People always fixate on new gear and traveling to far away lands to shoot better photographs. The truth is that there is a lot you can do to improve your photography without getting new gear or even going any place new.
Here are five steps towards better photographs that are easy and won’t cost you anything.
1. Photograph Early in the Morning or Late at Night
Taking photos early in the morning or at night will instantly make things more dramatic. It will exaggerate shadows, increase color saturation, and decrease harsh lighting contrast. Also, sunrise and sunset are simply more visually interesting for landscape photography.
Another advantage of shooting early in the morning or at sundown/night is the ability to use long exposures. The same shot taken at noon could look 10 times better taken at dusk with a 30-second shutter. Long exposures make water look impossibly calm, clouds look fantastically dramatic, and make stationary portions of the image pop with amazing sharpness.
If you aren’t shooting early in the morning or late at night then watch the weather. If you are taking pictures on a beautiful sunny day you are going to have harsh direct light resulting in awful high contrast. Your best pictures will be taken on cloudy days when the clouds work like a gigantic softbox to produce perfect soft light.
2. Use Multiple Aperture Settings and Focal Lengths
When taking photographs you may fall into the habit of using familiar settings. You may have a go-t0 focal length or maybe you keep your aperture wide open all the time. These things are common. I almost always have my 35mm prime lens on my camera and it is almost always set to 1.8. That is the most comfortable focal length for my everyday photo work. I always keep my aperture wide open to let in as most light as possible because I do a lot of low-light photography and street photography where I need that lens speed.
However, when you are setting up to take a photo you should take the time to try out other settings and focal lengths that are outside your go-to settings. Shooting a landscape you might want to try stopping down that aperture since you don’t need the extra light and see how much extra sharpness you get and how your depth of field increases. Maybe swap out your everyday lens for a wide-angle lens to get more interesting perspective and take in more of the scene.
By using multiple settings and focal lengths you are giving yourself more options. You turn one photo into four five photos. You can decide which one you like best later but why not give yourself as many variations as possible?
3. Use Lines
Lines can be a photographer’s bestfriend. Lines draw the viewer’s eye to an image. You can use leading lines to pull the viewer’s focus to a specific point in the image. Leading lines can draw the eyes through the image forcing the viewer to take in the entire photograph.
Leading lines are probably the easiest landscape photography concept to understand and master. Even if you didn’t know about the concept of leading lines in landscape photography you probably will notice that you have been using this technique subconsciously. When you look at your photographs you will notice that when it was possible to have a line run through an image you probably framed the shot to do so. It is just aesthetically pleasing.
Lines can also be used to evoke an emotional response. Straight vertical lines can convey a sense of peace or tranquility. Jagged or irregular lines or swirls can evoke feelings of confusion, fear, or anxiety. Diagonal lines can be used to give the image a sense of action or motion. Perfectly horizontal lines can create a feeling of stability and lack of change.
You can also use lines to make photographs more interesting. Lines in the background of an image can make the subject in foreground pop.
4. Get Closer
If you aren’t happy with your photographs then you are probably not getting close enough to your subjects. This is especially true for street photography and portraits. When shooting on the street it is nature to feel uncomfortable getting up close and personal with total strangers. People tend to stay a little bit back when photographing a stranger. Another thing people do to avoid awkwardness is photographing from the side and not getting head-on with your subject.
You have to get past the fear of photographing strangers and get closer. The best street photographers get images that are head-on directly in front of the subject and as close as possible. You really want to be within a couple of feet of the subject and not at an angle but just straight-on, in their face. That is how you get the best images.
This is a hard one for me personally. I hate the awkwardness that comes with photographing strangers. I especially hate having to close to a person and just snap a photograph of them. I started off photographing people looking at their phones or not paying attention. That is a good way to dip your toes into the water.
The problem with photographs of people not paying attention is they tend to be less interesting. The lack of eye contact usually makes the image lack emotion. Sometimes it will work great but most of the time eye contact is what really shows emotion in a person.
To get comfortable photographing people making eye contact I started taking snapshots of people when they were coming down the stairs while I was going up or people passing by running or on a bike. These are good subjects for those who are uncomfortable getting close to strangers for photos. People in motion passing you by aren’t going to ask you why you photographed them and you won’t have that weirdness that comes with photographing someone in a crowd then having to stand next to them for an extended period of time afterward.
If you want to do a day of street photography try bringing a buddy along with you. Having someone with you will boost your confidence and allow you to feel less like a weirdo photographing people on the street. It also allows you to use a great street photography technique:
Have your friend pretend to be your subject and stand in the general direction you are shooting in. Everyone will assume you are taking pictures of your friend who is pretending to model but you are actually taking pictures interesting people or things going on behind or next to your friend.
5. Change your Point of View
It is always good to vary your vantage point. People have a tendency to always hold the camera up to their eye and shoot from eye level. There is nothing wrong with shooting from eye level, that is how we spend most of our time perceiving the world. It is kind of boring though.
Trying getting down low and looking up and getting the view from a dog’s vantage point. This will make buildings, people, and objects appear to be much taller especially with a wide lens. Try holding your camera up and shooting from a bird’s eye level looking down. It creates an interesting point of view of even a very common scenario.
The best suggestion I can make for you when it comes to vantage points is to start shooting from the hip. I rarely ever look through the viewfinder when I shoot street photography (I sometimes use the waist level “super scope” on my Yashica t5 to compose an image but not often). I typically hold my camera in my hand at hip level like I am just carrying a camera and then I shoot from the hip. It draws less attention to you when you take pictures, it allows you to capture people much more naturally (when people see you looking through a camera they tend to pose or react in some way making it less natural).
Shooting from the hip is tricky. At first you will probably take a bunch of pictures of nothing or people with their heads cut off. Once you do it for awhile you start to know you what your cameras field of view is and you will get better at angling your camera then you will really be able to practice this technique.
Now go get em tiger!