What Is YOUR Best Photography Tip, Secret, Trick, Lesson, Technique, or Hack?
August 22, 2008 5:46 PM   Subscribe

What Is YOUR Best Photography Tip, Secret, Trick, Lesson, Technique, or Hack?

I am getting into photography but will not be able to buy a camera for a month or two. Until then, I have been reading up on photography. I have read the standard photography 101 books (Yawn). I am not asking for more of that dull stuff.

Rather, I want to know YOUR PERSONAL greatest photography tip, secret, trick, or hack.


Thanks in advance!
posted by chrisalbon to Media & Arts (82 answers total) 212 users marked this as a favorite
In a pinch, a sheet of white printer paper can be folded into a reasonably effective flash diffuser.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:03 PM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

once you learn how to photograph in various lighting sitations, and thats the rub: light is your most important tool; you really just have to be prepared. For me, that means taking your camera everywhere you go- even on the simplest of errands. Yeah, I have a few "the ones that got away" stories.
posted by captainsohler at 6:05 PM on August 22, 2008

Clean backgrounds!
posted by smackfu at 6:13 PM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Shoot lots and take notes. If you're shooting digital, the files will save the shutter speed, aperture, and iso rating. If you're shooting film, write these down for your shots. I used to keep a notebook where I'd describe the composition and record the specs. Study your best shots and try to understand how those factors affect your images.
posted by advicepig at 6:15 PM on August 22, 2008

Carry your camera EVERYWHERE.
posted by knowles at 6:17 PM on August 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

Photography is just the act of recording light. Learn to 'see' light more effectively. When you watch movies or look at photos in magazines pay attention to how they're lit. When you go out, pay attention to the sun and clouds - how does the quality of light change when it's cloudy vs sunny? Noon vs twilight? What does the light look like when it shines through your window at different times of the day? How would that affect an image? How could you use it to your advantage?

You don't need a studio full of lighting equipment to manipulate light either, get some white and black cards and get in the habit of using them and experimenting. White fabric can be used to diffuse the sun, etc.

Light is everything in photography. Too often people get caught up in the technical stuff, what camera or lens they have, what Photoshop technique was used, what compositional rule they chose to exemplify. All those things are great, but they are kind of worthless unless you start with good light.
posted by bradbane at 6:21 PM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

(1) Take millions of photos. Every once in a while, you'll get really lucky!

(2) For indoor photography, use an external flash and learn to bounce it off the ceiling. It's a dramatic improvement in lighting.
posted by mikeand1 at 6:28 PM on August 22, 2008

Always have a camera on you. It's not just you or the camera. It's opportunity.

Make the ability to take a beating pat of your priorities in choosing a camera.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:39 PM on August 22, 2008

Use a tripod.
posted by extrabox at 6:58 PM on August 22, 2008

I agree with the tripod, and the shooting a hundred more pics than you think you will need bits

also....Fujichrome Velvia film....soaks up color like bread soaks up gravy
posted by timsteil at 7:02 PM on August 22, 2008

Don't center your image. Don't be afraid to get close to your subject. Frame your subject so that viewers know what you were taking a picture of. If you're using a digital camera, and you want to take black and white shots, take them in color and then convert them to black and white in photoshop -- not by simply hitting grayscale, but by using the channel mixer. Take hundreds of photos and throw away most of them.

Use a tripod, or a monopod, or lean up against something.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:09 PM on August 22, 2008

One of those mini tripods (or any surface) to stabilize the shot reduces blur. Using the timer reduces even more blur as you don't have the motion of depressing the shutter.
posted by furtive at 7:17 PM on August 22, 2008

photography is the art of exclusion.
posted by klanawa at 7:17 PM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

When in doubt, fill the frame. This is not to say that there aren't lots and lots of fantastic photos where the subject doesn't occupy all the space in the image, but in my experience, the single biggest problem people have starting out - especially if they're trying to take photos of people at a party or somesuch - is not getting close enough, or not zooming in enough.

Also, learn what affects depth of focus and how to manipulate it, especially if you want to do indoor/low-light shots without a tripod or flash.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:19 PM on August 22, 2008

Response by poster: Wow these are really great. I never thought about the timer to reduce blur, that is a pretty nice trick.

Keep them coming!
posted by chrisalbon at 7:20 PM on August 22, 2008

If you are uneasy about taking photos of people, work through it. They make fantastic subjects.

When you carry a camera and take many photos, you'll start seeing in photos. It's weird and wonderful.

Study your photos and what you like and what you don't like.

Experiment! Shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings. You'll learn faster. Nice thing about digital is it often records the settings with the photo as EXIF data.

