Blog » 17 Essential Photography Tips: How to Take Amazing Photos With Any Camera

17 Essential Photography Tips: How to Take Amazing Photos With Any Camera

photography tips header showing DSLR camera

Taking good photographs can sometimes seem like a daunting task. Composing the image, waiting for the right moment and getting to grips with the technical aspects of digital photography can be confusing.

But following just a few simple tips can make a huge difference to the quality of photos you take.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984)

Read on and you will find 17 effective photography tips you can put to use right away to increase the quality and add some ‘wow’ factor to your photos.

Composition

Taking care when composing your image means you are already halfway to a great shot. Well balanced images draw the spectator in and will stand out from ones that have been taken without giving much thought to it’s subject and context.

1) Keep your camera with you all the time

Most photo opportunities arise when you least expect it. Keep your equipment simple and take a small bag or even pocket camera with you wherever you go. You never know what you might discover in everyday situations. You can even use your phone’s camera to take a ‘sketch’ of a scene and return later to photograph it with your regular DSLR camera.

2) Be bold

Don’t allow yourself to get paralysed by worrying about the technical settings of your camera or other people around you. Most often, just taking a shot without overthinking it will yield great and sometimes unexpected results. If you wait too long, the opportunity will have passed.

If you are worried about upsetting anyone, ask for permission to take a photograph of him or her. A smile and quick explanation why you would like to take their picture will go a long way and most people will agree to have their photo taken. If you travel in a foreign country, make sure you are familiar with local customs so people around you don’t feel that you are invading their privacy. If you want to use the image for anything else than your personal collection, it might be wise to ask them to sign a release.

Old man smoking a Burmese cigar
Ask for permission before taking someone’s photo
Image by Theis Kofoed Hjorth (CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

3) Get closer

Great close up shots can also be taken with a lot of compact cameras, although shooting with a DSLR camera and a macro lens will yield the best results. Setting your camera to macro mode will tell it that you want to focus on subjects much closer than normal. Macro mode will also usually select a larger aperture so that the subject will be in focus but the background will be blurred. If your camera allows you to use manual focusing it will be easier to focus on the main point of interest.

Using a tripod in macro photography will allow you to adjust settings on your camera without loosing composition. To further make sure your shot is completely still you can add a shutter cable release. If your camera does not support a cable release use the self-timer and set to a couple of seconds to seconds to ensure you avoid any camera movement.

Light plays an important part in macro photography and in some shots having some artificial light is necessary. Pocket cameras usually allow little control over the flash but you could try and soften it by putting some tissue paper over the flash. You can also experiment with different times of the day to make the most of the natural light available or invest in a diffuser to brighten up the scene.

A perfectly timed macro shot   Image by 白士 李 (CC BY 2.0 license)
A perfectly timed macro shot
Image by 白士 李 (CC BY 2.0 license)

4) Apply the Rule of Thirds

You will have seen plenty of images where the subject is located directly in the centre of the image. These are typical shots most people take. This can sometimes be the right choice but it usually results in a dull and unexciting image.

The Rule of Thirds is a simple, yet very powerful photography tip, which will instantly make your image appear more interesting and better balanced.

The rule says that an image should be imagined as divided by two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines, so the image contains nine equally sized rectangles. Important elements of the image’s composition should then be placed close to the lines or at the intersection of two lines. These points are also sometimes called power points. Placing the subject here will create more tension, interest, and the image will appear more balanced.

John Thomas Smith first wrote down the Rule of Thirds in 1797 but Greek artists are believed to have used it long before that.

If you forget to apply the rule while taking a shot, you might be able to improve the photo’s composition later. Crop the image so the subject no longer appears in the centre but is located according to the Rule of Thirds.

A flower photographed using the rule of thirds trick
Applying the rule of thirds
Image by Tim Sackton (CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

5) Frame your subject

Paying close attention to how a shot is framed will instantly improve your photograph. Have a look where your subject is located in the frame and pay close attention to what is visible at the edges of the frame. Make sure you only include as much background as necessary, otherwise your subject will appear too small and the background will dominate the picture. There are two possible scenarios:

The subject is too far away
In this case, the subject will not take up enough space in the frame and appear too small, while too much unnecessary background is visible. If possible, move closer to the subject or zoom in so the subject almost fills the frame.

The subject is cropped
Imagine you’re taking a picture of a group of your friends standing outside. One very common mistake many people make is to concentrate on the faces of their friends and align them with the centre of the frame. This means they will end up with too much background above their friend’s heads there while their feet have been left out of the picture. Simply moving the camera down and zooming in and out as necessary will make the shot look a lot better.

