EASY secrets of taking great photos
July 16, 2009 1:31 AM   Subscribe

What are your favourite photographer's tricks that an amateur could use to create stunning photos on a hobbyist budget?

As a hobbyist DSLR photographer, I find that once in a while, I stumble across some simple little trick-of-the-trade that instantly makes my photos much better... and it is these little "Wow!" moments that keep me motivated to keep shooting and learning.

I am not talking about expensive studio rigs here, or vague lifelong lessons ("learn about composition and color theory", "know your camera"). I am specifically talking about the low-hanging fruit that a low-budget amateur photographer like me could apply and see an instant difference.

If there are any photographers out there who have experienced the same kind of "Wow!" moment after trying out some new technique or equipment, please share your best suggestions in this thread.
posted by JensR to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (35 answers total) 196 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: To get the ball rolling, here are my own favourite tricks:

* Bouncing flash - suddenly, indoor snapshots with flash look a billion times better, at the cost of the cheapest bounceable flash that will fit on your camera

* Making a DIY softbox - makes portrait snapshots look like magazine cover shots, at the cost of a folded-up piece of construction paper

* Vibration Reduction / Image Stabilization - makes tripods obsolete and turns shaky amateur pics into crisp long-range shots. A VR/IS lens will cost a little more, but it is certainly within reach of most amateur DSLR photographers

* Keeping the corners clean - checking all four corners of the viewfinder and making sure none of them are cluttered or high in contrast is very simple and goes a very long way to making whatever is in the center/foreground 'pop'
posted by JensR at 1:32 AM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: String tripod at Instructables
posted by harriet vane at 1:44 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

As for the softbox, I've found that using a piece of styrofoam posterboard works well for me, since it's stiff and won't blow around in the wind as much for outdoor shots (assuming you have an assistant to hold it or some kind of holding mechanism).

Also, many people insist on shooting pictures in RAW mode, which means you can do better editing on the computer, with more detail preserved. This opens the door to a lot of nicer effects. (Caveat: Will use more space, and will increase the time the camera needs between shots) Even if you don't plan on spending a lot of time cleaning up the pictures on the computer, PC software tends to be better at enhancing an image automatically than a digital camera's firmware (consider: Your camera has to do it in a split second with some inexpensive chips, but your PC has a much faster processor and more time).

If you have a cheaper Canon camera (even point and shoot), there's a good chance you can install this firmware, which will give it more features and enable more advanced photography. This isn't so much easy, as it as an easy gateway to moving to the next level of digital photography. It also gives you the option of having a nice histogram, which is a fairly easy thing to learn how to use.
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:41 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Well I think the cheapest and best thing you can do is learn how to use natural light to make photographs.

Google Window light, which is a pretty standard portrait lighting technique. For that, using a piece of white fomecore as a reflector will help a lot. There's your $3 trick.

Knowing that when the sun is behind clouds, your pictures are probably going to be better is huge.
posted by sully75 at 3:10 AM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Its really about video rather than stills - but this home-made steadicam would save you massively over a commercial one.

One simple trick is probably learning how to frame and matt your photo successfully - great photographers, I suggest, pay a lot more attention to how the picture is going to look when it is in a gallery, coffee table book, etc.
posted by rongorongo at 3:33 AM on July 16, 2009

Response by poster: sully75: cool! I will definitely check out the Window Light technique.

And I too can vouch for the "wait until the sun is behind clouds" or Open Shade technique. Very magical, and exactly the type of trick I'm after!
posted by JensR at 3:34 AM on July 16, 2009

Best answer: Take tons of shots. Take three where you would usually take only one, or even more. With flash memory as cheap as it is now, there is really no need to conserve photos, and by taking multiple shots you have a range from which to pick the best one. This helps avoid losing a shot due to an unseen interference, or a small amount of blurring, etc.
posted by Meagan at 4:08 AM on July 16, 2009

Best answer: http://strobist.blogspot.com.
posted by krautland at 4:19 AM on July 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

When you are composing a photograph prior to pushing the button, ask yourself, "What am I seeing through the viewfinder that is extraneous to my subject and composition?" Then, change your position to make it go away. This most frequently translates directly into, "Get closer".

When I find myself trying to make a shot look less mundane, I nearly always consider either a dramatically lower camera position, or a dramatically higher position.

Also, until one accumulates experience in shooting in the camera's raw file format, one can not fully appreciate the tremendous capability one has to optimize the photo to represent what was in the photographer's mind's eye when the picture was taken. Vastly improved raw conversion software over time has been a real boon to this.

