Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to take good photos

Following on from the disappointment that was "How to Take Stunning Pictures" I thought I'd take their tips and flesh them out a bit for beginners. As I can get technical and/or distracted I'm writing to a rough plan - Tip, Why, and When that doesn't work. So no technical stuff and no technobabble.

Tip - Use natural light.

Why - Because that's how we see things. Start adding artificial light or multiple sources and it never looks quite right. That is unless you're purposefully aiming for an artificial atmosphere.

When that doesn't work - Use the flash. Yeah I know a lot of articles claim the flash is wrong. It's not, it just tends to get misused.

Why - The flash is artificial, so it can look 'wrong'.
The flash tends to be intense and drowns out any natural light sources.
The flash source tends to be close to the lens and thus reflects straight back emphasising its intensity.
The flash rarely compensates if you point it at reflective objects.

What to do - Given there's often little that can be done to prevent its placement or artificial nature that leaves trying to alter the other problems.
See if the camera allows you to change the intensity of the flash.
Cover the flash with a semi-transparent item; have fun trying different colours for different effects.
Take a step or two back from the subject and then zoom in to get the same shot.

Technical options - It's possible to change the aperture size, the shutter speed, the ISO setting, or use EV exposure compensation. However that can be fiddly and can lead to 'burning' any already bright areas as you try to get detail in the dark ones.

Tip - Composition

Why - The surrounding elements can emphasise or distract from the subject. We've all seen (or taken) shots where it appears someone has a tree branch growing out of their head, or where the viewer's eye is pulled towards that patch of colour instead of what you intended to be the focus. There is also a supposed harmony of how items should be positioned within the frame of the shot.

What to do - Take a look at where you're taking the shot, is there anything around that looks good enough to be included with the subject. Will it distract from the subject or lead the eye towards it. When taking the shot itself don't just look at the subject check around the borders of the frame too. If something catches your eye can it be used, can it be physically removed, can you reposition so it doesn't appear?

In terms of 'harmony' check to see if your camera can display "thirds" these are equally spaced lines that divide the frame into nine equal areas. Not only do these lines help you to keep things level but it can help in positioning things. The 'rules' are that interesting things should happen at the point that lines cross and that any vertical or horizontal objects should match up to the lines.

Finally don't forget that not only can the camera be shifted from the default landscape position (longer horizontal than vertical) but to the portrait position (longer vertical than horizontal) but that you can move yourself too both horizontally and vertically. Try crouching, if it's safe try climbing a nearby object. If you spot a stunning view chances are so have others and every single shot of it will be taken at roughly the same spot at roughly the same eye-line level; so try something different.

When that doesn't work - Digital manipulation. Didn't spot that tree branch, or something you left in just doesn't seem to work any more. Then remove it using a paint programme. This is NOT cheating, these are things the professionals do as a matter of course.

Tip - Be yourself

Why - When a subject is not relaxed muscles tense and they can hold themselves more stiffly. Think of those Victorian family portraits.

What to do - take shots when they're not expecting it, get them to laugh, tell a joke; try to get them to forget what you're doing. As an example a shot I took at my cousin's wedding graces both their and both sets of parents houses. The bride almost tripped over her long dress and recovered from falling flat on her face. In that moment both bride and groom forgot all the people surrounding them, and why there were there. All the tension just came out in a combined burst of laughter and I got the shot. Luck, but I was ready for anything like that to happen and I was using the next tip.

When that doesn't work - Sorry just try your best sometimes it just doesn't work, it's an off day for you or them.

Tip - Take multiple shots

Why - Because if you take just one it's bound to be over-exposed, under-exposed, the subject is blinking. Take lots and by the law of averages at least one is going to be good.

What to do - This splits into three sections. 1) Take lots of shots at different settings. 2) Take lots of shots from different positions or with different compositions. 3) Use the burst mode on your camera to take lots of the same shot. This is digital, all you have to worry about is your battery and your storage card space so just go for it.

When that doesn't work -If you only get one shot at a photo that is where knowing how the different settings on your camera work really makes a difference. Try to go for the best default setting to match the scene and hope for the best.

Okay that's it I could start adding things in like Depth of Field and all that but I've covered those in other entries; just check the Tag "Camera"  if you want to get into more technical stuff.


Nigel said...

Very good, but I think you missed an important point regarding natural light v flash.
Flash will light things from the camera axis or point of view, giving you very flat images. Essentially photography involves making 2D representations of 3D, and the best way to do that is with off axis light sources. This creates highlights and shadows which give us the depth information in an image. So don't stand with the sun behind you as per the old advice, use natural light sources that come from an angle!
Rant over :)

FlipC said...

Well I was trying to keep it very simple and to an extent some of that's covered by stating the flash is close to the lens.

But yes use natural light at an angle is a good tip for the reasons you state.

Unknown said...

been meaning to ask you if I should buy a Lumix TZ10? I want a Good compact with quick video to use on my travels.

FlipC said...

Sorry you did mention this before elsewhere and I forgot to include the reply.

Normally when looking at cameras I don't have hands-on experience with I turn to DC Resource or DP Review Also fun because the European name isn't always the same as the US version. In this case it's called the ZS7 and only DC Resource has a review while DP Review has the full spec list

Hmm nice optical zoom, built-in GPS (but not in China?) and IS; not too small and therefore not too fiddly.

Nice short lens claims a 25mm equivalent, but plugging in the specs it comes out at 24mm so even better. Telephoto claims 300mm but I read 289mm; but at that level of zoom who cares for a compact.

Auto-exposure bracketing, nice; and full manual, a must.

As you want - a dedicated video button and the optical zoom works while filming too.

Overall it seems a good camera for point and shoot as well as being able to play with the settings. He did have some concern over the noise in high ISO settings which would crop up in dark shots.

Heh holy crap totally off-topic but I have that very same calculator used for the IS shots; what are the odds?

Orphi said...

I would have thought taking good photos is simple:

1. Find the thing you want to photograph.

2. Put it in a carefully constructed photo studio kitted out with £25,000 of specialist lighting equipment and staffed by a huge team of professional photography experts.

3. Tell them to shoot it — lots. Take several thousand photos from every conceivably angle, with every possible combination of lighting.

4. Wade through the thousands of digital stills you now have, selecting only the very best ones.

5. Have a professional editing lab post-process the images for optimal visual effect.

And there we are. Superb photographs like you see on TV and in magazines, and it'll only cost you a quarter of a million pounds or so to do it.

Simple ≠ easy.

FlipC said...

Heh, part of my bit on natural light was going to be "You know all those lights in the studio and why they're so expensive. It's to recreate a natural light under controlled conditions." Which would have then tied in with Neil's comment on the use of oblique light sources.

But if you can get the basics right that helps and you don't need a studio to do it :-)