Getting closer or zooming in can give great results
Image by Mario Calvo (Public domain dedication)

6) Consider both portrait and landscape orientation

Deciding if your picture should be portrait or landscape is closely related to the photography tip about framing above. If you take a picture of a single person standing, then portrait is almost always the right orientation, as the photo would otherwise contain a lot of unnecessary background area.

While landscape orientation appears the logical choice for scenic shots, you will sometimes be able to achieve more dramatic effect if you turn the camera on its side and try taking the shot in portrait mode.

In most cases, it will be obvious if you should shoot a subject in portrait or landscape mode but occasionally it is less clear. It worth experimenting with both orientations to see which one will give you the best result.

Portrait orientation photo of a barn in a field
Changing the orientation can work well
Image by JC Essentials (CC BY 2.0 license)

7) Watch the horizon

Keeping the horizon exactly level is essential, particularly when shooting landscapes. Many beginners get distracted by the technical aspects when taking a shot and forget this essential photography tip. If the frame of your image is not exactly parallel to the horizon, it will immediately look ‘wrong’ and you have to rotate the photo in Photoshop or another image editing application later. This can reduce the quality of the image and you will have to crop it slightly to make it fill the frame again.

Keep the horizon parallel with the top and bottom edges of your viewfinder. Some cameras also have a markers in their viewfinder or a ‘Rule of Thirds’ mode which overlays horizontal and vertical lines you can use to make sure you keep the camera level.

Taking photos at an angle can make a shot more interesting and dramatic but you must be able to convince the viewer that this isn’t an accident and you have done it on purpose.

Sea at sunrise with perfectly level horizon
Keeping the horizon perfectly level was essential to pull off this shot
Image by elbfoto (CC BY 2.0 license)

8) Play with the light

Light is the magic ingredient to any photograph. For inspiration, have a look at photographs by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Inving Penn, who all used light to achieve dramatic effects. If you are taking shots outside, the time of day will influence the intensity and the angle of the light. Pictures taken in the midday sun will have strong shadows and the contrast between light and dark parts of the picture will be greatest. You can achieve softer effects early in the morning or at dusk. Extreme weather can also provide dramatic settings to take photos in.

If you are taking photos indoors, experiment with different positions of the light relative to your subject. If you are taking portrait shots, different placements of the light source can make a person’s face appear flatter, rounder or longer and narrower.

Experimenting with reflectors and adding flash to your daytime shots can help to brighten up dark areas so the subject is evenly lit or create dramatic effects to make the subject stand out from the background.

A bike casting dramatic shadows on the floor and wall behind
Shadows can add drama to your photo
Image by Beverley Goodwin (CC BY 2.0 license)

9) Add foreground interest

Adding foreground interest to an image is a powerful landscape photography tip you can use when talking scenic shots, which lack any significant features close to you. Imagine taking a picture on the beach with a lot of flat sand stretching out in front of you. You can now look for an object, a plant, rock or some other feature, which is interesting in its own right, and add it to the foreground. Not only does this provide a new point of interest, which would otherwise look rather dull, it also adds depth to the scene. Combine this photo tip with the rule of thirds mentioned above and a good control over the depth of field (Tip 13) to create a powerful image.

A landcape with interesting foreground
Adding a foreground makes this a much more interesting photograph
Image by Matteo Minelli (Public domain dedication)

10) Use leading lines in your composition

Leading lines are a classic landscape photography tip you can use to draw the viewer into the scene and create a sense of depth and distance. Typical examples of using leading lines are winding paths, roads or cloud formations, which stretch into the distance and enhance the 3-dimensionality of the shot.

Skyscrapers form dramatic converging lines
Converging lines create a powerful perspective
Image by Simon & his camera (CC BY-ND 2.0 license)

11) Experiment & break the rules

One of the great advantages of digital cameras is that you can take as many photos as you like for free. Experiment with your camera’s settings – this will be the fastest way for you to learn. Don’t always try and stick to the rules but try different perspectives & angles. Snap away without worrying about it and you might get great & unexpected results.

Equipment

12) Keep it simple

Too many people believe that they need to buy a fully featured DSLR camera before attempting to take their first shot. This is not true and should not stop you from heading outside and starting to take great photos straight away.

Just like most great guitarists have started to play on a cheap guitar and only bought their $2000 Les Paul once they were well known, a simple digital camera is all you need to get started.

Even cheap digital cameras and mobile phones today produce images as good as professional cameras thirty years ago.

When using the camera, choose a setting you feel comfortable with. You do not have to keep your camera set to ‘Program’ mode all the time – using aperture-priority mode will give you more control over a shot while still allowing you to keep focused on the subject and composition.