Lastly, the point at which a camera morphs into a paperweight is that point at which your batteries die.
posted by imjustsaying at 4:21 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Pretty much everything mentioned here can be filed under 'tricks and gimmicks'. There are no magic bullets to actually investing time in taking pictures and thinking about them. The technical aspects are an afterthought, or at least they should be.

I'll share with you a technique for learning composition pretty quickly, as in... a couple minutes/day over a couple of weeks: Get some albums of classical painting, 1850s or earlier. Get some tracing paper. Using a soft pencil, trace the general elements in the painting - it's enough that you circle them or trace the lines. Do 10 or 20/day. Within two weeks you will notice your compositions being markedly better, without having to resort to bullsh*t stuff like "the rule of thirds".

Oh, and use one lens for a while. You'll learn how to see with it and you'll be able to react to cool stuff happening much faster.
posted by jedrek at 4:31 AM on July 16, 2009 [10 favorites]

You know what? The one thing you will have to pry from my cold dead fingers is a circular polariser. So, so simple, and pretty cheap too.

Next up would be an ND4 filter and a decent tripod - no matter how good the image stabilization, at the far end of zoom a tripod (or a monopod) is handy.
posted by twine42 at 4:55 AM on July 16, 2009

Response by poster: jedrek: good points about using one lens and learning composition - very interesting!

However, I'm not sure I'd categorize the suggestions here as 'gimmicks'. To me, a 'gimmick' is airbrushing a model's cleavage, or digitally removing objects from a shot in Photoshop. In other words, tricks that don't have anything to do with photography, light, composition, etc.

Of course in the long run, there is no substitute for investing time in taking pictures, but there is a lot of low-hanging fruit, i.e. methods with low cost & a low learning curve that also have a very high payoff. They won't turn an amateur into an Ansel Adams, but they can put him (or her) head and shoulders ahead of other amateurs and inspire him to keep learning.

Also, another trick I may add to my list very soon is using rear flash for low-light photography.
posted by JensR at 5:21 AM on July 16, 2009

Best answer: Use flash outdoors. Some people treat using flash outdoors like a hate crime but it's made most, if not all, of my shots wonderful.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 5:31 AM on July 16, 2009

Buy a book of sample gels to giver your flash some color. This is a gimmick and could get tiring if you and everyone else uses it all of the time. The same goes for bounce flash and a polarizer. They effect the picture in a certain way which isn't to say they are bad. They have their place but should never be used as crutches for all your images. I love gels and bounce flash but bouncing light is not a "fits-all" solution. Sorry, for the harangue!

Another one is to get a small lightweight tripod such as an ultrapod. It is 100 times better than a string tripod and just as easy to carry. There are few times when it has not proved useful.
posted by JJ86 at 5:35 AM on July 16, 2009

Response by poster: Also, if anyone can tell me how to achieve this low-light nightclub effect (of a young talented DJ, Mike Sheridan), let me know ;-)
posted by JensR at 5:43 AM on July 16, 2009

Post processing is what will seperate you from the rest of the amateur shots. Make your photos pop by learning how to adjust contrast, saturation and unsharpen mask. (Try levels and curves as you get better). Try not to go overboard, but do what looks good to you. Your taste will probably change over time. Oh, and browse, browse, browse other people's stuff.
posted by starman at 5:49 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Using a bounced flash for indoor portraits was the biggest "Wow" moment I've had so far. If you're in a smallish room, shoot the flash over your shoulder into the corner behind you. That avoids the eye socket shadows that a flash off the ceiling can give, and it even gives you some catchlights in the eyes.
posted by diogenes at 6:05 AM on July 16, 2009

Best answer: Available light and wide-open aperture. One of the things that makes a photo look "amateurish" is when it's shot with more DOF than necessary, typically because most consumer P&Ss tighten down the aperture to try and ensure the subject is in focus.

If you buy a f/2.8 lens and lock it at 2.8, you'll see an immediate difference in portraits and photos of people, because the backgrounds will blur out. Also, you'll be able to take more photos with available light and not use flash.

The combination of short DOF and no on-camera-flash ("morgue flash") will make your photos look more professional, even if you're still composing them the same way and taking photos of the same subjects.

That's about the lowest-hanging fruit imaginable.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:41 AM on July 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

I was going to chime in with with Kadin2048 said about the aperture and depth of field. This little trick will get you pictures that cannot be reproduced with a point and shoot as well as most DSLR's with a kit lens. You might need a new lens though, but it will instantly elevate your photos. As an aside, I have found the biggest technical difference separating amateurs from pros is their choice of lens. It is all about the lens and this can transform your work to new levels.

