Some things don’t change

posted in: Photography Blog | 2

Rummaging around in the bookshelves at my in-laws’ place, I discovered two wonderful old books on Photography: ‘How To Take Good Pictures’ from 1981 and ‘Basic Colour Photography’ from 1972.

_FPP7025I had a leaf through them both and was struck by just how little has really changed when it comes to techniques for making beautiful images.

Sure, the hardware’s different – these books have loads of advice on how to operate the wonderful old beasts of cameras with manual rangefinder focusing systems and all that sort of business, but the guts of it is still the same.

It’s all still about balancing your aperture, shutter speed and ISO (now digital, back then film) to make the exposure that you want. The rules of composition, balance and harmony are all still just the same as well.

Why I take from this is a reiteration of the old photographer’s adage: You don’t need a fancy camera to make a beautiful photo, and a fancy camera will not automatically make your photography better.

In particular, I enjoyed reading a section in How To Take Good Pictures entitled ‘The Ten Top Techniques for Better Pictures’. The advice still stands today, so lets take a look at them:

The Ten Top Techniques for Better Pictures


1. Move close to your subject. Whether it is a village church, the Matterhorn, or a child with ice cream, get close enough so that you see only the most important elements in the viewfinder. Failure to observe this simple guideline accounts for more unsuccessful pictures than any other photo mistake.

Fill the frame with your subject. Great advice, there. If you’re using a zoom lens, zoom that bugger in! If you’re using a prime, foot zoom! Get in close and fill the frame with what you want to see.


2. Make sure that your automatic or manually adjustable camera is adjusted to give correct exposure. If your pictures are too light or too dark, check the camera manual and the film instructions. Remember to set the film speed (ISO, ASA, or DIN number) on most automatic cameras and sometimes the shutter speed or the aperture. On a manually operated camera, set the film speed, shutter speed, and aperture.

Ah. Exposure. Now that we have the magical technology that is called Metering (TTL, iTTL, Matrix, Spot, yaddayaddablah) we have a much easier time of getting our exposures how we want them. What determines ‘correct’ exposure is entirely subjective and totally depends to what the photographer wants to achieve, but in essence the rule totally applies today. Understanding your camera’s metering system and working with it to achieve the effect you want takes the guess-work out of making beautiful images. Look for that funny little slider thingy on your LCD or in your viewfinder, learn what it does, and figure out the difference between ‘Matrix’, ‘Spot’, and ‘Centre-Weighted’ metering. Learn to love Spot Metering and work out how to move the ‘spot’ around and you’re a long way to mastering exposure.



3. Carefully observe both background and foreground in your viewfinder before you take the picture. Clutter or confusing elements tend to dilute the strength of your subject. Keep your pictures as simple as possible.

Rule number three is essentially ‘Eliminate! Eliminate! Eliminate!’. Remove clutter from your photos. This is very good advice – a photo with too much going on is confusing to the eye, whereas a photo with a carefully chosen subject invites you to linger and look at it. It’s a simple, bold statement rather than the screaming of a crowd of metaphorical toddlers vying for your attention. Unless of course you’re actually photographing a crowd of screaming toddlers, in which case go right ahead….

This one also contains another piece of advice that is worth paying attention to: if you spend a little time looking around the scene in your viewfinder before pressing the shutter you will often find small ways that you can improve the composition of a photo. There’s an entire blog post on this that I will write soon, but for now let’s just stick with ‘take your time, look around the scene and pay attention to the background as well as the subject’.

4. Correctly exposed flash pictures must be made with the flash-to-subject distance range for snapshot cameras. For automatic or manually adjustable cameras, the distance determines and adjustments to be made.

Flash. There are some folks out there who say that flash makes photos horrible and should be avoided at all costs. These are people who do not know how to use a flash.
What rule number 4 is referring to is that a flash only works over a limited range, and that range is actually a lot less than you might think based on how dazzlingly bright it is when it goes off in your face! Modern flashes, particularly external ones, when combined with TTL metering are rather good at adjusting their power output to avoid over- or under-exposing an image, but they are nonetheless still quite limited. There’s also a whole blog post in flash use (it’s on my to-do list, ok?) so for now let’s stay on-topic for the excerpt of the book and be aware that your flash needs to be adjusted according to the distance to your subject and if your subject is too far aware then the flash is bloody useless.

5. Hold your camera steady. Shaky hands or punching the shutter release button may give you blurry pictures. Brace the camera with both hands against your forehead and smoothly press the shutter release.

