Help me take better photos.

I’m taking a vacation to the UK this summer and would like to, for once, maybe take some pictures a step above your average touristy vacation snapshots.

However, I remember very little from my high school Photography class and I’m not going to be in the mood to haul around a huge digital SLR all trip but I think I could definitely use some sprucing up on things like composition specifically.

Anybody have any tips or recommendations on where to start? I AM in the market for a new digital camera if anyone has any recommendations there, though, as I mentioned, I’m looking towards something easy to carry around than feature laden. Maybe a digital SLR if I decide to resume the hobby when I get back.

Camera: Canon A470 (point and shoot digital – v. nice camera, got it after Doper recommendations last summer and I’m very happy with it.)

Better pictures: Go closer; most of the background stuff is visual clutter you’re not paying attention to, but it will dominate (and ruin) most photos.

If you’re interested in improving composition, try avoiding always centering your subject. Learning the “rule of thirds,” which is best explained by the multiple diagrams you can find online, is also a great way to begin improving images.

If you want to take better pictures and really get involved, you need to get a camera with full manual controls. Most P&S cameras don’t have controls so your choices are a bit more limited, but there are plenty out there. There aren’t any tiny (ultracompact) cameras with manual controls, so you’ll be looking at pocket sized or larger.

A great book is “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson. That will help you move out of Automatic mode and into setting things up yourself for the effect you want. It’s important to understand the basic rule, and then know when to break them.

The same holds true for composition but that’s a bit harder to teach from a book. Try not to center your subject in the frame which looks static and boring. Show movement by giving the subject room to move, let the eye fill in the action. Don’t shoot things head on, move to the side, above, or below. Take lots of photos.

For cameras, you have to decide if you want an ultrazoom (12x and up) or a smaller compact (usually 3x to 6x). If you want an ultrazoom I really like the Canon SX1 or SX10 - it’s a full featured camera with lots of zoom but like all ultrazooms it’s not small.

If you want a smaller camera there are several smaller big zooms like the Canon SX110 or SX200 or the Sony H20. They offer a big zoom in small package, manual controls, but no viewfinder. Many folks don’t care, they always use the LCD to compose shots but I won’t buy a camera without a viewfinder.

Smaller still, and easy to carry around pretty much anywhere are cameras like the Sony W300, Panasonic FX500, or the Canon A590 if you can still find one. Don’t get caught up in the Megapixel wars, anything above 8 MP is wasted on 99% of the users and doesn’t mean anything about image quality. In fact, the more Megapixels most likely the worse the image quality.

You then need to look at the models and decide which features are important to you (zoom, HD movie mode, LCD size, hotshoe, etc). Then go to a camera store and try some out in your hands.

We just bought a Nikon Coolpix 220 a couple weeks ago, and so far I haven’t found anything not to like about it. It fits in a shirt pocket, unlike the brick-sized Canon PowerShot A20 it replaced.

Sorry I can’t help you much with the quality of your photos though. Taking blurry pictures is kind of a tradition / running joke in our family.

I was going to suggest the golden thirds as well. :smack:

Mmkay, here’s one: ask yourself if you need a size reference in the picture.

Arc de Triomphe 1:

You don’t really get a sense of how big it is.

Arc de Triomphe 2:

People, vehicles, etc. give a much better sense.

Also keep in mind that most modern digital cameras (there are a few exceptions) that aren’t DSLRs will be fairly poor in low light. Without a flash you’ll have to push the ISO up high to gather enough light, and that makes the images noisy. Even if a camera has ISO 1600, it’s probably pretty useless as soon as you go above ISO 400. Image Stabilization helps some, but doesn’t help you if your subject is moving (people, animals, sports). People often complain about blurry shots in low light, but you need to either use the flash or push the ISO up higher and deal with the noise for now.

From what I’ve seen, most people can go from “wow, these pictures are boring” to “wow, you take pretty good pictures” with just the simple advice offered by twickster to move closer. It really does wonders for moving you from snapshots to photographs.

If you’re using a small p/s camera, you can get something like one of these:

It collapses to under a foot but expands to 42" and weighs about a pound. I have one something like it and the smallest section is like the width of a pencil, so it won’t take too much weight. But in low light, you can mount the camera and get better shots.

