Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Taking Better Pictures

I used to cycle with my brother and brother in-law around town, primarily for fitness. My brother in-law pedaled a low-end mountain bike, I rode a commuter bike, and my brother a carbon fiber, feather-light, road bike. While riding on a long straight-away down Stanley Blvd, my brother in-law would be leading the pack, huffing and puffing at a semi-leisurely pace….and my brother would ride up beside him and holler, “IT’S NOT THE BIKE…IT’S NOT THE BIKE…” At the time, I thought it was fairly obnoxious and somewhat amusing, but my brother was right, it’s not the bike. While an expensive bike might make one faster, it won’t make one fast. Setting down the doughnut and getting into shape makes one fast.

So you’re probably wondering, what does cycling have to do with taking better pictures? Well, just as an expensive bike won’t make one fast, an expensive camera won’t make great pictures. Many years ago, I went backpacking with a friend in the Sierras. When I returned home from the trip, I developed my film and found some really nice pictures of the mountains, creeks, wildflowers, and her….and a bunch of crummy pictures of me. All of the pictures were taken with my camera, so it wasn’t the camera. It was clearly the bloody Italian taking the pictures of me. I can only surmise she was talking while photographing, causing the camera movement. You see, even while whispering, Italians cannot talk without moving their hands. I’m digressing again, but the next time you talk to an Italian, watch their hands...

I have a number of tips to help you create better snapshots. I’m not talking about museum of modern art prints, but just better family, vacation, birthday, etc. pictures.

Save Your Money: If you want to take better pictures, don’t buy an expensive digital SLR. Over 99% of bad pictures are not caused by the camera. Instead, buy a cheap, digital point and shoot camera (AKA, idiot camera), or better yet, use your iPhone’s camera. This will allow you to spend more time focusing on the composition of your photograph and less time trying to figure out the dozens of settings on the camera. Some of my best photos were taken on my wife’s idiot camera.

Think Before You Shoot: No, I’m not talking about Planned Parenthood here…I’m saying take a look at your subject, compose the picture, make any necessary adjustments (e.g., get closer, move to the left, get lower, etc.), then press the shutter release on the camera.  Bad composition makes more bad pictures than bad cameras.

Take Two Steps Forward: If you’re taking a picture of a person (or a tree, statue, etc.), compose the picture in the viewfinder (or LCD) and when you’re happy with the composition, take two steps forward, then snap the picture. Most people stand too far away from their subject. Side note -- this technique also works at the urinal. Like my daddy used to say, “take two steps forward…it’s shorter than you think."

Pick One - Foreground or Background: Have you ever seen the infamous vacation picture of the tiny guy in the foreground with the beautiful scenery in the background…where if you used a microscope, you might be able to determine whether or not the guy in the photo was Santa Claus? If you want a nice picture of your husband, zoom in (or take 10 steps forward) and take a nicely cropped picture of your husband. Then tell him to get his big, fat butt out of the way so you can take an incredible, wide-angle shot of the beautiful mountains.

Lighting: Good lighting is probably more important than a good subject. Take outdoor or landscape pictures in the early morning or late afternoon when the light is warm and soft. Do not take portraits outside at high-noon on a bright and sunny day. The light will be harsh and contrasty…and will make your subject look worse than your mother in-law, first thing in the morning (with PMS and a five o’clock shadow).

Follow these tips and you will create much better photographs and your friends won’t grimace every time you pull out the family photo album.

Here's a picture of two smiling siblings in Hawaii.  I like how they are illuminated with the warm afternoon sun and the contrast of the red and black clothing against the blue sky and ocean.  Although the background is beautiful, it's clear they are the subject and focal point of the photo.

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