Now that we’re back from vacation and the kids are off to school, it’s predictable … inevitable … that summer is abandoning us. Knowing how to take a great photo helps us northerners preserve those summertime memories… (Insert major wistfulness here.)
At any rate, we’ll soon be greeted with weekends of iffy weather. The kind of weather that keeps us cooped up by the fireplace and boob tube. That’s when we can finally crack open that book we’ve been dragging along on family vacations for show. Or, we could reminisce about those warmer, sunnier days by going through photographs.
The Good Old Days
Thanks to the Internet and cloud technology, we can keep seemingly infinite photographs in virtual space, without having to clutter up our living rooms with Kodak print albums. Though somewhat sadly, we tend to treat photographs more like commodities these days.
Every once in a while I’ll recall the print days of yore, when you had to scoot over to Target to pick up your developed rolls and hope that most of the photos you took “turned out.” Making photo books was fun, and it’d be an event to thumb through those memories months and years later with friends and family.
But I digress… The topic today is all about how to take a great photo, every time. Whether or not you choose to print your gems or simply share them on the cloud, it never hurts to have your photo snapping techniques in order.
How to Take a Great Photo: The key elements
The main take away here is “less is more.” And the best way to economize the subject inside your viewfinder is to zoom in. But how can you get a quality photo with all the pixelation that zooming creates? It’s really as simple as getting as physically close to the subject as you can. Just be careful if your subject is a belligerent stranger or a hyper 5-year-old.
You also want to cut-out clutter in the scene. The classic example of this is Christmas photography. You know, when everyone gathers around the tree and wrapping paper, ornaments, and our coffee-stained teeth create a montage of holiday glee? You get the idea.
A little trick I’ve used in the past to make these types of indoor photos work (whether Christmas, birthday, or any party) is to use black and white. This eliminates the clutter of too much color in the scene, and creates more of a texture-rich composition.
Depth of Field and Proportions
(Sounds like a groovy cruise boat cover band – “Ladies and Gentlemen, enjoy the stylings of Depth of Field and the Proportions!!!”) Alrighty then… The caption in the example above speaks to the ideal proportions for a landscape. You should aim for thirds where possible. Generally that puts the sky in the top third, mountains or body of water in the middle, and your foreground terrain at bottom.
Notice also how the beach chair above rests off to the side? A “rule of thirds” also helps from a vertical perspective. Whether an object or a person, I generally try to put the subject in the left third of the frame. If you aim for dead-center, you lose interest in the other aspects of the composition.
This then leads us to depth of field. By simply placing your key subject at the forefront, an interesting backdrop (sky, mountains, buildings), and an object of interest in-between, you create a three-dimensional effect of sorts that established depth in your photo. Exhibit A above is a good example: Beach chair is layer 1, lighthouse is layer 2, and the clouds in the sky are layer 3. Boom. Depth of field, baby.
A few more examples where I went nuts with DoF:
Soldier, get down on your knees and shoot!
All too often us tall guys like to shoot photos from up on high. There’s a number of instances where this creates a distorted (or less than ideal) picture. When composing a photograph with kids as the subject, get down to their level. Take a knee.
This also applies to interior staging shots: for instance when you’re selling your house, or considering listing a property on Airbnb. One of the tricks of the trade real estate agents use is to take interior photos from waist-level. This makes the room seem more spacious and inviting. If you scan through the photos in this post, you’ll be able to tell how this 6-footer was careful to get low on most takes.
The best times of day to take a photograph are dawn and dusk (basically, when it’s twilight). During these brief windows, you have an attractive, soft, red light to work with. No harsh shadows. Cloudy days are excellent as well for light diffusion and avoiding shadows, but it makes for some pretty harsh blue light effect. Besides, we love the sun!
This is where tripods could be useful. If you don’t have a lot of light to work with, your ability to hold the camera (phone) still will affect the clarity of your image.
Composition and Light are the two most important factors in any quality photo. They are not mutually exclusive either. Have a great image all framed up, but the sun is blasting at high noon? You know the shot – the one where everyone’s squinting hard with washed-out faces, or worse: smiling, but hidden in shadow. Of course the opposite is possible – where you have amazing soft light to work with, but you haven’t established any depth in your composition.
HDR (High Dynamic Range) is a feature commonplace on all the latest smartphones. In a nutshell, HDR simply merges two or three different exposures to give you the best “blend”. It’s a way to make sure faces aren’t too dark while the background is too bright, for instance.
