With cameras on our phones, everyone is a decent photographer these days. It’s easy to grab a snapshot or a selfie at a moment’s notice. But sometimes it’s difficult to capture mementos of our travels—nature shots seem ho-hum and boring. So here are 12 tips to help take your photos to the next level.
1. Look for even light
When you take a photo, you are really just capturing light, so you need to be able to pay attention to all your light sources and understand how they will interact with the mechanics of your camera.
Beautiful, sunny days look gorgeous but cameras can struggle with the harsh shadows cast by the midday sun. If you’re shooting portraits, place your subject in the shade to get the same exposure on their face and body. You can always bump up the brightness using a photo editing app to get it exactly how you want it to look as long as the light is even.
If you’re shooting a landscape photo, try angling your body so that the sun is at your back, shining on whatever you’re shooting. Unless you’re into artsy stuff, in which case, I love the look of bright, dappled sunlight coming through tree branches with just a hint of a lens flare. This technique works especially well for Spanish moss, the silver garland that hangs from live oak trees in the Southeast especially in the Low Country where it is just about everywhere you turn.
2. Understand the exposure triangle
Here is a brief summary of the three parts of your camera’s exposure.
ISO: This sets how “sensitive to light” your camera becomes. A higher ISO number means the camera will be more sensitive so you can use a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture, but will also be progressively more grainy with higher and higher numbers.
Shutter Speed: This sets how long your shutter will stay open, letting light hit your sensor. Slower shutter speeds will produce motion blur if anything in your image is moving but they let in much more light allowing for a lower ISO or tighter aperture. Faster shutter speeds can “stop time” and make even quickly moving objects appear to be frozen but they let in much less light, so you’ll need to compensate with a larger aperture or a higher ISO.
Aperture: The “aperture” of your lens is much like the iris of your eye—it can be opened very large to let in a lot of light or it can be opened only a tiny bit to let in only a very little amount of light. As I discussed above, a wide aperture will produce a very shallow depth of field while a smaller aperture will produce a much deeper field of focus.
It should be obvious that ISO, shutter speed, and aperture all affect each other. If you open your aperture, you’ll need to speed up your shutter or use a lower ISO. If you change your ISO, you’ll need to adjust either your shutter or aperture (or possibly both) to compensate to get the right exposure. Once you have mastered the exposure triangle, you can leverage the parts of the triangle to more accurately capture what you see.
3. Time your best shots for the golden hour
An hour or so after dawn and an hour or two before sunset is what photographers call “golden hour.” It refers to the special golden quality the light takes on during those periods when the sun is low in the sky and its rays are slanting through the atmosphere.
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Golden hour makes any subject look a little more magical whether you’re shooting a mountain at dawn or a late afternoon desertscape. If you’re looking to capture some really special keepsake photos, plan your best shots for golden hour and watch as Mother Nature gilds your subjects with light. And if you’re shooting a sunset, don’t forget to turn around as the scene before you might be even more amazing.
4. Get close to your subject
One common photography pitfall is shooting a subject from too far away. But getting closer and filling the frame can make for more dynamic shots whether you move physically closer to your subject or zoom in a bit. You can still shoot “wide” or from further away but adding a handful of close-up shots will imbue your photo story with rich context and detail it may otherwise be missing.
5. Focus on the small things
To build off that, sometimes it’s not possible to get closer to the subject of our photos. In which case, why not rethink the subject? Instead of shooting a photo of the sunset, try focusing on something nearby instead. A stand of saguaro or a row of palm trees, a bee on a flower, or a sandcastle casting a long shadow on an empty beach. You’ll still get the benefit of that beautiful sunset light but a shot of a smaller detail is more likely to bring back the feeling of that place and time as opposed to a generic photo from further away. Sometimes specificity just makes our memories stronger.
6. Check the backgrounds
We’ve all seen funny pictures online of people who were unwittingly photo-bombed by their surroundings. Animals popping up unexpectedly or a background object captured at just the right moment to make it look like it is part of something else. When you’re intently focused on capturing your subject, it can be easy to overlook unwanted elements in other parts of your photo. Like a shirtless guy drinking beer just behind your smiling partner’s shoulder or a dog in the middle distance picking that exact moment to heed nature’s call.
