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Take better photographs

Of all the various subjects, people reliably make the best photographs. Nothing is more fascinating to us than other people. A good 'people' photograph shows character, emotion and a connection for the viewer. Here are some tips to help you take great shots of the people in your life.


Subject Placement


The biggest mistake many photographers make is to try to shoot a person's whole body, head to toe. Don't attempt this, unless clothes are important (such as a uniform). Instead, focus on the face. The eyes and mouth are the most important features, so start there and work out until you have just enough to represent the individual(s). Crop tightly, and don't be afraid to overflow the frame with the person's face.


A standard lighting technique is to position you so the sun is behind you and to one side. This arrangement will shine light on the subject's face, while the slight angle will produce shadows to illuminate form. A better approach is to put your subject in a shady area with a shadowed background. Unlike the human eye, photographic film can't easily handle bright areas and dark shadows, as in direct sunlight, so use the shade for a narrow tonal range. Overcast days are usually best for portraits. Use the flash ('fill-flash' or 'daylight flash') to add light to the face and fill in shadows.



Use a long lens such as 135mm - the 'people' lens. A wide-angle distorts the face, although it can be effective for parties. Find a simple, mid-toned background and use a wide aperture to throw it out of focus. I like to use tree leaves or a wall as a background and a 200mm lens set to f2.8. Center the eyes in the shot, not the head, to provide balance in the shot. When photographing children, crouch down so that you're shooting at their eye-level.

Setting The Scene

Try to set-up your camera ahead of time rather than making people wait. Help relax your subjects by engaging them in conversation. Get them to laugh or smile with a joke from the day. Finally, be sure to put yourself in the shot -- that's what the self-timer is for!


General tips

Hold It Steady


A problem with many photographs is that they're blurry. Avoid 'camera shake' by holding the camera steady. Use both hands, resting your elbows on your chest, or use a wall for support. Relax: don't tense up. You're a marksman/woman holding a gun and it must be steady to shoot.



Put The Sun Behind You

A photograph is all about light so always think of how the light is striking your subject. The best bet is to move around so that the sun is behind you and to one side. This front lighting brings out color and shades, and the slight angle (side lighting) produces some shadow to indicate texture and form.


Get Closer

The best shots are simple so move closer and remove any clutter from the picture. If you look at most 'people' shots they don't show the whole body so you don't need to either. Move close, fill the frame with just the face, or even overflow it. Give your shot some impact. Use a zoom to crop the image tighter.


Choose A Format

Which way you hold the camera affects what is emphasized in your shot. For tall things a vertical format emphasize height. Use a horizontal format to show the dramatic sweep of the mountains.


Include People

Photographs solely of landscape and rocks are enjoyable to take but often dull to look at. Include some of your friends, companions, family, or even people passing by, to add human interest. If there's no one around, include yourself with the self-timer.


Have you ever got your photos back only to discover that something that looked awe-inspiring at the time looks dull on paper? This is because your eye needs some reference point to judge scale. Add a person, car, or something of known size to indicate the magnitude of the scenery.

Consider Variety

You may take the greatest shots but if they're all the same type or style, they may be dull to look at. Spice up your collection by adding variety. Include landscapes and people shots, close ups and wide angles, good weather and bad weather. Take personal shots that remember the 'being there' - friends that you meet, your hotel/campsite, transportation, street or hiking signposts.



Add Depth

Depth is an important quality of good photographs. We want the viewer to think that they're not looking at a flat picture, but through a window, into a three-dimensional world. Add pointers to assist the eye. If your subject is a distant mountain, add a person or a tree in the foreground. A wide angle lens can exaggerate this perspective.

Use Proportion

The beauty of an image is often in its proportions. A popular technique with artists is called the Rule of Thirds. Imagine the frame divided into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, like a Tic-Tac-Toe board. Now place your subject on one of the lines or intersections. Always centering your subject can get dull. Use the Rule of Thirds to add variety and interest.

