Every picture tells a story. Unfortunately, sometimes that story is blurry, jumbled, vague, excessively dark, or generally lacking in focus. If, in your pictures, your dog has red eyes, your family is out of focus, or the majestic sights from your last vacation look like they viewed from the Hubble telescope, we can help you see the light. A few simple guidelines will help you fill photo albums with shots you'll be proud to share.
Intended for beginners and amateur photographers, this tutorial offers general guidance about composition and lighting. And, although you can load up your camera with a wide array of extra features and accessories, this information pertains to basic point-and-shoot models as well as more high-tech equipment.
Choose the right film
Taking good pictures is like any other skill: you need the right materials to do it properly. You can buy film in grocery and drug stores, but to get the best choice, go to a camera store. To select the right type of film, ask yourself the following questions:
Color or black and white? Color pictures are more popular, but black and white is the choice of many fine artists for its aesthetic value. Be aware that there is a price for looking arty: black and white film costs more and takes longer to process (if you don't do it yourself). Avoid the weight and cost by using "color black and white" film, (color film-based film that yields black and white prints), which processed the same way as color film.
Prints or slides? Most casual photographers want to able to shoot a roll of film, have it developed and printed, then flip through the prints and enjoy their memories. This is the process with negative film, which is what most people think of when they think of "film." Professionals more typically use slide or transparency film, which can offer more contrast. Slide shows also need this type of film.
What film speed do I need? Film is sensitive to light. That's why outdoor pictures taken at night without a flash look like snapshots of a black hole. Sometimes, even using a flash doesn't entirely solve the problem. A film's "speed" (also known as its ISO number), measures the film's sensitivity to light.
The higher the speed, the more sensitive the film; less light needed to produce a good photo. (Slower films provide finer resolution so images look sharper.) Here's a guide for recommended film speed in certain light situations:
100: The choice for close-ups and still lives taken in bright light; does not capture action well
200: A versatile speed for different situations indoors and out, with some action
400: Considered the best option for many conditions
800 to 1600: Good for shots with low light or a lot of fast action. Note: These films are best used in cameras with adjustable focus.
Select a subject
For a picture to tell a story, there must no doubt to the subject. A good photograph, regardless of its theme, has a single point of interest, which maybe a single object or several objects. The other elements in the photo should draw attention to the subject.
To concentrate the emphasis on your intended target, keep the photo simple. If the background is distracting, change your angle or ask your subject to move, if possible. If your viewfinder crowded, ask yourself what can excluded.
See the light
Most of us realize the light importance for quality photographs, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Ever snapped pictures under a bright sun and ended up with washed-out images of squinting people? But sunlight can used to your advantage. It makes colors vibrant and casts intriguing shadows on subjects. Here's how to read it:
When the sun is behind the photographer or directly overhead, his or her subject is facing the light. The picture illuminated evenly and details exposed, but because there are no shadows, surfaces can seem flat. This type of light is acceptable for landscapes but not very flattering to people.
Your photos will take on some life when the light source is to the side of your subject. Light coming from an angle creates shadows, which give an image a feeling of texture and depth. The best times of day for side lighting are near sunrise and sunset, when the sun is low in the sky and shadows are long.
The trickiest task of all is taking a good picture when the light is coming from behind the subject, because you're pointing your camera directly into a bright glow. Try to stand in a shaded spot or shield your camera from the sun with your hand (you may also have to do this in some side light situations--for more detailed instructions, check your camera's owner's manual). Backlit subjects will appear as silhouettes. Water scenes are popular subjects because of the way the surface glitters in reflection.
The interplay of shadows and light creates contrast, or differing degrees of light and dark, in an image. Your camera may unable to capture details in the darker areas of a scene without increased exposure, which in turn will overexposed the lighter areas. Controlling or reducing contrast can improve your pictures. For instance, if your subject is partly in the shade, you can cut the contrast between the lit and shaded parts by adding light from a flash. (It may seem odd to use a flash in bright scenes, but you'll appreciate the difference it makes later.)
Many cameras have a flash feature that automatically fills in darker areas, preserving parts of the photo that would otherwise be lost. Read your manual to see if your camera equipped with this feature, called a fill or fill-in flash, and for complete instructions.
