Three simple rules

If you want to become a photographer the best way to improve skills is to take a class. From community colleges to online instruction, there are some great classes you can take. But not everyone wants to be a full-blown photographer. Maybe you just want to take better pictures, whether you use a fancy DSLR camera, a compact point-and-shoot or even just your phone. But we all live full and busy lives and may not have the time to take such classes. What can you do?

(9/13/12) UOP archivist Michael Wurtz examines the display case that holds the stained glass window that was found hidden behind an chalkboard in UOP’s old engineering building last winter. The display case is in the new Vereshagin Alumni House on the UOP campus in Stockton. The background is cluttered and distracting in this photo. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]
A simple change of angle hides the background and helps to bring the viewers’ eyes to the subject. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

Often, I’ll online headlines such as “100 tips to improve your photography.” That’s far too many for anyone to consider. By the time you’ve gone through all of them, your subject has gotten bored and walked away. I’ve seen shorter lists of 50 and 25 which are also too lengthy for average person to wade through. Even a top 10 can be cumbersome, so I’ve come up with 3 easy tips that you can use almost immediately for better pictures.

(3/22/20) Clifford Oto’s dog Maisie sits for a photo in their backyard. The fence and trunks of the bushes in the background are a bit distracting. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]
By simply moving in closer and shooting from a slightly different angle, the background distractions are eliminated. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

#1: Get closer. The most common mistake that most people make is not getting close enough. Think about it. When you take a photo a picture of another person you’ll quite often take a step back to try and take in the whole scene. At the same time most subjects will instinctively also step back. By the time everyone is ready, the subject will be tiny within the frame. My photo instructors used to say “when you think you’re close enough, take a step closer.” Quite often people think they know the proper distance when in reality it’s too far away. Try to fill the frame with your subject. You often don’t need to take a head-to-toes photo of a person. Most times taking a photo from the torso on up or even a head and shoulders shot can be very effective.

(9/15/20) An egret perches atop the 20-tall-stainless steel sculpture titled “Anchored” in the fountain area of DeCarli Waterfront Square in downtown Stockton. The egret is almost lost in this overall scene. By using a telephoto lens (left) and getting closer, the egret is more prominent in the photo. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

#2: Watch the background. Very often a photographer will be concentrating on the subject so much that they don’t notice what’s going on in the background. The result can be a telephone pole sticking out of grandma’s head or a tree branch coming out of uncle Timmy’s ear. An old photographer’s trick is, after lining up your subject, to scan each of the 4 corners of the frame for any unwanted distractions. It’s they’re all clear they’s it’s time to press the button. If not, then simply move your subject or change your position. It could be as easy as a single step left or right or as extensive as moving to a different locale.

(9/15/20) Diners eat at tables set up on the sidewalk in front of the Casa De Flores restaurant in downtown Stockton. A number of downtown eateries and coffee shops have opened up for outdoor service after the pandemic shutdown. The overall scene is a bit cluttered and distracting. By focusing on just 2 diners by both getting closer and changing the background, the scene becomes more easily readable. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

#3: Think. This is actually the most important tip. If you don’t think about the process then none of the other tips will work. You won’t think about getting closer or watching your backgrounds. With some practice you can train yourself to think “am I close enough? Is the background uncluttered?” It doesn’t take that much time and just a little thought can make a big difference in you pictures.

I talked here about taking pictures of people but you can apply these tips to almost any kind of photography.

[7/28/20] Alayssia Townsell, a McNair High graduate from Stockton who is attending UCLA, stands in from of Stockton City Hall in downtown Stockton. The background is too busy and distracting in this photo. By simply getting closer, left, much of the distracting background is eliminated. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

Certainly, there are other things to learn about like, exposure, composition and lighting and timing, especially if you want to advance your skills, but as an average everyday picture-taker you may not have time to learn about them. These 3 basic basics can help to improve your photography immediately.

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