20+ Simple, Useful, Clever, Fun Ways to Get Better Photos

A Tips & Tricks Special! Pros, readers, and Pop Photo editors share their secrets for taking your photography beyond the ordinary.

20-Simple-Useful-Clever-Fun-Ways-to-Get-Better-Photos
20-Simple-Useful-Clever-Fun-Ways-to-Get-Better-Photos

When it comes to great photo tips, we find them everywhere. In our daily shooting. In interviews with pros. In our e-mails from you, our readers. On the web. In books. And, of course, on our blog, Pop Photo Flash. Here are some of the best we've come across lately.

1) Above It All.
Pro wedding photographer Matt Adcock (www.flashflavor.com) goes well beyond the usual reception shots. For instance, he gets a bird's-eye view of the dance floor by mounting his camera on a long painter's pole and firing it with a remote trigger. While Adcock wields the pole and makes sure that his on-camera flash is bouncing off the ceiling, an assistant aims a remote flash covered in a red gel at the dance floor. The result: an amazing overhead shot with rich reds surrounding the well-lit couple in the center of the photo.

2) Shoot in a Flash.
It can take forever for an AF system to find focus with flash photography in low light. To get the shot quicker, switch to manual focus and prefocus as best you can. Then set the aperture to f/8 or f/11 so that the depth of field covers your estimate.

3) Ready to Fill.
When shooting outdoors, if you consistently use fill flash with reduced flash output, set it as your default -- don't wait until you're shooting to fiddle with the controls. Many of the Pop Photo editors set the flash exposure comp control to -1 EV on every DSLR they use.

4) Flash? What Flash?
Got a large outdoor scene with some important parts in shadow? The lighting website www.strobist.com offers an interesting technique. It involves placing small flashes in the darker areas of the scene to fill out the exposure or to balance foreground and background exposure. You then retouch the flashes out in postproduction.

Say you're shooting the exterior of a house and its landscaping. Often, the best time to photograph buildings is in the early morning, when the sun is low in the sky. But this can lead to problems with exposure if the front of the house faces away from the sun. Placing portable strobes in the scene and triggering them wirelessly can fill out the exposure, letting you balance the dark face with the bright sky. After a few minutes with image-editing software, all you see are the results, not the flashes.

5) Get More Byte.
If you've shot a number of frames of the same scene or the same subject, and want to choose the sharpest images, you don't have to look at them all in an image editor. Check the file size of the photos -- the bigger the file, the sharper the shot. More detail requires more bytes.

6) Tone Deft.
Simulate the subtle shades of sunrise and sunset by adjusting the preset White Balance on your digital camera. Choose the Tungsten setting (light bulb icon) to add a bluish morning cast, or the Shade setting (cloud icon) to add the warm, brownish tones of dusk. The effect will be mild, but you can exaggerate it by underexposing the shot.

7) Portrait Panache.
You don't need a full studio to make great portraits. In her new book, Portrait and Candid Photography Photo Workshop (Wiley, 2007, $30), Erin Manning offers these three tips to help make your subjects look their best, wherever you are.

Makeup, please. Almost everyone will benefit from some pre-portrait powdering to soften the complexion. Bring along a few neutral tones and a soft makeup brush.
Fast and 70mm-plus. A long lens at maximum aperture blurs the background and emphasizes the subject.
Background check. If the background is distracting, place a 2x2-foot square of fabric behind the subject.

8) Eye Scream.
When shooting portraits, nothing is as important as the subject's eyes. Even if everything else is soft, make sure the eyes are sharp.

9) The Skinny on Portraits.
Don't believe anyone who says the camera adds 10 pounds. It's the photographer who does. But with the right poses, lighting, and angles, you can make your subjects look thinner. Try these three slimming techniques:

Twist 'em. If your subjects are standing, have them take a step back with either foot. If seated, have them sit at an angle. This forces them to twist to face the camera -- stretching the torso and smoothing bulges.
Get high. Shoot from a little above your subjects' eye level. This elongates the face and makes them lift their face up just a tad -- helping to minimize a double chin.
Narrow down. Short or narrow lighting involves illuminating the side of the face that's turned away from the camera. This puts a large part of the face in shadow, making it look quite a bit thinner. You can get this effect by using a window, lamp, or off-camera flash.