Always try, unless you intend to under or overexpose (which you can always post-process), to have correct exposure. You can never get the "missing data" back quite like getting it the first time. This includes filling the frame.

Buying a Nikon doesn't make you a photographer. It makes you a Nikon owner. Not sure who said that.

Study photos by pros and masters: Steve McCurry, Jim Brandenburg, Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams -- some of my favorites.
posted by pedantic at 7:23 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

When you are photographing someone, and you want them to look natural and happy, but they are camera-shy and stiff, keep the camera trained right on them and make them roll their head around, stretch their mouth out, furrow their eyebrows, and generally make the most ridiculous faces they are capable of. Make them do it, even though they will complain that it feels stupid. Then tell them to relax and you, yourself, laugh -- because it's funny -- and that's when you'll capture a natural smile.
posted by prefpara at 7:23 PM on August 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

This seems silly, but it happened to me once: make sure you have a memory card in the camera :P
posted by melodykramer at 7:29 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here's one I put together about panoramas. The first thing you need to do is find a nice spot to take photos and create a panorama with your camera. I've discovered it works best if you're on top of a multi-directional vista, or in the bottom of a valley or bowl. Think of a sine curve. But be careful when you turn. I don't want you to start out at the top and end up at the bottom. It's hard on your camera.

It is a good rule of thumb to have a 50% overlap from one image to the next. In other words, take three photos to capture the width that could actually be done with two. Panorama software uses the overlap to help blend the two images together. The more overlap there is, the smoother the transition between images and the more seamless they appear. Another advantage of having a full 50% overlap between images is if something happens to one of the photos, you can still salvage the panorama — although it might be difficult to make it appear seamless.

That said, a camera using a 35mm lens takes 18 vertical images to capture 360° with 50% overlap on each image. This would require fewer images with a wider angle lens such as 20mm, and a larger number of images with a narrower angle lens such as 55mm. You should shoot the images vertically, allowing for a taller perspective in the finished product. You can shoot horizontally but you'll end up with a vertically narrow scene.

Using a tripod makes this whole process much easier. Although it is possible to do without one, I don't recommend it. Most tripods have markings at the point where they rotate, helping to determine how many degrees the camera is pivoting with each turn. If yours doesn't, there are several manufacturers including Kodak, Bogen and Kaidan that make special panorama tripod heads for just this purpose. In addition to having the very handy degree markings, these tripod heads are designed so that your camera rotates around a central axis, meaning the focal point of the lens remains aligned from frame to frame. (This is a significant detail only if you're trying to achieve perfection, or are very close to your subject.) Panorama tripod heads make the job of taking the many photos for a panorama much easier, but they aren't cheap. I suggest you experiment without it first to see if panorama photography is really going to be your thing.

Exposure is very important in creating a seamless panorama. Modern auto-exposure cameras can actually create a problem in this respect. As you're moving the camera from shot to shot, the auto-exposure will make an unintended contrast adjustment based on how the light meter perceives the brightness of the scene. For example, I had a recent problem with this when there was a big white snow bank in the center of one of the images. The camera's light meter shortened the exposure time significantly when it saw the snow, making that image much darker than the rest.

If possible, use a camera that doesn't have auto exposure and set the lens and shutter speed to achieve a happy medium based on the average brightness of the scene. Always avoid shooting your panorama when there are moving clouds directly overhead. If the clouds move and the sun shines on you or your subject halfway through the process, the exposure will suddenly change, making for a lousy panorama.

Avoid photographing long, straight objects like a freeway for your panorama. Because of the warping affect a camera lens has on an image from edge to edge, particularly a wide angle lens, a straight line will look bent or curved in the panorama.

Photography is great fun. Enjoy your new hobby.
posted by netbros at 7:33 PM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Shoot in RAW if you have a dslr. Beats having crappy information loss any day.

Take pictures of people close up, preferrably with them unaware. And always be sensitive to great lighting moments.
posted by monocot at 7:37 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's all about the framing and the composition. And it's something that usually cannot be learned. It's a gift.

You can have the greatest camera on the market (within reason) and your pictures will still look shitty if you don't have it. You cannot "hack" a picture.

Don't believe it? Well, those pictures you just saw were all taken with a POS 3.2 mp Pentax Optio and no tripod.
posted by Zambrano at 7:38 PM on August 22, 2008

Buy filters only for your biggest diameter lens, and pick up step-down converters to kit out the rest of the lens sizes. (Filters are expensive!)
posted by cowbellemoo at 7:41 PM on August 22, 2008

These are my two favourite tips that work with any camera or skill level:

* When taking a picture of someone outside, use the flash if there's bright sun casting shadows or causing backlighting. This gives a flattering, bright look to your subject.