Set up the picture
Once you've determined the subject and light conditions, compose your photograph--and don't be afraid to let your artistic side-show through.
Divide by three. Composition is often more interesting if you don't place the subject right in the photo's center. The "rule of thirds" uses four imaginary lines to split the camera's viewfinder into three equal parts both horizontally and vertically. Place the subject at one of the four intersections of these lines to increase its importance.
This rule applies to any photo, but particularly those with a smaller subject set against a broad background (a farmhouse surrounded by cornfields, for instance), or images with supporting subjects placed at opposite diagonal points to create balance (such as, a child flying a kite).
The rule of thirds also is a guideline for shots of sunsets or any other scenes that include a horizon. Just place the horizon on one of the imaginary horizontal lines dividing your viewfinder. The more sky or sea you choose to include, the greater the emphasis on that element in the last picture.
Get a little closer. Getting closer to the subject of your photo will cut background distractions and draw more attention to the intended subject, making it seem more dramatic. Whether you're composing a portrait of your mother or a snapshot of the Golden Gate Bridge, fill the frame.
You can do this two ways: walk closer, or use a telephoto or zoom lens. Both of these lenses make things that are far away seem close; however, a zoom can adjusted to make the object seem to different distances away, while a telephoto cannot. Point-and-shoot cameras often have a built-in zoom. Note: Don't get too close. Some point-and-shoot cameras must a certain distance from an object to make sure proper focus. Check your owner's manual for details.
Ponder point of view. Changing the camera angle even slightly can have dramatic effects. For example, a scene with the horizon placed toward the bottom of the frame will seem more open and expansive than a shot that includes just a tiny strip of sky. Consider different ways to capture a subject before you start snapping away.
Auto-focus cameras allow us to take pictures without thinking about focus. The downside is that they only focus on what's in the center of the frame. This can frustrating if you're trying to take a shot with the subject to the side. Thankfully, there's a way to do this and still keep proper focus.
Focus lock. Focus on your subject in the center of the frame and press the shutter button halfway. Then, with the shutter button still depressed, recompose the picture. Once you're satisfied with the new image, engage the shutter fully.
Manual focus. If possible, disable the auto-focus and adjust the lens yourself. Check your owner's manual for directions on how to do this.
Operator error. Sometimes, a disobedient auto-focus is not the reason your pictures are blurry. It could be your own fault. Hold the camera steady--it doesn't take much movement to blur an image. A light touch is all it takes to press the shutter button.
A tripod can help you keep things steady, especially if you're taking a lot of pictures with a zoom or telephoto lens, which are heavier and more sensitive to movement. You can improvise a tripod by finding a flat surface to rest the camera on, such as a ledge or fence.
Understand your flash
Besides focusing automatically, many cameras also have built-in flashes. Understanding and controlling your camera's different flash features can help improve your pictures.
Know your range. Most flashes on point-and-shoot cameras will only illuminate objects 4 to 12 feet (1.2 to 3.6 meters) away, or a little farther if used in a room without high ceilings. Beyond that distance, you might as well turn off the built-in flash. However, accessory flash units that attach to the top of a camera are much more powerful.
Let it recharge. It takes a moment or two (depending on the strength of your batteries) for a flash to power up after use. On many models, a tiny indicator light illuminates when the flash is ready. If you don't wait, the light won't as bright--or it might not flash at all.
Check the background. Try to avoid surfaces behind the subject that could show the flash, such as mirrors or shiny walls.
Combat red eyes. When it's dark, the pupils of your eyes expand to let in more light, and the bright flash reflects off them, showing up as a red glow in the last image. Children and people with blue eyes are most often the victims.
Many cameras have a red-eye reduction feature that sends a series of bright flashes or one long, steady light to shrink pupil size before the picture taken. Because there is a brief delay between the moment the shutter pressed and the exposure moment, both the photographer and the subject should hold steady throughout. Action shots are tougher to record with this feature: you need to press the shutter button before the action happens. If you aren't taking pictures of people, it may simpler to turn off this feature. (Again, check your owner's manual for specific instructions.)
Taking pictures should an enjoyable experience. Keep these points of advice in mind, and with a little practice behind the camera, looking back at your old snapshots will be a pleasure.