One of the major differences between average photographers and professionals is that the pros spend a lot of time thinking about composition while amateurs just point and shoot.
You will greatly improve the impact of your photos and hopeful move out of the armature ranks by following these few easy tips.
The Rule of Thirds
It's not a hard and fast rule, but you should always mentally divide your viewfinder into a grid and try to place your subject at one of the focal points. The upper and lower horizontal lines represent the ideal location to place the horizon of a landscape picture. It depends on whether you want more surface or more sky in the photo.
You can also bring out your main subject by making the background go out of focus. Use your camera aperture priority mode and set as large an f/stop (about F2.8) as your camera will allow. If your camera has a zoom function you could use it to zoom in and achieve the same results. Use optical zoom only for best results.
If the subject is in shadow compared to the rest of the picture, you should use a fill-in flash to properly expose the face. In order to eliminate shadows, do not place the subject too close to a wall etc.
Recommended camera settings for portraits:
Focal length: 100 mm
Aperture: F2.8 (as large a f/stop as is available for proper exposure)
Exposure / Shooting Mode: Aperture Priority / Portrait
Flash: Fill-in, if face is in shadow
When shooting landscapes you usually want everything in focus all the way to infinity. Therefore, you will want to use as small an f/stop as your camera will allow.
You should use a wide-angle lens setting and consider adding a foreground object to help draw the eye into the photo. Experiment by isolating different portions of the scene using an optical zoom lens. And of course always apply the law of thirds.
Recommended camera settings for landscapes:
Focal length: 38 mm
Aperture: F16 (as small a f/stop as is available for proper exposure)
Exposure / Shooting Mode: Aperture Priority / Landscape
Tripod: Yes, for long exposures
Vary your shooting angle
Instead of always shooting at eye level try shooting overhead, waist-level or ground-level. When photographing small children or animals get down to their level for best results.
Steady the camera for sharp pictures
The key to getting sharp photos is keeping your camera steady while pressing the shutter button. Digital cameras are so light that special care is required to hold them steady during shooting. Squeeze the button very gently, making sure you don't jerk the camera as you press the shutter button.
When using an LCD preview, make sure that you hold the camera to your body to prevent movement.
Consider using a tripod especially in low light situations, long zooms or slow shutter speeds. If you don't have a tripod try leaning against a wall to help steady your shot. Another option is to rest the camera on something solid such as a table.
You can also lock the focus and exposure by half-pressing the shutter button. To do this, compose your shot, press the button halfway down, and then depress it fully. The picture will be taken immediately, so you don't have to hold steady as long.
Framing the shot
The first thing to decide before taking a picture is what's the main subject. To compose your shot, you either need to move your subject around or get closer yourself. Try to frame it, so that your intended content fills most of the picture area. Don't forget to use the law of thirds.
Take time to check your framing in your camera's LCD or optical viewfinder before you press the button. Always check to make sure that the horizon is straight.
Zoom in or move closer to your main subject in order to reduce distracting elements.
Sometimes you will want to simulate movement such as a race car going by at a racetrack. Use a fast shutter speed or pan the camera to follow the subject to maintain focus. Done correctly, panning will keep the subject clear, while blurring the background, giving the impression of motion.
Getting the exposure right
Digital cameras use a light-sensitive chip rather than film to capture an image. The camera is designed to let light through a hole (aperture) on to the chip for a limited amount of time (exposure). Digital cameras use auto exposure to take care of exposing the picture for you. But there are a few things about aperture and exposure that you should be aware of.
A digital camera will gather the same amount of light with a large aperture and a short exposure or with a small aperture and a long exposure, but the image won't look the same. A wider aperture will reduce the depth of field, so that only objects at the focal point are in sharp focus. This is great for isolating a person from a busy background, but not so great for landscape photos, which require that everything be in focus.
Cheap cameras have a fixed aperture, so only exposure is affected by light. More expensive cameras offer programmed exposure modes, such as Landscape (narrower aperture, greater depth of field, longer exposure), Portrait (wider aperture, reduced depth of field, shorter exposure) and Sport (shortest exposure to freeze motion), while high-end cameras also offer full manual controls.