* Use burst (or continuous) mode when taking pictures of people. It takes rapid shots in succession, so you can choose the best expression or pose aftewards. No more closed eyes and crooked mouths!
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 7:45 PM on August 22, 2008

My father told me a quote by a famous photographer once. The exact quote and the name of the photographer escape me, but to paraphrase - your first 10,000 pictures will be shit.

The takeaway is that, just like anything else, photography is learned through experience. Lots and lots of practice. Many people have said this on AskMe before, but get on Flickr and join some groups about photography styles that you like. Examine the pictures in the groups, find the ones that look good to you, and then try to emulate them. At first you'll try to copy them as accurately as you can, and that's ok, because that's part of how you learn. Once you understand what makes those shots good, then you can apply that to your own (original) images.

Also, something I've had a hard time learning - don't be afraid of shooting popular topics/landmarks/whatever. Look for unusual angles and vantage points when you're doing this.

One more thing to think about - what is your posture when taking photos? I will bet that 95% of all people shoot standing up, basically putting the camera at eye level. Try different heights; kneel, lie down, get on a ladder, just try to avoid shooting by standing upright and putting the camera to your eye.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:46 PM on August 22, 2008

I have always had better luck if I planned out my shots. Specifically, I would jot down what I wanted, pictured it in my mind's eye and then work towards that goal. With the advent of digital I have had a lot more luck as I can take as many pictures as my card would hold and I have something left for that lucky shot. I also spent a lot of time trying to re-create some of what the pros have taken.

If you get grounded in the basic understanding of the machine in your hands you are going to be a much better photographer. Be sure you know how each and every function on your camera works and be sure to play with all of them. Also, remember, as many have pointed out, looking at colors and shadows will go a long way in enhancing your subject. You might want to look around for any clubs in the area. They are a great way to learn from those that share your interest. And, if all else fails, there is always Photoshop!
posted by bkeene12 at 7:54 PM on August 22, 2008

learn how to turn your flash off if your camera is in 'auto' mode. invaluable for alot of shots in open spaces or outside at night. keep a steady hand when you do this though.
posted by Frasermoo at 8:06 PM on August 22, 2008

Learn to read your histogram.

Levels and curves might be two of your most important Photoshop tools.

Don't be afraid to knock out a bunch of shots in a row without looking at the image, but looking at the image (and histogram) can sometimes be really useful.

For sunsets and sunrises, set the white balance to daylight (not auto).
posted by starman at 8:45 PM on August 22, 2008 [6 favorites]

The poor man's graduated neutral density filter:

There are lots of times when photographing landscapes where the sky will be significantly brighter than the land. The difference is so great that it's impossible to capture detail in the sky and land at the same time. If you expose for the land, the sky will turn out white, but if you expose for the sky, the land will turn out black.

I often have just my little digital point and shoot, so what I do is take several photos of the scene, letting the camera select the exposure automatically. The key is to take photos of the sky with the horizon just at the bottom of each frame and to take photos of the land with the sky just at the top of each frame. Make sure the tops, bottoms, and sides of the photos overlap. When you get home, the stitching software (I use autostitch) will then blend the sky and land photos together, giving them all just the right exposure. It's an effect that you can't get with a single shot.

Here are some panoramas I made with this technique: Barnaby Peak, Eagle Peak. I think each was made from six photos, three each of the land and sky.
posted by driveler at 8:51 PM on August 22, 2008 [10 favorites]

Move around. Don't just stand there. Move. The camera is not you. Put the camera in unique and varied positions and angles.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:53 PM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Buy a copy of Understanding Exposure and learn from that dude. That dude is awesome. Made me not suck.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 9:04 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Get close, ... closer, nope, closer.
posted by caddis at 9:14 PM on August 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Tip 1

When composing a shot, have your eye wander around the whole frame. Don't just look at your subject, run your eye around the perimeter of the frame and see what's there. Is there something in the frame that you want to exclude? Is there something out of the frame you want to exclude? Get lower. Get higher. Take a step back and zoom in to reduce the number of background elements. Take a step closer and use a wider angle to increase background elements.

It happens to every photographer: you look through the viewfinder, take a photo, and then something just doesn't look right when you see the image as a print or on the screen. Some of this has to do with how briefly we look through the viewfinder and then how much time we spend looking at the print. When shooting a landscape or something still, take time to look around the frame, 10 seconds if you need it. As time goes on, you'll come to see the whole frame, and your friends won't have lamps growing out of their heads.

Think of yourself as a painter. All the elements in the frame are ones you put there. Framing, composition, the relationship between photographer and subject - all of these are intentional. You make them.

Tip 2: Don't be afraid of the numbers. Shutter speed, apeture, and sensitivity (iso or asa depending on who you're taling to). It's a simple relationship as long as you spend some time learning it. It really is useful.

