20 Easy Techniques For Improving Your Photos

We all want to take better pictures, here's how.

The difference between satisfying and blah portraits can be as simple as adding a second light. For indoor flash pictures, it can add color, depth, a sense of place, or visual texture in the form of highlights and shadows. Let it illuminate a subject from behind (called a rim light) or above (hair light) to add interest and dimension, as well as separate your subject from a dark background.

Your second light can be an inexpensive shoe-mount flash set on a flash foot or lightstand. Because it must fire simultaneously with your main light, though, you'll need a synching device. With an accessory flash that packs wireless TTL capability (a good idea), the camera itself triggers the flash. Otherwise you'll need a slave trigger. The least expensive option is an optical slave (activated by the light from your main strobe, not from radio or infrared signals). Optical slaves are built into some flashes or are hot-shoe add-ons often called "peanuts." Look for one that can be programmed to ignore the preflashes that many DSLRs fire to determine exposure-accessory slaves such as the Wein HSD ($70, street) and flashes such as the Metz 28 CS-2 ($120, street) do the trick.

With synching issues resolved, the fun begins. Customize your second flash with a diffuser, colored gels, or light modifier such as HonlPhoto's Speed Grid or Speed Snoot ($30, each, direct; honlphoto.com).

2. How To… Show Motion With Flash:

If you take a flash photo with a slow shutter speed, a moving subject will appear as a sharp image amid a blur, an effect called ghosting. It can be used to depict motion dynamically within the frame. But there's one problem: Because flash synchronization usually occurs at the beginning of an exposure, forward motion will look like it's going backwards as the ghostly blur extends in front of the subject.

To remedy this so the blur trails behind, set the flash to trailing sync. Also known as second-curtain sync, this mode fires the flash near the end of the exposure. On your camera, the control can be found anywhere from an external switch to a menu selection, so check your instruction manual.

Try shutter speeds in the 1/8-1/30- sec range for walkers, runners, cyclists, or skateboarders. The faster the motion, the longer the blur trail will be. Slower shutter speeds also elongate the ghost. If you want the effect of frantic motion, pan with your subject at a slightly slower rate than its speed-this will add a streaky, smeared background. As with many special effects in photography, practice is key.

When you want your most distant subjects in focus, you could rack your lens out to infinity. But then closer elements might turn out blurry. How to set focus to get all the depth of field you can? Figure out your hyperfocal distance.

If your lens has a depth-of-field scale, switch to manual focus and simply line up the infinity focus mark with the line for the aperture you're using.

No DOF scale? With your aperture set, switch the lens to manual focus and trigger depthof- field preview (most DSLRs have this). Start with the lens focused close, and gradually dial to a more distant focus until the farthest object sharpens. (If you don't have a light-tight viewfinder eyecup, cup it with your hands.)

At smaller apertures (f/11, f/16, etc.), the finder image may be too dim to evaluate focus. If your DSLR allows live view in the LCD, you're home free-in live view, stop the lens down with DOF preview on, and gradually focus the lens back to get infinity just sharp. Use the live-view zoom magnifier to get it perfect.

Without live view, just guess the hyperfocal distance using the DOF preview, and take a picture. Use the image magnifier in playback to check the focus in the frame. Infinity not sharp? Focus the lens a little farther away, and take another picture. Infinity in crisp focus? Focus the lens a little closer, take a test shot, and see if you can squeeze some more foreground into focus.

4. How To… Get The Most From Your Polarizer:

Most people use a polarizing filter to enhance blue skies, but you shouldn't overlook the purpose for which it was invented: controlling reflections. When you photograph a window, it'll reveal objects behind the glass. Shooting architecture? Cutting reflectivity can enhance a building's appearance.

You can also reduce or eliminate reflections and glare on water- deepening the blue in sunlight and allowing you to capture what's under the surface. With a twist of the polarizer, enhance the greens or yellows or reds of foliage and flowers. It can even cut atmospheric haze in broad mountaintop scenics.

With any SLR, or any digital camera that has live view, adjusting the polarizer is simple: Just rotate the filter until you get the look you like in the prism finder or LCD. Keep in mind that a polarizer can't completely eliminate spectral reflections-highlights with no tone at all-especially those coming off metal.

5. How To… Separate Autofocus And Metering:

By default, DSLRs autofocus and meter the exposure simultaneously when you press the shutter button halfway (or all the way) down. But sometimes you don't want to meter and focus on the same thing. And sometimes you want the button to activate only the shutter.

