Q:How can I take better pictures?

A:This is an almost impossible question to answer briefly. There are shelves of books in libraries and in bookstores on the subject. There are college classes, trade schools, workshops, and seminars. I couldn't possibly cover it all, but I can give a couple pointers. The two most common errors I see people making are with lighting and composition:

1. Lighting: Most people think that the best light to take a picture is on a bright sunny day. “Face the sun” has been drummed into our heads from a very young age. Unfortunately, this results in pictures of people squinting painfully, with black shadows and blinding white highlights. The reason for this is that film (or digital) can not see the range of light that the human eye can -- actually only a small fraction. Have you ever taken a picture of a person wearing a hat on a sunny day? The brim of the hat casts a shadow over their eyes (that is probably why they are wearing it). In the photo, you probably can not see their eyes at all. The shadow will be nearly completely black, yet you could see their eyes just fine with your eyes when you took the picture.

The best light for optimal photography is either slightly overcast, or at dawn or sunset. I know, if it is overcast, then you don't get the pretty blue sky. Just point down a little, and eliminate the sky from the photo.

2. Composition: This is, of course, very subjective. However, the most common errors are not being close enough to the subject you are trying to photograph, and not paying attention to the background. The reason for this is because our mind generally focuses our attention only on what specifically we are looking at, and ignores most anything else. However, film doesn’t do that. It accurately records exactly what you point your camera at. That is why you get photos that look like a telephone pole is growing out of the top of somebody’s head, when you have no memory of ever seeing the pole. Or that picture of a deer in the distance that looks like a dot in the middle of your photo.

Generally, the closer you are to your subject, the less intrusive the background is. Then, while looking through your viewfinder, try to put your subject out of your mind for a minute and concentrate on everything else in the background. If you move up or down or to one side or the other, would the background be less distracting?

My final composition tip is to suggest moving your subject away from dead center of the frame. The subject is not a target, and your camera is not a gun. Often by placing the subject off-center, it can be a more pleasing composition to look at.

(Close this window to return to the F.A.Q. page.)