Dec 1 '10 at 4:44

Here are a few of the things I've learned over the year or so I've been doing photography:

  • Take pictures, always, constantly, of the same thing, of different things
  • Lighting is a photographers BEST friend...use it, learn its moods
  • Composition is key, compose in your mind and eye before you compose in the lens
    • Use common guidelines, like:
      • Rule of Thirds
      • Golden Ratio
  • Take your time, and wait for the moment
  • Always shoot in RAW!!! :D
  • Be your own critic, and subject your work to the critical review of others
    • Friends and family will always love your work, and are thus rarely critics
  • Find a way to challenge yourself, and set a goal you know is higher than your current skill
  • Don't let a technical understanding of shutter, aperture, and sensitvity get in the way of art and instinct (I make this mistake all the time.)
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If something is worth photographing, it's worth photographing twice. (at least)

For each picture you take, look at it afterwards, and take a distinctly different picture - whether different angle, different framing, different focus, just deliberately try something else. Repeat as many times as you like.

Basically, the key is to experiment, and see how different ideas affect the picture you've taken.

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On the other hand, it's good to be able to look at the two (or more) photos, and choose the one you want to show to people. Nothing is worse that looking at 100+ vacation photos. –  che Jul 21 '10 at 17:50
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Oh definitely! Just because you've filled a memory card doesn't mean you need to use all of them! Get good photo management software (Lightroom/etc) and select only your favourites for exporting to a gallery/slideshow/whatever. –  Peter Boughton Jul 23 '10 at 21:26
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A great tip I once heard was to take 24 shots (one 35mm film roll) of a single subject as a learning experience. Every shot should be distinctly different, and in the end you should be able to pick 2-3 that really convey the ideas you have of the subject. –  chills42 Aug 5 '10 at 14:18

Look up. Look down. Lean on something. Crouch. Be creative!

Also: be critical of your photos. When looking at each one, try to find something that you could have done better. This will help you improve your photos when taking them.

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Relax!

And don't read the internet too much. You'll read a million reasons your equipment is inadequate and how in order to do X you have to buy Y, which you can't afford, and how the camera you have has minor terrible flaws A, B, and C.

All cameras have flaws. You can take great photos with the camera you have, no matter what it is.

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Don't be fooled by "more megapixels = better" either. –  Scott A. Lawrence Jul 16 '10 at 17:57

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

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

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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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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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 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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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

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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  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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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

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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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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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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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.

share

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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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

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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