Of course part of the artistry of photography is making interesting photos, so they don’t have to be razor-sharp.

Here’s a widget I picked up and like:

The Delkin Digital Camera LCD Pop-up Shade is made to protect your digital camera’s LCD screen, and also doubles as a glare guard. This sturdy and lightweight cover is easily installed and removed, and provides easier viewing of the display in bright sunlight.*

(You can leave the frame attached to the camera, remove the folding part if you like.

I have two p/s cameras, a Canon 720IS and an Olympus FE-350. The Canon is a better camera in terms of sharpness of image, flexibility and such, but the Olympus offers a wider angle. Much of the time, I find myself backed up against a wall and unable to “get it all in.” So I’m in favor of getting a wider-angle lens than is typically offered. E.g. my Canon’s has a 38mm while the Olympus has a 28mm.

The optics become problematic at the wider angle. I don’t understand it completely, but the answer is to throw more money at it than $100, which is what I did. It could be I’m too hard on the lens because you have to figure that AF mechanism probably isn’t as good on a less expensive camera as well. Anyway all that said:

Here’s a Panasonic that goes out to 28mm.

It has a Leica lens. If the price ($283) is too high you might look in that same line, like this:

[li] Rule of thirds. See above posts.[/li][li] Foreground stuff can frame the subject. As you compose, look at what is showing at the edge of the frame, and what (plants, etc.) close to you can be used as foreground framing materials.[/li][li] If you’re taking a wide-angle picture, such as a landscape, get more sky than ground. The sky is more interesting than the grass or pavement in front of you.[/li][li] Push the shutter button halfway down before taking the picture. This set the focus and exposure before you press it the rest of the way down.[/li][li] Use the above feature to focus on something in the middle of the frame, then with the button still halfway down, move the camera to frame up the picture best. (see #1 above)[/li][li] Learn how to manually set the aperture and keep the number low. With a low number (“wide” aperture) the background will be out of focus so as not to distract from the subject. (If you want a picture of people in front of a landmark, push the aperture number higher.)[/li][li] Do what it takes to get a good shot. Climb on the roof of your car*. Stand on things. Lay on your stomach. Get abnormally close.[/li][/ol]
*: Ansel Adams had a platform built on the top of his car to set up his camera. Many of his famous pictures of Yosemite are taken from just off the same roads we drive today, only ~15 feet up.

in addition to the Rule of Thirds, have in mind a direction or flow for your photos. There needs to be something to draw a person’s eye through it. Take advantage of vanishing points and throughlines. I second garygnu’s #7 point strongly. A lot of my favourite shots that I’ve taken have come from peering through the viewfinder while I’m laying on the ground. Tripods are pretty much required for any kind of usable night shot, but you needn’t haul around a giant monstrosity.

One concern here—exposure. Back when I shot with 35mm, too much sky usually fooled the meter and gave poor exposures, making the meter interpret the scene as more brightly lit than it actually was. Grass/pavement would have been better, nearer the value needed.

That said, my p/s cameras aren’t nearly as fooled by the sky. I don’t know if they’re programmed to handle it differently or what. In any event OP, if your exposures look too dark or too bright, be mindful of how much sky is in them. If need be, you can go to +/- for adjustment.
Another trick or two that raygun reminds me of: you don’t need to look at the LCD or through the finder to take the picture. If you’re on a park bench you can take a picture of the person sitting across from you by sort of pointing the camera on your lap as best you can. The subject is relaxed, not expecting the picture. Be aware though that a flash will betray you and stick to available light.

Also hold your camera above your head when there’s a crowd between you and your subject. It takes some practice getting the angle just right, but go as wide as you can and hope for the best till you’ve mastered the technique.

You’re getting some good advice on photo taking, but to (mostly) repeat:
Move closer,
Have something in the foreground of wide angle shots,
Uncluttered backgrounds produce striking photos,
Go for the unusual angle… if everyone is shooting from the same place the photo will probably be boring.

Two camera to consider:
The Fuji FinePix F100fd.
The Pentax Optio W60.

