7 Non-Technical Tips for Improving Your Photography Right Now

By Jim Hamel

Seems like every time someone gives tips about improving photography, they start with something technical. That is understandable; there is a lot of technical stuff to learn in photography. At the same time, it seems like there should be some non-technical things that could be done today — right now — to improve.

Turns out, there are. Here are seven non-technical tips you can use right now to make your photographs better. Try them out next time you are photographing. I guarantee instant improvement in your outdoor photography.

1. Fill the frame

This cannot be overstated enough. We all tend to put some background elements in our picture so that our viewers will recognize the location or context of the picture. The trouble is, beginners always put way too much context in the picture and it dilutes the subject. In any event, we humans are amazingly perceptive and can place context of the photo with only the tiniest of clues.

Next time, try to include just the subject.

Dark, dramatic black-and-white photo of an old barn by James Hamel.

Keeping the exposure dark adds drama to this photo of an old barn. Photo by James Hamel

2. Make it darker

Different levels of exposure create different moods. This is especially true of underexposure. It creates a sense of drama and sometimes mystery. Another benefit of slightly underexposing your images is that it makes your colors appear more saturated. Don’t overdo it, but next time try to knock the exposure level down a touch.

3. Get close

A close cousin to the “fill the frame” tip (it bears repeating) is to get close to your subject. Now get closer. Now get closer still. You actually still might not be close enough. Keep at it.

Bird flying above Rock of Cashel. Photo by James Hamel

A nice photo of the Rock of Cashel made more interesting by a bird flying across the frame. Photo by James Hamel

4. Wait for action

So, you’ve got a great scene lined up. Maybe it is a landscape, maybe an urban scene. Go ahead and take the shot, but then recognize that you probably just got the same shot as
everyone else.

The scene isn’t going anywhere. Wait for an interesting development. That might be a person walking through the scene. It might be a flock of birds. It can be anything, so keep your eyes open. That extra something can be the thing that sets your picture apart from countless pictures of the same thing.

You don’t need to wait around all day, but another minute or two might make all the
difference.

Tree branches frame a windmill at sunset. Color photo by James Hamel.

Using tree branches to frame in two sides of a photo of a windmill at sunset. Photo by James Hamel

5. Frame the subject

Oftentimes you will find yourself before an interesting subject, but with no interesting
background. A great solution to this problem is to use a frame within your frame. It can be a complete frame, or a partial. The most obvious examples are doorways, windows, and tree branches, but almost anything can be used.

6. Fortify yourself

Right before you go out to take pictures, look at the best photography you can find. If you don’t already have your favorite place(s), start with the Popular page at 500px. Doing this right before you head out seems to always lead to better pictures being taken.

I know you don’t believe me, but it makes a BIG difference. Try it and your will be a believer.

7. Take multiple exposures

Don’t just take one picture and walk off, assuming you’ve nailed it. Take pictures from
different angles. Get low, then get higher. Get behind your subject and then in front of it.
Pros call this “working the scene” and it is not uncommon for them to take dozens of pictures of the same thing from slightly different perspectives.

Remember that with digital photography it costs nothing to take pictures — so take advantage of this and take a lot of them.

Do it today

These are all tips you can put into action today. You don’t need any special equipment.
The total cost of all extra gear needed to put these tips into action is $0. So give them a try and you should see immediate improvement.

Jim Hamel

Jim Hamel

Jim Hamel is not just a great photographer, writer, and teacher, he’s also one of our very own TAPC members. Check out his free photography guides and tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. You can also see this original unedited article (with three more tips) and even more images.

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Just a Light Touch: Story Behind the Photo

By Bill Webb

photo of a great heron and its reflection in pond taken by Bill Webb

Just a Light Touch – by Bill Webb

 

This great heron was photographed at the Colleyville Nature Center as it flew above Angler’s Pond.

I had been watching this particular heron for quite a while and using it as practice for birds-in-flight photography.

I had come to recognize the signs that it would take flight, and I felt that it would fly over this pond and toward another one. That helped me anticipate where it would go.

Sure enough, almost on cue, it lifted off. With my shutter release set to continuous high-speed, 1/1600s, f/6.3 and ISO 1000, the camera clicked away, and I was able to capture the beauty of this heron’s flight as the wing tip barely grazed the surface of the pond.

I’m still practicing and learning how to capture birds in flight, and this is my favorite image so far in that quest.

Photography on the Go

Ballard Locks photo by Mangesh Sangapu

Ballard Locks – before

By Mangesh Sangapu

On a recent trip, I challenged myself to take, edit, and post my photography while still on the trip!

Normally, my editing process does not begin until I reach home. However, our toddlers require naps, and this turned out to be great for my photography workflow. During the downtime, I went through my camera to screen, transfer, edit, and share the photos.

