Snap a Better Shot

Students rely on a number of gadgets to get them through the day...or just one iPhone if they get better birthday presents than I do. Next to the phone, the most important is certainly the camera, the ideal tool for recording Saturday night memories that will probably be untagged by Sunday morning. Still, for all the pictures we take, it often seems that only one or two come out as we had hoped.  Fortunately, there are a few easy-to-adopt strategies that can help turn an everyday snapshot into the next most-liked profile pic among your friends.

Keep in mind that all of these tips are meant for any photographer, regardless of experience or equipment. Most digital cameras today can be put into one of two categories:  digital compact cameras, including cell phone cameras and most single lens point and shoot models, or Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras, big boxy contraptions with inter-changeable lenses, which can cost as much as $8000.  Rest assured that the following tips can be just as easily applied by the casual iPhone shutterbug as by the aspiring professional shooter.

Composition

One of the easiest ways to turn a snapshot into a photograph is through composition. Often, it is tempting to stick the subject right in the middle of the frame, but a few adjustments can create a far more compelling image.

The first is called the rule of thirds, a staple of photographers and painters throughout centuries. Basically, if we use lines to separate the picture into three equal sections both horizontally and vertically (nine total), the resulting points of intersection are the  ideal points of emphasis for the subject. In addition, the vertical lines themselves identify the ideal spots for the horizon line, either at the bottom third or top third of the picture. Many cameras will actually display a grid over the LCD that helps the photographer to use this rule.

The subject should face the negative space. When the subject, a person, a statue, a crazed rabid, Stag Daddy, etc., is facing somewhere other than the camera, leave more space in the scene in that direction in order to create a more dynamic image.

Say Cheese

Of course, every Thursday night needs a group shot for Facebook with everyone dressed in their TNC finest before everyone gets partied out. But it always seems like it takes a million tries to get it right.  Someone always forgets to smile, someone blinks at the wrong time, someone flashes the camera (or is that just me?). Here are a couple tips to get it right the first time.

First, have everyone close their eyes before taking the picture.  Then, countdown from five and tell everyone to open their eyes and smile at one.  Take the picture at zero. This ensures that people won't blink at the wrong time, and helps keep smiles looking natural.

If it is possible, don’t use the flash. Much of the time this is not avoidable, particularly at night, but the flash washes out the scene, causes red eye, and blinds everyone in the room. A good rule of thumb is to use the shutter speed. With most cameras, the LCD screen displays the shutter speed after it focuses on a shot, showing a fraction, call it 1/X. If X is smaller than 40, the shutter speed is slower than 1/40th of a second and flash will likely be necessary, but other than that, avoid flash at all costs.

Finally, fill the frame.  Usually, the posing group's heads tend to end up in the middle of the frame because that's where many photographers focus the camera.  Try shifting down so that the top of their heads are just below the top of the frame.  The image will look less empty and there won't be a bunch of empty space to distract the viewer.

Timing Counts

Obviously we cannot always pick when or where a picture happens, but some locations and some times are better than others. Direct sunlight causes harsh shadows and creates unflattering lines, both on people and places. In order to get around this, avoid taking important photos in the middle of the day when possible. Early morning and late afternoon offer softer light, which creates more flattering portraits and more attractive landscapes.

If you have no choice and the sun is up, try repositioning the subject to a shady spot, where the light is diffused.  The even light will get rid of most shadows and create a better result.

Other Resources

For all those hoping to learn more than I can squeeze into this article, there are a number of websites and book series that I have found particularly useful as a photographer. First, The Digital Photography Book and its two sequels (creatively named volumes two and three) written by photographer Scott Kelby are a great beginner’s guide to compact and DSLR photography.  Additionally, the website www.photo.net offers a lot of great advice for beginning photographers. Finally, if you’ve ever been interested on making a little money (emphasis on little) of your pictures, check out www.istockphoto.com, which allows even the greenest of photographers to sell their images online.

Most Important Rule

The most important rule of photography is this: break the rules.  There are no hard and fast laws in picture-taking and if an opportunity for an interesting image presents itself, don't resist the urge to snap away just because the clock just struck noon or the head of some exotic, winged monitor lizard doesn't fall into the perfect spot of the frame.  If it feels right to you, that's all that matters.

With that said, happy shooting!