Over the last few years, especially with the arrival of and increase in, digital cameras, I often get asked questions such as “What camera should I buy?”, “What do you have?” or “How can I take photos like you?”. Friends will tell me they have XYZ point and shoot and want to know how to do something with it.
If I’ve temporarily returned your questions with a bewildered stare, I apologise. Can I let you in on a badly kept secret? Yes, I’m great with my DSLR, can use it in fully manual, go me (tongue in cheek – as a qualified photographer of course I can!) but with the exception of maybe the DVD recorder (grr), the simpler the technology is, the worst I am with it. Seriously! We don’t even have a kettle in our house. Ok granted that has more to do with me boiling it dry 8 times before remembering to make a drink but still…
After much thought, my answers to your questions are:
Buy the camera that suits your budget, needs and skill level.
That skill level can be the one you wish to reach but take into account how much time you have available to work on achieving that. When buying new technology, I devour reviews for weeks. Cnet is brilliant for those. Then I go to a shop to play and see if I like it. Then I buy it. Usually off the internet.
I use a Nikon D90 DSLR.
It’s great for me as it’s relatively small and I love the addition of things such as the HD video. My previous camera (which I now use as backup and so I don’t have to change lenses so often) is a D70. It was top of the range when it was bought as a gift in 2004 after the sale of the family home. I don’t get into all the Canon vs Nikon stuff. Want to give me a new Canon? I won’t complain. It’s not what you have it’s how you use it after all. I go blank when people talk about DSLRs too. I have no idea which model supersedes the next…why can’t they make them in chronological order?
I can’t get you to take photos like me.
Sure, you can learn the theory and technical aspects but I can’t teach you how to see or be creative, it develops over time. Your photos are going to be influenced by things you may never have thought of. Your physical height for example – pretty much all of the pics taken by my Husband are looking down on people or taken from a distance as he’s 6’4″ (making him almost a foot and a half taller than me!). Your age may influence your pics as well as your eyesight and culture.
I don’t know half of what my point and shoot does. After having it for 2 and a half years I only learnt this weekend (whilst waiting for U2 to start) how to turn on the digital zoom. I don’t even know what digital zoom is or how it differs from optical zoom…but hey, that’s what Google’s for.
What I CAN give you is some simple tips for improving your snapshots – just in time for the holidays. It’s stuff you’ll have heard before, but it helps to have a refresher now and then.
Turn off the Hipstamatic iPhone app.
It might look cool now, but that’s what I thought about Polaroid izone pics. Now I realise all my NYE 2000 photos are about 1inch wide. Unless your inlaws are Dr Seuss and co, photos of green food is just wrong.
Photos taken at arms length suck.
I’m guilty of doing this too often, which is silly given how short my arms are. Give the camera to someone else or stick it on a bookshelf, pantry shelf, table…hell, even a tripod will do 😉 use the self timer – it’s what it’s there for.
Check your backgrounds.
Is there a tree, table full of booze or a horizon/fenceline behind the people you’re photographing? It might be far away in real life but in a photo that horizon might just be cutting through someone’s head. A good idea for combating this is to try the portrait setting. It has a larger aperture (so a smaller depth of field/focus) and should blur the background nicely.
Where are everyone’s hands/arms?
Are they standing at an angle that will make them look one armed? Could that casually flung arm look like somebody’s going the grope? Watch hands on bellies, especially if you’re subject’s not pregnant and doesn’t want to spend the next week fielding questions on Facebook.
Find the flash on/off button.
If there’s ambient light inside, your auto flash might turn off. This isn’t always a good thing as that little burst of flash might help keep things sharp. If it’s bright and sunny outside, turn the flash on. If you’re not TOO close, it should fill in those harsh shadows and make your subject pop off the background.
And by background I mean a person or object. Little snapshot cameras popping away photographing Perth city at night from Kings Park make me internally scream. It’s not going to light the scene from that distance so why use it?! Stick it on the fence post or a tripod and change to a slow shutter (or your night setting).
Change your angle.
Kids playing on the floor? Get on the floor with them. See the world from their perspective. Shoot up or sideways. Do something different. It’ll help with the backgrounds too.
Use leading lines.
Where possible, get your subject to look into the frame or use lines of sight to draw the viewer in. Your photos don’t have to have everyone staring at the camera with a cheesy grin on their face.
Use the ‘rule of thirds’.
I explain this to people by asking them to think of The Brady Bunch titles. Nine squares right? Who was your favourite character? Marcia maybe? Maybe Greg or Peter? I’m going to guess not Alice. Poor Alice, stuck bang there in the middle. Not very interesting is she?
Modern cameras have really sophisicated focusing systems. Mine even has a smile shutter (it doesn’t work on teenagers, I’ve tried). They should cope well with things in different areas of the frame. Put your main subject in one of the boxes or on the intersection of those boxes. After a while it’ll come so naturally that you don’t even realise you’re doing it. My lecturer raved about the composition of the shot below, leaving me nodding on bemused as I’d thought it was fantastically candid.
Read the manual.
Do as I say, not as I do ;p
Break the rules.
What the? Didn’t I just tell you to follow the rule of thirds? Some of the best pictures come from experimenting. Take the technical stuff into account, but play with your composition. It won’t please everyone, but what does? You’re unique.
Hope these tips help, feel free to post links to your efforts in the comments. If appropriate, I’ll publish them.