Ballard Locks photo by Mangesh Sangapu

I tweaked this image using several features: brush, white balance, color adjustment, highlights, and shadows.

After we returned home, I went through my normal workflow and found only two additional photos needing edits. While my process is not unique, I wanted to share in case it may be of help to someone else.

Getting connected

Transferring the photos from a camera to a mobile device can be done in numerous ways. Some options are: OTG card reader, Wi-Fi, and USB direct connection.

OTG card reader

OTG card reader

The OTG card reader and USB direct connection require an additional hardware component in order to use.

For simplicity, I am a proponent of Wi-Fi. It’s one less item to carry and maintain. However, these are all good ways to transfer, and your workflow should include whichever one works well with you.

Editing Apps

Snapseed Tools Menu

Snapseed Tools Menu

Editing the photos can be done via mobile apps such as Photoshop, Snapseed, and others. For my workflow, I mainly use Snapseed, which is available for both iOS and Android.

Snapseed users can edit photos using swiping gestures. Users can edit history and revert to any prior actions. It has multiple filters and special effects like drama, grunge, vintage, center-focus, frames, tilt-shift (which resizes photos), lens blur, glamour glow, HDR scape, and noir. The interface is simple and easy to use.

Sharing the photos

If you can transfer and edit the photos on your mobile device, then sharing the photos should be a cinch!

highrise building photo by Mangesh SangapuThere are many popular sites today for sharing your photography! I say do it with a group of people who are as passionate about photography as you are.

Snapseed users can directly share the images on social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram. Text/email attachments and uploading to the cloud are also great options.

highrise building photo by Mangesh Sangapu

For this transformation, I used rotation, highlights, shadows, and an image filter.

Final thoughts

Next time you are on a trip, see if you are up for the challenge. Transfer, edit, and share your photography on the go! See how it compares to your current workflow. It might be something you find yourself incorporating more often than you think.

Thirsty Hummingbird photo by Mangesh Sangapu

Thirsty Hummingbird

hummingbird photo by Mangesh Sangapu

To get this image from the one above, I used a phone app to crop tighter and adjust the white balance, highlights, and shadows.

Happy photographing!

Mangesh Sangapu is the creator of OpenFilmmaker.com, where he blogs about photography and film.

Moon Over Cimarron Mountains: The Story Behind the Photo

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By Jay Gosdin

Cimmaron Mountains at sunset photo by Jay Gosdin

Earlier Photo: This really shows that returning to the same location year after year produces new and exciting pictures and makes you more productive.

Both planning and luck come into play with landscape photos. This picture was one year in planning and shot outside of Ridgway, Colorado.

The previous year at the same exact time, I shot this at a different angle and won a ribbon at the club. (Photo at right)

One year later, I was not expecting the moon to be rising at the exact time of the sunset light on the distant Cimarron Mountains.

Getting the moon like this in camera without using a composite only occurs at rare times, thus, the luck in the picture. But I knew the strange maroon light on the mountains would be the same if shot at the same time of the year and at sunset.

Moon Over Cimarron Mountains by Jay Gosdin (f/11, 1/30, ISO 100, 100mm)

Are you fluent in photography?

By Darren Wiedman

photo of dragon fly

1st Grade – Shot from eye level with a busy background, but at least the bug is in focus. Composition needs some work.

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.”
~ Emily Dickenson

We are all too old to remember if it was difficult to learn our mother tongue. But we can all probably agree that mastering a second language is much harder, especially if your mind is no longer as spongy as a two year old’s.

In many ways, learning a new language is a lot like learning a new skill, such as photography. It’s very exciting at first as you master a few essentials, like how to turn the camera on [Hola] and how to press the shutter-release button [Muy bien]. Before long, you can actually take a picture, download it to your computer, crop it, and post it online. [La fotografía es muy fácil.]

Since I just had to look up that sentence on Google Translate, this is where the Spanish ends. But the metaphor still works in English. Spend just a few weeks with a camera, and you’ve got the basics down. Congratulations! You have the vocabulary of a 1st grader. [See Spot run.] But as you learn more, the quality of what you can create grows exponentially.

Photo of a dragon fly

3rd Grade – Perhaps a fresher look at the standard dragonfly shot but maybe too far away. Nice light on the subject.

So, as a photographer, what grade are you in? Do you have a basic understanding of composition, the exposure triangle, histograms, focal length, white balance, and flash? Do you have to consciously think about the rule of thirds, or does the most interesting part of your subject automatically land in the right spot while you shoot? Is your camera always horizontal and at eye-level, or are you letting the subject itself influence the way you capture the image?

A beginner may walk through a field, see a daisy, point the camera, shoot in Auto mode, and move on. [Title: “Flower”]

A more advanced photographer may see the same daisy, hover around it to find a simple background, wait for a butterfly to land, and shoot repeatedly until the wings catch the sunlight just right. [Title: “Monarch dancing on a daisy”].

