Improving your photography is a life-long process. However, there are a few things you can do right now that will dramatically improve your photography today.
Have you ever noticed how a professional photograph looks so clean and uncluttered? That isn’t an accident. Things like branches, power lines, and other out-of-place items can really distract from your photo. Before you press the shutter button take a moment to identify the main subject of your photo and then glance around the frame (LCD screen or viewfinder) to see if there are any distracting items.
If the item is easy to move, then take a second and move it out of the way. I am always breaking off a stray piece of dead grass or removing an unwanted piece of trash.
If the distraction is a power line or other immovable object, then move yourself to a different angle or, if your subject is a person, have the person move.
When neither of these options are possible, you can zoom in on the main subject to cut out distracting items.
I wanted to capture my niece on the swing set and couldn’t cut out the background clutter no matter where I positioned myself. Obviously I couldn’t move her. My solution was to zoom in on her to cut out as much of the background clutter as possible.
The two photos above are very similar except for that irritating branch in the lower left corner of the left photo. When I am focused on something beautiful like a sunset and mountain, it is sometimes difficult to remember to glance around the frame before snapping the picture.
NOTE: Most camera viewfinders do not show 100% of what you are photographing. Even if you eliminate all visible distractions, you might still end up with a piece of branch or other item on the edge of your photo. After paying attention to this for a while you will get used to your camera and be able to compensate. You can also remove little distractions on the edges by slightly cropping the photo once you have it on your computer.
Focus Where You Intend to Focus
Let me start by saying that there is no judgement here and I am not trying to be sarcastic. This hint seems too obvious but in reality is so easy to overlook when you are in a hurry to capture a moment. Every camera has one or more focus points that may look like a cross or a rectangular box on the screen or in the viewfinder. When you are using autofocus and pressing half-way down on the shutter button the box will change color and beep when the camera has found focus. Most DSLRs have multiple focus points and you can select which one or which group of points you want to use (see your owner’s manual). For now we will just focus (no pun intended) on using the center focus point. Make sure the focus point is on your main subject when you lock in the focus. If desired, you can then move your camera to your preferred composition (while keeping the shutter button pressed half-way) and take the photo. As long as you don’t let up on the shutter button during this process your main subject will remain in focus. This is called focus and recompose. Many cameras also have the option of designating a separate button for focus so it is not necessary to hold the shutter half-way while recomposing the shot. This is called Back Button Focus and will be the subject of a future post. If you are interested now just Google Back Button Focus or look in your owner’ manual.
In the photo on the left my focus point was on the rock to the upper left of the coffee mug. It is easy to see that the writing is blurry and the mug is out of focus. I know I have several snapshots where my main subject is out of focus but something in the background is perfectly clear because I wasn’t paying attention to my focus. In the photo on the right my focus point was directly on the coffee mug.
Keep it Level
This is perhaps the easiest thing to miss and the easiest to prevent. I can’t think of how many times I have returned home, downloaded my photos, and been shocked at how crooked a photo was. It is hard for me to believe that I didn’t notice while I was taking it. Sometimes I’m not even sure how I could get the photo so crooked without falling over while I took it. Usually there are certain situations where this is more likely to happen.
One of those is where I ask my husband to pull over to the side of the road (again) because I see something beautiful I want to photograph. I jump out, quickly get my settings right, snap a photo, and jump back in the truck before my family starts to get impatient with me. I don’t always take the time to check my horizon to make sure it is level.
This is a perfect example of being in a hurry so my family wouldn’t get impatient. The 7 degree temperature also caused me to rush. Thankfully, I checked my viewfinder after the first photo and realized it was crooked.
Another situation is when I am lying on the ground or crawling around trying to get a different angle. Part of this problem stems from the fact that I am usually holding my breath and contorting myself into some odd position that I can’t hold for very long. The other part of this problem is that our natural feeling of what is level is based on standing looking at an object. Being low or at an odd angle changes the perspective and makes it even more important to double check to make sure the items in the frame are level.
When photographing an expansive landscape it often becomes obvious that the mountains or formations themselves are not level. Here you just have to do your best to find a happy medium.
Here I was lying on my side with my 30 pound pack on my back trying to get everything straight and stay stationary. I was fighting an awkward position and several layers of formations that were not all level. I thought I had everything level until I looked at the back of my camera after the first photo. In the photo on the left I was trying to get the foreground and cairn level but didn’t pay attention to the towering Titan in the background. For the second photo I needed to make sure the long vertical lines of Fisher Towers were straight and and not worry about the foreground.
NOTE: It is easy to use editing software – even what comes with your computer – to straighten a horizon. The down side is that your photo gets cropped when you do this. If you spent the time to get the composition just right then it is a bummer to lose parts of your photo when it has to be straightened.