Tip 3: Photographers tend to be an insecure lot. They're intimidated by one another's pictures, or equipment. You'll learn more if you focus on what you're doing, and the purpose of your pictures.
posted by thenormshow at 9:14 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Learn and understand color temperature. Once you understand the theory and practice with it, you can start to get stuff like this, where I deliberately set the color temperature to a setting more suitable for tungsten film produce the deep blue color in the sky.

The best times to get good photographs are early in the morning and at twilight. There are two "Golden Hours" during the day, when the natural sunlight is warm and inviting, and the sky is not too bright. Learn to watch for them.

Learn to use long exposure times to show motion that's not apparent in a static shot.

(Sorry for all the self links, but it was simply easier to use source illustrations with which I'm familiar.)
posted by pjern at 9:23 PM on August 22, 2008

As everyone has said, the key to learning is taking lots of pictures, figuring out why 99% didn't look good, and why 1% did. Lather, rinse, repeat until 2% look good. I've been shooting for about 15 years, and I think maybe 15% look good, if I'm lucky. The key is, when I'm really going after pictures, I shoot 1000-1500 or more shots in a week (which would not be a lot for really serious shooters). But my success rate means I might have 150 that I think are pretty good. And I'm happy.

The other thing I would advise is that I think it's better to skimp on the camera body and get a better lens. Almost never is the kit lens any good (unless you're buying the 5D and 24-105 F4L kit, or its equivalents, and that's about 3 grand). If you're going Canon, get an older body, maybe used, like a 350D/XT or something, and get an L series lens. At the very least, look into getting a 50mm 1.4, which is not an L lens, but takes really nice pictures. You can get them off of craigslist for maybe 250 or less.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:36 PM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of budgeting shots. Just because you have a 2gb card doesn't mean you have to fill it up every time you shoot. Sure, there's the "I have a new camera and plan to take as many pictures as possible" sensation that is inevitable, but sometimes it is helpful to think that you only have 10 or so shots for the entire day/situation/whatever. How are you going to choose to take those shots? You're not Ansel Adams lugging a huge amount of gear up Half Dome with only 10 (oops, just dropped one) 9 frames for the entire day, of course. This helps me to develop and trust my instincts instead of trusting my hard drive can handle 800 more pictures of traffic, my cats and sunflowers. Not necessarily in the same frame, of course.
Tripods, spare batteries, and a willingness to ask questions are essential. Please make sure you are sharing these pix too!
posted by TomSophieIvy at 10:30 PM on August 22, 2008

This isn't MINE, but I like it:

1. Compose shot
2. Take two big steps forward
3. Take shot
4. (profit?)
posted by asuprenant at 10:42 PM on August 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Learn to love aperture priority. It's not useful in many situations, but it's incredibly useful in some situations. Seconded about learning how to manipulate color temperatures.
posted by santaliqueur at 10:49 PM on August 22, 2008

Can anyone recommend a good book on composition?
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:07 PM on August 22, 2008

I took photos for a friend's wedding recently, and took about 1300 photos for the day. Of these, about 50 were really good - good enough to make it into the album I made. A few hundred were fairly good, and there were many shots were expressions were off, people were blinking and so on.

So, shoot a lot of photos, and keep the ones you like.

I also think that the best photos of people are natural photos, and for this I use a telephoto lens and stand off some distance. Snap people when they are not expecting it, when they are talking to someone else. Take detailed shots. One of my favourite photos from the day is of the bride's hands, holding flowers, the wedding ring prominent and the background an attractive blur of green from the gardens. I was standing quite some distance away, and when she saw it she asked when I had taken it, as it looked like I must have been very close in.

Also, never use the built in flash. Buy a good flash with a diffuser and learn all about how it works.
posted by tomble at 11:56 PM on August 22, 2008

Maybe this is assumed, but... play with Photoshop.

A person with reasonable Photoshop skills can make a compelling picture out of any source photo. In having the ability to make the picture pretty much however you want it after the fact - color, exposure, framing, depth of focus, subtracting people or objects, whatever - you begin to see.. well, how you want it -- what makes for a good picture. So when you are taking the pictures, it helps you look past the subject to what the picture needs to have.

Learning to use Photoshop of course won't help with the technical aspects of using a camera, but it will help you get a feeling for what you want to achieve with the camera.
posted by Methylviolet at 12:24 AM on August 23, 2008

I don't see anyone sharing my favorite "aha!" moment, but I figured out how to take more high quality shots by doing the following:

1. buy the biggest memory card you possibly can. You can get 4Gb cards at Costco for like thirty bucks. I just got a 16Gb card from amazon for about $150. It's for a week-long trip where I'll be away from my computer and I needed the room, but it'll stay in my camera as my main memory card from here on out.

