Concise photography advice for friends and family

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Do you have any advice on how to take good photos?

Because I don't make a secret of my interest in photography, it's not uncommon for people around me to assume that I'm the right person to answer this seemingly innocuous question. It doesn't really help when I try to explain embarrassingly that I'm just an amateur and most likely the last person to dispense photography-related morsels of wisdom. So I thought I could just as well distill my meager photography experience into a few simple points I can share with people seeking my advice1.

For most people photography exists in the context of recording important events and travel experiences. So I have these two scenarios in mind when I talk about taking good photos.

I'll be the first to admit that what I offer is often gross simplification, but my advice is based on the assumption that people want actionable info and not a philosophical discussion on the finer points of photography.

So let's start with the most important question.

What is a good photo?

  • For the sake of simplicity, we assume that a good photo either adequately illustrates the story you want to tell, and/or provokes an emotional response from the viewer.
  • From the technical point of view, a good photo doesn't suffer from over- and underexposure (i.e., the photo is too bright or too dark), and it doesn't contain obvious flaws like uneven horizon, unnatural pose or expression, and lack of a strong subject. A good photo also includes all the elements relevant to the story you want it to tell.

What to photograph?

  • Take photos of what you find interesting or what provokes an emotional response. Remember that you are not taking pictures of things and people, you are capturing experiences.
  • With people, you would want to capture emotions.

How to photograph?

  • Decide what you want to photograph, then ask yourself Why do I want to take a photo of this particular subject or scene?
  • Identify what attracted you to the scene or subject in the first place, then try to make it the main subject of your photo.
  • When photographing people, don't inform them that you are going to take pictures of them, and then ask them to act natural.
    • Wait till people show emotions you want to capture, and take photos at will.
    • Avoid cramming the entire figure into the frame.
    • Don't hesitate to move closer to the subject.
    • Focus on the eyes, capture the smile.

Composition

The main purpose of the composition is to prevent the viewer's eye from aimlessly wandering around the frame. A strong composition leads the eye, and then keeps it firmly focused on the main subject. To oversimplify, the composition answers two questions: What do I want the viewer to look at? and How can I make my photo pleasing for the viewer?

Follow simple rules to improve your composition.

  • Decide what the main subject is and make it the dominating element of the photo.
  • Use the rule of thirds. Enable the grids in your camera, then use them to place the main subject where the lines intersect to achieve a more dynamic composition. Also, use the lines to move the horizon to the upper or lower third of the frame to make the image more dynamic.
  • If you find the rule of thirds tricky to master, just avoid placing the main subject in the center of the frame.
  • Simplicity is better than complexity. Reduce the number of elements in the frame to an absolute minimum.
  • Watch out for unwanted objects at the borders of the frame (random people, stray tree branch, etc.).
  • When photographing moving objects (cars, birds, etc.). give them some space to move through the frame. Place the moving subject in the opposite end of where it will be exiting the frame.
  • Don't shoot everything from the eye level. Use your body when taking photos.
    • Go low for photos of city streets, small children, and animals.
    • Look up for interesting photos of buildings.
    • Stretch your hands to take photos from above.
    • Use your feet instead of zoom. Walk around to find different angles.
  • Pay attention to the background. If the background is part of the composition, make sure that it doesn't clash with the main subject. To de-emphasize the background (especially for portraits), use plain walls in muted colors or open spaces.

Light

  • In most situations, position yourself so that the sun is behind you.
  • Make sure that stray shadows (including your own) and reflections don't fall on your main subject.
  • Avoid high-contrast scenes with too dark and too bright areas in the same frame.
  • Make sure that the main subject is properly exposed (i.e., it's neither too dark nor too bright).
  • Avoid scenes, where the light source is behind the subject.
  • On a sunny day, take photos in the late afternoon (an hour or so before sunset) or early morning right after sunrise.

What else?

  • Disable the built-in flash.
  • Remember to back up your photos.

What software should I use?

I'm biased, but give digiKam a try. It's available free of charge, and it runs on macOS, Windows, and Linux. More importantly, it has all the essential tools for importing, organizing, processing, and managing photos, RAW files, and videos.

Further reading

Bryan Peterson's Understanding Photography Field Guide

Footnote

1 Being lazy, I thought I could get away with simply googling the topic and compiling a list instead of writing the whole thing from scratch. However, while there is an abundance of articles catering for beginners, they often dispense advice that is hardly of practical use for mere mortals. I mean shoot RAW, understand the exposure triangle, learn to read the histogram, and don't overexpose highlights is not exactly what your aunt expects to hear when she asks you for advice.