Sunday, May 1, 2011

How to Take Better Pictures of Anything, especially your kids...

When I started having kids, I learned quickly that you take a lot of pictures.  A lot.  It wasn't until I became a doula and we started offering photography packages that I really invested any time in learning the craft though. 

I have since put hundreds (maybe even thousands) of hours into picture taking.  My husband signed me up for a class on digital photography, but to be honest I ended up half teaching it.  By then, I'd honed my skills enough to assemble a sizable portfolio.  Not to mention some kick ass pictures of my own kids. 

This is a skill worth refining.  Whether you enjoy landscape photography, high speed sports shots, family portraits or candid pictures, there are tips here for you.  The wonderful thing about digital photography is that you can take hundreds of pictures a day when you are in the learning process, then delete everything that doesn't come out the way you thought it might. 

* Lighting, lighting, lighting.  Like realtors preach about location, photographers preach about lighting.  The ability to recognize good lighting is critical for good pictures, especially of people.  Ideally, you want bright, indirect, natural light.  For instance, you want to take a picture on a bright sunny day indoors in a well lit room without any sun streaming directly in the windows.  Outdoors, this often means that overcast days lend themselves to better lighting than bright sunny days.  I could write books about lighting.  Suffice it to say that when you learn the importance of this one single element, your pictures will dramatically improve.  And it's like obscenity, you just know it when you see it...but it's pretty hard to define otherwise.

* Get down to their level.  Pictures of kids especially seem to be notorious for having been taken from strange angles.  Get on the floor and take pictures of them from down there, not looking down at them.

* Turn off the flash.  The flash is an artificial bright burst of light to help the camera clearly see the image and capture it.  Unfortunately, it often has the effect of washing out the subject or making the skin tones look funky.  Once you get your lighting perfected, you'll quickly realize that the flash is often unnecessary.  I do almost all my picture taking without the flash.  There are times you need to use a fill flash, but that is more advanced than this post is intended to be.

* Be aware of your background.  A fantastic picture of your family can quickly be ruined by clutter or other stuff in the back.  Don't just look at your subject, look behind them.

Wait until the path is clear to take the picture
* Take pictures of people when they don't know you are, and of things you wouldn't normally.  One of my favorite pictures of my son playing baseball last year is not an action shot and doesn't even include his face.  But it captures so much else.

You have to be one of two things to have a good end product: either be a skilled photographer or be really good at editing.  I'd personally rather be the first since it takes a whole lot less time.

* You don't need a super expensive camera to take good pictures.  Most digitals over $100 are good enough, with high enough pixels to take decent pictures.  You want at least 8 megapixels and adjustable settings.  Having said that, little substitutes for a digital SLR camera.  They are worth the money if you are willing to invest the time in learning how to use them.

Taken with a cell phone (and not even a fancy one)
The only way to learn is to play.  You have to get out there and experiment. 

* Don't strive for perfection. Cut off the tops of people's heads.  Put your subject off center.  Don't try to get everyone to pose and smile, capture them in action instead.  Make kids and babies laugh and get their real smiles, not the fake ones.   Some of my favorite pictures are the ones with the subject looking away, slightly out of focus, not fully smiling, walking away. 

* Focus before taking the picture.  Every digital camera I've ever seen has a pre-focus feature.  You push the button halfway down until the camera focuses.  Then there is less lag time when you take the actual picture.  You may think a fraction of a second won't make a difference, but I can assure you that it does.  Use this feature, learn to play with it.  Especially when taking pictures of kids who move around a lot, it becomes important.  This is also an important element for taking more artistic, off centered pictures as you improve.

Change the settings and see what happens.  Most digital cameras come with pre-set settings. Get to know them and use them.

- Fully automatic - this one is best for new users.  The camera will self-adjust to a standard setting and speed. 
- Portrait setting - this one is set to focus on the features of a person, at a relatively close distance, while slightly blurring the background.
- Landscape setting - this is the opposite of the portrait, intended to clearly focus distant objects, blurring closer ones.
 - Sports setting - this one has a faster shutter speed to decrease the blurriness of the image, but trades off that speed with decreased light entering the camera.  It works best in bright lighting.
 - Macro setting - usually labeled with a little flower, it is for close up focusing.  It brings items into clear focus at near distances that the automatic setting will often reject. 

More advanced cameras (especially the digital SLRs) have additional settings.   These allow you to change the camera's settings even more than the preprogrammed ones.

I could go on for pages and pages....but I will stop here.  :)  I hope that my tips help you take better pictures!   Please ask me anything if you have more specific questions, and share your improved photos!

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