The basic basics

In photography as you advance in skill level there are many things to consider in improving your photos: timing, equipment, lighting and composition among a myriad of others. But there are three basic things that every picture-taker needs to know to come away with better photographs. Notice I said “picture-taker” and not photographer. While every photographer has a camera, not everyone with a camera may consider themselves a photographer or aspire to be so. Most, though, would like to improve their pictures, all the same. These three simple tips can enhance anyone’s photos, regardless of what their skill level is.


#1: Get in close. My photo instructors always have said “when you think you’re close enough, take another step closer.” Most people’s first inclination when taking a picture is to take a step back. Perhaps it’s that they don’t want to invade the subject’s personal space, but being too far away is the number one problem for most people. Try to fill the frame with your subject. Unless there is something in the background that directly relates to your subject, then just it’s wasted space and should be cropped out by getting in tighter.

There are a couple of ways of getting around the dilemma. One costs money (there’s almost no problem in photography that lots of cash can’t solve), and the other doesn’t.

The first one is to buy a telephoto lens. A telephoto will help to pull in something that is far away and make it appear closer. The longer the lens, the farther away you can shoot. The hitch is that they cost money: the bigger the lens, the more expensive it can get. If you’ve got the means, then this can be an option for you.

The second, simpler, option is just to move closer to your subject. I know there are some instances where you can’t move in, and a telephoto is the only answer (such as sporting events), but the majority of times all you have to do is move your feet. When photographing people, the rule of thumb is if they (and probably also you, too) aren’t just a little bit uncomfortable with your nearness, then you’re not close enough. This also forces you to become more acquainted with your subject. If you forge a bond, no matter how brief, it will almost always show up in your pictures.


#2: Watch your backgrounds. Telephone poles, tree branches and flag poles are all notorious items that have been know to mysteriously sprout from people’s heads in many a photo. Cluttered and busy backgrounds can distract from the subject — or worse, make them look ridiculous. Many times this can be easily fixed by just moving a few feet (sometimes a few inches) from one side to the other or up or down.

Bad backgrounds can often occur because picture-takers are concentrating so hard on their subjects that they ignore the distractions in the background. They may be in a hurry or just not thinking. A trick of the trade is to look at all four corners of the frame. This forces you to slow down and check out what’s in the entire photo. If there’s something unsightly in the background, you can move it, move yourself, or have your subject move to a neutral setting. It’s as easy as that.

#3: Think. Of the three, this is the most important. If you don’t practice this one, it’s likely you won’t do the others because it all hinges on thinking first. Modern cameras tend to make things too easy for picture-takers. All too often, they’ll walk up to a scene, mindlessly take a quick shot or two, and move on. When they get home and actually look at the photos, that’s when they notice that they were too far away or there’s a traffic signal growing out of the top of Aunt Martha’s head (or worse, both). Slow down, think about what you’re doing, what you want and don’t want in the photo. Think, move in close, think, check the background, think, and then push the button.

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  • Blog Author

    Clifford Oto

    Clifford Oto, an award-winning photographer, has been with The Record since 1984. Through the changes from black and white to digital photography, he’s kept his focus on covering the events, people and life of San Joaquin county. This blog deals ... Read Full
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