Tips for Casual Digital Photography
August 2005 (perspective of a master's student)
I believe that digital photography should be casual and fun, so I have compiled some practical tips for people who want to obtain better candid shots without having to tweak manual settings on the camera or to learn advanced photography concepts.
1. Timing is Everything
The key to taking great-looking candid photos, especially of people and animals, lies in being able to click the shutter button at the right moment and have the camera snap the picture right away. To get your camera to respond instantly to your click, point it at your subject, hold down the button half-way so that it can auto-focus the lens, then wait for the right moment and press the button down all the way. With the auto-focus operation completed (this can take a good fraction of a second), your camera should respond almost instantaneously to the full push of the shutter release button. In the example photo, I crouched down to the dog's eye level, pressed shutter down halfway, and waited until he looked at me to snap the shutter and capture the picture that I wanted. If I had simply pressed the button when I wanted to take my shot without first holding it down half-way, I would have probably missed this shot because the dog would have looked away before the auto-focus completed
2. Avoid Using Flash
Look at most people's indoor snapshots of their friends, and most of them look unflattering due to the glaring flat white light of the flash in their faces. Whenever possible, turn off the flash on your camera. It will save you an enormous amount of battery power, but more importantly, allow you to take much better-looking indoor pictures. In the example photo, check out how the yellowish indoor lighting gives my subject a soft, friendly feel in contrast to the harsh bleached white look of a picture taken with flash.
The disadvantage of not using flash is that you will need to use slower shutter speeds. If you find that the shutter speed falls below 1/60 of a second, you may need to hold the camera with both hands or prop your body against a solid object in order to steady the lens so that the picture does not come out blurry. You may also need to adjust the simulated film speed on your digital camera higher to 400 or 800. A higher film speed means that you will capture grainier photographs, but I would rather have grainy photographs than motion-blurred ones caused by slow shutter speeds.
3. Don't Take Portraits in Direct Sunlight
Look through your old vacation photos and you'll probably see people facing directly into the sun, squinting their eyes and wrinkling their faces as they struggle to fight off the urge to sneeze. One of the most common myths of outdoor photography is that people must face directly into the sun or else their faces will be too dark to recognize. This makes people look horrible since the sun is the harshest light that can possibly shine on someone's face. It's like a permanent flash, and we all know how horrible flashes can make people look.
In order to take good outdoor portraits, try to position your subjects in the shade, take photos on an overcast day, or if you have no choice but to be in the sun, actually face your subjects with their backs toward the sun. They will appear to be too dark, but you can compensate for the extreme backlighting by making your camera set the exposure to match the brightness of your subject, not the bright background. You can do this by either moving up close so that you subject fills up your camera's field of view and pressing the shutter button down half-way to set the exposure (even better, use the 'set & lock exposure button' if your camera has one), or point the camera down to the ground and press half-way to set the exposure (the ground may be approximately as bright as your subject). Once your exposure is set, you can step back, re-compose, and take your shot.
4. For Better Portraits, Take a Step Back and Zoom In
Most people think that there is no difference between stepping in close to your subject and taking a zoomed-out wide angle shot and stepping out farther away and taking a zoomed-in telephoto shot. After all, you are capturing the exact same subject with the exact same composition, right? Wrong. There is something called the telephoto compression effect that makes features look slightly more flattened when you step back and zoom in to take a photo. That is why portrait photographers usually use a slightly longer than normal lens and step back farther away from their subjects. The difference is subtle, but people usually look better when you step farther away from them and take a zoomed-in photo.
Whenever possible, take a step back and zoom in when taking pictures of people. A side benefit of this technique is that your subjects will not feel as threatened or uncomfortable if they do not have a lens shoved right in their face. In the example photo, I was probably 15 feet or more away from my subjects (who were complete strangers), so they didn't seem to mind me photographing them. Yet another benefit of stepping back is that if you must use a flash (tsk tsk!), the light will not be as harsh since your camera will be farther away from the subject. The main drawback of zooming in, though, is that it becomes harder to stabilize your lens when you must use slow shutter speeds, but that should not be an issue for outdoor photos since there is usually plenty of light.
5. Get Low
Whenever possible, crouch down and try to take pictures from a lower vantage point. You'll be amazed at how your pictures will usually turn out to be more interesting than those taken at eye-level. This is because we are all used to seeing the world at eye-level, so those pictures are more likely to look mundane. This tip works especially well if you are taking pictures of children or small animals. You want to get low enough so that your camera looks them straight in the eyes. I crouched down pretty low to snap the picture of the little Chinese girl in the example photo. Notice how she fills up the whole frame and looks larger than she actually is. If I had simply taken a picture of her from my eye level, it would have resulted in a much more boring photo because that would have been how most people would view her.
6. Cut Out Boring Backgrounds
Sometimes a photo is more interesting if you try to crowd your subject into the entire frame without worrying about getting the background in the shot. Unless the background contributes to the overall content or feel of the photograph, try to include as little of it as possible; get in close and just focus on your subject. In the example photo of the reindeer, the background was just grass and sky (boring!), so I stuffed the camera through the fence right into his face and snapped the shot. I also took other photos of the reindeer which included more of the background, but those looked boring compared to this one.
7. Get Off-Center
Photos taken with the subject right smack dab in the center can either be boring or aesthetically displeasing if your subject sticks out like a sore thumb. If you want to capture both your subject and the background, then position your subject slightly off-center and fill up the rest of the frame with something interesting from the background. In the example photo, I wanted to capture both the old lady and the lotus fields in the background so I put her in the far left side of the shot. If I had positioned her in the center of the shot, then she would have broken up the continuity of the background and made for a mundane touristy photo.
8. Frame Your Subject
Framing is a technique which involves using the elements in the scene to provide a frame (duh!) that surrounds your subject. Of course, it's not possible to find a frame suitable for every single shot, but try to make an effort to notice elements in the background that can surround your subject. A frame can serve to accentuate your subject as well as to provide a context for the story that a photograph is trying to tell. In the example photo, I used the trees and people on benches to frame the columns of the main MIT building's facade. If I had just taken a photo of the columns, that would be a boring architectural shot, but framing the columns with the trees and people tells the viewer that this is where people can study outdoors.
9. Find a Flow
Photographs look more interesting when the viewer's eye can follow some sort of line or flow from one part of the photo to another. Try to look for flows from the foreground to the background, or from one side to another. This is sort of an abstract concept, but you can find flows in many forms - clothing flapping in the wind, people's gesturing limbs, running animals - if you really take the time to be aware of your surroundings. In the example photo, the painter's outstretched arm starts from his brush in the lower-right corner and flows up and left towards his body.
10. Always Look for Interesting Shots
Because digital photography should be fun, don't worry so much about following all of the usual textbook composition rules all the time. The most valuable piece of advice I can provide is to always be on the look-out for interesting shots that other people won't think about taking. Constantly scan your scene for angles and subjects that look unusual, and go ahead and snap them if you feel like it. After all, you can simply delete the shots that you don't like. For the example photo, I was amused upon seeing some tourist bending over to pick up something out of the field of lotuses in the water, so I ran up behind him, lifted my camera over my head, snapped a quick shot, and ran away before he knew that I had taken a picture of him. It's these rare moments of spontaneity that makes photography so fun for me.