A remote flash was fired, at night, through the window on to the face of the model. Article and photo ©MVM Images

As a professional photographer for over 50 years, I feel somewhat qualified to share some tips that will hopefully help those who are not all that familiar with what makes a good photo.

Many folks feel that if they spend a lot of money for a camera that does nearly everything for them, that is all they need to make a good photo. Today’s cameras are truly technical marvels but they can be easily fooled when you put them in situations such as strong back lighting on the subject. For example, if you have your subject stand in front of a brightly lit window with the sun streaming in behind them the camera meter is going to be fooled by the bright light – it will correctly expose the bright window, but your subject will be too dark. Answer? Move your subject away from the window and use your camera flash to light the subject.

Working for a small newspaper I often see images that are submitted to the paper by folks who are obviously not that informed when it comes to photography. The aforementioned back lighting situation is just one of the many mistakes made by amateurs.

As a young photographer back in the 1960s, I didn’t have the luxury of digital cameras, computers, or Photoshop post processing programs. We manipulated our photos by hand in the darkroom with enlargers and smelly chemicals. But thanks to technology we no longer have to do the darkroom thing.

  • Mergers – When you take a photo, be aware of your surroundings and any items that merge with your subject. Example: Don’t have your subject stand in front of a rack of deer horns or the finished photo will look like they’ve grown their own antlers. Watch the background! Don’t have your subjects look like they’ve got trees or telephone poles sticking out of their head.
  • Trash in the picture – People used to laugh when they would see me checking out the area for pieces of trash on the ground that might get in the photo. Of course nowadays we can remove those items in Photoshop, but why have them there in the first place? A white cup is very distracting in a photo – the eye goes directly to the brightest item in the image.
  • Clothing for portraits – Avoid “busy” clothes. Stay away from plaids or stripes. I always opted for solid colors. My favorite was denim or black. Neutral colors are best, but stay away from whites if possible.
  • Lighting – Depending on what you like to photograph will determine how you select your source and light direction. For example, I like to photograph classic cars. For the vehicles I favor shooting with overhead lighting from noon ’til 3:00 p.m. I like the evenly-lit overhead light for these subjects. This same lighting works well for taking photos of cattle and other animals if your looking for consistent results.
  • Portrait lighting (outdoors) – When taking a portrait outdoors I suggest that you put your subject in solid shade without any bright light coming from behind. Most all cameras have a pop-up flash on board. Use your flash to brighten the subject’s face and the flash will also put a catch-light in subject’s eyes which is very flattering. Also the direct frontal lighting from the flash is very flattering if the subject has wrinkles and so forth. While wrinkles might be a source of character for men, it’s not very flattering for women.
  • Large groups – Again, if the choice of clothing is under your control opt for the solid colors. As most amateur photographers are taking their photo outdoors, these tips are for that source of light. Bright sun which is directly overhead is terrible for photos of people. Try to move them into the shade if possible, an overcast day is even better. Try not to have your rows of people any wider that six per row. You can go wider if you have a wide-angle lens but they tend to show distortion on the edges of the photo (your subjects on the ends may look as if their heads are stretched).
  • Composition – In my opinion, composition and lighting are the two most important elements when it comes to taking a good photo. What is composition? Simply put, composition is how you see your image through the viewfinder. Those studying photography will become aware of the importance of composition. There is something called a “rule of thirds.” This rule basically means that you shouldn’t put your subject in the center of the frame – place them to the right or left side of the image, but not the center. Of course this isn’t a steadfast rule, it’s just something to go by. If the subject is on the right of the photo and they are looking left, you’re giving them a place to look – if they were placed in the center of the photo and looking left, they have no room to look but when you have excess space to the left for their view, it give an illusion of normality. I guess the best example would be if a person is riding a bicycle in the photo, if you center them, they have no place to go but right into the side of the photo. Place them to one side and give them some space to ride to – I hope you understand what I’m trying to convey.
  • Framing composition – Framing is another element of composition and one I use often. What is framing? Simply put, framing means using available elements to frame your subject. For example, put them in a door way or window. Basically, with composition you are trying to create an illusion of depth in the photo. Our eyes see in three dimension but the camera only sees in two dimension. By using composition, you’re trying to make the photo seem the way your eyes see things. You can also use trees for framing subjects such as buildings. If there are overhanging limbs in the area, situate the camera where the limbs are seen in the top of the viewfinder using this technique to frame the building or other subjects.

Finally, I sincerely hope that these tips will help you improve your photos. When I was just starting out in photography I had an old uncle, who was a professional photographer, tell me to spend my money buying and studying books on photography rather than fancy cameras. He was right! You can have the most expensive camera there is, but if you don’t know how to create a photo using the techniques of composition, you’ll never consistently make good photos. I’ve provided a link below that should help you learn more about composition. Give it a try and watch your images improve.

Click this link to learn more about composition.