The Pentax is a waterproof/dustproof camera. I own the older Optio W20, and it’s really nice to have a camera that goes anywhere with you. Functionally it feels just like a standard point and shoot. The lens is entirely internal so it doesn’t get banged, bent or broken.You can take underwater movies.

The W60 is supposedly an even better camera, and has a 5x internal zoom lens (about 28-140 equivalent.)
A review: Pentax Optio W60 Review - Steve's Digicams
Another: Pentax W60 Review

Even if you eventually get an SLR you’ll be glad to have a waterproof camera on hand.

The Fuji F100fd is the latest in the FinePix “F” series that features the best low light capability of any compact cameras. That means you can take existing light shots, whern other cameras will need to use a flash. Pictures taken with on-camera flash almost always suck.

The Fuji even has a setting that take two picture in immediate succession, first an existing light shot and then a flash shot.

Almost any decent P&S will take good pictures in bright daylight, but the FinePix is about the only one that will approach the quality of a digital SLR in low light.

It also features a very good 5x zoom lens. 28-140 (again)


A slight hi-jack to this but may I suggest that you buy postcards as you travel. Some poor shlubb spent hours/days waiting for just the right lighting situation to take a picture. Use your camera for “people” pictures.

As for photographic hints, digital cameras are more sensitive to variations in light so take that into consideration. Standing in the shadow of a building while the scenery is under sunlight makes it tough to get anything to come out. Use a flash in this situation. And when using flash indoors it helps to get the subject in the “zone”. Too close and you will white out any light colors. Too far away and the flash of compact camera’s will be too weak. Practice indoors and log your results.

If your camera has a bracketing feature then turn it on and waste digital film. If you’re using the telephoto that will increase the chance of blur so don’t use it while moving on a train, even with the newer camera’s with a 3200 ISO.

If your camera has a panoramic feature and you have a program such as Adobe Elements you can have a lot of fun merging pictures. If you try this, it’s important that the camera always be level to the horizon. By this I mean the lens should be centered on the horizon for both pictures.

There’s little that I could add that hasn’t already been said, but the two biggest improvements an amateur can make is to get closer to their subject and pay attention to the light. Photography is about capturing light (at its very very basic level), so if you have a shitty lighting situation, don’t expect it to look any better on camera (minus lighting the scene yourself).

Robert Capa said something along the lines of if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. There’s a lot of truth to this statement. Much can be improved my simply moving closer to your subject. I would phrase the rule as “fill the frame.” In other words, eliminate any extraneous detail and fill the frame with your point of interest. This simplifies the composition and focuses the viewer’s eye on the details of the subject that interest you. Now, what is extraneous and what is not? That’s a judgment you have to make, but usually a third of the frame with uninteresting dirt or a plain, boring sky are not necessary elements to the photograph.

Some of the most striking pictures (take, say, Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl or most of Yousef Karsh’s portraits) are dead simple compositionally, but succeed for several reasons, one of them being the elimination of all unwanted detail. Watch those backgrounds! Again, watch those backgrounds! When you photograph something, it’s not unusual to be so focused on the subject that you neglect to see what’s going on behind your subject. When I go to a location to photograph, the first thing I do is to mentally note where the good, clean backgrounds are and where the problem areas are. Unless I’m doing an environmental portrait that is trying to illustrate the clutter (or I otherwise judge it to give the photograph context), I don’t want trash cans in my backgrounds. I don’t want exit signs. I don’t want light poles sticking out of people’s heads. And so on. Pay attention to your environment. Pay attention to what’s behind your subject and in your frame.

Light is a little more difficult to explain in a message board post. Light is the basis of photography. It is our paint. It creates mood and character in our photographs. Simple guidelines: landscapes are generally best at the “golden hour”–the time just after sunrise and just before sunset. The easiest (but least dramatic, usually) light for portraits is on overcast days. When photographing portraits, pay attention to how the light hits the face. Where are the shadows? Are they covering up the eyes, giving your subject that “raccoon” look? (Normally, a bad thing) Is the shadow crossing the nose and bleeding into one of the eye sockets, making one eye look smaller than the other? (Also, usually considered sloppy, with exceptions.) Or is the light good, but your subject is squinting, because they’re looking straight into the sun? Be aware and constantly thinking critically about your light. It’s as important, if not more, than your composition. One of the other things I note when walking into a photography situation is to take note of where the best light is. Sometimes, this will be in the shade. Sometimes in the sun. It depends on the situation. If it’s noon and sun in full force, often a shady location will be the best bet for a soft light. It it’s sunset, and the light is coming in diffuse through the clouds, lord knows I’m going to take advantage of that and place my subject facing into the light, probably at a 45 degree angle or so.

