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A Photo Worth A Thousand (And One!) Words

Updated on September 19, 2009

With the proliferation of digital cameras these days, everyone’s a photographer. But what they don’t tell you is that everyone can be a good one! And it doesn’t take rigorous study of technical jargon (let’s not even think about f-stop, aperture, ISO speed, etc – okay?), or possession of ‘professional’ equipment (that’s right – drop the tripod, put away your hot shoe flash, and quit obsessing about megapixels*), or even ‘expertise’ with photo editing software. (I absolutely HATE editing photos. I’d rather not waste hours and days in front of the computer. So I just don’t! I simply take the best photos I can – and then I’m done!)

So, what do you need to start getting great photos?

Simple: a digital camera. Any one will do. (Seriously!)

The main difference between taking a photo and taking a good photo is simply a matter of thinking. Don’t worry – you won’t have to do more than just ‘point and shoot’, but you’ll get better pictures if you take an extra moment to consider the following things while you are in the midst of any photographic opportunity:

COMPOSITION (or lack therof) is the number one culprit in the case of ho-hum digital pictures. Composition includes everything that makes up what’s in the photo. If viewers of your photography (this includes you!) are unsure what they are (or should be) looking at – if you have to point out and/or explain the reason the picture even exists, you might need to improve your composition! Fortunately, there are a couple very easy ways to do this.

DISTANCE – How close are you to the thing you want to photograph? If there is nothing keeping you from being up close to your subject, then there’s no reason to be more than a few feet (or inches) away! Unless you’re purposely trying to capture the scope of an area (a landscape or a building, etc) or highlighting the amount of people or objects in a place (a big crowd, a messy room), then there’s no reason to include all that ‘extra stuff’ in the picture. A photo of your dog in the backyard should be a photo of your dog – not a photo of your backyard in which your dog happened to make an appearance! It doesn’t have to be a ‘close-up’ (or ‘macro’) shot, but you should be near enough that you can forego the process of determining which fuzzy ‘blobs’ are your children/pets/friends/in-laws when you go to transfer and share your pictures.

BACKGROUND is another vastly important – and very often overlooked – component of a great picture. Before you push the button, have a quick look at what’s there behind your subject – the background shouldn’t distract from your photo’s focus. You’ll often find a good backdrop just by taking a few steps around to the left or right; look for one that is simple (non-distracting), or at least complimentary to what you’re photographing. Your relatives are more likely to want a copy of that photo of their favorite nephew on a park swing if there’s a nice tree behind him, rather than a dumpster by the public toilets.

LIGHTING is an issue that can get quite technical, but again there are some easy fixes. In general, everything looks better in natural lighting – and a standard digital camera flash is anything but ‘natural’. If you’re guilty of only using the ‘auto’ flash, read the user manual and find out when you should use those other ‘special’ flash settings – better yet, turn the flash off completely. If your camera ‘thinks’ it’s too dark without the flash, turn on lights, open the curtains, or (a great option) go outside! To note, at midday, the sunlight is likely to be as ‘harsh’ as the camera flash can be in creating not-so-attractive shadows.

QUALITY OVER QUANTITY – is it better to have 1000 random, blurry photos of your Summer vacation, or 10 great shots of the most memorable moments? Sometimes you’ll only get those quality shots by just taking more photos: they won’t all come out perfectly, but with a digital camera you have the ‘luxury’ of keeping the good and deleting the not-as-good. Do your viewers a favor by sorting out the uninteresting and not-so-memorable shots, then make prints of/upload the rest (the ‘good ones’) to the photo-sharing or social network site(s) that you like to use. You’ll likely get encouraged to put more up of future excursions!

PHOTOGRAPHY IS AN ART – but can all photos be classified as “art”? The argument might ultimately be subjective, but after browsing thousands of photos over the years as a member of the DeviantArt web community, I have determined a few qualities that qualify a picture as ‘artistic’ – regardless of whether the photographer is expertly refined in their technique or still developing their skills. Photographic ART captures a unique moment in time, a unique subject, or a unique angle/perspective.

Everyone in the world experiences a life different from anyone else’s, but there are many experiences that all people seem to have in common. A photograph depicting a once-in-a-lifetime event or moment adds value to the art world (even if the photo itself is not of the highest caliber) since it records something that is not likely to occur again for some time (if ever). Similarly, a photograph of a unique subject provides an opportunity for others to see something which they may otherwise never get a chance to see. It may bring opposite ends of the Earth together, or expose injustices that no one speaks about, or simply share another way of living life.

That’s not to say that photos of common or everyday things cannot also be artistic. I have seen hundreds – if not thousands – of pictures of dogs, of cats, of shoes and feet, of roses and almost every kind of flower. I’ve even contributed quite a few of those photos! These are great subjects to practice on, but there are hundreds (if not thousands) of pictures of them already. The best way a photographer can add artistic value to something ‘ordinary’ is by finding a unique physical or conceptual perspective from which to photograph it. Anyone can take pictures of the stuff lying around their house; an artist finds a way to reinvent it, or they go out into the world and find something new and different to share with everyone else.

*A note: to the average consumer (and casual photographer), megapixels are probably the LEAST important aspect you should consider when buying a digital camera – unless you will be regularly making/printing poster-size or larger images. The most valuable quality I’ve found in a camera is the optical zoom. I spent 2 to 3 years using a Kodak EasyShare P850, which was a mere 5.1 megapixels, but the 12x zoom proved invaluable at sporting events, concerts, and even on vacation in the Caribbean (for getting close-ups of sloths in the tops of trees). I’ve made posters from some of these photos and a few were accepted by stock photo websites, which can have strict quality and photo size requirements.

I have since ‘upgraded’ to a Canon PowerShot SX110 IS, which looks less ‘professional’ than the Kodak, but it still has a 10x optical zoom (I compared the 10 vs. 12x zooms and could not tell a difference) and a better quality digital zoom than the Kodak. The Canon is 9.1 megapixels but there isn’t a noticeable difference in the quality of the photos. The Kodak was more consistent in taking crisp, focused photos, but the Canon is better with macro photography focusing.


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