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Inspired by this question, what are your photography tips for people who are not even beginners, just the next person with a camera?

With that I mean people like me, who own a simple compact class camera and take pictures at family gatherings or vacations. They do not know all kinds of advanced concepts like "focal length" or "shutter speed" - nor are they particularly interested in them. They just want a good picture with their little camera. In fact, a definition of a "good" picture would also be appreciated.

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marked as duplicate by mattdm, MikeW, Esa Paulasto, drfrogsplat, AJ Henderson Feb 28 at 4:05

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

7  
When asking users to contribute to a list of answers, the question should be marked community wiki. I have converted this question. –  Robert Cartaino Aug 6 '10 at 3:51
    
I would just pick the suitable answers from the Easiest beginner tips list. There's a lot of good advice that does not involve knowledge about focal length or such technicalities. –  Esa Paulasto Feb 27 at 5:45

14 Answers 14

Look at the work of other photographers.

You will remember the images you like.

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+1 Absolutely this is usually where some of the inspiration starts –  Johannes Setiabudi Aug 5 '10 at 14:29
    
And you'll remember what made them special and thus try your own hand at the techniques. –  Nick Bedford Aug 16 '10 at 2:50

There are 2 sides to this, the technical and the artistic.

Technical

  • Try to gently squeeze the button to take the picture, don't poke it. The less the camera moves the better the focus will be.

  • Most (if not all) digital cameras will auto-focus when you press halfway, some also do red-eye reduction at this point, so it is usually better to half-press the shutter, then slowly squeeze it the rest of the way.

  • You do not always need the flash, and it is often counter-productive. Try not using flash in the following situations:

    • You are far away from your subject (distant landscape, a player on the other side of a football field)
    • There is glass or fencing between you and the subject.

Artistic

There are several simple rules of composition that you can try to remember, the simplest is the Rule of Thirds, essentially it says that it is best to put your subject slightly off-center.

Point of view is another very important concept. You can get a very different feel from a photo depending what the view is. This is a bit simplistic, but try to take pictures at the eye level of the subject. This means that you will need to get down lower when taking a picture of a child, which puts them on an equal level in the viewers mind.

A "Good Picture"

Unfortunately this is very subjective... If you enjoy the picture, then it is a good picture. Photography is not a hard science, it is an art. People have varying backgrounds and viewpoints and will see images in a different context. This means that everyone has their own opinion of what is "Good".

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TAKE A MILLION PICTURES

I think there's a myth for beginners who think that photographers take 1 picture of a scene and it's either good or bad and then they leave. In reality, photographers take a ton of pictures, and by a ton I do mean a ton. The secret really is in the editing.

EDIT YOUR PICTURES

Now that you have a gazillion pictures you have to be hard on the editing. That's a lot of the work of a photographer, selecting the right pictures. Throw away blurry pictures without regret, have no mercy on out of focus subjects, keep only 1 of the 25 you took of your aunt in front of the statue of liberty. And only show the ones you think are good to show. Soon you'll notice you start taking less pictures and the editing becomes easier, it's all part of the process.

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This is the flipside of Karel's answer...I like to take a whole bunch of photos, and then I usually get a few, really good photos in there...you can always delete photos later... –  studiohack Aug 7 '10 at 21:42
    
There's a famous quote that I can't find right now that goes something to the effect of "the photographer's best friend is the bin" — whatever level you're at, you'll be better if you look at your photos and cut out the junk. –  drfrogsplat Aug 8 '10 at 14:25
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Take a million, because the continuous mode shutter sound is bliss to the ears :) –  Nick Bedford Aug 16 '10 at 2:53

This is a long answer... :o)

Even if you don't want to get in contact with the technical details, there are some buttons on your camera that makes a lot of difference in casual shots. Those buttons allow you to do quite critical steps for every shot, let's go step by step in the order you should use them for each shot:

The zoom controls

These are usually positioned around the shutter button and are used to approximate your subject (zooming in) or to make it "go away" (zooming out). Usually the cameras offer stepped zoom controls, and it is useful to learn how to zoom in discrete steps instead of all the way in or out.

Use the zooming in to give more importance to certain subjects in the photo, like making a flower bigger than the surroundings. Use the zooming out to include more subjects in the photo, like a larger group of people or some landmark or landscape.

Once you find out how close or far you need your subject to appear in the shot, you can move to the next one:

The exposition control

This button (or option) is usually labeled like a +/- and allows you to inform the camera how light or dark you want your shot to be. Using it usually involves a ruler labeled from -2 to +2 and this numbers refer to the darkest setting (-2) and to the lightest setting (+2).