Let’s dissect a photo. Afghan Girl. Obviously, the most important part of the image, that which gives it the soul, is the subject herself and her eyes. I analyze photos on three main criteria: moment/meaning, composition, lighting. I think they’re almost equally important, with (and this is my photojournalism background showing) more weight going to moment/meaning/news value. So what is Steve doing in this picture? Let’s see compositionally: Absolutely clean background. Just a little information: some green, probably a building/structure of some sort, but nothing to distract our eyes. It’s a sympathetic background, with the green fortuitously echoing the colors in her torn clothing. Plus we have these wonderful, organic complementary red and greens, throughout the photo, even down to the eyes. It’s practically a two-color composition. There’s really no rule of thirds even going on in this frame. The subject’s near eye is dead center in the composition. But you still have a wonderful diagonal leading the eye from Afghan Girl’s eye down to the tear in her clothing. It’s quintessential “fill the frame.”

Let’s look at light in the photo. It’s a large, soft light source (you can tell by the quality of the light/shadows on her face itself, as well as by looking for the highlights in her eyes) from the right/slightly top right of the frame. Since the light is soft (I’m guessing an open doorway or something), there are no harsh shadows across her face. Her eyes are brilliantly illuminated, drawing our interest. Since the light is directional (that is, coming across the frame rather than straight onto the face), we get a sculpted, three-dimensional look (rather than the flat look of a direct flash), and we can get texture, patterns of highlights and shadows across her face, folds of clothing, hair. All that, combined with the mesmerizing glance, and we have a brilliant photograph.

That’s the principles above shown in a classic photograph (there’s more I can detail about the composition, the aperture, the interplay of positive and negative space, etc., but that’s more than needs to be said right now.) So, fill the frame, understand your light(ing), capture a moment.

Simple, no? :wink:

edit: Well, my “little” turned into a “lot,” didn’t it? Sorry for the stream-of-consciousness, but I hope it offers some insight. Note my use of hedge words in my post, as there are no real “rules” to photography. Eliminating all background detail is quite often not the best compositional choice – sometimes that context will make the picture, rather than break it. But, for simplicity’s sake, I offer the above points to think about.

But the lighting is much more dramatic, you get good depth of shadow (intense blacks), nice texture from the cobblestones, and it’s shot at a lower angle which makes it more interesting. If you want a size reference, look at the glowing streetlamps immediately in front of the arc.

This looks like a tourist snapshot, especially in comparison to the first. The angle is less interesting, and frankly the cars and such are just visual clutter to me. It’s also framed slightly crookedly, and the lighting is pretty bland.

Which is the next point: good lighting. Best times of day are early morning and early evening, when the sun is low and you get good shadows, and some spectacular colors in the evening. Pay attention to camera angles, too, and don’t just stand, point, and shoot. Climb up on something, or get down on the ground. And ditto filling the frame with your subject.

I think it depends on what you’re after. I saw the Arc a few years ago and was stunned by its size. IIRC it stands 160 ft tall. The streetlamps…well, how tall are the streetlamps in France? How far away are they? I’ve seen pictures where the Sears Tower doesn’t appear to be the tallest in Chicago because it’s farther away and that deceives the eye.

All this brings up another point: don’t assume, OP, that you can truly photograph something with one picture. You’ll be able to highlight different facets better as the day goes on. IOW take both shots of the Arc de Triomphe (etc.) if you can.