2. Shoot in multiple shot mode (I forget what the actual term is, burst mode?)

When you push down the trigger and hold it, 2-5 shots should peel off in a few seconds.

That's it. Take way too many shots with burst mode and you'll find especially with portraits of people both candid and posed, having five shots from a few seconds will turn up one keeper where everyone's eyes and smiles are just right, and four awkward ones you can delete either from the camera or once downloaded.

I can literally go into my backyard and take a few shots here and there of my family and garden and come back inside 10 minutes later with 250 photos stored. It still astounds me I can take so many shots in such a short time without even noticing. I dump about 75% after download, but it increases my chances of getting good shots.
posted by mathowie at 12:25 AM on August 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

extrabox writes "Use a tripod."

Also because a tripod is a pain in the ass to carry everywhere you'll leave it at home a lot even if you do end up taking your camera everywhere. So get good at improvising a tripod. Your jacket/shirt/sock/hanky and a solid object (fence post/car hood/mailbox/milk crate/window ledge/boulder) make a dandy tripod analog. Place the folded up cloth between your camera and the object. The cloth acts like a pseudo ball head and protects your camera.
posted by Mitheral at 12:32 AM on August 23, 2008

I'd argue with the take lots of photographs and you'll get lucky idea. That will never ever make you a better photographer. It will make you a completely mediocre photographer forever.

Take a few photographs and look at them and think about how they could be improved. If some are slightly off, remember what it is and then when you shoot the next look think about that. So on and so on.

I shoot film because it eliminates the desire to shoot hundreds of photographs, just a film or two of well thought out photographs.

Oh yeah... lastly - never use the Automatic setting, you may as well get someone to take the photograph for you!
posted by stackhaus23 at 1:02 AM on August 23, 2008

Talk to your subjects when you do portraits. Get them to focus on you, not the camera. They'll relax. Jokes help defuse the tension if they're camera-shy.

Be flexible. Physically. The more you contort, the less your camera is at boring Human Eye Level Range. With that, don't be afraid to get dirty.

Learn how to walk quietly, if you like to shoot things that are easily startled.

And a great one I swiped from someone here on Metafilter... when you're doing street candids and someone catches you at it, shake your head and wave in such a way that makes them think you're focusing on what's behind them, not on them.
posted by cmyk at 1:13 AM on August 23, 2008

Film cameras are a dime a dozen on eBay.

Developers like HC110 and Diafine are extremely cost effective.

Epson scanners like the V500 (or V200 if you're on a tighter budget) will get sharper results from your neg than any enlarger lens could ever achieve.
posted by popcassady at 2:15 AM on August 23, 2008

stackhaus23 writes 'Oh yeah... lastly - never use the Automatic setting, you may as well get someone to take the photograph for you!'

My tip is the exact opposite! Use the automatic settings to begin with, but pay close attention to what your camera is doing for you, and how the camera's guesses affect a given photo in given conditions, or take a shot on automatic, note the settings and then experiment with them. I found that having the camera 'teach' me like this made getting to grips with the camera a really natural process (as opposed to reading manuals/books and trying to apply what I learned, which never really clicked for me).

Also, when you're starting out, pick a lens and stick with it. I only started taking shots I was really happy with after a solid couple of months using just one lens (a 50mm/f.14, which is still on my camera 90% of the time).

Silly final tip: get a rangefinder. SLRs are bloody confusing. (This may only apply to my particular combination of eyes and brain!)
posted by jack_mo at 2:54 AM on August 23, 2008

Personally, the thing that made a difference whas learning how a camera works, and how light works. Also, perspective and geometry. It's theoretical stuff, but it's really interesting (for me anyway), and it gave me a huge push.
posted by neblina_matinal at 3:12 AM on August 23, 2008

Photography is a) light b) framing

Look for subjects all the time, look for pattern, colour, symmetry, repetition, rule of thirds

Get close, eliminate clutter, go for one strong obvious subject

Sometimes you'll have to come back to when the light is better to get the perfect image

But take shots, lots of them...
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:03 AM on August 23, 2008

The person viewing the photo only sees what's within the frame.

Think about that. Mull it over. Let it bother you. Let it be a niggle in your mind. So many photographers don't quite understand this. Think about what it implies. A lot.
posted by Magnakai at 4:35 AM on August 23, 2008

Most photography is all about framing, cropping and lighting. Master those and you'll take some great shots. Over time you'll learn the techniques and tricks that make your photos stand out from the rest.
posted by camworld at 4:40 AM on August 23, 2008

When you are taking a full-length shot of someone who is standing, hold the camera so that the lens is around the same height as their mid-section.

