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Everybody experiences it. You shoot some photos with your camera on a wilderness hike or maybe at a once-in-a-lifetime party, and when you look at them later the results are about as exciting as 7-Eleven video surveillance footage. Looking for a scapegoat, you may mutter something like, "This camera is a hunk of junk!" However, I've personally found that it is more often my mistakes that make for less-than-stellar pictures, not something wrong with the camera. But the good news is that it's relatively easy to improve your photos--no matter whether you shoot with a $20 point-and-shoot, a fancy SLR, or a whiz-bang digital camera. Here are my top 10 tips on how to improve your photos, impress everybody, and let your camera off the hook.

"The difference between a nice picture and a really fine one is often a matter of inches--of bending your knees a bit or shifting to the right or left." --William Albert Allard, from National Geographic Photography Field Guide

1. Shoot More Pictures

All professional photographers know that the only way to come up with truly great shots is to take lots of pictures. Let go of the inner critic who wants to tell you that you're being wasteful. First of all, the practice will help you get better. More importantly, if you explore your subject a little longer than usual, you are likely to either get lucky, which photographers call serendipity, or you might discover a new angle or pose that really works. Years later, which will you treasure more--the few cents saved on not taking an extra shot, or a great snapshot of a favorite memory?

2. Hold Still

Shooting photos is a lot like target practice. In order to hit the bull's-eye and capture a perfectly sharp image, it is important to hold the camera steady and not rush the shot. As most pros know, the best way to ensure precise, sharp shots is to use a tripod. Using a tripod is usually impractical for most snapshooters, however. Instead, try leaning against a nearby tree or wall for extra stability, especially if you are shooting with a long lens or full zoom. Keep both arms close to your chest, and try using your thumb to press the shutter button on vertical shots so your arm isn't extended way out over your head. Remember, if you move the camera when taking the shot, it will show up as blur in your resulting image.

3. Don't Stand Too Far Away

One of the most common mistakes I see people make when taking pictures is standing too far away from their desired subject. Your brain focuses on your subject, but your camera doesn't know what is subject and what is background--and if you're too far away, the background will overwhelm your real subject. Step in closer for a more intimate and dynamic picture with greater detail of what really counts, or zoom in so your subject fills the frame.

4. Avoid Shooting into the Sun

Another mistake many people make is to shoot with their subjects in front of the sun or other bright lights (often called "backlighting"). This creates a silhouette and tons of contrast in the picture. Make sure you move your subjects around so the light is either directly on them (and behind the photographer) or at least to the side. (Of course, if you want to make a silhouette, then by all means shoot with your subject backlit.)

5. Go Out at Dusk and Dawn

Often the best time to take pictures is in the early hours of the morning just after dawn, and in the late hours of the afternoon just before sunset--at this time, sunlight becomes warm and rich, and shadows lengthen, lending additional detail to subjects. The light can also be quite spectacular right after the sun sets when the sky lights up like a stage backdrop. Sunlight during the middle of the day can often look flat and harsh in pictures, so if you can, try heading out for photos during the "magic hours" of sunrise and sunset.

If you are looking for great skies in your photos, try shooting photos on days when there are some clouds. A little weather can make your pictures more interesting. One other tip I once heard from a National Geographic photographer is to turn around during a sunset and look to see what this special light is hitting. Too often, he explained, we try to photograph the obvious--the sunset--while right behind us beautiful things might be transpiring. This is some of the best advice I've heard, and I always remember it when I'm out with my camera around sunset.

6. Use the Rule of Thirds

The "Rule of Thirds" is a composition trick dating back to Renaissance painting (and probably beyond) that reminds us not to center everything we photograph. While our natural instinct is to place our subject squarely in the center to draw attention to it, placing it off-center can add an extra element of interest to the photo. Basically, in your mind try to imagine a tic-tac-toe grid placed over every scene while you are composing your picture. Position the key elements in the scene at the points where the lines of the grid intersect. This gives you much more interesting and dynamic results than you get when you simply put the subject in the middle. The main problem with this approach is that most automatic cameras require you to place your subject in the middle to focus; however, most cameras allow you to aim with your intended subject in the middle, depress the shutter button halfway to lock in the focus, and then move the camera to reposition your subject elsewhere in the frame.

7. Try Fill-in Flash

Ever try using your flash in the daytime? One of the best ways to improve portraits is to use a combination of available light and flash (usually called "fill-in flash" when used in this manner). This way, the natural light of the scene is not completely disrupted, but the flash softens harsh shadows, especially on the face, and highlights the eyes. To use your flash for fill-in, simply set your camera to the "flash-on" (as opposed to auto flash or flash-off) modes. If you can set the flash on your camera at about half power (some automatic cameras have this mode as well), that's even better.

8. Watch Your Foreground and Background

Many fine photos are ruined by distracting elements in the foreground or background. Take the time to compose your shot carefully enough so that you don't include a telephone pole sticking out of Uncle Harry's head or a tree branch jutting into the bottom of the picture. Also, keep a lookout for distracting reflections that can show up if you are trying to photograph a scene with windows in the background or other reflective surfaces like metal. Try to compose your photos with a clean background whenever possible--your goal should be simplicity. Look for patterns in both the background and foreground that might add an interesting element to the picture. You can increase dramatic effect by shortening or lengthening the foreground. Include people in the foreground of your landscape shots to create a sense of scale and perspective.

9. Use a Tripod

Don't hesitate to use a tripod, especially for night shots where a long exposure is unavoidable, or indoor scenes such as in large buildings. Some of my best images have resulted when I've taken the time to set up my tripod and bracket my shots. Find a tripod that isn't too bulky so you won't get in the habit of leaving it at home--you can buy a lightweight, inexpensive tripod for $20 to $40. Experiment with scenes that offer fixed elements and moving elements, like Grand Central Station in New York. I've got some great shots from inside the main terminal at Grand Central. They show blurred people in motion hurrying to and from the trains, along with people standing still in line waiting to buy a ticket or ask for information. I also like to photograph neon signs at night, and using a tripod allows me to avoid camera shake and saturate the colors.

10. Fill the Frame

One of the great photographic masters, Ralph Gibson, once said, "I am not interested in anything except filling the surface of my print with the high tension of a snare drum." To translate, exciting photographs fill the entire frame with their subject. Think of the whole rectangle of each photograph as your canvas. Also, experiment with cropping in on your subject, sometimes cutting out legs, the top of somebody's head, anything to create a more surprising composition. Push the envelope and you may really be amazed at some of the results. One last word--these are tips, not rules. Be aware of them, but also feel free to go against them if you feel it might work. Perhaps the best advice I have ever received was from one of my photography instructors, Larry Sultan, who said, "If you feel the urge to take a picture, don't hesitate."

 

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