To start with, try picking up a Sigma 30mm f/1.4. These are available for Nikon, Canon, etc and can be pretty cheap used. Switch to aperture priority and keep the aperture down low. For an example of this effect can be seen here, here, and here. Look out for the creamy blurred backgrounds and how they isolate the subject in a dramatic way by obscuring everything else. Pick up any magazine and you will see professionals doing the same technique like on this cover from Vogue.

The other beautiful thing about this lens is that it works in very dark situations and you can get some distinctive results that nobody else can achieve.

Best of all, just take lots of photos. Your work will continually improve!
posted by avex at 6:58 AM on July 16, 2009 [6 favorites]

Best answer: That low-light nightclub effect you mention is just a slow shutter with a flash. Try searching for "slow sync flash". It's pretty hit-or-miss, but if you take a bunch you'll end up with a few good ones. It works best when you have a dimly lit background (so you need the slow shutter) and a dark subject (so the available light doesn't compete with the flash and make your subject blurry). I used to see this effect in National Geographic all the time; I'm not sure if they're still doing it.
posted by echo target at 7:01 AM on July 16, 2009

Understand the concept of hyperfocal distance--the nearest distance at a given focal length and aperture when an object will sharp when the lens is focused on infinity. Huh? Basically, say you have a 35mm lens (a great focal length for street photography). Using a hyperfocal distance calculator, you can determine that at f8, everything from about 8'4" away from you and to infinity will be in focus (the hyperfocal distance actually being 16'9" or so). This means there is never any need to focus the camera. Saving that time was important on manual cameras, but it is also useful nowadays if you want to take a picture without bringing the camera to your eye--you can be very sneaky. To "increase the sneak," you can use a shutter release cord to trigger the camera from your pocket etc.

Also, I think Kadin's comment is good, but I'd increase the aperture--one of my favorite lenses of all time is the Canon 50mm f1.4 lens, which you can buy off of Craigslist for about $250 (or the cheaper f1.8, which is OK, and can be had for maybe $80 used). At f1.4, you will be amazed with the images you can get inside.

Definitely always (ALWAYS!) shoot in RAW--the fine tuning you can do to a RAW file is really compared to the constraints of working with jpegs.

Use an off-shoe cord for your flash (and a diffuser/bouncer)--having the flash illuminate directly from the front looks ghastly.

Keep a paper towel or something in your camera bag so you can wipe off your gear if it gets drizzly. Protect your camera with a shower cap!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:10 AM on July 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: nthing the flash. If you learn how to properly use a flash, your photos will definitely improve. Once I started bouncing my flash off the ceiling and walls, I got much better results and didn't have to worry about having too little light. Then, I bought one of the Strobist kits from mpex.com and I really started getting professional results. I have had many people compliment me on my portraits of both people and pets.

The only other tip that I have is just to take pictures. The more you use these techniques the more comfortable you'll be with them and the better the pictures will get.
posted by majikstreet at 7:14 AM on July 16, 2009

Getting proficient at post processing is definitely a must. You will see very, very few images outside of news media that aren't extensively processed (and many in the news, but I digress).

On top of the technical advantages of shooting RAW, you're also forced to study what you've captured, since you'll be starring at each image for a minute or two.

You can't turn crap into gold, but you CAN turn mediocre into pretty damn good. Hell, you can turn an awful image out of an iPhone into something arty if you know what you're doing.
posted by paanta at 7:24 AM on July 16, 2009

Also, see an informative post by DaShiv that I re-read from time to time.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 8:02 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

You may also be interested in other DaShiv content, mentioned in this MeTa post.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 8:04 AM on July 16, 2009

Best answer: Don't dismiss the Strobist website, fantastic stuff there, and always on a budget. Planet Neil (planetneil.com) is a good site, as well.
posted by dave*p at 8:21 AM on July 16, 2009

...without having to resort to bullsh*t stuff like "the rule of thirds".
Hang on, that's a fairly basic "rule" of composition isn't it? Especially useful for beginners? Why do you think it's bullshit?
posted by chill at 11:39 AM on July 16, 2009

chill, pretty much any rules about art are bullshit. The rule of thirds kind of helps you, sort of, when you are at a really basic level. But take 100 great photographers, you are not going to boil their compositions down to the rule of thirds.

Really how you get better at taking pictures is by looking at great pictures. Capa, Cartier Bresson, Leibowitz, Penn, Picasso, Wyeth, Rembrandt, whatever floats your boat. Then imitating that.

Looking at other young photographers on the web, not such a good idea. incestuous, I think you'd call it.

Strobist.com is a good resource, sort of. But there are pretty much no 100% great photographs there, and a lot of crap. You need to feast your eyes on some truly great art to get to be good. At least, that's what I think.