If you take it at "head-height" perspective makes the subject's feet and legs tiny :-)

Remember, youre taking something that is 3 dimensional and changing it to 2 dimensions.
posted by sandra_s at 5:34 AM on August 23, 2008

Get in close. When shooting people, above all else, make sure the eyes are in focus, everything else will come together. When shooting children, get down to their level. Lie down, crawl under things, get up high to get more interesting shots. When starting out, go from automatic, to aperture priority, to fully manual. And patience... there have been times when I have had to wait for a while for the sun to be in the right place, a bird to fly in at the right moment, or for a family member to look up at just the right time. Hope it helps!
posted by perpetualstroll at 5:51 AM on August 23, 2008

Visualize the image you want to see, then learn the tools you need to create it. Don't spray and pray, previsualize, just like Ansel did.

Deconstruct photos other people have taken that you like, understand why you like them: is it the subject matter, is it the perspective, the colors, the distortion, the composition, the message, the motion, the emotions they convey?

When taking pictures of people, you're really taking a picture of your relationship with that person.
posted by jedrek at 6:06 AM on August 23, 2008

Look and Learn : Robert Frank & Lee Friedlander.
An outstanding photograph has little to do with equipment and technique and everything to do with how you use your eyes to view the world.
posted by Dr.Pill at 6:09 AM on August 23, 2008

My standard tip:
1. Get closer, then get closer again
2. Don't jiggle. Most blured photos are camera movement.Brace on something, anything
3. Actually look through the viewfinder for a while. Put your subject in the corner and see how small it is, then reframe.
posted by cccorlew at 8:14 AM on August 23, 2008

Photography is not a hobby. It's an art form.

You aim for hobby, you get hobby. Aim for art.
posted by zadcat at 8:19 AM on August 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Photography is like anything else. You get better by spending a lot of time doing it.

My advice is not to wait to buy a camera. Get some cheapo thing and start using it. Holgas area lot of fun (search for holga on fliclr). You'll have almost no control over exposure or focus, which leaves composition. Otherwise, use your cellphone's camera, or buy some junky digital camera second hand for $10.

Take a lot of pictures, and have fun with it. Some people like to take a small number of pictures and really think about each one. Others like to take a million and keep only a few. Since you're just starting out, I think taking a lot of pictures will help you as you need the experience of what works and what doesn't.

Be playful. Explore what's possible. Especially for portraits, get way too close. Fill the frame with your subject and then keep getting closer until that picture of a face becomes a picture of part of the face (an eye, the mouth, whatever). Take pictures from above, below, other sides, etc. If you're working with people, having fun is even more important. Pretend you're Austin Powers doing a photo shoot ("you're beautiful baby, yeah!"), get people laughing, and keep shooting away.

Follow your bliss. Take pictures of whatever fascinates, thrills, or excites you. Your love of the subject will come through, with practice.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 9:01 AM on August 23, 2008

Here's one I use all the time:

Your camera's autoexposure works by averaging what it sees to about an 18% medium-gray tonal value. That works for most situations, but tends to make dark situations overexposed and bright situations underexposed.

You can carry a gray card (which you have to buy and remember to carry), or you can use the palm of your hand. Unless you are unusually pale, most peoples' palms are close enough to 18% gray to work quite well. Metering off the palm of your hand will usually give you a more accurate exposure setting in unusual lighting situations.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:13 AM on August 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

This isn't related to cameras or photos at all, but an important thing for me to learn is when to put the camera down.

I recently took a trip to Haiti; I spent the first three days blowing through memory cards, taking hundreds of pictures of children playing and laughing, the landscapes, conversations... my camera was constantly in my hands, and I was getting some great shots. However, on the fourth day I woke up and realized I had hardly seen anything with my own eyes, rather than through the camera viewfinder. I left my camera in my backpack all day, and it was wonderful. Yes, I had many "maaan, that would have been an amazing shot" moments, but it was so important to immerse myself in the situation without the camera stuck in between, so I could truly appreciate what I was so lovingly photographing.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 1:52 PM on August 23, 2008 [4 favorites]

Photography is not a hobby. It's an art form.

Photography is both a hobby and an art. Sometimes I shoot for hobby, sometimes I shoot for art. Appreciating both levels of the medium has helped me as a photographer immensely.
posted by wemayfreeze at 7:20 PM on August 23, 2008 [4 favorites]

Join Flickr, and become an active member of the community.

Be prepared to spend time playing with the creative modes of your camera (Try to steer clear of the auto modes)

Think creatively - shoot off centre, from different heights (don't just shoot at eye level)

Be careful of off-putting background objects (signs etc)

Oh and get used to the camera. When that money shot comes your way, you want to be able to shoot correctly without struggling to setup.

