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Some great basic tips

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  August 6, 2008 11:45 AM

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We recently heard from Gordon Ripley of Rindge, NH, who heard about RAW and has been checking it out. He's a member and past president of the Camera Club of Central New England, based in Leominster, MA, and was kind enough to send along a list of tips that he hands out to new members each year to help them be better photographers. We think many amateur photographers will find these very useful:

Photography guidelines

1. Always have your camera with you. There is nothing worse than seeing a great picture and realizing that your camera is at home!

2. Be Aware! As you drive around in your car, be observant and visualize what might be good material for a picture. Think big AND small!

3. Develop a set of favorite places to go to and continually expand it. Light is continually changing, as are the seasons. The same scene may make terrific photographs at different times of day and seasons of the year.

4. Be aware of the time of day. Some of the best pictures are taken before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. when the light is "magical". Flower pictures are great on cloudy days and landscapes are great on sunny days. On rainy, misty days, take pictures in the woods or garden and USE A POLARIZER. Brook and river scenes are best taken when the rocks are wet and it is a misty or rainy day. Also, use a polarizer to bring out the color in the rocks and reduce reflections.

5. Carefully examine the scene you want to capture. What exactly are you trying to get a picture of? Do you have other things in the scene that are going to detract from your vision of the final picture? Then eliminate these distractions – zoom in if necessary. Take the picture from afar as well as close up. There are oftentimes great pictures within the picture.

6. Try framing the scene with tree branches if available or other natural objects. If photographing a distant building, for example, with a field in between, then get down close to the ground and include the grasses of the field in the scene and be sure, by using a wide angle lens, that the close-up grasses are in focus. This is often done at the ocean at sunset where there are dunes with tall grasses and the scene is the sunset with the grasses slightly out of focus included in the scene.

7. Be aware of what is showing in the viewfinder. Know what the field of view is within the viewfinder. Most cameras do NOT have a 100% field of view. In other words, a camera with a 90% field of view in the viewfinder will create a picture that is larger than what you saw in the viewfinder. Therefore, we sometimes find things in the edges of our pictures that we didn’t expect and that ruined the picture. Of course, be aware of, and try not to include, things like telephone wires, tree limbs coming in from the side, obnoxious signs, etc.

8. Never cut things off at the edge of the picture if you can help it. If there is a tree at the edge of the picture, include some space to the left or right of the tree, as the case may be, in the picture. Do not position the edge of the picture at the center of the tree, thus cutting the tree in half.

9. When appropriate, get a diagonal in the picture. The diagonal, if possible, should go from lower left hand corner towards the upper right hand corner. This has to do with the way the brain works; it finds diagonals in this direction more pleasing than from right to left. If it has to go from lower right to upper left, then take the picture and reverse it in Photoshop! A diagonal can be a tree limb, a brook, a flower stem, a path leading into the picture, etc. The idea here is to have the diagonal lead the viewer’s eye into the picture to the center of attraction.

10. Make sure that your camera is set up correctly before taking the picture. Did you set the camera to over- or under-expose the last time you used it and forget to reset it? This can easily happen and not be noticed! Do you have it on the program mode you want? That is, on aperture priority, shutter speed priority, or automatic program mode? Did you take a spot reading on a gray area of the scene, note the readings, and then set the mode to manual and dial in those settings and then take the picture? Sometimes in a tricky light situation, this is the best way to go!

11. Follow the rule of thirds. That is, if there is a natural horizontal or vertical line in the scene, you should insure that it does not go through the center of the photograph (there are exceptions to this!). Position a horizon so that it crosses the picture either one third of the way down from the top or one third of the way up from the bottom in the photograph. Verticals are handled the same way, 1/3 of the distance from either the left or the right side of the picture.

An exception to this rule might be where you have a reflection in a pond and want to emphasize this so you make the line where the reflection starts go right across at the center of the photograph. This emphasizes the effect and viewers see immediately what you have done.