Even with a fully automatic camera, you can modify the exposure. Point the camera at the object you want correctly exposed and half-press the shutter button. Move the camera to compose your shot, and then squeeze the button fully to take the picture.
Many landscape photos turn out too dark because the exposure is overly influence by a bright sky. The trick is to lower the camera so that the light meter exposes more for the foreground area and then press the shutter button part way in order to lock in the exposure. Then re-compose the shot as before and press the shutter completely.
Use the appropriate camera setting
Digital cameras allow you to take pictures at different quality setting. The higher the setting the better the photo quality. Higher settings use more memory then lower settings. If you intend to make prints, always use a medium or high setting. The low setting should only be used when all you want to do is view the pictures on your computer or send them by email or over the Internet.
Automatic exposure settings can produce an unnatural reddish glow when shooting indoor pictures. Most digital cameras automatically adjust the white balance to compensate for oddly colored lighting. However, this may not always result in natural looking photos. If your camera allows you to set the white balance mode manually give it a try. The result will be a picture with more natural looking colors.
Most digital cameras come with a wide-angle lens as standard. This enables you to get the whole scene into the frame without having to stand too far back. However, it's not so great if you can't get close to your subject. That is why it is recommended that you buy a camera that includes a zoom lens.
Digital cameras usually have optical zoom and digital zoom. Digital zoom is a way of using the camera electronics to simulate additional detail, but this will produce a degraded image. It is best to use the camera's optical zoom and stay away from digital zoom as much as possible.
Bear in mind that using zoom reduces depth of field, so make sure you carefully focus on your subject, and be aware that objects at different distances won't be as sharp. Zooming in will also magnify camera movement, so it's very important that the camera is well supported.
Wide-angle lenses are good for getting a whole room into the picture but are not ideal for portrait pictures. If you get too close with a wide-angle lens your subjects face will appear distorted. It's always better to stand back a bit and use some zoom. Make sure you focus on the eyes.
Auto-focus is great, but it isn't perfect. Most digital cameras tend to simply focus on what's in the center of the picture. If your main subject is not dead center, point your camera at the subject, half-press the shutter button, re-compose to the desired scene, then finish pressing the shutter button. This will ensure that the main subject is perfectly sharp.
When taking close-up photos of say flowers, be aware of your camera limitations. Most cameras will only focus down to about a foot or two. A better way to get real close is to use the macro mode if one is available.
When taking wide-angle landscape shots, the camera will normally focus on infinity. This may result in closer objects not being in focus. If you focus on an object about 10 to 15 feet away, the foreground will be sharper and you'll still get the background in focus thanks to depth of field.
Use flash creatively
Generally, poor lighting conditions results in poor pictures. Usually you don't need flash for normal daytime outdoor shots unless it's very gloomy. Keep in mind that flash has a very limited range so it should only be used when the subject is fairly close. Use fill flash to help lighten up a subject which in deep shadow.
It is best to avoid using flash indoors unless absolutely necessary: it tends to burn out subjects and can create harsh shadows. A better choice is to bounce the flash off the ceiling if your camera and flash support this option.
Another option is to let as much daylight in as possible and, turn on all of the lights. You have the option of using fill flash when there's enough light in the scene but your subject isn't well lit.
Under certain circumstances you might want to turn the flash off and let the camera deal with the low light condition by increasing exposure. This won't work in very dim conditions, but can give better results than flash. Be sure to guard against camera shake.
Experiment - experiment - experiment
People take good pictures not cameras. It's up to you to compose the shot carefully, making sure that the lighting is correct, etc. Digital cameras are great for this. You can experiment by taking as many test shots as you like using various camera settings, compositions, etc. You get instant feed back by way of the preview screen. If you don't like the shot, it can be deleted right away. "Practice Makes Perfect".
I hope that these photo taking tips will lead to better picture taking skills.