10) Reflection on You.
When pro Gunther Deichmann (www.deichmann-photo.com) makes portraits in areas where the subjects might be shy, such as a remote village in Tibet, he doesn't use large, intimidating reflectors. Instead, he wears a white T-shirt.

"If you position yourself correctly in natural light, the T-shirt is a very nice reflector," he says. "No need for anybody to hold a reflector, and your hands are free."

11) Mr. Softee.
If your portrait subject needs softening, but you don't have a soft-focus filter, the pro who goes by the name Wolf189 (www.wolf189.com) suggests trying a slower shutter speed. Shooting with a continuous light source at 1/15 or 1/8 sec (on a tripod!) will usually soften wrinkles and other complexion problems just from the movement of your subject breathing.

12) Oil's Well.
Need soft focus in only part of a scene? And you still don't have your soft-focus filters? Gunther Deichmann suggests using your finger to very gently apply oil from your forehead to your lens (or better, UV filter) at a point that corresponds to the area you'd like softened. After shooting, be sure to remove the oil with a lens-cleaning cloth or tissue.

13) Sharp Self-Portraits.
Shooting self-portraits with a tripod-mounted camera and infrared remote is a great way to experiment with various techniques. But while the model works for free and rarely complains, it's difficult to get a proper focus on your eyes.

The website www.Meejahor.com has a clever way to force the camera to focus where you want it. Just darken the room and hold a small flashlight next to your eye. The camera will pick up the only area of contrast and lock on. Boom! Perfectly crisp focus right on your pupil.

14) Portrait Inspiration.
Is your portrait lighting stuck in a rut? Find a classic look that doesn't go out of style by watching old movies. Black-and-white films from the '30s and '40s are a great source of portrait techniques and, with many now on DVD, you can freeze-frame them and study the lighting. The first thing you'll notice: The lighting always matches the mood.

If it's a sultry scene with a starlet, you'll see an overhead butterfly pattern with some diffusion to give her a soft, dreamy look. When a man needs a rugged, chiseled look, there's hard-edged short lighting. Funnymen look brighter in broad light.

15) Car Talk.
With shiny surfaces, lots of reflections, and so many angles to shoot from, cars can be challenging subjects. Try these three tips to put your images into overdrive:

Get low. Unless you can shoot from 3 to 4 feet above the roofline of the car, taking a dramatically lower angle can make the car look more impressive, especially against a cloud-filled sky or evening skyline.
Avoid direct flash. A head-on collision with your flash will show every flaw in the car's paint. Move the flash off-camera and use sidelighting to accentuate the lines of the car.
Wet the ground. This trick is as old as automotive photography, since water raises the contrast in the image and reflects your subject, adding a sense of dimension.

16) Get Texture.
Sometimes in postprocessing you discover that an image could use some additional texture, such as a smooth, leafy, or pebbly element. To make sure you always have some textures on hand, carry a compact camera and capture any interesting textures you come across. Use the camera's macro mode and the highest resolution you can.

17) Buy Texture.
Don't have time to go out and shoot the texture you need? Turn to the web. Go to www.textureking.com. This site sells images of textures at very reasonable prices.

18) Blink Buster.
One blinker can ruin an otherwise great group photo. Sure, you can fix the picture later if you take a couple of shots and then splice them together using software, but prevention is easier. If possible, avoid flash, though it can be tough to find a bright, evenly lit area large enough for a group, particularly indoors at a party.

Got to use flash? Tell everyone you'll fire on the count of three. Then shoot on two. This way, people are already smiling, but they haven't yet blinked in anticipation of the flash hurting their eyes.

19) Sort It Out.
Like so many of us, G. Michael Anthon of Walton Hills, OH, couldn't tell which lens was which in his camera bag. After all, from the rear end, all lenses (and lots of other things) look pretty much alike. But unlike so many of us, Anthon decided to do something about it. Now he uses a metallic silver marker to note the focal length of each on the rear lens cap. He also marks the body cap from the camera (5D, 30D, etc.) and mates it with the marked rear lens cap while the lens is on the camera.

20) Ready for Next Time. If you change a lot of settings on your camera while shooting, take a few minutes at the end of your shooting day to reset it to your preferred defaults. It could save you 15 minutes -- and some good pictures -- the next day.

Contributing writers: Luis Cruz, Kathleen Davis, Melissa Macatee, Matthew Panzarino, Dan Richards, and Jon Sienkiewicz.

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