Usually leaving this control at zero lets the camera try to balance the photo in order to not make it too dark or light, but if you learn how to adjust the exposition of your shots, you certainly are going to get better results in most cases.

Also keep in mind that the camera is going to try to adjust itself to whatever subject you point and that this takes a while. Before adjusting the exposition, point your camera to the subject, wait until the camera "understands" the scene (usually around a second or so) and then proceed to focus and composing.

Darken your shots (move the exposition to a negative value) when you want to photograph something that is too bright. In the same way, lighten your shots (positive values) when you are pointing your camera to something dark.

Once you are happy with the appearance of your light conditions, move on to the final step:

The shutter button itself

Many people treat the shutter as just a place to press when you want to take a picture, but the shutter has to be handled gently and in most cameras (and some phones) it works in two steps. If you press it halfway it focus on the subject(s) and only when you continue to press it is that the shot is really taken.

Take a time to check if your camera have this two step action, learn how to reach the first step without going all the way and learn how to finish the pressing without shaking the camera.

The first half of the shutter action (fucusing) is extremely important, since if you don't give time for the camera to focus on whatever you are pointing it to, the shot will most probably come out blurred.

Another important use of the shutter half press is to allow you to focus on a subject and then, while still holding the shutter half way, move the camera around the subject in order to put it in a better position but still focused. This is related to the composition of the photo (see more about it below).

Other buttons

While not as much critical as the three above, most cameras also have other buttons that can help a lot taking better pictures, but you can take more time to learn then:

  • The flash control - usually represented by a lightning symbol. This allows you to turn on or off the flash itself. For most shots you probably won't need the flash, but try to shoot with and without the flash to learn how it impacts the shot. Leave the flash on if you are shooting something on a really dark environment, but understand that it will look too bright in the resulting photo. You should also turn it on if you are shooting some subject against the sun or other bright light source (this is called fill in flash).

  • The "mode" control - many cameras have "modes" that indicate how the camera will interpret what you are trying to do. Leaving this control in the "auto" setting will let the camera make all the important decisions for you and is probably enough for most casual shots, but some cameras don't allow you to control exposition or the flash in this mode. Another common modes are the "scene modes", where you set the control in order to inform that you want to shoot some scenery, sports event, people, close things (called macro) etc. These "scene modes" are very helpful and you should try them if you have the time.

  • The "macro" control is usually represented by a flower icon. This control let's you shoot something really close to the camera. Very useful for flower shots, but also for close details of objects, small animals or any other close up. Always remember to turn off the macro button before taking regular shots, otherwise your shots will come out really blurred.

So I just have to press the buttons in the right order?

No, but it really helps if you do. Once you understand what your camera controls do you certainly will start to be able to take better pictures. Think in the car controls you need to learn before going out in the street, if you don't know about the pedals or how to steer, you probably are going to have problems driving.

Once you know what happens when you press the buttons, it's time to start paying more attention to what you are showing in the pictures. That's the composition part of photography, and although not using the controls correctly are surely enough to get you a bad shot, using them correctly are not enough to get you a good one.

There are tons of books, sites and videos about composition and you should try to check some of this material if you have time. But this small list of hints may work as a starting point for shooting these subjects:

  • Landscapes - try to position yourself in order to include more parts of it and look out for things in the foreground (closer to you) that may be on the way.

  • People - try to position yourself (or the subject, if possible) in order to not have strong light coming from behind the subject or from directly above. Usually, if the subject is in the shade things are going to be easier for you and them (no squinting).

  • Action - be aware that simpler cameras are usually not adequate for action shots, but try to follow the subject as it moves. Not easy and not certain.

As you can see, positioning yourself or the camera is very important and usually neglected. Composition is much more about from where and how you point the camera and what is present in a scene than about what fits in the screen (which is more related to framing).

Also, keep in mind that having fun is a very important part of the exercise! I hope this anwser did not end being too much information. :o)

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Not really too much information. :) Actually, I already knew most parts. Being a geek myself I already checked out every last function of my camera. :D Not that I understand all of them, but your post clarified a few things (like what the "fill in" means and how it is different from conventional flash). –  Vilx- Aug 5 '10 at 15:23

Don't try to take 300 000 pictures that will break your hard drive, try to take three that'll break your heart.

