Tips for Better Photographs

This is a bad photograph.

This is a bad photograph.

“A picture is worth a thousand words”  is how we say it now, but Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations records that the original Chinese proverb was “One picture is worth more than ten thousand words.”  The discrepancy may be due to any of several factors: the exchange rate (Chinese words vs. English words), the current practice of using cheap words, or the prevalence of lousy pictures. 

As you may recall from last year’s crop of Christmas cards, there are lots of bad photos making the rounds, and I’ll admit to having taken some of them.  Sally and I have also taken some shots that have won ribbons in photo contests, so I’m going to use those dubious credentials as justification for offering advice.  We can’t all be Annie Leibovitz or Ansel Adams, but if you follow these tips, you won’t have guests feigning a medical emergency when you bring out your photo album.

1. Take your camera with you     I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say, “Darn it, I meant to bring my camera.”  Whatever the occasion — a vacation in Europe, your mother’s wedding, the neighborhood pillow fight — if there’s any chance you’ll want pictures, have the camera in your pocket or purse.  And don’t give me that stuff about, “I’d rather just remember it than having to bother with a camera.”  Trust me — your memory will fade sooner than the pictures will.

2. Familiarize yourself with your camera’s buttons and gadgets     By now you may have identified the power switch and the shutter, but modern digital cameras are capable of all sorts of cool things, like focusing.  It’s worth getting to know what it can do, even though that means trying to read the manual.  By the way, if you have trouble understanding it, so does everyone else.  That’s because the booklet that came with your camera was originally written in Turkish, by a tax accountant.  The translation is a little loose sometimes:  “If you wish the making of not a flash, rotate dial for the click-click two times (Fig. H, Paragraph II, subsection r).”  Stay with it; eventually you’ll figure it out.

3. Don’t aim the camera directly into the sun     Also, don’t stare directly into the sun — but that’s a health issue, not a good-picture issue.  Whenever possible, though, line up your outdoor shots so the sun is behind you or to one side.  This doesn’t apply if you’re trying to get a picture of a sunset.

4. Closer is generally better     Move in so that your subject(s) fills the frame.  I mean, if you’re taking a picture of your two best friends from high school, you don’t really care what shoes they’re wearing, do you?  Then why are you squinting at your viewfinder in the lobby while they’re posing in the banquet room?  Don’t be shy about invading your subject’s space, unless his bodyguards threaten to break your camera with the bridge of your nose.  While you’re at it, in lining up the shot, make sure you don’t have the horizon at a 30° angle.  If you took the photo while on dry land, it shouldn’t look like you took it on a boat during a storm.

5. Edit     No one wants to see your overexposed, out-of-focus shots just because the drugstore printed them.  It’s better to share the three or four that turned out well than all sixty mediocre ones.  If you only show people your best shots, they’ll think you’re a good photographer.  And then they’ll ask you to make copies for them, since they “forgot” to bring their own camera.

3 responses to “Tips for Better Photographs

  1. Just a little late, Tom. We took that big trip back in February and could have used all these photographic tips. But, no, you ruin our whole trip by holding this post off until months after we’ve returned home with our out of focus, far away, over and under exposed photos. The only tip we followed…by mistake…was taking our camera with us. And that turned out to be the worst tip of all. Thanks one whole hell of a lot.

  2. You’re welcome, Dave. And don’t forget to thank your travel agent, who assured you there were lots of tropical beaches in Antarctica.

    (Dave really did go to Antarctica — and came back with some fantastic photographs. He didn’t show me the bad ones.)

  3. Ah, you only think I didn’t show you the bad ones. Who’s to say I’m not holding back the best photos so that I can sneak them into the Ventura County fair and win the big prize money all for myself? Oh, what I could do with that $1.25.

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