Say you're shooting tennis on a variably cloudy day. Since most players dress almost entirely in white, metering off them would result in serious underexposure, and the moving clouds would likely require frequent remetering. You'd also want to pick a point of focus that doesn't change when you press the shutter button.

In a situation like this, first set your exposure manually: Press the shutter button halfway to meter, then dial in the aperture and a shutter speed fast enough to capture the action. Pressing the shutter button now will not change your exposure, so you must meter and adjust again when the lighting changes.

Next, hunt for a button most DSLRs have on the back-usually within easy reach of your right thumb-that can be customized to activate AF. On Canon DSLRs, it's marked with an asterisk; Olympus models label it Fn. Using the custom function menu, assign AF to it (Nikons have a dedicated AF-on button already), and you can use this to set your point of focus independent of metering, auto or manual.

The blue hour is the narrow window between sunset and the black of night when skies turn a deep cerulean. Night shots gain depth, and many subjects pop better than they do in daylight.

Because the blue "hour" rarely lasts more than 15 minutes, it helps to set up in advance. Find your subject and camera position while there's still sun. For distant subjects that you can't light with flash, you'll need a tripod-have it in place, your camera mounted, and all its controls where you want them. If your camera offers a special long-exposure mode, use it.

Play with white balance to get the most exciting shades of blue in your background. Pick subjects suited to the Tungsten setting- cityscapes, well-lit buildings, amusement parks. For portraits lit by mixed ambient light, arrange the shot so your main light (and WB) is Tungsten. But the deep azure of the blue hour is usually intense enough that even Auto WB will yield cool photos.

Flash opens up other blue-hour possibilities. For portraits, try attaching a warming filter such as a Rosco Cinegel #3420 ($6.50, street) over the flash head and set WB to Tungsten. Set your flash to trailing sync, and set a long shutter speed-1 sec or more. (Beware: Too long can wash out the background blue.) Then, as the shutter opens, have your subject take a slow step backward, striking a pose just before the flash fires near the end of the exposure. Your subject will be rimmed by a halo-like dark shadow.

7. How To… Straighten Out A Skyscraper:

Stand at the base of a tall building and look up. You see the building narrowing as it gets higher, but your eye/brain computer allows you to perceive it as perfectly rectangular. But take a picture of it, especially with a wide-angle lens, and it will look too wide at the bottom and too narrow at the top. This perspective distortion is called keystoning, after the trapezoidal building block.

Serious architectural photographers use tilt-shift lenses or view cameras to deal with keystoning, but you can often fix the picture without pricey gear.

The trick is going to an even wider focal length. Move back as far as you can while still keeping an unobstructed view of the entire building, and shoot with the camera perfectly level. (A hot-shoemounted bubble level helps with this.) Sure, you'll have a whole expanse of unwanted foreground at the bottom of the frame, but that's what cropping is for.

8. How To… Set The Right White Balance:

Think of your camera's white balance (WB) settings as a set of electronic color filters. They counteract color casts in the existing light to render a neutral or near-neutral color balance in your photo.

Automatic WB usually works well, but there are times when it pays to set it manually: In a scene with a single predominant color, automatic WB can be fooled into overcompensating-throwing an amber filter over a field of dense blue flowers, for example. And in some scenes you may want a warmer or cooler, rather than neutral, tone.

The simplest manual WB setting is a preset. Cloudy WB acts as an amber warming filter to counteract chilly blue light. The Tungsten preset acts as a strong blue filter to compensate for the yellow of household incandescent bulbs. The Fluorescent preset uses a magenta tone to cut down the green color cast of standard fluorescent lights.

Most DSLRs also let you set WB in Kelvin color temperature. The higher the number, the warmer (yellower) the filter; the lower the number, the cooler (bluer) the filter. Many cameras let you use a Kelvin setting to fine-tune the WB presets.

Finally, you can create a custom WB. Place a photo gray card (not a white card) in the light falling on the scene, and make a WB reading with your camera. (The procedure differs from camera to camera, so you'll have to consult the manual.) You usually can fine-tune this setting with the Kelvin controls.

Of course, if you shoot in RAW format, you can fiddle with WB when you convert your files.