I know it's stupid to quote commercial, but think it's worse not to refer to sources. It's been influential for me and I think it's in context here. And it actually even includes the definition of a good picture.

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The problem is, to be able to take those three pictures, you'll first have to take those 300000. You don't learn photography by not making photographs. –  Mark Probst Aug 5 '10 at 21:38
    
Numbers are arbitrary, but you should still have the goal in mind. –  Karel Aug 5 '10 at 23:09
    
that is very true...+1 –  studiohack Aug 7 '10 at 21:41
    
Maybe one? Learn to let go of the cruft? :P –  Nick Bedford Aug 16 '10 at 2:51
    
It's strange how people tend to apply statistics to photography. I make 10 shots, keep one. Now if I make 100 - I got 10 keepers. Make 1000 and have 100 keepers! No, it doesn't work that way, cause attention is a limited resource. Rather think how many good compositions you can create in an hour. And then in the next hour. And the hour after that. 6-3-1-0-0-0? –  Karel Aug 16 '10 at 5:59

Most beginners using a camera just points straight at what they want to photograph, from where they happen to be, and press the trigger. By just making a few consious choises first, you can improve the result very much.

Light

is of course very important. Try to get the sun somewhere behind you if you have the choice. (Very interresting pictures can be taken with light from behind the subject, but you should start with what's simple and predictable.)

Background

is important to give the image meaning. Try to get a good balance between the subject and the surroundings. Use the zoom if you have one, or simply move to a position where you get the right proportions.

Composition

has many rules that you can learn, but you could start with something simple like the subject in 2/3 of the image to the right and background in the 1/3 to the left. This gives life to the image compared to just putting the subject in the center.

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If you are out for a walk, keep looking behind you. Its amazing how many times you walk past something that looks dull only to look back and get a wonderful photo.

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

  • 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).

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Fill your frame: get closer to your subject, use the zoom or crop the picture afterwards to really focus on the subject. All too often, people get lost in the scenery. A shot just of faces tends to be more interesting than one that has the whole person, head to toe. Will you really care what shoes Uncle Joe was wearing in ten years, or will you want more detail of his expression?

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This is true up to a point... if you're visiting a specific and impressive looking location (e.g. the Grand Canyon) then it might be nice to have a photo of Uncle Joe which shows he's at the Grand Canyon and not just in the local park. So if the location is important, there should be just enough "background" to make sure that location is part of the story the photo tells. –  drfrogsplat Aug 8 '10 at 14:28

Also remember the rule of thirds...do not put your subject right on center, put it off to the side, etc

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try things. the things you like, do more of. the things you don't like, don't do again.

keep the pictures you like. throw out the ones you don't.

Ignore all other rules. If you just want to enjoy taking pictures for yourself, then enjoy taking pictures for yourself. If that makes you want to get more serious about photography, THEN you can start worrying about rules.

the important things are to have fun and end up with pictures you like. don't do anything that gets in the way of those things. Just enjoy.

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Assign yourself projects when you go to photograph. I may go out and say 'today I'm going to concentrate on taking backlit photos', or 'framing my landscape pictures' , or high-key/low-key, etc. I find that having something to concentrate on keeps me from just taking a bunch of random pictures hoping one comes out good.

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I'm not really interested in doing photography for photography's sake. When I take a picture it's on some occasion or another, and I want it to be as good as I can get (thus the question). –  Vilx- Aug 6 '10 at 6:44
    
It doesn't have to be photography for photography's sake. For example several years ago, I went to Mammoth Lake for Vacation. In this sitituation, I'm going to take lots of pictures of the Lake, the wife, the wife at the lake, etc. So I went into the weekend thinking that anytime I was going to take a landscape picture, I needed to include something in the foreground to give some sense of depth and scale to the picture. Focusing on one element for the weekend made those pictures better, but also all of my landscape pictures since then have improved. –  BillN Aug 6 '10 at 15:29

"Don't put the heads in the middle!"

This command will take Grandpa from zero halfway to being qualified to shoot a wedding. He's used to looking through the camera at the person he's shooting. This makes him look at the frame.

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I really like the answer given by @chills42, about composition and the rule of thirds, but, if you're planning to take photos of people, just be sure to not mutilate them by cutting their hands or feet and avoid to be very close to your subject.

More info on this: http://commonsensephotography.com/how_to_take_better_portraits/index.php

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This is more a comment to Chills42's answer than an answer. Also the answer from Andrew (about a head in the middle) is already saying this, only in other words. –  Esa Paulasto Feb 27 at 6:54

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