12. In landscapes, it is important to lead the viewer into the scene. A picture of a beautiful mountain range falls flat if the foreground has nothing in it to capture the eye of the viewer. A fence or path leading into the distance works well. Flowers in the foreground also work well. In that case, take a very wide angle lens and get down on your stomach about 1-2 feet from the flowers and focus on the flowers. The object is to have the whole scene in focus, especially the flowers that are only 12" to 24" in front of you. The mountains in the background with the flowers in front make a terrific scenic.

You can use aperture priority mode and set the f/stop to the largest number allowed under the lighting conditions (like f/22 for example). This will give you the greatest depth of field for your picture. If the light is not bright enough, try changing the ISO setting of your camera from say 200 to 400 and that will allow a higher F number (smaller lens opening). Finally, are you using a polarizer? Nothing makes a scene more dramatic than a polarizer if the clouds and sun are just right!

13. Use a tripod whenever possible. Nothing is more frustrating than to find out later that your picture is "soft" (out of focus) because you didn’t hand-hold the lens steady enough. In other words, a terrific shot -- but no good because it’s blurred.

14. Spacing. Whenever you have a subject in a scene that is obviously looking or directed in a left or right direction (for example a deer looking left or right), be sure that your photograph has more space in the direction the deer is looking. The viewer will also look in that direction instinctively and if all they see is the edge of the photograph, then the picture does not work. Just leave what is called "breathing space" for the viewer.

Of course, never get the subject too close to the edge of the photograph. One reason that may not be obvious is that when you mat a photo, some of the picture will be covered by the mat and if the subject is too close to the edge of the photograph, then you will be cutting off part of the subject. This is never good, but unfortunately, it happens all the time!

15. Look at the whole scene. When you have a subject in the scene, be especially aware of what is behind the subject. Oftentimes when reviewing our photographs, we find a tree limb seemingly coming out of the side of a person's head, or other artifacts that we didn’t notice when we took the picture. We do not want to include objects that detract or draw our eye away from the center of interest!

16. Experiment with focus. With some scenes, like close-ups of flowers, we want the background to be totally out of focus with a nice soft color to it. This is done best with a long focal length lens. For example, there are macro lenses that are 50mm and there are macro lenses that are 200mm. The 200mm will give you more latitude in getting that diffuse background and also allow more light into your macro picture because you don’t have to get as close to the object as you do with a 50mm macro lens.

With a picture of this kind, you have to be very aware of depth of field and how to control it. You want only the flower to be in focus, so your depth of field should be very limited. Remember, the smaller the F stop number (the wider the lens opening), the less depth of field you have. Experimentation, along with using your depth of field preview button, will help.

In macro photography, we would be using F stops like F/5.6 if we want to limit the depth of field and thus make the background "disappear" and appear as blurred color. This technique insures that the object being photographed is the center of attention and is not eclipsed by distracting artifacts.

17. Look around. Finally, when you are finished taking your picture, turn around and look behind you. You may just find that there is a wonderful picture that you missed when you got caught up in the excitement of the first scene you envisioned.

18. Shoot what you like. Having laid out all these rules, my advice is that you should take pictures that YOU like and not what other people tell you makes a good photograph. In other words, be true to your own feelings and thus enjoy what you are doing. You will most likely find that the above ideas will technically make you a better photographer, but the nature and subject matter of your photography are still of your choosing.

Good photographic composition is something that takes time to develop and eventually becomes instinctive. We get better at it as time goes by. Feedback from others does help us to better understand our limitations, and a camera club is a great place to get that feedback.

Take the time to read some good books on photography. If you are unsure about what books are good, then ask others what they have found to be helpful. Look at the magazines and see what others are doing with their cameras. Accept what you like and reject what you don’t like! There will be pictures that others seem to like that do nothing for you. That’s OK and to be expected.

Ansel Adams once said that if he got one good picture a year, he was happy. Well, let’s hope that we all have better luck than that!! I do know that for myself, I may get 10 pictures a year that I am very happy with. I will add that as few as 5 years ago, I couldn’t get anywhere near 10 great pictures a year!!! So practice and experimentation will make a difference.

Just be sure that you are having a good time and find the experience to be exciting and worth the time and effort involved.

-- Gordon Ripley

Want to keep improving? Check out all of our tipsheets or submit your own.

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