When it works, HDR is a thing of beauty. In my experience though, with my trusty iPhone 6, HDR is slowwww… Got kids or pets running around? Can’t sit still? HDR is not your best bet.
Stick with landscapes or still shots when using HDR. If you’re trying to snap shots of objects (or people) in motion, make sure it’s during the bright part of the day. Granted, you could get some artsy blurred effects during twilight, if that’s your thing…
I’ll typically keep HDR turned off on my phone since our favorite subject matters are little kids who don’t necessarily like to sit still on command. When hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, you can, however, get some pretty nice results:
I like to use the Camera+ app and apply the “Clarity” filter to make my photos pop. Here’s a “before” example:
And after applying the “Clarity” filter:
In May, LateNight Apps released Camera+ 2. After many years of using the Camera+ legacy app, I figure for $2.99 (same as the Legacy version) is worth the cost to upgrade.
With Camera+ 2, all filters are included (no more add-ons required!) And, the app also has a “Smile Mode”, which snaps the photo automatically when a smile is detected. That’ll be fun to try with the kiddos… “Sit still and smile, gottdamit!”
I’ve used Camera+’s Clarity filter extensively on the Airbnb listing, and it made a huge difference. The wood floors look a lot more vibrant on the post-processed version, and the blues stand out more in the chairs and wall art:
Still insisting on taking indoor party shots? (Yes, those memories are the best, even if the photography sucks eggs!) See if you can apply a “focus” effect (like the one Instagram rolled out earlier this year) to blur out the background. Then, you just might have something worth framing. Even if you’re the one with the lamp shade on your head.
Instagram has a lot of cool features for post-processing, but I’m still getting used to its interface. It’s certainly not the most intuitive piece of software I’ve ever used, but then, I’m not a social media obsessed teenager either. I’ll admit I had some fun adding a filter and text to a picture of my son after a round of catch, where I made a pic of him into a vintage baseball card. Watch out, Honus Wagner!
I’ve found my iPhone 6 takes excellent photos. But keep in mind my expectations are nowhere near the same as a professional photographer’s. A nice digital SLR (single lens reflex) will set you back $1,000 to $3,000 depending on the bells and whistles (including lenses) you need.
What sets a DSLR apart from smartphones is their ability to render high quality images in low light situations. Plus, they’re easier to compose with, based on sheer ergonomics (it’s not a slippery little bar phone that requires index finger gymnastics to snap a bloody photo!)
But here’s the thing. Even the pros get some pretty sweet shots with smartphones. I’ve met a National Geographic photographer who showed off for me some of his iPhone 5 pics. Stunning. Check out Dewitt’s gallery page (from the previous link) for some serious lessons on light and composition.
With an iPhone, or any smartphone, follow these tenets to get the best photos:
- Don’t use a flash. If you need flash, borrow a friend’s phone and have him or her hold it up with the flashlight, and at an angle.
- Don’t zoom. The pixelation will mess up the image quality. A better bet is to crop the image in post-processing.
- Snap as many photos as possible. Remember, you’re not paying for film anymore! The best photojournalists in the world once used dozens of rolls of exposed film to yield maybe a dozen pics (at most) that actually got printed and published.
- Keep your phone’s screen brightness set to 50%, at least when you’re editing photos on the phone itself. A variable screen brightness can make for misleading light levels in your photos.
- Trade in your selfie stick in exchange for making actual human contact with a stranger willing to take your picture for you.
It might be worth it to invest in a tripod, if you’re really into taking landscapes and portraits, where precision clarity is important. You can find tripods that are easy to pack and can mount just about any smartphone. I used to own a tripod but never used it.
Whenever I came across an amaze-balls shot out in the field, guess where my tripod was. Yup. Back at home. Besides, I’m led to believe the latest and greatest smartphones have improved image stabilization.
Resources to Inspire
A neat little book that really got me into the science and art behind photography is the National Geographic Photography Field Guide: Secrets to Making Great Pictures.
It was a Christmas gift I could not put down that holiday. I was engrossed in the wizardry behind the lens of these world-traveling photography pros.
Even though the book was published at the dawn of mass digital photography, the lessons in composition and light are pillars of the craft, regardless of format. You can get a used copy on Amazon for a few bucks.