Want To Take Better Photos? Here Are 6 Simple Tips to Up Your Game

The photographer and RISD professor Henry Horenstein's new book 'Make Better Pictures' offers everyday tips for improving your photo skills.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

The following excerpt from photographer and Rhode Island School of Design professor Henry Horenstein’s new book Make Better Pictures offers a few practical tips to improve the photo-taking skills of both everyday iPhone shutterbugs and fine artists alike.

1. Get High

Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

The most obvious situations for getting a little high are when something is obstructing your main subject—for example, a fence blocking the cows in a pasture or the front row blocking the people in back  in a group portrait. Lift the camera high to make this shot, if you must. But be careful to hold it very steady when you do. A better solution is to get on a ladder to obtain a higher vantage point, enough to “see” over the obstruction and get a clear view of what’s behind.

Another occasion on which you may have  your shot obstructed is in clubs, when you are trying to photograph a band. You won’t be able to set up a ladder there, obviously, but you may be able to lift your camera or find higher ground in the club or find a lower obstruction—a short person—to stand and shoot behind.

Another simple, lightweight option: a monopod. With your camera mounted on this one-legged tripod, you can raise your camera higher. How  to focus and fire? Use a remote dedicated to your camera or connect to your smartphone with an app that lets you compose, focus, and shoot from your phone.


2. Through a Glass

Good pictures can be made of subjects behind glass—for  example, store windows or aquarium tanks. But reflections on the glass can ruin your shot. The best solution is to push the front of the lens flat up against the glass. The glass doesn’t see anything that way, thus no reflection. An inexpensive rubber lens hood can make this easier.

Of course, you’ll have to accept limits on the composition. Carefully drag the camera and lens up, down, or to the side, along the glass until you get the framing you want.

Placing the lens against the glass also helps steady the camera. Press hard enough and you’ll be able to shoot at a much slower shutter speed than you’d otherwise need.

Though this technique works best if the front of the lens is flat up against the glass, it may also work if it is angled a little. But watch out for image distortion, especially with thick glass. It may also work if the camera and lens are placed a little away from the glass, if you wear non-reflecting plain, dark clothes and/or if the background is plain so it doesn’t reflect light.


3. Clubbing

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A lot of disappointing pictures get taken at clubs and concerts. These can be difficult shooting situations even for professionals with press credentials. For the rest of us, it can be more daunting or even impossible. Some suggestions:

1. GET AS CLOSE AS YOU CAN TO YOUR SUBJECTS. Slide up close to the stage or sidelines to make your pictures.

2. ZOOM MINIMALLY. Zooming usually means a smaller maximum lens aperture, so you’ll need to boost your ISO to compensate and this may lead to unacceptable image noise.

3. USE FLASH ONLY WHEN CLOSE. Most flash light doesn’t carry very far, at most 15-20 feet or so—another argument for getting close.


Often the lit part of the stage (performers) comes out too light, even “blown out.” The easiest solution is to set the auto- exposure compensation scale to -1 or -2 or so. The unlit part of the stage will go even darker than it is, but the performers should be better exposed.


4. Flash On/Off

Natural light is usually more “real” than flash. More three-dimensional, interesting, and inviting. But in low  light, you may be tempted to use flash to brighten the scene because it brightens the subject for good exposure and clear detail when simply boosting ISO may not. Good use of  flash does that, but it can also be harsh, flat, and lacking subtlety. It can make subjects feel like cut-out characters.

The flash effect sometimes works, if you’re looking for a certain kind of impact—for example, hyperactive/goth/vampire/punk. Or it can add detail to shadow areas  that might otherwise block up—go too dark. But most pictures look better in natural light. If you can get away with it, turn off the flash. Use a prime lens with a wide aperture, if need be, and push up the ISO. Use a tripod with a slow shutter speed for still subjects. Don’t worry about capturing detail in every area of the image. And hope for the best.

The cover of Henry Horenstein’s new book, Make Better Pictures.

5. Light Dims With Distance

The farther you are from your subject, the more flash power you need. This is because light falls off dramatically with distance. The rule, called the inverse square law, says that moving your flash or other light source twice as far away, say to ten feet instead of five, reduces the light to one-quarter of its original strength.

This is important to remember if you want to shoot from a distance with a flash. Unless your flash is very strong, the light will probably not carry. Many small flashes, for example those with your cell phone, tablet, or compact camera, may not carry far enough to be effective at more than five to ten feet.

Also, keep this rule in mind if you want to bounce light off a reflector, ceiling, or wall to diffuse its effect. Bounced light must travel from the source—the flash or other supplementary light—to the reflecting surface and back to the  subject. That can be a long way to go for a flash or other light unless it is especially strong. And the reflecting surface can even absorb some of the light—a full stop worth or more.

6. Background Matters

Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

Background distraction is often a matter of subject content—a scene that is just too busy. Perhaps a house in the background distracts when you are photographing a car, or a crowd in the background distracts from a float in a parade. But the distraction could also be from color or tonal similarities or differences. If your subject is wearing a red sweater, she will blend into a reddish wall; if she wears a blue sweater instead, she will stand out from the wall.

In black and white, color doesn’t matter; tonal differences rule. So, a blue sweater and red background may render as the same gray. Place your subject in a dark sweater, whatever the color, against a light wall—or light against dark—though sometimes color and tonal closeness can be nice. So, if possible, ask your portrait subject to bring different clothes and ask her to change if need be.

Excerpted from Make Better Pictures. Copyright © 2018 by Henry Horenstein. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.


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