Better Photos — No Cost

By Larry Cohan

Most of us would like to believe that simply buying a new, expensive DSLR camera will instantly make our photos noticeably better.  Instead, it often makes the outcome worse due to the confusion caused by the increased complexity of the new camera.  To paraphrase a National Rifle Association slogan, “Cameras don’t shoot photographs, people do.

The real keys to better photography lie in two areas:

What you do immediately before squeezing the shutter button (composition).

What you do immediately after squeezing the button (post-processing). 

Neither of these has to involve any further cost.

        Part 1: Composition

The Manual.    Who likes to read a manual?  Very few of us, including the pros. Let me suggest a trick I use.  Take the manual along with you when you go to doctor’s waiting rooms or to airports. Use that waiting time to learn your camera.

One purpose, on purpose. Think for just a few seconds about the purpose of the photo you’re about to take. Compose in your mind before you compose in the viewfinder.

Is the purpose to prove to your friends that you really made it to Bangkok?  You could take the typical “proof we were there” shot in front of the airport with its name in a prominent position.  But haven’t other people’s “proof” shots turned you off? Don’t bore your friends with photos that would bore you if they weren’t your own.  Instead, think about what first caught your eye after you landed, such as the exotic Southeast Asian garden.  Perhaps this would make a more compelling picture.

On the other hand, if the purpose of the photo to show how lovely Jane looked in her muu-muu at the luau on Oahu, then take the best possible close-up photo of Jane.  You don’t need the fire-baton twirler beside her.  Take a separate snapshot of the dancer if you want to remember her lovely grass skirt.

No one photo has to tell the entire story.  Like a sentence, every photograph needs a subject: a person, a group, place or thing.  Without a subject, a photograph, like a sentence, is incomplete.  For example, a shot of your lovely lawn is not a good photo.  However, your cute puppy rolling in that grass could be an excellent picture.

If you’re shooting the sunrise over Bar Harbor, Maine, don’t try to include your half-asleep spouse.  Let the boats in the fog be the subject of this shot.  Then take a separate shot later of your spouse enjoying a steaming cup of coffee on a park bench in the harbor.  Your group of photos, like many sentences together, should tell your story.

Fill the Frame.  In most photos, the background only provides a context for the subject and it can be distracting from your subject.  As a rule, you should try to (almost) fill the frame with the subject. You can do that either by moving closer to the subject, or using the telephoto zoom feature insofar as possible.

Avoid Distractions.  Trees and telephone poles “growing” from people’s heads are common distractions.  Also, strong bright areas attract the viewers’ eyes away from the subject.  Just moving your camera a few feet will make a huge difference in eliminating such eye-catchers.

Avoid Symmetry.  Symmetry is boring.  Having your composition off balance gives it a creative “tension” that makes the picture look much more interesting.  Here are some examples of good composition:

 Do not center the subject.  Instead, use the photographer’s “rule of thirds.”  This is done by visualizing a tic-tac-toe game (#) on your LCD display and putting the subject on one of the 4 intersections – with the subject facing inward whenever possible.

 In landscapes, do not vertically center the horizon.  Have one-third sky and two-thirds ground, or vice versa.

Shoot, shoot, shoot.  Talk is cheap and so are pictures in the digital world. Take at least four shots of each scene.  You’ll be glad you did.

Change something with each shot. For instance:  Zoom in and shoot horizontally, then switch to vertical and shoot, then zoom out and shoot vertically, then shoot horizontally while zoomed out.  Ask people to change their expressions a little in each shot, e.g., “Now just give me a slight grin.”  Multiple shots maximize your probability of getting all eyes wide open and the auto-focus working correctly.  You should also slightly change your camera position for most duplicate shots.

For example, let’s go back to Jane in the muu-muu for a typical scenario of multiple shots.  Find a location with a non distracting background, e.g., the beach in front of your hotel an hour before sunset.  Shoot a three-fourths-length shot of Jane standing at a 45º angle to the camera, facing the camera, holding an orchid in her hands.  Then shoot a photo of her seated in the sand with a lei around her neck, looking up at the camera positioned a foot above her eyes.  Bring the camera down and shoot another shot at her eye level.

If you’re shooting your grandson Johnnie’s soccer game, wait until Johnnie is running towards you and there are other players in the frame for context.  Johnnie’s image should be at least one half of the height of the frame.  Shoot as many shots as possible in order to try to get a few good ones.  If your camera has a “continuous” mode (multiple frames per second), use it for these action scenes.

“Candid Camera” Is Only for the Pros.  When shooting a party, don’t try to be a photojournalist or Allen Funt shooting surreptitiously.  Ask people to pose for a second, then ask them for a few variations as well.  The pros always ask, even if by using non-verbal eye contact or hand gestures.

“Squeeze together for me for a second, please.”  “Now let’s do one without sunglasses – thanks.”  “One more for good measure, please.”  And like restaurant waiters, you’ll need to interrupt a few conversations in order to ask guests to pose for you.  But believe me, they would rather be interrupted than to have their photo taken with their eyes half-open and a martini glass in their mouth.

Indoor Shots.  Most “point and shoot” cameras only have the small built-in flash that is quite close to the lens.  These flash shots frequently are washed out or ghostly, showing harsh shadows and red-eyes.  If your camera does not have a “hot shoe” to accept an external tilting flash that can be bounced off the ceiling, then I suggest that you go into your settings (the icon is often a ) and turning off the flash while shooting indoors.

Modern digital cameras can often do quite well with just the natural indoor lighting.  Use the table of contents of your manual to quickly find information on controlling your flash.

The Photographer’s Magic Hours.  The two hours after sunrise and the two hours before sunset are the best for outdoor photographs.  The colors are warmer, the shadows are longer, and the angle of the light on faces is better because it eliminates “raccoon eyes.” If you must take people photos in the middle of the day, set the camera to use forced flash (if you are less than eight feet away) to fill in the harsh shadows.  The camera will use only a minimal amount of the flash and preserve the outdoors look of the photo.

Say again?  Yes, I recommend turning off the flash indoors and turning the flash on, outdoors. I realize that’s counterintuitive.

Use the Scenes Settings.  See if you camera has preset “scene” settings for portraits, landscapes, action, beach, snow, etc.  They’re worth the 10 seconds of extra work because they fine-tune the camera settings for that type of photo.

Delete, Delete, Delete.  Finally, let’s talk about the photographer’s most valuable tool:  the delete key.  Earlier I exhorted you to shoot, shoot, shoot.  Now I’m asking you to delete all but the best of your shots after you’ve uploaded them to your computer.  Wait until then because the small LCD screen on the back of your camera is not a good viewer for making such decisions.

Never show anyone your below-average shots.  Don’t keep your out-of-focus shots, your finger-in-the-lens shots, your repetitious shots and your closed-eyes shots.  We all take them, but good photographers don’t show them.  Leave them on the cutting room floor.  Nobody, including you, wants to see them.

In addition, I strongly recommend never showing any friend, or even an enemy, more than 30 photos at a time.  Remember how you felt when Aunt Rose handed you 128 prints while she hovered over you?  “Leave ’em wanting,” as the old adage goes. 

Larry Cohan is a part-time instructor at the Chesapeake Sailing School ( in Annapolis.  He is a retired senior government executive and military think tank executive.  He enjoys being reached at: [email protected]


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