One of the hottest current trends is also wet: Compact waterproof cameras that can capture photos and video while submerged. (See The 5 Best Waterproof Compact Cameras, for some of the top new models.) But shooting underwater requires some special techniques to get the best pictures:

  • Move in. Light falls off much more quickly underwater than in air, so get closer to your subject than you normally would. Having a wide-angle lens with good closefocusing capabilities is a particular boon below the surface.

  • Forget the flash. Don't count on your built-in flash to add light. Since it's so close to the lens, it will illuminate any small particles between you and your subject (an effect called backscatter).

  • Check your white balance. Some waterproof cameras have more than one underwater WB setting because what's appropriate for a swimming pool differs from what you'd want while snorkeling in the Caribbean.

  • Get creative. When composing underwater, make the most of what you've got. In a pool? Try capturing the bubbles that form when someone dives in. Also try shooting up from just below the surface, as partially submerged subjects provide a perspective you'd never get on dry land.

  • Use the strap. Most waterproof compacts can be submerged only to 10-33 feet while maintaining their watertight seals. If you drop the camera, it might sink down too far, so attach a strap or flotation device. Want both? Olympus makes a floating wrist strap for its underwater compact models.

  • Keep it clean. Always rinse your waterproof camera in plain water when you're done, to clear out any chlorine or salt water.

High-key portraits pose lighthued subjects against white backgrounds, with important subject contours defined by shadows-exactly the opposite of low-key, in which a dark subject is defined by highlights. The highkey effect is one of visual and emotional lightness and simplicity.

This technique suits young children, romantic renderings, and anyone with problem skin. Your subject's expression should be happy or at least neutral. It's counterproductive to use highkey to convey depression, anger, or uncertainty, and inherently dark subjects (your Goth cousin, say) resist the treatment.

Because you will be reproducing the face as light as possible, it often makes sense, especially for women, to use a light application of eyeliner and/or eye shadow so the eyes don't wash out. (This works for children, too.) And use a light red lipstick, even for men and children.

Err on the side of overexposure. Push the histogram to the right, and if it falls off the chart, no worries- with high-key, losing a little highlight detail is often a good thing.

11. How To… Shoot Flattering Portraits:

Save hours of image editing by setting up portrait shoots to minimize your subjects' flaws. Here are common issues and their fixes.

  • Problem skin: Zap wrinkles or blemishes by positioning your main and fill lights just above the camera position (one right, the other left), overexpose, and reproduce the image as high-key as possible. Avoid side fill and keep your subject from smiling. Try a subtle-but-effective soft-focus filter, such as Tiffen's Soft FX 3 (from $40, street).

  • Bags under the eyes: Use front light only, with lights at eye level. Lift the camera slightly, and have your subject look up into the lens while keeping the chin down. Apply a little foundation makeup under the eyes, even on men.

  • Double chin: Shoot down onto your subject from slightly above. Ask your subject to lift the chin while looking up toward the lens, and position your lights as high as possible to throw the chin into shadow.

  • Weight issues: Lift the camera to eye level, and try to light the face exclusively, letting the body go into shadow. Crop out as much of the body as possible, and dress the subject in clothes that blend with the background. For tight head-and-shoulder portraits, have the subject turn slightly away from the lens, and light the far side of the face, so that the broader, near side of the face is in shadow.

  • Large nose: Shoot straight on as your subject looks directly into the lens. Light so the nose casts no shadow.

12. How To… Feel The Noise:

Sometimes there just isn't enough light. Maybe you're shooting in a dim place where you can't use a flash, or maybe your camera's weak pop-up will make things worse rather than better. So you crank up your ISO and get what you can. The result? Lots of noise, and an image almost too dark to print. When you brighten it, the noise only becomes more apparent.

Instead of trying to ignore the noise or clumsily reducing it, work with it. Convert the image to blackand- white and disguise the noise as grain-think old-school, pushprocessed, fast b&w film.

If you're using Adobe Photoshop Elements 7, start by going grayscale using the black-and-white converter under the Enhance menu. Use Levels to simultaneously adjust brightness and contrast. Bring the black and white point sliders (the ones directly under the histogram) closer to the center to add contrast. Then move the gray, middle slider to the left to brighten the image. You'll get a gritty black-and-white, and no one will guess you didn't plan it all along.

Yes, you really can make people disappear from a crowded landmark or cars vanish from a highway. Just buy an overall neutral-density (ND) filter, whose gray tone cuts light without affecting color in the scene. (Street prices start at around $20.)