Good luck!
posted by Fezzer at 12:48 AM on August 24, 2008

Avoid chimping.
posted by girlmightlive at 7:18 AM on August 24, 2008

Forget avoiding chimping. See histogram advice above.
posted by starman at 9:14 AM on August 24, 2008

Obvious things I learned:

- Never ever never use the built-in flash. I thought I photographed terribly for years - it was the flash's fault. While I still use a compact as my main camera, I very very rarely use it.

- Portraits don't have to be person-centred-in-the-frame. Play around a little. I personally really like putting my person in the corner.

Also, think about the things that you like, visually, and find someone who's turning out similar work. I love Martin Parr because his obsessions mirror my own, and studying his work taught me a lot. Eventually you will notice the technical details there - eg. Parr uses a lot of saturated colour (he used to shoot on Agfa).

I still haven't mastered Photoshop, being slightly afraid of the over-'shopped look. And I agree with what people said upthread about camera price - someone I know has a DSLR and all his photos look like a chimp took them.
posted by mippy at 9:57 AM on August 24, 2008

If you are planning to shoot with a dslr, turn off your review screen! Trust me, it will make a world of difference. Took me a while to figure that one out but while you're shooting, you should be shooting and not editing. Learn to know how your camera is working in different conditions, learn to expose and focus correctly without relying on your screen on the camera. Get in the habit of composing through the viewfinder. Cover your screen with gaffers tape if need-be.
posted by ws at 10:11 AM on August 24, 2008

Yeah, what girlmightlive says.
posted by ws at 10:13 AM on August 24, 2008

1) How to be a human tripod: point your front foot in the direction you're shooting, back foot a comfortable distance away and perpendicular to your front foot. You're basically forming a T shape with your feet. Take a deep breath, let it out, and shoot. In addition always look out for something in your immediate environment to lean on or stabilize yourself and your camera. A tripod has three legs, when you're thinking along those lines, you should always be able to find a way to stabilize your shot.

2) When shooting people, don't be afraid to direct the shot. I'm always telling people to turn this way or the other way, stand against this wall, etc. If someone makes a goofy face, I'll usually say" great, now let's do one with smiles". For some reason, if two people are in the shot, they have this insane urge to smush their heads. I'll usually counter this by telling them to stand up straight, or to look at each other, then look at me. It sounds fussy, but once people see that you take good pictures of them, they'll put up with anything.

3)Learn to shoot indoors without a flash. It's annoying, and people will start to resent you quickly.

4) Shoot quick. For a long time I always felt like every time I tried to take a picture, someone walked into the frame, or a bus drove by, or the person looked away. This is because I was seeing the picture, and then trying to take the picture. Cut out that first step. Anticipation is everything. It's actually pretty funny once you start to notice the ways people are always in motion.
posted by billyfleetwood at 1:08 PM on August 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

- Buy the IR remote accessory for your camera. It will be a rip-off in terms of how much they charge for a simple cheap device, but it will be worthwhile in the utility it offers you. It's better than using the timer to reduce blur, because you don't have to wait for the timer. (Plus, you can get shots that you're in without having to dash into frame).

- There are a ton of miniature tripods on the market, but there are some that, while only about 9 inches long and an inch thick when folded, will telescope out to about 4 feet - ie nearly a full sized tripod that is small enough to fit in a pocket or be forgotten at the bottom of a bag. So it's easy to have a tripod with you. But a tripod is mainly only useful for:

- Low light scenes without a flash are an easy way to get interesting photos, and in the process gives you a good feel for your cameras relationship with light, because the longer exposure alters the emphasis of the various light sources from what you're used to seeing, and makes you look at things differently.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:48 PM on August 24, 2008

Here's a trick. It's not solid advice like the rest of this list, but it is a fun trick.
For a cool looking portrait, put your subject in a completely dark room and set your camera to long exposure - 30 or 60 seconds (night sky setting on most consumer digital cameras). Shine a flashlight on your subject while the shot is exposing. By moving the flashlight rapidly you can carve out the lighting and create some fun shots.
posted by abirae at 6:08 PM on August 24, 2008

shoot close to home.
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:16 AM on August 25, 2008

girlmightlive wrote: Avoid chimping.

