Tips for Taking Better Pictures

I grew up with a dad that’s a semi-professional photographer. He’s always taken photos for his own pleasure and now and again been asked to take pictures at work, weddings and the like. Now that he’s retired, he’s filling his days with many hobbies, but no matter what he’s doing, I bet almost any day of the week he has a camera in his pocket.

Molly, Age 4Recently, I've been finding myself in the same position: I've become Pushing7's unofficial professional photographer. Back in the early days, I was in front of the camera instead of behind it. I like to think I was my father’s muse, lounging casually in the “magic” light on an early Saturday morning (see photo at left), or perfecting my softball swing while he honed his action shot. But let’s face it, he was probably just using me. I was accessible and willing.

I was also learning.

I’ve been taking pictures on my own since I got my first 110 Film camera when I was a kid. (Remember those?) I took some pictures here and there, but I’d be lying if I told you I was a brilliant photographer at 10 years old. As a matter of fact, I’d be lying if I told you I’m a brilliant photographer at 35 years old. But I think that’s what makes me qualified to help; of course the award-winning experts can do it….they’re experts! I, on the other hand, sometimes set up the perfect shot, sometimes simply get lucky, and sometimes use the magic of Adobe Photoshop to save the day. But it all boils down to a few simple things that you can easily incorporate into your pictures, whether they’re of your kids, the neighbor's flower garden or the latest gadget at work.

Take a LOT of Pictures.

Digital photography has made it easy to make a LOT of mistakes without it costing anything. Yes, it might mean investing in a larger memory card for your digital camera, but the more pictures you take, the more opportunities you have to get the shot you really love. And sometimes it takes a lot of shots to get the one you’re really going for. As an example, I recently took photos of Peggy’s Boxer, Spaten, for her Christmas cards. In 22 minutes, I took 115 photos and ended up with about 20 she thought were remotely worth reproducing. That’s not even 20%! What matters is that I did get two or three pictures, including the one below, she and her husband love and thought worthy of putting in a frame. (How many pictures end up in frames anyway?)

Fill Up the Frame
Unless you’re at Disney World, the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal, the stuff in the background isn’t likely the subject of your photos. Bits and pieces of the background can add interest or color to your photos, but unless the backdrop is of utmost importance, don’t let it take over the picture. Get in close or use the zoom on your camera to fill up the picture with your subject matter. Just keep in mind that using the zoom can sometimes affect the quality of the photos.

Cute cat, why so far away? That's better! Fill up the frame.


Photo Composition
Certainly there are times that a background can add interest; a white sandy beach comes to mind.  This is a great opportunity to play with the composition of the photo. Take a few with the kids centered right in the middle and then try a couple where they’re off to one side. Just remember to keep your backdrop in check. Not sure what I mean? Here’s a good, or bad, example. There's nothing attractive about a basket handle growing out of the top of a baby’s head. Make sure you’re seeing the WHOLE picture to avoid a situation like this.

Centered is good.  So is off-center. Ah! A baby-basket!

Try a Different Angle
Ever get frustrated when your subject matter won’t cooperate? It’s mostly an issue when you’re trying to photograph children and animals (like when I head down to photograph the kids in the daycare), but it can happen anytime. Use it to your advantage! Sometimes (maybe even often times) a less-posed, less-formal candid picture is, well, better! I’ve found it can even be fun to try and sneak a photo when they’re not looking. Here’s a favorite I took over the holidays. This little cutie, Russell, was looking at his mom instead of me, and it's one of my favorite pictures from the day.

The other way to try a different angle is to literally change your position as the photographer. If you’re taking pictures of kids, pets or other low-to-the-ground things, like dandelions, get down on their level and look them in the eye, or…stem as the case may be. Whether you need to kneel, sit or lay right down on the ground, don’t be afraid to really get into it. Admittedly the first couple of times can feel a little silly, but it’s worth it for the shot.

The Camera
I’ve recently become aware of a book written by a well-known and amazing photographer, Chase Jarvis, called The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You. Personally, I most often shoot with a digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera; a larger body camera with interchangeable lenses. It gives me options and probably a bit of a technical edge, but it’s definitely NOT a requirement for taking good pictures. dSLRs have come down quite a bit in price over the last couple of years, so if you’re interested in having all of the bells and whistles, it’s worth a look. Otherwise, follow Jarvis’s advice and grab the nearest camera phone or digital point-and-shoot. One of my photography mentors frequently takes stunning pictures with his iPhone. Take a look:

In his book, Jarvis says, “Inherently, we all know that an image isn’t measured by its resolution, dynamic range, or anything technical. It’s measured by the simple—sometimes profound, other times absurd or humorous or whimsical—effect that it can have upon us. If you can see it, it can move you.”

If you don’t understand resolution or happen to care about dynamic range, no worries, just be patient. Go ahead, experiment. And at the end of the day, take pride in your photographs.