There are, in photography, a number of very simple things that beginners who have no, or very little, training in photography can do to dramatically increase the quality and impact of their photographs — without having to expend much effort at all. I’ve assembled here five of the easiest to incorporate and most simple of these quick tips. Learn them, and put them into practice — make an effort to be aware of them every time you’re getting ready to snap a photo. Eventually, they will become second nature to you and you wont even think about them when taking your shots. But, your photos will improve substantially.
1) Take notice of your entire frame — This is one that is incredibly important, yet almost all beginners tend to completely overlook. There is a tendency among new photographers, when looking through the viewfinder and composing their shot, to focus exclusively on their subject. In doing, they completely ignore and fail to take into account anything else in the frame. This is a huge mistake. You should be composing an entire image — it’s about your subject and your subject’s relationship to everything else in the image. EVERYTHING that appears within the borders of the frame is important. You should always be thinking about the entire image — not just the subject.
I tell my beginner students to practice a “four corners, center” rule. Every time you’re going to take a shot, before you press the shutter release, make sure you force your eyes to scan all four corners of the frame and take notice of what you see there. Make a conscious effort to look at the top-right corner of the frame, then scan to the top left, then to the bottom-left, the bottom-right, and finally to the center of the frame. Take account of all that you see and ask yourself if you’re happy with how the entire picture is going to look — try to see the entire image as a single, cohesive entity. You picture is not a photo of a subject with left-over space around it — too many beginners think this way. Your image is about the ENTIRE image. If you force yourself to do the ‘four corners, center” exercise each time you take a photo, pretty soon it will become second nature and you’ll find yourself just taking in and being aware of the whole image whenever you shoot. And, your pictures will improve dramatically.
2) Develop Your Creativity — What truly separates good photographers from great photographers is their creative eye. Anybody can be taught to line up and properly expose a decent photograph in not very much time at all. Under regular conditions, the greatest photographers in the world are really no better at properly exposing and focusing a shot than just about any given hobbyist that’s been shooting for a short while and has, maybe, perhaps, taken a class or two. So, what separates them? What makes the greatest the greatest? It’s creativity. If you want your photos to be truly stunning, you’ve got to develop your eye, and your mind. You’ve got to learn to ‘see’ the spectacular photos happening around you.
Here’s my favorite exercise for developing your photographic eye and creativity: Grab your camera and recruit a friend of yours to go out on a walk with you around your neighborhood. Instruct your friend that at entirely random intervals he or she should say “Stop!” When your friend does this, you MUST take at least three photos of something, and you can’t move more than ten steps from the spot you’re on to do it. Your friend and you can not continue walking until you’ve taken the photos. Try to make the photo as interesting as possible.
If you do this exercise regularly you’ll be amazed at your improvement. Most of my students, on the their first couple of times doing this exercise, will complain that when their friends yell “Stop!” there just wasn’t anything to take a photo of. They looked around, and looked around, but, for the life of them, they just couldn’t see anything that would make an interesting photo. So, they just snapped a picture of anything, and they weren’t at all happy with the boring, pointless photo that resulted. However, after doing this exercise a number of times, and after reviewing the photos from previous outings, they begin to ‘see’ amazing photos everywhere — photos that just appeared invisible to them prior to starting the exercises. This comes from developing your eye, and developing your creativity.
Many of my students have expressed amazement at this. They just didn’t know there were so many incredible photos waiting to be taken almost everywhere and anywhere, and now the ‘see’ them practically everywhere they go. This is one of the biggest differences between amateur photographers and really great photographers — great photographers have a heightened ability to ‘see’ the interesting photos in their surroundings.
3) Don’t shoot in auto-mode — Just don’t do it! I know it’s convenient, but don’t do it. If you’re serious about becoming a really good photographer you should practically never be shooting in auto-mode. You will not learn in auto-mode. You should at least be shooting in aperture or shutter priority mode at all times. But, when you can, you should shoot in full manual. Sure, at first, your photos are likely to come out badly exposed — doesn’t matter. If you keep doing it, you’ll keep improving to a point where you can dial in a better exposure than manual mode will in most circumstances and just about as quickly. And, you’ll LEARN your camera. You will, without even really knowing it, train your brain see the light and learn the relationship between the light and your camera. When you know this, you can begin to experiment and play around in order to achieve creative exposures that auto-mode can never give you and that will make your photos truly stand out.
