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Simple tips to
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Tips for Better Pictures

Today's e-tip:

Think about this
before you shoot...

Think about this before you shoot... "bflics"
This eTip is all about getting better images by "thinking" about the most important components of an image. By thinking of these 6 items, I can promise you that you'll be on your way to getting much better images.

Before I explain the seemingly odd acronym (bflics), a little background...

Years ago, I was stagnating. My pictures all looked alike - it was like going on a diet and hitting a plateau. So, I went on a quest - to find out what I could do to improve my images.

What I found out, was that I wasn't THINKING enough. I wasn't thinking enough about the pictures I was taking. So, I started to think more before I took a picture. The greatest tool in doing this, at least for me, was the tripod.

A tripod causes you to think more. It takes more time to set up a tripod and take a picture - this extra time causes you to THINK about what you're doing (even if you don't realize you're thinking). Without a tripod, we tend to rush our images - and this isn't good.

You may not want to use a tripod, but, you have no excuse not to think more before each picture you shoot. You won't take as many images and your images will come out better - both from a technical and aesthetic perspective. Thus you'll spend less time culling your pictures. Your images WILL improve, and when you don't get the result you wanted, you'll better understand why.

So... although you don't always have to shoot with a tripod, you SHOULD always put thought into your images - that's where bflics comes in:

It's an acronym I created for what you need to think about:  Background, Foreground, Lighting, Intent, Composition & Subject.

Think about your Subject
You generally know what your subject is, otherwise you wouldn't be photographing it in the first place! We won't spend much time discussing your subject, but consider that all of the other items we talk about in this eTip have to do with EMPHASIZING your subject. Your goal is to take a photograph where viewers will immediately understand what your subject is.

Think about the Background and Foreground
Thinking about the subject is easier than thinking about the fore and background of an image. But, the foreground and background can have more impact than the subject itself.

Think about how the background will affect the image. Unlike your eyes, your camera can't see depth. The background will be FLAT against your foreground unless you use your aperture creatively to blur the background. Think about distractions in the image. Is something sticking out of the head of your subject?

Your background can make a big difference on how your subject looks! The images below were all taken with the same camera, lens and light - all I did was move a few feet for each image to position the subject with a different background.

Background Selection

The background is just as important as your subject, and often it can be more important. Put as much thought into selecting an appropriate background as you do in selecting your subject.

Sometimes it makes sense to have another object in the foreground in front of your subject. This is often the case when you "frame" your subject. But other times, objects in the foreground will be distracting. Here are examples of "framing" your subject.

Framing your Subject

Think about the Light
The word "Photography" is from the Greek, meaning "drawing with light". Photography is all about light. You're not really taking a picture of what you "think" is your subject - what you're really doing, is taking a picture of the light that's falling on your subject. So, think more about the light.

We can use natural light - the light from the sun. Natural light changes color from very warm at sunrise to a blue-ish light at noon, back to very warm at sunset. When shooting JPEGs, you may need to manually set your white balance at different times of the day, or on cloudy days. Natural light also changes direction as the day progresses. At dawn or dusk, it's low on the horizon, yielding long shadows. At noon, it's somewhere overhead. The same subject taken at different times of the day will look VERY different, based on the color and angularity of the light. Even within the span of a few minutes, clouds can change the light drastically.

With artificial light (flash, light bulbs, etc.), we can modify the light. With flash units permanantly mounted to the camera body, we have few options. But with a flash that can be positioned away from the camera, we have lots of options. The best thing we can do with flash is to diffuse its light. We do this by putting a soft-box in front of the flash. This will help reduce the harsh shadows often created by flash. We can also put the flash to the side, behind, above, or anywhere else we want the light to come from.

Sure, this is a nice-looking flower (called a Claret Cup),
but what makes this a much better image is the light.
The light helps create "depth" in the image.
 Photographing Light

Shadows and Highlights
Your camera can't see all of the light and dark areas that your eyes can see. The range of tonal values that your camera can see is called "Dynamic Range".

Since your camera sees a more limited dynamic range than your eyes do, shadows will be exagerated by your camera - this means that they will come out much darker than you see them. By thinking about this, you can use this to your advantage by making a shadow the subject of your image.

Shadow as a Subject


Shadows can also ruin an image. Take a picture of a person's face on a sunny day, and their face will have deep shadows, especially under the eyes. That's why you almost always want to use flash when photographing people outdoors. The flash will help fill-in the shadows on a sunny day.

The same thing is true about highlights - they will be brighter than you see them.

If you shoot RAW images, you'll have to post-process them on a computer, but you will get a wider dynamic range with more detail in the shadows and highlights. The images below show a JPEG (right out of the camera) and the same a post-processed RAW image - you can see how much more detail is available in the processed RAW image.

Raw vs JPEG Dynamic Range

In high-contrast scenes, the highlights and shadows will often be completely void of detail. You can use the "exposure compensation" feature of your camera to increase the exposure (get more detail in the shadows) or decrease exposure (get more details in the highlights). By thinking about what's most important in your images - shadow or highlight detail - you can adjust accordingly.

Think about your "Intent"
What do you want to communicate with the image - every image communicates something. If you don't consiously think about your intent, your image will fail. Answer the questions:
  • Who is my viewer and what will please them?
  • What message am I trying to convey?
  • What emotion am I trying to convey?
Remember, a picture is worth 1,000 words - choose your words carefully!

Think about Composition
Think about the "rules" of composition. These "rules" generally help you communicate your image. Although these can be "broken", do so with intent.

The "Rule of Thirds" is a general rule of composition that works most of the time. It is very simple to remember and use:
  • Place horizon lines on one of the horizontal lines;
  • Place people, buildings, trees, etc. on one of the vertical lines (when photographing people or animals, make sure they are looking INTO the image, not out of it); and
  • Place your subject at one of the four intersecting points where your image is divided in thirds both horizontally and vertically.

These images demonstrate this placement:

Rule of Thirds

But... Beware of your Emotions!
Sometimes when we take pictures, we're emotionally involved. Shooting pictures of your family or pet has an obvious emotional involvement. But we also get emotionally involved when we see a beautiful scene. Our initial reaction is to "shoot first, and ask questions later". That usually results in a poor shot selection.

It's hard, but you need to detach yourself emotionally - at least enough to give you time to think about your shot selection. That's one of the reasons why professional photographers will get better shots at a wedding than your brother-in-law Bob will (of course there are a lot of other reasons as well!).

Review Images by Other Photographers
Before going out to take pictures, review images by good photogaphers who have taken the kind of images you plan on taking. You'll be amazed how this gets your mind going to think about what kind of images you want to take. Many of the greatest photographers have indicated that they pictured in their mind's-eye what kind of picture they wanted to take before they even picked up their camera.

In Summary...
To become a better photographer, you need to THINK before you shoot. Our acronym "bflics" contains the essential ingredients to start you on this process.

The great thing about training yourself to think before shooting is that, eventually, the thought process becomes "automatic". Your brain will start thinking for you, and taking great images will become "second nature". That's when you will really progress to becoming a great photographer!

Happy shooting!!

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