How to Take Good Pictures - 5 Steps

In today’s world of content creation where taking great photos and videos seems to only be a click -- or tap (for you phone shooters) -- away, it can be surprising for people getting their start in photo/video that there’s more to syncing up what’s in your mind with what ends up on the back of your camera’s LCD screen. 

Understanding your camera’s functions, developing a working knowledge of how those functions interact with your environment (especially when it comes to lighting), incorporating oodles of support equipment -- when it’s appropriate -- and even honing a keen sense of what should be in your frame in the first place, can be somewhat daunting at the outset... but it is only when all of these elements are working together harmoniously that a great shot is captured. 

If your desire is to become more than a smartphone enthusiast, keep on a-reading because we’re going to map out a few essential tips & tricks that will help you on your journey to going pro.

And speaking of going pro, if you’re able to master these beginning steps, you’ll be right on your way to assembling a collection of photos that you’ll be proud to present in an online portfolio, which could lead to some exciting paid opportunities. Like with most things, you have to be able to show what you can do... before you get a chance to show what you can do. Thankfully with photo and video, learning is a rewarding experience that allows you to explore both the creative and technical aspects of your passion. 

So, without further ado, here are 5 ways of how to take good pictures:

1.You’ve got to keep your composure! 

Composition -- what is in your frame, and *how* is it in your frame -- Finding a “point of focus” is key. What, exactly, is the subject of your picture, and why is it interesting? Beyond that, are you representing your subject in a way that is visually pleasing? Are there other elements in your shot, and are they adding or subtracting from your vision? If they’re removing, all you have to do is reframe. But picking a solid subject helps you focus your attention on what you think will grab other people’s -- attention, that is. 

You might be asking yourself, “How do I make sure I’m framing my subject in the most interesting and visually pleasing way?” Well, I’m glad you’re so eager because we’re going to get into some compositional rules below, but for right now, just make sure you know *what* you want to shoot, then you can worry about the *how* of it all. 

2. Rules are meant to be broken…but you gotta learn them first. 

Start with some classics, like understanding the tried and true compositional method known as “the rule of thirds.” Instead of placing your subject dead-center in the frame (known as symmetrically framing), you can set your subject or the “action” of your photo in a lower or higher quadrant. The most popular is in the bottom right third, hence the “rule of thirds.” There’s a convenient grid that works as a guideline to help you visualize this technique. If you place your subject on the intersecting grid lines near the bottom right third, you can almost guarantee that you’ll have a visually pleasing image. Unbeknownst to many photo-appreciators, they unconsciously enjoy scanning a photo from left to right -- just as we do when reading. By isolating some action in the bottom corner, it draws the human eye right to it).

Another favorite includes Leading Lines -- the process of finding or creating lines within your composition that “lead” to the subject of your image. This is an easy and fun little trick to get your audience looking where you want them to look, and thankfully, YOU don’t have to look too hard because, in the world, there are lines all over the place. From the lines on either side of a long road to the “line” a fence creates when leading all the way to an idyllic farmhouse at the vanishing point of a sunset-soaked hilltop -- in both architecture and in nature -- lines lead everywhere.

3. Don’t be afraid to go “deep.” 

One of the obstacles posed by a still photograph or a static video shot is that you’re dealing with a fundamentally two-dimensional image. So, you’ll want to do as much as you can to give your viewer a sense of depth. This can be achieved in a few different ways, and before you dive into your camera menu, try mastering the more straightforward method first. In other words, think about utilizing elements that will appear in the foreground, middle-ground, and background of your image. Simply by giving the audience visual “anchors” which exist on the different “planes” of your picture, the viewer will be able to get a better sense of where your subject fits in the expansive world that you’re trying to capture in a single snapshot. 

Once you feel comfortable incorporating depth into your compositions themselves, you can experiment with your lens’ aperture, which will affect what’s known as the “depth of field.” When you’re physically closer to a subject, and your f/stop (the measuring system for a lens’ aperture) is lower -- as in f/1.8 VS. a higher f/2.8 -- the background will become more ‘out of focus,’ or blurrier. This is known as a “shallow” depth of field, and it accomplishes two things at once: it isolates your subject in the frame, so we know exactly where to look, but by also mimicking how our eyes behave -- focusing clearly on subjects in front of us and less clearly on details behind those subjects -- an intuitive sense of depth is created. There is now a clearly defined foreground and background, with only one of them actually being “clear.”

4. It’s not your gear, it’s YOU -- but some equipment helps. 

There will always be some shiny new gadget on the market, especially in the fields of photo and video. Tools are simply part of the craft. When you’re getting started, the sheer amount of gear can be disorienting for two reasons: either there’s so much you have no idea where to begin, OR… you have the opposite problem; you know exactly where to start, and that’s spending your kid’s college fund on equipment. 

In all honesty, you can never really have “too much” gear, but if you don’t know why you need it, you can end up buying it more often than you’re shooting. Right now, let’s break it down into two categories, so you have a better idea of what you *need* to get started. 

To see the fastest quality difference in your work:

1. Invest in higher quality lenses. The glass on the front of your camera is the first and most crucial step in “seeing” the quality of a picture. If you think back on a photograph and remember thinking, “Wow! It looks so clean and crisp and sharp!” -- you were talking about the lens. Thankfully, at this point in the industry, the standard of equipment is at an all-time high, so even the lens that came with your camera is nothing to sniff at, but there’s still a mighty stratosphere of quality left to climb. Where do you spend your money first? Glass, baby. 

2. The slightly less obvious but even more “important” tool; LIGHTS. Many camera companies are proud (and they should be) of their camera’s low-light capability. Compared to the older technology, the difference is almost literally ‘night and day,’ BUT they have yet to replace the need for proper lighting. And while it’s true that it’s easier than ever to achieve exposure without secondary lighting, so much of the style, personality, atmosphere, and flat-out quality of a picture lives in the lighting source. You can begin with an on-camera flash, a more sophisticated two-light kit, or even an entire studio set-up -- you’ll never regret having an extra light lying around.   

Once you get yourself some beams, it’s time to play. Move the lights, dim them, bring them closer or further away from the subject; modify them with softboxes, grids, reflectors, and diffusions. Besides your composition, your choice of lighting is how you speak to your audience as an artist and as a craftsperson.

5. Get to know your camera. Maybe go on vacation together. 

Your camera is not only the fundamental building block for everything we’ve discussed above, but it is also an extension of your vision. Think of the camera body as a brain, and then think of the lens as the eye connected to that brain. Luckily for us, we don’t have to manually change the settings of our minds for them to tell our eyes to see, but that’s a little bit what it’s like with photography. 

Many people expect that out of the box, the camera is going to deliver you great photos -- and in auto modes, it can get close -- but the more you learn about photography, the more specific your vision will become, and that’s when you need to know how to play your camera like a fiddle. The best advice there is just experiment, test, play. Change a dial, turn a nob. See what it does. If you get too far off the beaten path, there’s always a factory reset button. 

Go through the menus, customize the button configuration to best compliment your shooting style, and learn the often multi-functional purpose of the wheels. Once your camera feels as comfortable in your hands as an old catcher’s mitt, you’ll be able to go out on a photo-taking excursion with confidence, ready to capture whatever happens to cross your view or crop up in your mind’s eye.

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