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Shooting sharper: A guide to taking better pictures

Published Jun 09, 2011 04:19am

There seems to be a great magic difference between the pictures and portraits we take and the kind of professional shots we see in magazines. Maybe it’s because our friends don’t look like models (some of mine don’t even look like humans), or because Karachi’s skies are just not blue enough. Perhaps it’s because the cheap tiny cameras we get are holding us back.

But what if there is no magic barrier?

The truth is, with just a little attention to detail you can make your pictures look much more professional. This is the first installment in a series of blogs written to help solve common camera-problems, and also provide some handy tips for creative photography.

Most people aren’t interested in getting too technical, they just want to take nicer pictures which aren’t shaky or flat so that their memories are captured, and their friends won’t complain afterward about looking like vibrating convicts.

Umair, one of my colleagues at the office. I think.

 

The most commonly used cameras are PS (point and shoot) cameras, like the Sony Cybershot or Canon Powershot. We normally use these cameras in the most basic way, taking full advantage of their convenience. But in each of these little gadgets there is a whole array of interesting features and capabilities designed to help you get creative with your shots. You may also find these tips useful for your cell-phone camera, and to irritate that one friend of yours who just spent thousands on a fancy DSLR.

(To give realistic examples, I made sure that all of the pictures I used in this entry are from PS cameras and not professional DSLR’s)

Basics of the Camera

Understanding the way a camera works is always a helpful (if not essential) step towards taking better pictures. Most of us have already studied the way cameras work in school, but like many of those things (vectors, the Fourteen Points, pretty much all of algebra) it’s a bit hazy.

The physics of the camera, as I remember it from school.

 

But seriously, just to refresh your memory, this is how your small digital camera works:

The camera’s lens captures the outside light through an adjustable hole called an aperture. The focused light hits the camera’s sensor and very quickly forms an image. To provide this short exposure, the camera has a shutter which quickly opens and closes when you press the trigger-button.

Bigger apertures and longer shutter-timings give us brighter images. Our cameras automatically adjust these two according to the amount of light in the surroundings. The result is usually a well exposed picture. However all machines have their limitations and sometimes, as we all have experienced, the automatic results leave a lot to be desired.

When photographing it is very important to be aware of light, if there is abundant light around you - such as outdoors, in the daytime - then you have the ability to shoot fast, preventing any shaky images. In situations where the light is low (such as indoors, in the evening or at night) the camera’s shutter works slowly, requiring you to hold it much more steady or resort to using flash.

In special modes almost all cameras allow us to control a surprisingly large array of variables, giving us more room to customize our pictures. To start off however, we can avoid the complicated bits (I’ll go into more details in further blogs) and just focus on the basic tips that guide you towards taking nicer images.

Good photography is firmly based on some simple aesthetic rules that are very easy to understand, they include:

Framing and Composition

Whether you are shooting a person or an object, it is your ‘subject’. Try to make the subject of your picture stand out by placing it in your frame so that attention is driven to it; and avoid unnecessarily cluttered backgrounds. Move yourself or your subject around till the frame contains only what you want, and there are no distractions in your picture.

Within your frame you can place your subject anywhere, not just dead center. Try shooting with your subject on the right or left of the frame, sometimes this leads to a more interesting shot.

Lines are very important in photography; the lines in a picture will guide the eye of the viewer. These lines may be in the form of a wall, the horizon, stairs, a footpath, a building or any other objects in your shot. You can use these lines to compose your picture. Lots of diagonals give the picture a dynamic feel, while horizontals give a calm, stoic feel to your shot. In any shot that you take, ensure that you’re holding your camera straight so that lines (such as a building or horizon) are not crooked.

A picture taken one early morning at Sea View in Karachi. Notice how the lines in this photograph lead your eyes to the center, you can use lines in many creative ways to guide the viewer and give different design elements to your photos.

 

Shooting at Interesting Angles and Times Try to shoot from unusual positions, for example if you are taking someone’s picture, instead of shooting them straight from the front, move around them and let them turn their head towards you, or take their picture while they are not posing- they may be looking elsewhere, over your shoulder or talking to someone else. You can even get above or below your subject to try and get a more interesting viewpoint that is not conventional – sometimes this makes for very interesting and remarkable pictures.

A portrait of a friend as she checked her make-up in a compact mirror.

 

Experimenting with Colours

Try to observe the different colours you are seeing inside your frame, sometimes you can spot very interesting contrasts that look wonderful next to each other, and cause your subject to ‘pop’ against the background. Matching colours are also interesting because they create a ‘theme’ in the picture.

Edit your images

Always do a little bit of work on your images after you upload them onto your PC. You don’t need to be a Photoshop expert to tastefully tweak basic settings like hue, saturation, contrast and sharpness.

Another picture from that early morning at Sea View. This time a picture of my friends talking on the sea-wall while I shot from the beach below. When I edited it, I increased the contrast to emphasize their silhouettes and played with the hue and saturation settings to intensify the blue colour.

 

Here is a recent picture of my colleague Taimur, in our resplendent break-room:

Taimur, barely containing his enthusiasm at being part of my project.

 

Notice that he is shot straight from the front, the background is very cluttered and even that broken chair on the right looks more interested in posing than he does. I decided to demonstrate some of my own tips for you by trying to shoot a better portrait in the same environment, with the same camera (a Sony Cyber-shot). All I had to do was ambush Taimur one day during his tea-break.

Here’s what I came up with:

Taimur heroically contemplates the plight of the suffering masses. Either that or he's woefully eyeing the exit.

 

I tried to use my sense of framing and composition to declutter the photograph by shooting him off-center in front of the wall. This way the blue colour also provided an interesting backdrop. I also used a different angle from which to shoot him and allowed him to look diagonally rather than straight into the lens. This worked well because there was a window to the right that was casting a pleasant light onto his face. Finally I told him to keep holding his cup so that he would have something to do with his hands without feeling awkward and self-conscious. Once I had the shot, I brightened the colors, increased the contrast and improved the sharpness till I was happy with what I saw.

Getting in the right state of mind

The most important step towards taking nice pictures is to try to have fun with the camera and enjoy the process. Go over your images on your LCD display and try to imagine how to make them better. Take more than one picture from more than one angle and then choose the best one later on. Break the rules and shoot differently from the way you always have, just to see if there’s a better way. Inspire yourself by browsing through other people’s work on Flickr or other photography websites; this is the most fun way of learning how to shoot. As you begin to do this you will find your own style drive you towards taking unique and interesting shots.

If you liked this blog, do check again for my next entries, where I will address more detailed tips and techniques, like shooting in the dark, tackling shaky images, and photoshopping your pictures etc.

If these tips proved helpful and resulted in some nice pictures for you, then you can get your work published in my blog too! Send in your photo to shutterbug@dawn.com along with your name and your camera model, as well as a little background on your image and how you took it.

- All images and designs by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at Dawn.com. Follow him on twitter at twitter.com/#!/NadirSid and view some of his photography here.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.