The trick is to use an exposure time so long that anyone walking, running, or even dawdling in the frame blurs out completely. If they're moving relatively quickly, a 10- second exposure might work, but you'll usually need anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes.

For instance, an overcast outdoor scene typically needs an exposure of about 1/8 sec at f/22 and ISO 100, too short to rid it of people. To get the exposure to 30 sec, you'd need to cut light intake by 8 stops or so.

If you're shooting in a truly dim environment, you may not need an ND filter at all. So indoor spaces lend themselves more to this technique. You need a tripod, of course, and you should set the smallest aperture (largest f-number) you can.

How much ND to use? Each 0.3 of density will eat up 1 stop of exposure, and each stop doubles your exposure time. So, if the right exposure without a filter is 1 sec, a 3-stop reduction in light will let you shoot at 8 sec.

Filter makers produce ND filters up to a humongous 3.0 density, or 10 stops-that will take your 1 sec exposure to 1,024 sec, or 17 minutes and small change. Singh-Ray makes a Vari-ND filter that can be dialed anywhere from 2 to 8 stops of light loss. (It's pricey though: $340 and up, direct; www.singhray.com.)

With too much ND, you may not be able to see through the viewfinder, and it may be too dim for your camera's meter and AF. So compose and focus with the filter off the lens, take a meter reading, and double the exposure time for every stop of light your ND filter will eat up after you've put it on.

For a picture that feels more like a tone poem than it does a news report, try throwing your entire image out of focus.

That's the starting point for fine-art photographer Marc Yankus (www.marcyankus.com) in creating such images as "Tower". Although his artwork involves a lot of work with imaging software, he captures a beautifully blurry shot entirely in his camera using a lens that focuses manually. Usually shooting at twilight or in very low light, he handholds for exposures that can run as long as 5 seconds.

How does Yankus know when he's reached the right level of defocus? Instinct. "When I'm taking it out of focus, at a certain point the image starts to have a poetic feel to it," he says. "It starts to be in focus in my world."

Zooming in or out during an exposure, called motion zoom, creates colorful streaks that converge kaleidoscopically toward a single point. The effect can be either cool or cheesy, so boost your odds with these strategies: lPick Colorful, Contrasty subjects. Holiday lighting is close to a sure bet. Deepen the colors by setting your DSLR to its top saturation level.

  • Speed up and slow down. Experiment with both long and short shutter speeds. Shutter speeds of 1 sec or more let you use the entire zoom range, producing pure abstractions, often with little or no recognizable subject. Shorter speeds produce an identifiable subject surrounded by dream-like streaks of color. With some subjects, either way works.

  • Control aperture. Small apertures (high f-numbers) produce thin streaks, while larger ones give you broad smears of color.

  • Go both ways. Try zooming in (starting at the widest focal length) and out (starting at the longest) for two distinctly different looks.

  • Use a tripod-or don't. You get straighter streaks and a stronger sense of structure when you use a tripod. Don't want structure? Handhold and move the camera left, right, up, down, in, or out as you zoom. To create a vortex, twist the camera as you zoom.

If you've ever taken an intro photography course-or read The Fix-you've heard this many times: Never put your subject in the center of the frame. Instead, you're told to compose your image according to the Rule of Thirds by placing the most important element one-third of the way from the top or bottom and from either side.

Feeling rebellious? Put your subject smack-dab in the middle, then crop to a perfect square. This works perfectly with round subjects such as sunflowers, clock faces, and domes interiors-particularly if you crop in tight enough for your subject to fill the frame.

With a portrait, whether of man or beast, leave a little breathing space around your subject to avoid a feeling of claustrophobia. And, while the subject as whole may be centered, the picture still follows the Rule of Thirds-look at where the eyes and mouth (or, in this case, nose) wind up.

17. How To… Take Great Portraits On The Beach:

A sun-filled day at the beach can be heavenly, but it can also be exposure hell, especially for portraits. The light is glaringly bright and the shadows dismally dark. A common scenario has the subject turned away from the sun to prevent squinting, throwing his or her face into deep shadow.