Photograph of a flower taken with a cheap camera
Who says you need an expensive camera? A great picture taken with a Canon Digital IXUS pocket camera
Image by Cayetano (CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

13) Bring a tripod

A small tripod is easy to transport and gives you a lot more flexibility. It will enable you to take properly exposed shots in the evening and night-time where longer exposure times are required.

14) Experiment with filters

If you work with a DSLR camera you can use filters to achieve certain effects. Which filters are right for you will largely depend on the type of photography you are interested in. Using filters is not essential but it can improve the photos you take. Sometimes you can achieve similar effects by using an image-editing program like Photoshop. The two most commonly used filter types are:

Polarising Filters
This type if filter is very popular with landscape photographers and changes the way your camera sees the light. Using a polarising filter will eliminate distracting reflections and glare on glass and water. It will even alter some colours and create more intensity. When photographing on sunny days the sky can look very bright and washed out – using a polarising filter will correct this and the sky will appear deep blue.

UV filters
UV light can appear purple on a photograph, especially when shooting far north. A UV filter will also slightly darken the sky, which is useful for landscape photography. An ultraviolet filter will cut out the UV light reaching your camera, which was more important with traditional film cameras as most digital cameras have the ability to cut down UV light themselves. A lot of professional photographers still use UV filters to protect expensive lenses from scratches, cracking, salt spray and dust. After all, it is much cheaper to replace a filter than a $1000 lens.

Shooting willows with a polarising filter is an effective photography tip
Using a polarising filter creates contrast between the frozen mist and deep blue sky
Image by Menno van der Horst (CC BY 2.0 license)

Exposure

The exposure of an image is influenced by three main factors: Shutter speed, aperture and ISO setting. Each one can be manually adjusted on DSLR cameras to find the best setting for the type of photo you are about to take. All three factors are interconnected – reducing one means you need to increase one or both of the others to compensate to make sure your photograph is correctly exposed.

15) Freeze time

Using a fast shutter speed is particularly important when photographing fast moving objects, such as cars, sports events or children playing. If the shutter speed is too long the subject will appear blurred. When using very short shutter speeds such as 1/1000s or 1/2000s the subject will appear ‘frozen in time’. You will probably have seen a picture of a helicopter taken with a very short shutter speed so the rotor blades are visible. Images with very short shutter speeds can look dramatic as the human eye is not able to see very fast moving objects in this way.

Sometimes a certain amount of blur is intended and this can be achieved by using a longer shutter speed, up to several seconds. You will need a tripod to keep the camera still to ensure most of the frame remains in focus. Remember, the blur in the image needs to look at if it was intended.

One popular technique is to show a moving subject in front of a blurred background to give the impression of speed. In this case, the camera needs to be panned so the subject stays in the same position relative to the frame. You have to experiment with the right shutter and pan speeds but if done correctly, subject will be in focus while the background is blurred.

Formula one car photo using panning technique
Panning the camera created the background blur while keeping the car focused
Image by Warren Davies (CC BY 2.0 license)

16) Control depth of field with aperture

The aperture, also referred to as the f-stop, indicates how big the opening inside the lens is and limits the amount of light that reaches the image sensor. A larger ‘f’ number such as f/16 actually means the opening is smaller than lower numbers, such as f/8.

You can select “aperture priority mode” if you want to control and experiment with the aperture of your camera. This allows you to set the aperture and the camera will determine the correct shutter speed to ensure your image is exposed correctly.

Aperture priority mode will allow you to control the depth of field of a shot. A smaller aperture will give you a greater depth of field so elements on the foreground as well as the background will appear sharp. When choosing a large aperture, depth of field in the shot will be restricted and only a part of the image will appear in focus, while elements that are located closer or further away will appear out of focus. This will be particularly noticeable in less bright settings and during close-ups.

Blurring the background by selecting a large aperture is particularly helpful to make subject to stand out from the background. This technique is often used in portrait photography.

If you are shooting in very bright light, which will usually require a smaller aperture but want to control depth of field you could use a neutral density filter, which will reduce the amount of light entering the lens.

Landscape with great depth of field
Depth of field keeps the foreground and background in focus
Image by Ales Krivec (Public domain dedication)

17) Use ISO settings to maximum effect

The ISO setting determined how much light is required to properly expose your photo. ISO 100 is considered the normal setting. If you switch to ISO 200 (a ‘faster’ ISO speed), properly exposing the image will only require half the amount of light.

If you use your camera in ‘auto’ or ‘program’ mode, the camera will not only adjust the shutter speed and aperture, but also select the ISO speed best suited to your current light conditions.