4) Look at your subject — I mean really look at your subject. Whenever you can, don’t just raise the camera to your eye, quickly compose a shot and snap the photo. Look at your subject, walk around it, get down low, get up high — look at your subject, through your camera’s viewfinder, from as many different angles and positions as you can. Take your time. Compose many different and varied shots from all positions and angles and figure out which is the most interesting. If you see two, or three, or four very interesting shots, shoot them all.
As a beginner, you probably haven’t trained your eye or mind yet to instinctively know what sorts of angles and positions will work best depending on a given subject or scene, or what you’re trying to, or wish to, convey in your image. Take your time whenever you can and thoroughly study your subject, through your camera’s viewfinder, as much as you can before you take the shot. Consistently doing this will train your eye and mind so that you will develop the ability to instinctively know such things. Eventually, when viewing a subject or scene, you’ll just know that ‘if I get down low and shoot upwards in this shot, it will create this sort of effect which will look really cool…’ etc..
And, remember that photos taken from unusual angles tend to make interesting pictures. People are used to seeing things from dead-ahead, eye-level. That’s how they look at the world almost every waking minute of every day of their lives. Show them something from a viewpoint they’re not used to seeing such things from, and they’ll love your photo — it will be unusual and interesting to them. Always remember to look for unusual and creative angles and positions. But, the photo still has to ‘work.’ It’s not enough to just find a weird angle and be done with it. Some unusual angles and positions will work and some wont. This is why you need to develop your eye. Eventually, you’ll come to recognize, as second nature, what works and what doesn’t.
5) Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot — I think this is the most important tip: Shoot! Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, then… shoot some more. Then, when you’re done with that, shoot some more again. Never take your camera off. Go everywhere with it, and shoot anything that looks like it might even remotely stand the possibility of making at least a somewhat interesting photo. Keep shooting! Shoot everything! I can’t stress this enough. If you need to walk down to the corner store, make sure you’ve got your camera with you. Shoot anything you see along the way that you think might make a decent photo. If you’re going to your in-laws for dinner, bring your camera. If a friend wants to spend the day at a beach, bring your camera. Bring your camera everywhere, always have a mind to being on the lookout for interesting pictures and take as many photos as you can.
If you do this, you’ll quickly realize that probably better than 95% of your photos are garbage — worthy of nothing more than immediate deletion. But, you’ll find absolute gems among them. And, gems that will surprise the heck out of you! You’ll fine cases where you’ll say something like ‘Wow! I just snapped that picture of that old, stupid running shoe somebody lost on the side of the road for no good reason, and it’s actually an AMAZING shot! I LOVE it!’ And, after you do this for a while, you’ll begin to understand more intimately what makes a great and interesting photo. Your photographic eye and mind will develop. It’ll become instinctive.
There’s no substitute for shooting — none. No substitute for practice. The more you shoot, the better you’ll become. No manner of helpful, secret, tips or information will outdo just getting out there and shooting. If I take two beginner photographers, I put the first one in a room with ten of the world’s top photographers and instruct those photographers to divulge absolutely everything they know about photography — all of their juiciest, most well guarded, tips and tricks — to that first photographer. But, over the course of the next year, that first photographer only takes one or two photos per week, then, I take a second beginner photographer, I tell him NOTHING other than the most basic instruction on how to operate the camera, but I force that photographer to take 100 photos a day, EVERY day… after a year, which photographer is going to have the better photos? Photographer A, who shot a handful of images here and there but was told everything the world’s top photographers know? Or, photographer B, who was told nothing, but shot tens of thousands of photographs over the span of that year? I guarantee you it will be photographer B, every time!
There is no substitute for practice — hands-on, real-world practice. When you search out tips and tricks from seasoned knowledgeable photographers, it should be with a mind to putting those tips and tricks you’ve learned into practice — over, and over, and over again. So, get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot and shoot some more. There’s nothing — absolutely nothing — that will improve your photography more.