Being a good photographer is more than just having the best equipment or getting plenty of practice. To be able to truly ‘tell a story’ through imagery, there are certain rules of thumb I’ve come to learn—rules that can almost instantly notch up photography skills. Here, then, is a quick list of points to bear in mind each time you’re poised to click that shutter button, and a few associated techniques I use that can help nail that shot.
Focus: Even the best software and most advanced computer cannot save a photograph that’s out of focus. Unless you intentionally want blur in your photograph, you absolutely and positively need to ensure that the key subject in your shot is in focus.
Technique: Master the art of pre-focusing the camera before shooting. Pre-focusing or focus lock is a mode that almost every digital camera has—it’s what enables you to half-press the shutter button (during which time the camera focuses, calculates exposure, and blazes through all the processing required to take that shot). The actual photo is captured only when you completely press the shutter release button and you hear the ‘click’. So, yes, get used to pre-focusing.
Next, Look through your camera’s viewfinder and you’re likely to see a pattern similar to the one shown above. This pattern helps you determine how the camera focuses. In this case, the five double-bracket boxes indicate the five focusing zones the camera uses to determine which part of the scene to focus on. The box in the center of the viewfinder is your best friend—set your camera to ‘Center Focus’, the mode that only considers that center reticle as the focus point. Then point the camera so that the center point is on the subject, half-click, then reposition the view to frame as required before completely clicking. This technique will ensure your key subjects are always in focus—no more blurry person in the foreground and sharply focused (but boring) trees in the background.
Composition: Composition is the process of framing your scene, so that there’s a balance among all of the elements. When looking at a scene through your camera, think of the scene as being divided into imaginary thirds, both horizontally and vertically (see the lighthouse example here). As a rule of thumb, aligning the key elements in your scene with these ‘third’ positions is proven to lend balance to photographs. Sure this is subjective, but view online examples using the ‘rule of thirds’ and you’ll see what I mean.
Technique: The trick is to frame your scene so that the key elements get the most ‘visual weightage’ and the lesser elements are eliminated. Feel free to also use the zoom, or move and change your perspective until you find the right frame. Hint: Use the focus lock technique described earlier right before you frame. That way you can focus on your key subject, then move it to a different part of the frame for creative composition before clicking to capture the photo. Even after you’ve shot the photo, feel free to crop your image to eliminate unnecessary elements (for example, random people at the edge of the photo, or an intrusive tree branch spoiling an otherwise good portrait).
Exposure: Exposure is actually a pretty complex part of photography, and one that is integral to the art. It is the process of determining the correct shutter speed, aperture and film speed, which determines how much light is captured by the camera. Fortunately, today’s digital cameras do all of the hard work for us, and compute these values in a blink of an eye during the time it takes to press the shutter button! Correct exposure means that the key element of interest in the photo (be it a model, car, landscape or pet) looks naturally lit—not to dark or too bright.
Technique: As a rule of thumb, if your key subject looks badly lit (too dark or too bright), point the camera so the subject is in the center of the frame, then focus lock (yeah, focus lock again—it’s that invaluable!), then reposition to frame the scene as you desire before clicking. If you’re so inclined (and if your camera supports it), play around with the shutter speed or aperture to make your camera take in less or more light from the scene (higher shutter speed or higher aperture number=lesser light into the camera, and vice versa). Take heart—minor mistakes in exposure can be fixed using software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, or even photo managers like Picasa.
Subject: Finally, a good photo also depends on how good the subject is, so keep your eyes peeled for great photo opportunities. Good photo ops needn’t be posed; even the most mundane of scenes—the rapture of a dog playing in the street, or the thematic contrast of an old man standing beside a little child—are great photo ops.
Technique: The trick is to get sensitized to noticing these opportunities—very often the real photo is not immediately apparent. You need to move around, sometimes change your point of view to notice a potentially great shot. Even for posed photos, try to set up the scene to bring the best out of your subject. Make them smile, grant importance to key attributes in their personality, or try to reposition them so they’re in soft lighting where possible (maybe shoot in the natural light of dawn or dusk).
At the end of the day, the secret lies in technique. You don’t need to master every mode of your camera to be able to take photos that tell a story, but bringing the elements above together will lift your photography from amateur to a definitive prosumer. Beyond these basics, there are several methods available that can lift your photography even higher—image processing, HDR etc. But that’s another story. Best of all, digital photography is forgiving when it comes to practicing: hit the delete button and start over! So go ahead—experiment away.