Also, here’s a fallback: postcards. One shot you probably can’t get of the Arc is the corrected perspective of it. See how it appears to be falling backward in the first shot? With most cameras you’d want to be up in the air around the midpoint, about 80 feet, to correct that…maybe you know someone who lives in an 8th floor apt nearby? If not, your shots will be the “ant’s eye view.” But professional photogs use perspective shift lenses, view cameras, all that and they set it up to get the best time of day etc. Then they print postcards and sell them for a pittance. And they get shots from helicopters as well, which would show how big it is compared to its surroundings.

The same is true of museums. The Mona Lisa is behind glass and mobbed by tourists. You’re never going to get a good shot even with a very good camera. But there are art books and possibly post cards…my WAG is they sometimes remove it from the glass and let pros copy it when the museum’s closed etc.

Right, those won’t be your pictures, but from a documentary point of view at least you’ll have a quality image.

For the cameras recommended, read the reviews. The specs on a lot of cameras look great but the results are often poor. The Pentax mention above (not to pick on that reco) for example has pretty lousy image quality compared to its competition. And the Fuji F-series has for the most part lost its low light advantage they used to have because they tried cramming too many megapixels on a tiny sensor.

One common question people with P&S digital cameras ask is how do I put the subject in focus and blur the background? The answer is that it’s really hard to do with a P&S camera with a small sensor. They geometry of a small sensor and small lens doesn’t really allow for a narrow depth of focus. Your best bet is to be far from your subject and put a lot of distance between your subject and the background; then push the aperture open as far as you can.

One piece of advice that hasn’t been mentioned is to take a lot of pictures. Go out and practice - take 100’s of shots on a walk around and then go over them looking for what worked and what didn’t. It’s the best way to make all these rules sink in.

(Bolding mine)

I think you mean “close to the subject” in this case. To minimise depth of field, the camera-subject distance should be small, and the further the background is from the subject, the more blurred it will appear.

One piece of advice that I will repeat is to use manual controls wherever possible. Yes, it’s more intimidating to use manual controls, especially when new digital cameras come with a “3-year-old child jumping diagonally into a pool at midday” mode setting, but you’ll learn far more about exposure and control by taking things into your own hands.

Also, try different angles. Take several pictures of the same subject, without worrying about making a fool of yourself, and you might get a different perspective on things.

Here’s a picture of me taking a photograph of Exeter Cathedral:

Here’s the picture that resulted:

Perhaps not the greatest photograph ever taken, but having a different perspective can make a huge difference to the way the final result looks.

Hi Mr. Telemark, I gave the recommendation on those two cameras and I don’t take your disagreement personally, but…I’ve got to comment on the Optio having “pretty lousy image quality compared to its competition.”

According to Consumer Reports it has worse low light performance than most P&S cameras, but the actual image quality is rated “good.” They don’t rate any P&S more than “very good.”

And I take CR’s ratings of low light performance skeptically because they often disagree with, who know their stuff and post hard evidence.

Still I wouldn’t have recommended the camera except that I’ve had personal experience with one of its predecessors. I’m a semi-professional (never more than part-time) photographer, earn my money using PhotoShop everyday, and I agree with Consumer Reports that the image quality is “Good.”

What that means is that in 90% of my P&S pictures, an above average viewer will notice no difference between shots taken with my Pentax waterproof W20 and my Canon SD600 (widely praised when first released.)

In the remaining 10% of the pictures:
-People will love the shots taken in the ocean, or in the rain, or in the beach sand, or in the swimming pool, or on the canoe trip, or the fishing trip. Advantage Pentax.

-A few of the shots taken with the Canon will have better exposure in back-light situations.

Also, that Canon is now broken, but I expect the dust-proof and completely enclosed Pentax to last many more years. It feels like a turtle.

In my experience the vast majority of bad photos are caused by things other than the camera’s inherent image quality (lines-per-inch and color balance.)
Wrong focus point,
Flash burn-out,
Under or over exposure,
Camera shake,
Insufficient zoom,
Slow shutter speed

Low light capability is a significant image quality issue that causes lots of bad photos, and the Fuji I mentioned still (according to reviews) leads the pack in that department if only by roughly a stop (but in some cases two or three stops.)

Again, nothing personal, and this may be too much response to your use of the term “pretty lousy.” However, I take my consumer advice seriously, and the two cameras I mention take lovely photos in good conditions and have unusual abilities to handle bad conditions.