10 easy ways to improve your photography skills

20th Jan 2009 | 12:46

10 easy ways to improve your photography skills

How to get results you'll want to show off

While the explosion in digital photography has meant that people now take hundreds of pictures per year, much of this is of the quick snap variety.

While there's some truth in the adage that a workman is only as good as his tools, technique plays a major role in turning a mediocre picture into a brilliant one that you'll want to have in a frame for all to see.

All you need to do to instantly improve your photography is follow these ten simple steps.

1.Shoot at the right time of day

Something that can really make or break a photograph is the lighting. While lighting can be used for dramatic effect, too much or too little can ruin an otherwise perfect image.

Photographers will often talk about the golden hour, which occurs one hour after dawn and an hour before dusk, where the light takes on an almost magical quality and can help you take some stunning images. The reason for this is the sun is very low in the sky, giving a very diffuse, even light, which lights objects from the side, instead of overhead. Not only will shadows be softer, hues will be much brighter, particularly in the evening, lending vibrancy to your images. Landscapes taken at this time in the evening will look far more dramatic than the same shot taken earlier in the day.

Avoid taking images around midday, because the light will be too harsh and objects will appear very fl at, due to the sun being directly overhead, and unflattering shadows will appear under people's eyes, noses and chins.

2. Understand composition

Composition is one of the most important aspects of photography, yet the one area most people ignore completely. Even though most cameras now have a large screen on the rear, which enables you to preview the picture, most people don't pay much attention to what's going on in the frame.

When photographing people, the natural inclination is to place their faces in the centre of the screen, as this is where the focusing brackets are placed, but this leads to an unbalanced shot, and more likely than not cuts off the subject's feet. A better technique is to press the shutter halfway to obtain and lock the focus, then recompose, to get the entire body in – you'll be amazed at the difference.

Pay attention to what's behind your subject, too, because a tree or lamp post sprouting out of someone's head or shoulder ruins an otherwise great shot.

Try to create more interest in the shot; with landscapes, don't have your subject in the centre of the picture looking at the camera, but off to one side and looking at the scene. Try to use objects, such as foliage, or an arch, to create a natural frame to your picture.

Use lines to lead the eye from the bottom corner of the frame to the centre edge. Finally, make use of the rule of thirds, by dividing the frame with two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines.

Objects placed on these intersections will add more visual impact. By using the display button on some cameras, you can overlay this grid on the screen, to make composition even easier.

3. Get the right angle

Too many photos are taken from our eye-level because it's the most natural way for us to take them; but bringing the camera down to the eye-level of the subject will create a much more natural-looking image.

A relatively simple image can also be made to look more dramatic by changing the camera angle, by tilting it to one side, or by changing your own perspective. Try taking a picture standing up, then crouch down or lie down, and see what happens.

Conversely, sometimes you need to get up high – find a vantage point or an unusual angle which will really change your subject matter. Also, change your camera's orientation; don't just shoot everything with the camera horizontal. If shooting portraits, rotate the camera so it's vertical, and fill the frame.

4. Using the flash

Most people leave their camera's flash on automatic, which means it only gets used at night and indoors. However, by changing the settings you can take more creative pictures. One of the biggest problems with taking pictures outside is that parts of the face can cast shadows.

To even this up you can use a technique called fill-in flash, by setting the flash to go off even though the camera thinks there is plenty of light. The flash will eliminate the shadows and give a better tonal range to your subject.

At night, you can take some great shots of lit buildings, or sunsets, by turning the flash off, but you will need to make sure the camera doesn't move, as the exposure time will often be longer.

5. Get up close and personal

Most cameras have a macro mode, which enables you to take close-up pictures. While not as flexible as a dedicated macro lens on an SLR camera, you should be able to get within a few inches of your subject, enabling you to take full-frame pictures of flowers, large insects or other small-scale objects.

