For Part 1 of this piece, click here.
Red-eye is the enemy of every budget-minded photographer; compact cameras are the most vulnerable to this portrait ruining problem. It happens as a result of reflected light from the camera’s flash, and it is much more pronounced, the closer to the lens the flash is. There’s a reason professional cameras have their flashes mounted high above the camera itself; the greater the angle of the flash-eye-lens triangle, the less pronounced red-eye will become. Additionally, most modern cameras have a red-eye function which lets the flash go off a few times before the picture it taken. This shrinks the subject’s pupils, and lessens the reflections from within. Probably the easiest solution, however, is simply to find more light. Whether it’s a ceiling lamp or a tiki torch, more static light in a scene will shrink pupils and wash out reflections. Remember: the flash can be your friend, but use it only when necessary!
Exposure is all about knowing what you want. There is no “right” exposure level, only the one that will best achieve the picture you want to create. Setting your shutter speed and aperture setting low (check the manual for how to adjust this on your camera) will take a very quick picture with a lot of light, increasing detail but also making you vulnerable to motion blur; we’ve all seen psychedelic fire-side pictures with people surrounded by seemingly otherworldly ribbons made by moving light sources. Using high settings will create the opposite effect, blurring the background and bringing foreground elements into sharp focus.
Remember that viewing a photo doesn’t happen all at once. There is a flow and a process to the way people digest and understand a picture, and it can take a few seconds. In those seconds, the most fundamental way you can direct the viewer’s experience in through the placement of elements. Get up high, get down low, do whatever you need to do to make your shots interesting and dynamic. For instance, shots from below tend to make the subject look powerful. One classic technique is to emphasize the point of view of the camera, to view one element through another or from some easily understood vantage point. A picture of a woman smiling into a camera is cute and friendly, while the same picture taken from behind a bush off to the side? Not as much. Not every framing decision has to make implications about the photographer’s personal life, but a little creativity in camera placement can go a long way to making memorable photos.
As mentioned, adjusting the shutter speed on a shot is can turn even the slightest movement into a blurred action shot, often causing horrifying effects on people’s faces; even seen a smile superimposed on a frown? It’s unsettling. However, some shots, particularly action shots, practically scream out for some subtle, tasteful blurring either during or after the shot is taken. It’s difficult to convey the kinetic nature of, say, a soccer game without a bit of blur to convey the speed of the action. Experiment with different shutter speeds based on the quickness of your subject, and if you just cannot seem to get it right, don’t worry – just take the shot normally and edit the blur in later.
Depth of Field
Depth of field is an oft-overused technique which can bring certain elements of a scene sharply into or out of focus, based on its distance from the lens. It has to do with adjusting the lens’ focal length, in other words the distances within which the camera can resolve a sharp, detailed picture. Objects will be blurred progressively more as they move further outside of that range, either too close or too far. Depth of field can be a great way to throw focus strongly to one element of a scene, usually the foreground. It can also be used in tandem with clever framing, throwing some unimportant foreground element out of focus so it can still serve its purpose in framing without drawing much of the viewer’s actual attention. Experiment with this effect on your own, but try to control the urge to use it in every little instance.
Don’t take the same picture over and over
If your goal is to get coverage for a shot, to make sure that at least one of your photos of a particular object or event will turn out well, then by all means snap away. However, many new photographers end up unconsciously snapping very similar photos from the beginning of a trip to the end – similar composition, effects, and subject matter. Always try to challenge yourself to find new things to photograph, and above all do not let past success lead to modern stagnation; your first killer shot, the first photograph that really got your friend-group excited, is likely to become the template for your work for some time. Just remember that what people probably enjoyed was the creativity, more than the content. Unless you’re shooting for money, taking a wide array of photos, some of which will be complete busts, is more important than a litany of strong but same-y moments.
Editing can be the photographer’s best friend, but that tool can become a crutch if you find yourself constantly saying “Eh, I’ll fix it in post.” Not only does this lead to lazy photography skills, and inferior photographs, it also marks you as someone without much confidence in your basic shooting abilities. Professional photographers do some amount of digital editing to literally every shot they produce, but the changes they make are subtle. Inexperienced shooters will often fall in love with a particular color filter or blur effect, and believe their audience won’t notice that every image has the same general look. Worse, if the manipulations get too extreme, like adding or removing elements from the scene, the results can look fake and unnatural. If a viewer’s eyes are drawn to an obvious edit point, even for a second, their experience of the whole picture will be ruined. Be cautious with your touch-ups, and stick to what you know you can do well!
Don’t miss the moment!
This is probably the single easiest problem to avoid. All it takes is trustworthy neck strap and some presence of mind. If you are serious about taking some great photos, you’ll have to accept that they won’t present themselves nicely for your shooting needs. Subjects rarely wander in front of your perfect photo spot, and if they do they tend not to act as you’d like them to. As a result, make sure to always have your camera ready at hand, preferably with the lens-cap off. You should get used to the action of raising the camera to your eye, adjusting the focus, and snapping a picture within a few seconds at most. Often you’ll have a chance for a second shot. Often you won’t.
Light is a tricky thing. It bounces, picks up colors, and generally takes the best laid plans of mice and men and throws huge, annoying lens flairs over them. Backlighting is especially tricky, whether a natural aspect of the scene or an intentionally added element. Natural backlighting usually comes from the sun, and requires just a quick fix: walk up to your subject so only its focal point is in frame, and have your camera take an automatic light reading. It will adjust its settings so the object is visible. Now, back up and take your picture. If the backlighting is an intentional feature then you may not want your subject to be perfectly visible; a silhouette can be a powerful part of a picture. Take the time to learn your camera’s abilities, and you can use techniques like this to grab some truly unique shots.
Get a collapsible tripod
Seriously. Get a collapsible tripod. These indispensable tools can now fold or telescope down to be incredibly compact, and they can do wonders for almost any shot. If you’re using a longer shutter speed they are absolutely required to avoid blur associated with involuntary shaking of the hand. Anything where detail changes very quickly, like fireworks or moving water, will benefit from the stability of a tripod, as well. Advanced users (with trustworthy equipment!) can use them in a pinch to get a camera into hard-to-reach places, using it like a pole to hoist the camera over a crowd and ledge, or around a corner. Tripods also give you the chance to – gasp! – be in a picture yourself! Setting a timer and running for the crowd might not be the most elite of photographer’s tricks, but it still works.