“What a great shot – you must have an amazing camera.”
If you ever want to insult a photographer by taking years of dedication, practice and experience out of the equation, you now have the perfect put down. Funnily enough, when Lionel Messi scores a wonder goal, no one says it’s because he’s wearing amazing football boots.
Photography has its own set of rules. Abide by most of them, break some occasionally and delete 10 times as many photos as you keep, and you’ll be fine. Remember: less is more, especially when it comes to posting your images online.
1 Take a deep breath
We upload an astounding 1.8 billion photos onto social media sites every day and, while a picture used to be worth a thousand words, some of the snaps that appear on my Facebook feed are worth a whole lot less. Nowadays, the majority of photos are taken with a mobile phone and one simple action would improve at least half of them. Breathe in, breathe out and then press the shutter release button. Your hands should be at their most steady after you exhale. Smartphones are relatively light compared with traditional cameras and even minor shaking will result in a blurred image.
Ever had a friend tell you they love one of your photos but when prompted, can’t explain why? Composition is usually the answer. A road, river or railway is perfect for leading the viewer’s eye into and around the image. Photographers add depth and dimension to landscapes by including foreground interest for the eye to settle on before heading further into the scene. Divide your frame into a nine-square grid and place your subject on one of the imaginary intersections, so it’s a little off centre. You’ve just applied the aesthetically pleasing “rule of thirds”.
For a striking portrait, focus on the eyes and get in as close as your camera allows; it’ll make your shot more dramatic. Avoid cluttered, distracting backgrounds by filling the frame with your subject. Lamp posts sprouting out of heads are rarely flattering. Most photographers have a tried and tested way of putting people at ease – a Kazakh horseman or an Egyptian fisherman is bound to be apprehensive if a stranger starts poking a lens in his face.
Ask first and make sure your camera is primed and ready to shoot. People hate waiting while you fiddle with dials only to discover the battery is flat. When photographing young children, get down to their level for a more powerful perspective. Posed photos of beaming youngsters melt hearts but it can also be helpful if your subject is immersed in an activity, especially if they’re doing something with their hands. Click away as many times as you like while they fidget and pull faces. Delete buttons are wonderful things.
Nobody has ever won a photo competition with a bleached shot of someone squinting in the midday glare. Beware of high-contrast lighting such as streets bathed in bright sunshine on one side and lost in gloomy shade on the other. Our eyes can cope with the extremes of light and dark but the scene is sure to confuse your camera’s exposure meter.
Happy hours for photographers are just after sunrise and before sunset, when the light is softer and more forgiving. Use the middle of the day to scout out locations and return later. Don’t put your phone or camera away if the sun isn’t shining, though. Skin tones are rendered more accurately on overcast days.
Beginners use their built-in flash the wrong way round. Turn it off for sunsets or evening vistas; leaving it on can trick your camera into making adjustments for more light than there really is, resulting in murky, underexposed photos. Conversely and counter-intuitively, turn on the flash if you’re taking portraits on a sunny day. It’ll help fill shadows with light.
You should also use a daytime flash if the subject is strongly back lit – posing on a balcony, for example – otherwise you’ll end up with an unintentional silhouette. Keep within range: your phone or camera flash illuminates only a few metres in front of you – it doesn’t light up the entire night sky. This is particularly important for group pictures (eg. diners at a long table) where subjects in the foreground can appear washed-out while those at the back barely emerge from the shadows.
If you’re at the beach, wait until the sun is low and the sky is a riot of tangerine and crimson. You now have a canvas and need to work fast. Don’t be tempted to stand at the water’s edge snapping happily away. You’ll end up with a series of “so what?” images (like that above). What you need are silhouettes. Is there a volleyball game, a herd of water buffalo or a couple strolling arm in arm along the sands?
Adjust the white balance (check under Settings) to “shade” or “cloudy” for a soft, peachy hue and remember that the sky is often at its most colourful about 20 minutes after the sun has disappeared and everyone else has gone home. And please, please make sure the horizon is horizontal. A sunset silhouette of a yacht can be breathtaking – but not if it appears to be sailing uphill.
For cityscapes when there are no brilliant colours, take a series of pictures in the 10 minutes before the sky turns an inky black and you’ll end up with a soothing indigo hue.
Unless you’re a Photoshop expert, keep it simple. Free phone apps come with some rather overpowering effects so confine your tweaks to crop, exposure, sharpen and red-eye reduction. Digitally manipulating our treasured images can work wonders but every so often we capture a magical moment that no amount of editing would improve. A friend recently e-mailed me a stunning family photo he’d taken at the Taj Mahal.
“Beautiful,” I gushed. “You must have an amazing selfie stick.”