So take a second to scan your photo composition and look for unwanted elements. Sometimes it pays to wait a few extra seconds for tourists to clear your shot, giving the illusion that your surroundings are more serene than they really are.
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7. Selfie safety
A hiker in Arizona recently slipped and fell 700 feet to his death after trying to take a selfie on the Flat Iron Trail in Lost Dutchman State Park. Time and again, the smallest misstep, distraction, or lapse in judgment has resulted in severe injury or death. To help raise awareness, the National Park Service published a guide to safe photos. “Be aware of your surroundings whether near wildlife, thermal areas, roads, or steep cliffs,” the website says.
Stay focused on your surroundings, not your shot. Tripping, slipping, and falling whether into water or from great heights have all led to selfie deaths. One moment of inattention or distraction could mean the difference between life and death.
Keep your eyes focused on where you’re going and where your feet are more so than what’s in the viewfinder of the camera especially if you’re trying to take a selfie. Make sure your feet are planted firmly before you line up the shot and then don’t move once you do that.
8. Consider a selfie stick already
Sure, they’re kind of silly and we all had a good time making fun of selfie sticks when we first heard about them, but the thing is, they can be useful. For one thing, you can take more than selfies with them. They’re perfect for capturing group shots without leaving anyone out. No need to set the timer and dash to get in your own family photos. It’s like having an extra-long arm to help you angle your camera perfectly, so you don’t have to cross your fingers and hope a stranger has good photography skills and the patience to get your shot just right. And if you happen to be in an area where there’s no one around to take your photo, well, then nobody will judge you for using a selfie stick, will they? It’s goofy, it works, I don’t have one but you can embrace it. I won’t laugh!
9. Look for a flat surface
In case this isn’t obvious, tripods are perfect for setting up things like long-exposure photos, videos, and group shots. Monopods also provide support for cameras and help photographers steady their shots and are less cumbersome to tote than tripods. But if you’re a casual photographer, you might not want to lug a tripod (or monopod) around with you.
Keep your eyes peeled for flat surfaces where you can prop up your camera to capture shots that require total stillness. For instance, you might set the self-timer and then run into the frame to capture a cool portrait shot on a solo hike. Or maybe you want to do a time-lapse of fog moving across the water or the moon rising. Get creative with your surroundings to help get the shot you want.
And if like most of us, you’re using your phone as a camera, there are some very cool, bendable mini-tripods you can get online to help position your shot.
10. Use a BlueTooth remote
Another easy hack is to buy an inexpensive BlueTooth remote control to trigger your shutter. Rather than using a self-timer, you just keep the small control in your hand and press the button to signal to your camera or phone to take a shot. It’s great for self-portraits or setting up your camera to capture skittish birds while you hide behind a tree. Or, shy, small, peaceful wildlife, like rabbits. Don’t do this with bears.
12. Go ahead and burst
Burst mode is when a camera just automatically takes shot after shot of stills in a row. You can typically trigger this function by holding down the shutter button on your camera or phone. It’s great for capturing quick-moving action, like someone doing a cartwheel or a cheetah going for a run. But it is just as handy for getting selfies or group shots because you’ll capture twice as many photos as you typically do, allowing you to sift through the stills for the perfect moment.
You can also use burst mode to create really cool stop-motion effects, almost like a movie, since there are subtle changes from shot to shot. There are a million ways to experiment and play with burst mode, so let your imagination fly.
13. Be ready—moments come and go quickly
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a perfect position to capture a truly memorable image but had my camera in my bag, or turned off, or on the wrong settings. Some shot opportunities only last a second or two and if you don’t have your camera in your hand, turned on, and set to reasonable settings you may miss it. When I’m shooting, I’ll frequently double-check my camera settings. I’m constantly adjusting the exposure triangle (see above) to fit what I’m shooting so I can be ready when the opportunity arrives.
We’ve all heard that practice makes perfect but I prefer the adage that perfect practice makes perfect. Photography is an art form that requires a lot of mental thought be put into every shot. I’d recommend practicing each of the previous tips one at a time until they all become second nature and you can easily do them all at the same time. Then you’ll be armed with the tools you need to truly capture what you see.
We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.