With so much dynamic range to cover, if you meter for the shadowed face, much of the sunlit background will be overexposed by several stops. Remedy this by posing your subject seated on the sand, using it as a giant reflector. Or use fill flash, either from a built-in or shoemounted unit. Start in your favorite autoexposure mode, then dial down the background using exposure compensation. Start at -0.5 EV, and keep going until background colors are rich but not murky. When you've found an exposure for the overall scene, add flash for your subject. If you own a LumiQuest, Ken Kobré, Gary Fong, or similar diffuser, pop it into place.

Start with flash exposure comp at 0, then try +0.5 or +1 EV of additional flash fill to brighten your subject. (When the flash calls attention to itself, you've gone too far.) Want to mimic the effect of backlighting but still have detail in your subject's face? Reverse the compensation: Dial up the background by 0.5 to 1 EV, and dial down the flash by -0.5 to -1 EV.

18. How To… Depict Architectural Detail In Seconds:

Architectural details, such as the bases of columns, moldings around doors, pedestals, and balustrades can pay off in arty prints for decorating almost any room in your home. Use an approach similar to the one used by the architect who originally drew the details. How?

  • Shoot head-on. Record the object with your camera's imaging plane perfectly parallel to the primary subject planes. Whether it's a vaulted doorway, window casement, cornice, arch, or arcade, shoot it centered and straight on, without tilting the camera. (If you must tilt, follow the advice in "How to... Straighten out a skyscraper".)

  • Play up parallels. Place strong parallel lines in your subject parallel to the image edges.

  • Forget color. Try monochrome.

  • Look old. Tone your print to look antique with the sepia settings in most image editors, or by using Adobe Photoshop plug-ins such as Nik Software's powerful Silver Efex Pro ($150, street).

  • Filter it. Architectural details are one of the few subjects that benefit from Photoshop's Artistic, Sketch, and Stylize filters.

  • Group them. If a single detail is underwhelming, match it with a second (or third or fourth) image. Grouped images that share leading lines or dominant shapes can succeed as diptychs or triptychs, adding up to much more than the sum of their parts.

19. How To… Capture The Make-A-Wish Moment:

Getting the classic birthday-cake shot by available candlelight is no piece of cake. You have to deal with tricky technical issues (exposure, color balance, noise), as well as the human factor (usually a young and probably antsy subject), and then get the shot within just a couple of seconds. So planning is key. Your best bet is to do a rehearsal shot beforehand with a stand-in and the appropriate number of candles on a table. Then…

  • Speed up. Bump your ISO to 3200 or beyond-you want to get the shot, noisy or not. For a very young child, use thickwick candles, because three or four skinny birthday candles don't shed much light.

  • Preset exposure. Spotmeter a face near the lit candles, and then set that as a manual exposure. (Auto can be flummoxed in scenes like this.) Use a fairly wide aperture (f/3.5 or f/4) but one that gives you some leeway on depth of field. You want a shutter speed no slower than 1/100 or 1/125 sec-remember, the kid's going to move.

  • Hold steady. Tripods are impractical here. Use a monopod, tablepod, or articulating support such as the Gorillapod. No 'pod? Brace your elbows on the table or the back of a chair.

  • Set white balance. Use the Tungsten preset. This will keep the scene amber, but not excessively so.

  • Prefocus. Set your focus on the far edge of the cake. This is where most faces end up at the end of "Happy Birthday." And use manual-AF takes time to hunt in these scenes.

  • Shoot a burst. Start it early and end it late. If your camera can manage a decent number of RAW exposures in a burst, shoot RAW for more control over the image in editing later.

20. How To… Bring Your Own Background:

The insects and flowers in your backyard can be your best subjects. Because the yard is your own, you're intimately familiar with the best lighting conditions and the best seasons to photograph all the life that's there. But familiarity can breed monotony, and there's a good chance you need to shake things up.

Enter the portable (and simple) backdrop. One of the best props for outdoor, backyard photography is a pack of colored construction paper. To set up your shot, choose a color that contrasts with your subject. Then set a wide aperture to get shallow depth of field, and ask a friend to hold the paper far enough from your flower that the paper falls out of focus. Make sure the sun's at your side to avoid casting a shadow on the backdrop, and shoot away.

For a photo that looks more studio than great outdoors, wait for a bright, cloudy day, and let the sky be your softbox. Need a bigger background? Savage (www.savagepaper.com) makes seamless paper in rolls as narrow as 26 inches. Want a background of blue sky with puffy white clouds? Take a picture of blue sky with puffy white clouds, get a big blowup of it, and mount it on foamcore.