Photo of dragonfly on grass.

5th Grade – Typical point of view but the clean background helps draw the eye to the subject. More post-processing now being used (to clean up the branches).

The veteran photographer is only in the field because she knows daisies are blooming this time of year and the best light begins at 7:30 p.m. She brought her tripod and a macro lens because she wants to fill the frame with the center of the daisy and the body of a bee. She’s using a small aperture to be sure the flower and bee stay in focus. She knows she has to shoot at 1/500 of a second because she wants the bee sharp but the wings blurred. And she plans on capturing several  hundred shots like this in case she decides to do a composite image of a bouquet of different flowers and insects. And most of this is done intuitively. [Title? See Emily Dickenson poem above.]

orange dragonfly

“Hangin’ Around” by Jeanne Crockett

So how do we become fluent? We go to school (or at least online). We continue to learn. We listen to people who are better than us. We practice. We shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and our photographs gradually evolve from stilted sentences to pleasant poetry that others want to admire again and again.

See ya in class on June 24!

Patience Finally Pays Off: The Story Behind the Photo

By Jeanne Crockett

Patience Finally Pays Off photo by Jeanne Crockett

Patience Finally Pays Off by Jeanne Crockett

My passion for photography grew in my back yard, and the butterflies that come there have been one of my favorite subjects.

For years I have planted things specifically for the butterflies and have been able to photograph caterpillars and chrysalises as well as the adult butterflies. The one thing that eluded me was the moment a butterfly emerged from its chrysalis.

This fall there was a bumper crop of gulf fritillary chrysalises in my yard. At one point I counted 30! I determined that I would be there for the moment one of those butterflies emerged.

I spent several hours for a couple mornings cruising my back yard monitoring the chrysalises I knew about before this one began to emerge right in front of me. I was able to take pictures from the moment the chrysalis began to split until the butterfly flew away.

(f/10, 1/30, ISO 200, 105mm)

Transform Your Landscape Photos

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One Compositional Technique to Transform Your Landscape Photos

By Jim Hamel

Turning the corner from taking snapshots to actually composing photographs is a hard thing to do.

Landscape image of mushrooms and red barn by Jim Hamel

Landscape image by Jim Hamel

It doesn’t come naturally, and it takes experience. There is no one hard and fast rule. You can get caught up in looking for various shapes, patterns, leading lines, and other compositional elements until your head is spinning.

To avoid all of this, I want to share one concrete technique to use when you are out shooting landscape photos. It is one way to go about setting up your shot that will give you a path to successful composition. Of course, it isn’t the only way to set up your shot, and you won’t use this all the time, but it is great for helping when you are stuck.

And the tip is …

… the next time you are out shooting in a scenic location, just put on your widest angle lens and get right behind something on the ground to take the shot. I mean right behind it. That something on the ground can be anything from a flower, to a rock, to a pattern in the sand. It does not matter. What matters is that you are down on your knees with your wide-angle lens right behind it.

Why it works

Landscape image by Jim Hamel

Landscape image by Jim Hamel

The wide-angle lens will give the foreground object an exaggerated sense of proportion, but it will also pick up the background. By getting right behind something, you are adding a subject to your picture. You are creating a center of interest. You are going beyond just showing the general scenery. The background will still be in your picture as well; you just do not need to focus on that.

Another benefit is that it gives the viewer a sense that they can walk into the picture. It is providing a real foreground, that adds depth and interest to your photo.

What typifies a snapshot is standing at eye level, trying to capture the entire scene before you. For many of us when we are just starting with photography, that just intuitively seems like the way to take pictures. We want to capture the whole scene and not have it blocked by something on the ground immediately in front of us. The problem is that there is no foreground, subject, or center of interest to speak of. In addition, you are presenting the world in the exact same way as the viewer is used to seeing it, which is bound to be rather boring to them.

Putting the tip into action

Landscape image by Jim Hamel

Landscape image by Jim Hamel

How you determine what items on the ground will work as your foreground elements? That is the hard part. There is no right answer. You will just have to look. In fact, it will not be obvious even when you are out in the field looking around. There are times when you might have to walk around while looking at the LCD in live-view mode or with the viewfinder to your face to find something on the ground to use as a foreground.

Here are some examples of things you can use as foregrounds in different contexts:

  • When photographing water, use a reflection in the water.
  • When at the beach or desert, find a pattern in the sand.
  • When photographing creeks or coasts, use rocks.
  • At midday, use shadows.
  • In the fall, use leaves.

There are obviously a variety of subjects you can use. Go out and try it next time you are shooting.

Jim Hamel

Jim Hamel

Jim Hamel is not just a great photographer, writer, and teacher, he’s also one of our very own TAPC members. Check out his free photography guides and tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. You can also see this original unedited article and even more images at Digital Photography School.