Absolutely. Sods law really comes into play with digital cameras - it is pretty much guaranteed that you'll miss a great shot every time you start poring over the stuff you've recently taken. One of the best 'features' of my camera (an Epson RD-1, which I totally recommend) is that you can flip over the screen on the back, removing the temptation to peek, and making it look and feel much more like a film camera.
posted by jack_mo at 3:33 AM on August 25, 2008

Also, a camera is just a tool. Great writers aren't great writers because of the typewriters they use. Don't fall in love with your gear. I think it's entirely possible to know more about cameras than photography, and that's a fine recipe for perfect, soulless pictures. It's like knowing more about your iPod than the music you put on it.
posted by girlmightlive at 7:12 AM on August 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

Carry your camera EVERYWHERE.

Corollary: a tiny point-and-shoot which fits easily in your pocket is better than a DSLR which you don't carry with you half the time because it's too bulky.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:31 PM on August 25, 2008

"If you pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough" - Robert Capa
posted by normy at 8:58 AM on August 26, 2008


Girlmightlive makes the most excellent point about photography. All these little tricks, hacks, and techniques are fabulous but they're only going to give you so much edge. Those photography 101 books which you yawn at contain the closest thing to hard and fast rules that you should follow, but even those should be thrown out the window if you're feeling something different.

Honestly, I'd suggest borrowing a camera and start taking pictures now. Ditch technique, knowledge, and expectation; just take an assload of pictures, worry about structure after you've had some fun.
posted by argh!spiders! at 3:07 PM on August 26, 2008

In the summer, convince your friends and family to have parties outside that start at the end of the afternoon. Shoot while the light is up (pausing for the meal and greetings), party when it's gone down.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:27 PM on August 28, 2008

It's sort of been said earlier, but it bears repeating. Never, ever use a flash unless you know what it's doing. Get some gaff tape, cover over the thing or tape down the pop-up flash. You will immediately see a marked improvement in your photography, though be aware that you'll have a higher number of blurry photos (which may or may not be a bad thing). When you're in situations where you just have to have a flash, you probably still don't; learn to look for light.

As an example, I had an assignment to take a picture of an amateur astronomer while he was looking at stars and doing his thing. The thing about amateur astronomers, though, is that they require about a half hour of darkness so their eyes can adjust to the night so they can see the stars they want to see. The guy's computer-controlled telescope had a light-up keypad that glowed with an extremely dim darkroom-light sort of red. With a long enough exposure, the red was about the same brightness as the night sky, giving me a nice deep red on the fellow and telescope against a beautiful dark blue starry sky. I couldn't even see the red light until my eyes adjusted to the darkness after 15 minutes or so; it was so dim. That light, however, made the picture.

There's always light. You've just got to find it.

And one more tip is that every rule in photography is made to be broken. Figure out what the rules are doing and figure out what limitations they're imposing on the style and meaning of your photos and break rules to reach a little further. The rule of thirds is great and all, but the composition can get a little stagnant if every one of your pictures is aligned on the thirds. Never shoot into the sun until you want some beautiful silhouettes and flares and sun bursts. Never use your on-camera direct flash until you want that gritty unpracticed look that's made Terry Richardson millions of dollars. Etc.
posted by msbrauer at 10:17 PM on August 30, 2008

Also, this list.
posted by msbrauer at 10:18 PM on August 30, 2008

Take photos in the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. I should follow my own damn rules.
posted by cnc at 11:58 PM on September 11, 2008

Quick tip regarding working with humans (AND if you're comfortable with it!):

Every so often, offer to switch places with your subject. Maybe you're trying to get a smile from the guy selling fruit at the corner, but he's not budging. Let him take your picture - it really does help to loosen people help. If anything, it lets them get a quick hit of what you feel when you get a great shot.

Knowing your camera helps a lot too - realistically speaking here, any time there's action you want to be in the right place at the right time with the right settings a click / button push / half a second away from being READY. If you're fumbling with the click / button push / menu option you may well miss the spontaneous shot you were hoping for. Good luck :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 9:20 AM on September 15, 2008

Burst mode! some of my best shots were only captured b/c I always use burst mode!
posted by Evroccck at 1:56 PM on September 22, 2008

Most of these comments seem to focus on equipment specific or genre specific techniques. How appropriate they are will depend on what sort of equipment you end up using, but more importantly, on what sort of photographs you intend to produce. Have you thought about that? Several comments have mentioned photographers whose work is well work investigating if you aren't already familiar. I would add Cartier-Bresson and Gursky.

If you don't have a camera yet (I just realized how old this is, hopefully you do by now; nevertheless:), the best advice I can give is:
Spend your time looking at photos. Go to museums or galleries, if possible. If not, go to book stores or libraries. Find the largest sized photo books and start there. Famous or not, doesn't really matter. Look at the photos and consider how you feel about them. What are you drawn to? What makes you cringe? After a while, you should become more aware of the unique way in which you see. Then you can start working on equipment and techniques.
posted by headless at 12:56 AM on March 3, 2009

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