Macro mode is indicated by a flower icon, and you'll have to experiment to see how close you can get before the camera is unable to focus. You need plenty of light for macro shots – the flash isn't going to be any good, as the object will be too close to the lens, so choose a really sunny day and try using white card to reflect light on to your subject.

When taking a normal shot try and fill the frame, and get everyone to huddle together. This way, you'll end up with a more interesting shot than a line of people standing in the middle-distance.

6. Add colour and tone

If you find your pictures often end up looking dull, with the colours looking washed out, there are a couple of things you can do.

Have a look at your camera settings to see if you can control the contrast or saturation of your images. A picture with low contrast will have lots of mid-tones, and look rather flat, while a picture with high-contrast will have crisp black and whites and more depth. Many cameras will have scene modes, which help to add saturation and contrast.

Also, try playing with the white balance, which will change the tonality of an image. Setting the white balance to cloudy will add warmth to a picture, for example.

If you use programs such as Adobe Photoshop Elements or Corel's Paint Shop Pro, you can use the Levels tool to add contrast to your pictures. All you need to do is look at the tone graph, and drag the end points in, so they just touch the ends of the graph, but experimentation is the key. Photo editing packages enable you to tweak the saturation, but don't go overboard or your images will look artificial.

Photographers will use a polarising filter to give deep blue skies and rich colours to landscapes. Most compact cameras can't do this, but if you own a pair of polarising sunglasses, place one lens in front of the camera lens to achieve a similar result.

7. Get the right accessories

The memory cards supplied with cameras are usually so small as to be practically useless, so we recommend you buy at least two of the highest-capacity cards you can afford and make sure you never delete the images until you have backed them up on to your laptop first.

For taking long exposures, such as night shots, as well as getting yourself in the picture using the self-timer, you need a tripod. You really don't need a professional one; something like the Joby Gorillapod will enable you to rest the camera on any surface and is great for taking on holiday.

If you treat your camera well, it will last you a long time, so a well-made camera pouch is also a necessity

8. Use manual settings and mode settings

While the automatic settings are great for most images you'll take, by using manual settings you'll get even better results. Depending on your camera, you may be able to put the camera into aperture priority or shutter priority mode, or maybe even full manual mode.

Shutter speed and aperture are linked, so a fast shutter will require a large aperture and vice versa. A large aperture will have a shallow depth of field, so is perfect for portraits, where it will throw the background out of focus. For shooting sports, you need a fast shutter speed to freeze the action.

The exception to this is where you want to pan with your subject, such as a racing car, and blur the background to convey a sense of movement. Slow shutter speeds can be used to great effect with water tumbling over rocks or surf breaking on a beach, and will give some very unusual effects.

If you want to take shots of objects lit up at night, you will need to use a long exposure time. Most cameras will not do this automatically, so you'll need to be able to set the shutter speed manually.

9. Image editing

Your camera may have come with some image editing software, but if not, Adobe Photoshop Elements or Corel Paint Shop Pro are good choices, costing around £60 (inc. VAT).

You only really need to learn a few basic tools, such as the Crop and Levels tools to adjust the light balance in your picture. Both packages have some good one-click photo fix tools, but if you take the time to learn a few basic techniques, you'll get better results.

If your camera saves JPEG images, do not edit these and save them as new JPEGs, as you'll lose all the detail, especially if you open and save them again. Instead, consider converting them to TIFF or RAW files where quality is not lost.

10. Maximise quality from the start

If you want the best images, you need to ensure you are taking them at the highest quality.

Set your camera to take pictures at the highest possible resolution, usually labelled as L or Large, and if there are extra quality settings, such as Fine or Superfine, then use these, too.

Compact digital cameras tend to use the JPEG picture format, but if your camera has the option to use RAW or TIFF, then use it, as these formats, unlike JPEG, are lossless, so you won't lose any picture information.

Avoid editing pictures on the camera, other than automatic red-eye removal, as the built-in tools are rarely as good as a proper image editing package.

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First published in What Laptop, Issue 120

Now read 10 top digital photo frames for all budgets

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