How To Take Better Pictures

Shooting

Too Cool for this?

Thinking about moving up to an SLR? Click here for my great advice on that. And here's lots of more random, unorganized advice from emails to my friend Nic: Notes to Nic.

It's kind of sad: everyone wants to take pictures. Go to a concert: everybody's holding up a camera--or a cellphone--trying to get a shot of the band. With the flash on. . .from fifty feet away. You'll see them shooting through windows like that, too, oblivious to the reflection that will assuredly ruin that gorgeous view. Or outside: carefully positioning their friends and family and then taking a shot that's only a silhouette. Or marred by a lamp post growing out of Mom's head.

Notice I didn't say anything about them getting the focus wrong. Or the exposure. Well, OK, the silhouette thing is an exposure issue but the point is, modern cameras, even cheap little point-and-shoots, do a great job of getting the exposure right and picking the right thing to focus on. Most bad shots are sharp and clear. It ain't the camera, it the camera operator. That's not you, surely, it's the idiot you live with. Right? So here are some subtle hints to throw his way so he doesn't make you look so awful.

1. Take it off Full Auto

Yeah, I know. It does a great job all the time. Except when it doesn't. You can get lucky, but your success rate will go up if you try a few things. Full Auto, usually indicated by a little green square since they figure people stupid enough to use it are illiterate, makes a lot of decisions for you. It panics easily. For example, it's got this idea that you can't hold a camera steady, so if things get a little dark, it decides to pop up that nasty little flash. Even though you're shooting sunset over the Grand Canyon. See, it doesn't know that; it only knows it's getting dark. So, rotate the little dial over to P. P, for Program Mode (sorry, not for "Professional") is a whole lot better. It will still make the tricky decisions like exposure, but it'll trust you to set the ISO, leave the flash off, and even shoot RAW. Whatever that is. Now, it is possible your camera will let you turn off the flash in full-auto mode. Give it a try--but probably the damn thing will then raise the ISO to some impossibly high number and give a weird digital-noise shot. Urrgh. In Program mode, you can set the ISO and it'll stay there. Mucho better.

2. Turn the flash off

Yeah, I know I just lectured you about that in the previous paragraph. But you don't know that, because you got intimidated and skipped over it. Go read it now.

Flashes are kind of scary unless you've paid over $500 for them, in which case you may skip this paragraph. But for a point-and-shoot, it's a nasty, ugly, glarey blue light that only makes people look bad. Bright, but bad. If you have to use it, there are several tricks you can try that just might improve the results. Right now, before you need to, pick up your camera and dig through the menu settings. See if it'll let you turn the flash down by half or whatever. That might do it right there. Most flashes put out waaaay to much power, which is why your just made your girlfriend ugly.

3. Turn on the flash

OK, the one time you might try it is for "fill-flash". That's where the sun is behind Mom and the kids, and you want to shoot that way because of the great sunset. If you turn the flash on in the daylight, the camera will figure out you want enough light to fill in the foreground subjects, and it'll pump out a decent amount. Why it's not that smart in the dark I don't know, but give it a try. Might work.

4. Point and Point Again and Shoot

That's really what it should be called. No doubt it was a marketing decision. Anyway: cameras generally focus on the first thing they see. Or they focus on what's behind the little dot in the center. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. One technique is to shoot a bunch of shots of the same thing and see if you get lucky. Hey, it works for me. A better technique is to figure out what your camera is trying to do and then stop it. If you're in some sort of really-smart mode like full-auto, I can't help you. If you hunt around in the menus and find focusing modes, try to get one that emphasizes the center. Center-weighted, spot metering, jargon like that. Now it'll focus on whatever's in the center, like little Madison's face. And that's bad.

"Bad?!!" you say. "But I love little Madison!" Yeah, I know. But you don't love all that blue sky above her head. You want to get as much of your little darling into the frame as you can. So, point and point and shoot. Press the shutter button down halfway (you'll figure it out), watch as the camera focuses. Excellent. Now re-frame the shot. In this case, you're probably going to move the camera down so Maddy's face is in the top third. Much better, huh? If you're really cool, you might swing it off to the side, too, so it doesn't look like a DMV shot. This technique is also handy when little Caleb is standing right next to her, and the camera wants to focus on the far rim of the Grand Canyon.

5. Download the manual.

Look, I'm a man. I don't read user manuals, either. Only a sissy would. But when you're out on a shoot and you're blowing every shot and you can't figure out how to make the camera do what it should because those idiot programmers are idiots, you can read the manual. In your iPhone. Which you always have with you. And the best thing is, nobody will ever know.

6. Zoom in.

I saved this for last because I almost forgot. Just like you--you always forget that you paid big bucks for a camera that would zoom in. Give it shot: zoom in until your entire screen is filled with your honey's face. Then back it off a little. Be sure you use the zoom in your camera and not in your shoes. If you leave the camera wide-angle and stick it in said honey's face, you're going to get some weird fish-eye distortion. This is only good if you're in love with a fish.

Spend money.

Let's face it: the pro's don't shoot with a $199 point-and-shoot. And they don't leave it in full-auto, either. But for now, stick with the camera you have and blow some money on some books. I have to confess, I've only just started loading books into my iPad. But for photography, I'm going to do it more and more. A lot of the books are good references, so I refer to them long after I've first read them. Or I would, if they weren't back in some bookshelf somewhere in my house. So fire up a Kindle account and buy these books.

Understanding Digital Photography, by Bryan Peterson. $16.47 on Amazon as I write this. Some actual theory thrown in. Great explanations, great examples and if you only look at the pictures you'll still end up a better photographer.

The Digital Photography Book, by Scott Kelby. $16.49 on Amazon, but it'll actually cost you more because you'll be right back for volumes 2 and 3. Not much on theory, just quick, concise recipes for getting the shot right. These books were really writen for people with SLRs and lots of money to blow on expensive accessories. But if you're ready to spend the money, he's got the techniques.

Software

You have to learn to use Photoshop. The full version, or the cheap version, but Photoshop. Buy one and get Scott Kelby's book on it. It'll have some catchy title like The Adobe Photoshop CS6 Book For Digital Photographers. Or, The Photoshop Elements 9 Book For Digital Photographers. The key point is, they're books written for photographers, not graphic artists. We only need a fraction of what Photoshop can do, and there's no point wasting time on learning to make birthday cards. Yeah, there are other photo editing programs, but try and find instructions on them. Like, the cheap stuff that came with your computer. Good luck getting somebody to explain it to you. Stick with Photoshop and life will be a lot easier. It's only money.

Lightroom and Nik Software's Ultimate Collection of plugins are programs I use a lot. Lightroom is partly a cataloging program and partly an editor. Great for tweaking RAW images before you upload them to Photoshop--and some people don't even bother that. Scott wrote a book for Lightroom, too, so that's easy.

The absolute easiest way to crank through a bunch of pix and make them look great is Nik Software's Ultimate Collection. Don't buy the individual components; get the whole shebang, including HDR EfexPro and SilverEfex Pro. I know I just told you to buy Kelby's book on how to do all that stuff, but Nik makes it easier. They have some really crummy manuals you can download, but the videos on their website make up for them.

Lynda.com

Hate books? Go to Lynda.com, cough up $35 a month or so for some fabulous tutorials. You download a photo, then work on it while the instructor shows you what to do. Not just Photoshop, either--web design, too. Not that I've watched any of those.