When shooting in very low light or taking action shots, you can manually set your camera to use a faster ISO speed (perhaps ISO 400 or 800), which will require less light to give you the correct exposure so you can use shorter shutter speeds or smaller aperture.

Selecting faster ISO speeds might seem like a no-brainer but there is a downside. The image sensor will find it more difficult to read the scene properly and this will result in more ‘noise’ in your image. Pixels or random colours are thrown into the picture and your photo will look more ‘grainy’. If light conditions are good you probably want to choose a relatively slow ISO speed, but for certain shots accepting some noise will be a necessary compromise to achieve very short shutter times for action photography or achieving the correct exposure for evening and night-time shots.

Water and sky photographed from a boat with fast ISO
ISO2000 was used for this photo. The exposure time had to be short as the boat was moving and light levels were low.
Image by Jamie McCaffrey (CC BY 2.0 license)

Presentation

So, you have taken a number of great photos buy no one apart from yourself has seen them yet. Presentation is an essential part of photography and one that is all too often neglected.

Select only your best photos

Digital cameras allow you to take tens, even hundreds of similar photos of the same subject. The patience of your family and friends will be severely tested if you show them twenty almost identical pictures of your dog in the garden and they will probably not be as enthusiastic to look at your work next time.

It is key to only show your best shots. Create a folder for images you want to present and only add your best photos to it. If you have several similar shots then select only the best one.

Don’t select any shots that are blurry, underexposed or have not turned out as intended. Remember, less is more! It will sometimes be difficult to leave a lot of shots in your ‘junk’ folder but your audience will love you for it. You will look like someone who knows what they are doing buy limiting your presentation to your best work and keeping it short and snappy.

Abandoned junk car in a forest
Be selective and don’t show all your junk
Image by David Trainer (CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

Don’t be shy…

…to show your best photos! After all, you have put a lot of work into getting this far, but no one has seen them yet.

It is all too easy for digital photos to disappear into the black hole, which is your hard drive, never to be seen again.

Digital photography gives you a lot of possibilities; here are just a few ideas:

  • Most modern flat-screen TVs are great for showing photos at huge scale. If you connect your TV to your home network you will be able to view photos directly from your computer without having to copy them to a memory stick.
  • Print your best shots. Many shops have self-service photo printing terminals where you can print your photos and take the prints with you instantly. If you want to print photos regularly, you could invest in a photo printer.
  • Get a digital photo frame. These are inexpensive ways to show your photos at home.
  • Have your photos printed on cups & T-shirts.
  • Get your best shots printed on canvas for a high quality finish. You can hang pictures in your house or give them away as presents.

And last, but not least….

Back up your photos!

I have heard too many stories or people who have lost their treasured memories because their computer hard drive failed. All your hard work learning about photography and following tips and recommendations is at risk if you do not back up your photos. Make at least one backup and keep it in a different place from your computer. There are many ways to back up your pictures these days – you can save them onto flash drives, external hard drives or upload them to Dropbox, Flickr and other photo sharing websites.

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Now I want to hear what you have to say:

What is the photography tip you found most useful?

Leave your comment below right now.

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9 comments

  1. Some good ideas here, thanks for sharing. I like to think that there’s always a photo opportunity in even the most mundane objects and situations. Sometimes just taking a different angle or zooming in on a tiny detail can make the shot interesting.

  2. The very best tip I ever received was to take a deep breath and just shoot. Any thing and everything. Even when we were still using film I shot every thing that moved. Soon I realized that I could pick out the good, the bad, and the ugliest. I grew as a taker of pictures and as an artist.

  3. Great tip sauni, thanks for sharing. I completely agree, sometimes just shooting without overthinking it will give you some great and unexpected results!

  4. A very nice article, with beautiful photos that perfectly illustrate each tip. I would talk more about “long exposures” with waterfalls or night-sky photos as examples. You fit that in 13 or 15 (which you could merge).

  5. This is an excellent page of tips and well worth reading.
    Dan’s point – quite agree – always have the camera with you – never know what is round the corner!
    I have to admit that Sauni’s tip is also spot on as far as I am concerned! I also find that the fact of the breathing in kinda makes me “calm and steadier”!
    As you say Thomas – one of my best results was not really even seen properly til I got it home!
    Very best to you Thomas
    Bye for now
    Mike

  6. That’s very kind, thanks Mike. I agree, sometimes a shot you’ve almost forgotten you took turns out great when you look at it later.

  7. …and you might add another good tip:
    “Try getting down low – the world can seem a different and interesting place when seen from a foot or so above the ground.”
    It’s one I keep missing!

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