The other deal is: in my mind, at least, 99.99% of all great photographs were taken with a camera, film and lens, and nothing else. Oh...except a really experienced photographer. All the technical whodads just set you back. Says I who is going to photograph for a weekend at an event with one camera, one body, a flash and a chord. Wish I could leave the flash at home...
posted by sully75 at 12:03 PM on July 16, 2009

Hmm...I'll be the contrarian and say your pictures would improve by not using a flash. Figure out how to use light. For a dramatic look, remember this: expose for the highlights.
posted by msbrauer at 6:12 PM on July 16, 2009

Just as an aside, "slow sync flash" is also called "rear curtain sync" by some people, and by some camera manufacturers. (I believe Minolta refers to it that way.)

It's called that because while normally the flash pops as soon as the shutter opens (the front curtain), to get motion trails behind moving objects, you actually want to fire the flash at the end of the shot, just before the rear curtain drops, closing the shutter. Hence, the flash is synchronized to the rear curtain, or 'rear curtain sync.' Now You Know!

Anyway, just another term you might want to Google for, or look through your DSLR's manual for. Most recent cameras will do it, but some have incredibly obscure ways of enabling it. Personally I always leave rear curtain sync on; it doesn't hurt anything if you're using a fast sync speed, and if you do use a slow shutter, it's the difference between a usable shot and an unusable one because of where it puts the motion trails.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:12 PM on July 16, 2009

There are no rules of art. But there ARE rules of technique. If I want my art to look like X, I have to master the techniques used to create X.

If I want to take a classic photograph portrait, I have to know how to use the camera. This isn't a gimmick. I need to know how to light the subject and set the camera so that it captures the light in a linear (or non linear) fashion. I have to know how to set DOF and focus. That's not cheating or fakery.

Some people are lucky and have (seemingly) innate knowledge of their tools of the trade. Some aren't so lucky and have to learn it.

Art is having a vision. Technique is using the tools to bring that vision to life. A hacker that has to try a 1000 different things until they get their vision is certainly just as much of an artist as the person who spends an hour setting everything up and gets the right shot in one shot. They are probably a frustrated artist, but an artist nonetheless.

(Look at a guy like Tiger Woods. Clearly, naturally gifted. But the guy has spent his entire life honing his gift to be the best he can. Contrast that with a guy like John Daly. That guy probably has *more* natural talent than Tiger. When he is "on", he can beat Tiger. But he hasn't taken the time to practice and hone his mental technique. And so he is less predictable. Both guys are artists (of golf), but the guy who practices is more successful.)
posted by gjc at 8:10 AM on July 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: gjc: of course you're right, but my goal (with this post) is not to be an artist. I don't want to create art. I want to create pictures that could pass for semipro. Art goes far beyond that - and as you say, even the greatest have to keep honing their craft to stay great.

But I'm talking about low-hanging fruit here - that's less about getting the perfect swing in every situation and more about not using a putter to escape a sand trap (I'm no golfer, so excuse me if my analogy is way off here). I want the ultra-simple tricks that elevate my results with common shots from a 4 to a 7. Let the pros deal with the subtleties of getting from a 7 to a 9 consistently, and the artists deal with the pain of getting from a 9 to a 10.

Why set the bar so low? Because in most cases, *only* photographers and magazine editors can tell the difference between a 7 and a 9, and I'm not trying to satisfy either. You don't give a 4-year-old a book by Stephen Hawking and expect them to learn physics. You teach them to color inside the lines and balance their Legos, and once they've learned that they suddenly have an understanding of both friction and gravity without ever mastering the theory. Let's take it slowly and have fun along the way. The rest will come in time.
posted by JensR at 12:55 AM on July 18, 2009

Figure out when what you're photographing will be facing the sunlight. Photograph things facing east at sunrise and things facing west at sunset. If you shoot at sunrise and sunset you'll be rewarded with rich colors and you won't need any post-processing if you expose correctly.
posted by wherever, whatever at 3:35 AM on July 19, 2009

Here's a genuinely handy trick - when you're photographing groups of people, you lose the ability to connect that you can do with one or two subjects. You have to become more magician, entertainer. Don't be afraid to direct them. Case in point - the more people you have, the more likely there'll be one person with their eyes closed in every shot. So control it - get everyone to shut their eyes, and then "on the count of three, everyone open their eyes and give me a big smile"
snap snap snap

It's a pretty good failsafe. But you can't repeat it too much, because people stop being amused pretty quickly.
posted by Magnakai at 6:13 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

My two pieces of advice will directly contradict some of the other advice given here. 1. Always take the picture from where you first see it. 2. Do not take many pictures of the same subject. Don't believe me? Compare your one picture taken from where you first saw it with everything you take after...
posted by xammerboy at 9:09 PM on July 23, 2009

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