Yup. Good, solid advice (see what I did there?). Unless you’re outside in bright sunlight and your shutter speed is something ludicrous like 1/8000s you’re always at risk of camera-shake. For DSLR users, learn how to correctly hold your camera – don’t hold it like a point-n-shooter (see below demonstration)

Hand under the lens, wrist straight, elbows tucked in. Use your chest to brace your arms as shown in the picture on the left. Using the technique from the picture on the right makes you look like an idiot and results in blurry photos.

Modern, stabilised lenses are pretty good at preventing a lot of camera-shake, but can only do so much. Help them out by using correct technique or brace the camera using a tripod, monopod or anything else that’s handy to reduce shake. Cable-releases or IR shutter buttons are also useful tools, especially if you’re doing long-exposure stuff.



 6. Become thoroughly familiar with your camera. Read the instruction manual carefully so that you’ll be comfortable making adjustments under a variety of conditions. As you read the manual, keep your camera in hand for reference.

Yes indeedy! Sure, there’s that fantastic setting called ‘Auto’ on most modern cameras, but you’ll never really take creative control of your images unless you learn how to work with the other settings. And, honestly, for DSLR owners, what on earth is the point of owning a bloody expensive piece of kit if all you ever do is use it like a point-n-shoot?
Auto mode is designed to produce a photo that is evenly exposed, with a lot of it in focus and, realistically, boring as shit.
Read it! Understand what every knob does and experiment with it until you instinctively know how to adjust it to whatever situation you find yourself in. You are hereby banned from using ‘Auto’ mode.

7. Set your subject slightly off-centre. When shown dead-centre in a picture, your subject may appear static and rather dull. Experiment to see where different subjects look best. Some cameras take square pictures and others take rectangular ones. If your camera takes rectangular pictures, you can get both horizontal and vertical pictures by holding the camera flat or on end.

Aside from the square vs. rectangular bit – seeing as practically all modern cameras take rectangular images (Instagram doesn’t count) – this is definitely a great piece of advice for today. The ‘rule of thirds’ is a fantastic thing to pay attention to and it will improve your images no end. It’s often scoffed at by elitist twits as a noob tool, but they are elitist twits and should therefore be universally derided. Sure, when you’re confident you can break the rules and be a bit ‘out-there’ with your composition (just don’t be an elitist twit, ok?) but placing your subject on one of the thirds, or setting it/them off-centre some other way is going to dramatically improve your images.

8. Rather than posing people in a starchy, uncomfortable manner, engage them in a natural, absorbing activity to take their eyes off you and the camera. When people are doing something familiar, their bodies and faces will relax. The couple below was posed, of course, but the picture-taker found a way to draw their attention and commemorate a holiday at the same time.

If you’ve got a subject who is uncomfortable having their photograph taken, this is a great piece of advice. I have spent considerable time being hired for family portraits and my best results, especially when it comes to young kids, have always been from taking the family to a park or playground to do their own thing while I run around taking photos and getting involved in the fun.



9. Watch the direction of light in your scene. People tend to squint in bright, direct light and the dark shadows are often unattractive. Light from the side or from behind your subject may be more effective than light from the front. Picture-taking in the shade or on an overcast day may be better, too, if it is possible with your camera.

Aah, light. Light, light, light. I love light so much that I’ve already written a whole blog post about it here. Learn to control light. Learn to use it. Learn to love it. Your photos will improve immeasurably.

10. Take plenty of pictures. Every professional knows that the potential for success rises with the number of pictures taken. Compared with some of the rare scenes you’ll encounter, film is far less expensive than the prospect of a missed opportunity.

Even more so, now in the age of digital where we no longer have to pay for film and you can buy a Terabyte hard-drive for $50. Take lots of photos. Take thousands of photos. Take horrible photos and then look at them to figure out WHY they’re horrible. Take some more, and chances are these ones will be better than the last ones. After all:

The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried
-Stephen McCranie


That’s it! Thanks for reading, and share it with your friends!


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2 Responses

  1. Nice read Frank,
    Must practice all the mentioned points. First on the list is point number 5. I have noticed a slight movement as I press the shutter fully. Do you have any tricks to overcome this?

    • Thanks for the feedback, Ken!
      Aside from making sure your elbows are tucked in and you stabilize the camera as per the delightful photos of me, you can always try a cable release or IR shutter release (if your camera supports it) in conjunction with a tripod. Self-timer is also an option.

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