Search For Details

It's always tempting to use a wide angle lens and 'get everything in'. However, this can be too much and you may loose the impact. Instead, zoom in with a longer lens and find some representative detail. A shot of an entire sequoia tree just looks like a tree. But a shot of just the tree's wide base, with a person for scale, is more powerful.

Position the Horizon

Where you place the horizon in your shot affects what is emphasized. To show the land, use a high horizon. To show the sky, use a low horizon. Be creative.

Photograph anything



To minimize the angular distortions of looking upwards, always look for a high viewpoint. Ascend stairs, stand on top of another building or the crest of a hill. If you can't get high, stand far back.
Use the widest angle you have (24-30mm). Bright blue skies are to offset the gray of the building. A polarizer cuts down on window reflections. Try to include people for scale and human interest.


Look for interesting details, often around the doorway, columns or windows. Zoom in and isolate the detail. Here the diffused light of an overcast day works best.


Stand well back or shoot from outside through a window. The low-light dictate a long exposure, so load up with fast film. Bring a tripod if they're allowed or, if not, find a support (a wall, your friends shoulder, or lean against a doorway). Use a cable release, or the self-timer to avoid moving the camera.


Remember to switch off the flash if it is not allowed. If it is, you can bring up dark areas by firing a hand-held flash into them while the shutter is open. Natural lighting casts shadows for a tranquil atmosphere. Expose for the highlights.


Always have something in the foreground. This gives depth and scale - using a person also adds human interest. Look for a high vantage point such as a hotel balcony, roof-top restaurant, or wall. Late afternoon is usually best. Use a polarizer to enhance the sky. Haze increases with distance and this aerial perspective gives a subtle impression of distance and depth.




With sprayed water, use side- or backlighting for a translucent look. This also works well with smoke, grass and leaves.
Experiment with a slow shutter speed, perhaps 1/30 to 1/4s so that the rushing water creates a soft, romantic blur. I like 1/8s. A tripod or other support is necessary.


Be careful with a polarizer - it can enhance the colors but it also removes reflections that you may want.


The best times are when the sun is just about to touch the horizon, and the afterglow 10-30 minutes after the sun has set. Usually automatic metering works fine, but with high contrast, meter off the brightest part of the sky. Try adding a person in the foreground (they'll appear as a silhouette) for human interest, depth and character. Either include a reflection from the ocean, or eliminate the scenery and keep the horizon low in the frame. A zoom lens is useful and you'll need a tripod or wall for support as the shutter speed will be slow.

Dusk and Night Shots

Dusk shots are best about 15-30 minutes after sunset, when there is still some color in the sky. To add depth, shoot from one end of a bridge or find some other feature coming towards you. A tripod is a necessity. Auto exposure usually works fine but also try manual exposure using a cable release and the 'B' (bulb - open) setting. Take several shots with 2, 4, 8, 12 and 16 seconds. Use an FL-D magenta filter to overcome the effect of tungsten lights on daylight film, and to add a pink to the sky.


In Bad Weather

Bad weather doesn't mean bad photographs, it just changes your options. Overcast skies reduce contrast and are preferred for trees and foliage. Colors may appear cool and blueish so add an 81A, B, or C filter to warm up the image. If the sky is boring, disguise it with an overhanging tree, or exclude it completely by raising the horizon in your frame. When low clouds or rain reduce color saturation, try black and white film to emphasize the range of gray tones. You may need a faster film (ISO 200 or 400) since there's less light.


Storms and heavy rain add drama and power to an image. Dusk shots are improved with reflections of neon lights in puddles. Clouds create moving patterns of interesting highlights, particularly when a storm is clearing. Fog make lakes, rivers and valleys look ethereal and primordial.
Rain or snow makes people, kids especially, wear colorful clothing. Cover your camera with a coat, umbrella, or even put it in a plastic bag. In snow, give a slight overexposure (slower shutter speed or '+1') to keep the whites free from appearing dirty gray.


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