Digital photography has democratized the medium. More people are taking more photos than ever before, and they’re sharing them online with friends and family in record numbers. It’s easy to place the blame on the camera (or your smartphone) if your images aren’t as nice as some others you see online, but by following a few guidelines you can improve the quality of your snapshots—without having to shell out big bucks for a new camera. Keep these 10 easy tips in mind next time you head out to capture the world around you. And if you have any tips that have helped you take better pictures, please share them in the comments section.
1. Get Basic Composition Down
The heart of a photograph is its composition—the position of different elements in a frame. The easiest rule of thumb to learn and remember is the Rule of Thirds. Basically, you’ll want to break your frame into nine squares of roughly equal size. Try and align the subject of your photo along these lines and intersections and imagine the main image divided over these nine boxes. This gives you a more dramatic, visually interesting shot than one where you subject is located dead center. Many cameras and smartphones have a rule of thirds grid overlay that you can activate when shooting.
2. Adjust Exposure Compensation
As long as you aren’t shooting in full manual mode, your digital camera is making decisions that determine the exposure of a photo—in English, how light or dark the shot appears. Generally speaking, a camera looks at a scene and tries to determine the appropriate exposure based on the correct lighting of a gray card, which is why there are special scene modes for snow—without them, the camera would try to make the white snow gray.
If a photo is too light or dark you can either delve through the dozens of scene modes that are available in modern point-and-shoot cameras, or simply dial in a bit of exposure compensation. Many cameras have a physical button or dial for this, identified by a +/- symbol. If your photo is too dark, move the scale up above zero; if too light, move it down a bit.
3. Choose the Right Mode
Your camera is likely to have scores of shooting modes, ranging from fully automatic operation to very specific scene modes. If you’re shooting fast action you can put the camera into Shutter Priority (“S”) mode and increase the speed at which a photo is taken—setting it to 1/125 second or faster will help to freeze action, and for really quick subjects (like the hummingbird below), use as short a speed as possible to freeze motion, or a longer one to add motion blur to the flapping wings.
In lower light you can use Aperture Priority (“A”) mode to make sure as much light is entering the lens as possible, or if you’re shooting landscapes on a tripod you can close the lens’s iris to increase depth of field, keeping everything in sharp focus from the foreground to the horizon. If you’re a DSLR shooter, you’re more likely to use the A or S modes, while point-and-shoot cameras will often feature more specific modes that cater to activities like sports, low-light use, or landscape shooting.
4. Think About Lighting
Pay attention to how much light you have and where it’s coming from when taking your photos. If you’re shooting outdoors, be careful not to take photos of a person when the sun is at their back, unless you want to make a portrait with some dramatic flare (make sure to dial in positive EV adjustment if you do). If you’re grabbing a photo in front of a monument or landmark and you want to make sure it’s not overexposed, use some fill flash instead to make your backlit subject as bright as the background. You may have to manually activate the flash, as there’s a good chance that the camera will think that it’s unnecessary on a bright day.
5. Use Your Flash Wisely
Many a photo has been foiled by a flash firing too close to a subject. If your friends and family look like Casper the Friendly Ghost when you photograph them, chances are that you’re too close when snapping your photos. If you need to activate the flash, back up a bit and zoom in to get the proper framing. If things are still too bright—or too dark—check and see if flash compensation is an option. Many cameras allow you to adjust the power of the flash, which can help to add better balance to your flash-assisted photos. Adding just a little bit of light makes it possible to fill in shadows, resulting in a more natural-looking photo.
6. Change Your Perspective
Most snapshooters and beginners will stand on two legs and snap shots from eye level. While this is fine for many images, it’s not always ideal. If you’ve got a camera with a tilting screen you can more easily shoot from a low or high angle to get a different perspective on your subject.
If you don’t have a tilting LCD, think about getting down low to the ground to get the best shots of pets and toddlers—you’ll want the camera at their eye level to get an image that stands out. You don’t have to pay for every shot with a digital camera, so play around with different angles and camera positions until you’ve found one that captures a moment and stands out from the crowd.
7. Watch Your White Balance
Your camera will try and set white balance automatically based on the type of light in which you’re shooting. Different light casts different types of color—sunlight is very blue, tungsten lighting is yellow, and fluorescent is a bit green. In many cases, the camera will automatically detect what type of lighting you’re under and adjust the color in photos so that they look natural.
But when White Balance isn’t right, you can get results like you see above—the image on the left is correctly balanced, and the one on the right is way off. If you’re shooting under mixed lighting, or if the camera is just having a hard time figuring things out, you can set the white balance manually. On most point and shoots you’ll have to dive into the shooting menu to adjust this, but many DSLRs have a dedicated White Balance button, often labeled “WB.” You can correct color in the included Mac or Windows photo editing apps later on, but you’ll get better-looking photos if you get the white balance right in the first place.
8. Use a Tripod or Monopod
Sometimes, the best way to get your shot perfect is to take some extra time. Using a tripod will allow you to set up framing, and can come in handy—along with your camera’s self-timer—for getting that shot of you and the kids in front of Mount Rushmore. You can get away with an inexpensive tripod if you’re a point-and-shoot user, although spending a bit more on a brand like Manfrotto or MeFoto will result in much less frustration than with the bargain brands that you’ll find at the local five and dime. DSLR users should definitely put care into selecting a tripod, as a set of legs and a head that are sturdy enough to hold the camera are paramount.
If you’re more of a run-and-gun shooter, a monopod—which is just like it sounds, a tripod with two of its legs missing—will help you stabilize your shots. Great for use at zoos and sporting events, a monopod is supplemented by your two legs in order to add stability to your camera—without the sometimes-cumbersome setup and breakdown required with a good tripod.
9. Be Selective
It’s easy to take hundreds of photos in a few hours when shooting digitally. But don’t just dump your memory card and upload all of the images to Facebook. You should spend some time going through your photos so you can eliminate redundant shots and discard photos that may be out of focus or poorly composed. It’s better to post a few dozen great photos by themselves rather than the same good photos hiding among hundreds of not-so-good ones.
10. Don’t Forget to Post-Process
Consider using software to organize and edit your photos. Apple Photos and Microsoft Photos support basic organization, as well as a number of editing tools. If you’re more of a phone editor, check out VSCO or Snapseed. Performing some very basic editing on a photo can help improve its quality drastically. Cropping a bit can help with composition, and you can also rotate a photo so that horizon lines are straight. Getting perfect photos in-camera is a lofty goal; there’s no harm in a bit of retouching.