Mike is the author of the eBook Hacking Photography: A Plain-English Guide to Taking Impressive Photos – Fast. Click here to view more details
There is a widely accepted rule called The Pareto Principle also known as the 80:20 rule. In short, it states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the efforts. I find that in learning photography, this can even skew much higher. This means that potentially improving 5% of your photographic knowledge in the right places, could improve your photography by 95%!
10 photography hacks that will dramatically improve your photos
Hack 1 – Turn the flash off of automatic!
Camera manufacturers are often too eager to make the flash pop up even when it gets slightly dark. This is actually a retention tool for them. If the flash pops, the photo won’t look as good but people won’t be blurry because the flash freezes them in place. If enough new photographers see blurry photos (even though they are caused by improper photographer technique) they will assume something is wrong with the camera and take it back for a refund.
Instead, keep the flash closed and increase the ISO. In all the camera modes except Manual mode and Shutter Priority, increasing your ISO will cause the camera to increase your shutter speed to have a better chance of freezing people in motion. Now shoot the photo. It will use the ambient (available) light, which typically has more color and character instead of a bright face and black background.
Hack 2 – Get in close to your subject…then get closer
Most people think that they have to step way back and get a lot of space around the subject to get the whole scene. Your subject is not a mime that is stuck in an invisible box, it’s okay to cut off their foreheads, legs, or lower half every now and then! Try getting a close-up of someone’s face from the eyebrows to the mouth. Here is a quick example:
The problem with zooming way out for every photo is that it doesn’t make it plainly obvious to the viewer what is the point or subject of the photo. I’m a huge fan of subtraction – the less there is in your photo the better. The best images are simple and very clear to the viewer what “story” you are telling with your images.
Hack 3: Eliminate the clutter
This is huge! The best images are ones that are simple and have breathing room for the subject. Try to find the simplest background possible. It’s no different than walking into a super cluttered house versus walking into a clean minimalistic space with very few items to distract you.
If you are taking a photo of a person, take the extra second to look around and find a minimal background that doesn’t distract the viewer.
Hack 4: Look for repeating patterns
Ever hear someone say that a photographer “just has the eye for it?” I disagree. This is a learned skill, not something that you are born with.
As you walk around, take notice of buildings, windows, patterns in brickwork, etc. I was walking by a building I walk by all the time and something suddenly ‘clicked’ and I realized there was a really cool pattern in the brickwork I had never noticed before. I ran home and grabbed my camera to shoot it before I forgot again.
Hack 5: Shoot from interesting perspectives
I would argue that 99% of photos most viewers ever see are shot from eye-level where the photographer was standing – the same viewpoint we see 99% of our lives from. It’s no surprise when you go to the top of a huge building and look down at a city that it’s visually stunning because we don’t see that perspective very often. You see this birds-eye-view used a lot in food photography.
The same goes for getting down on your stomach and shooting straight up to the sky. Anytime you are afforded a unique viewpoint it’s always interesting to the viewer.
Hack 6: Look for symmetry
Your viewer will do backflips if you can find an image that perfectly reflects the same thing top to bottom, or right to left! How many times have we seen something every day then see a photographer create an image that is an entirely different view of that item?
I took a photo trip to Italy and consciously tried to capture as much symmetry as I could. Here is a quick symmetrical shot:
Always keep an eye out for perfect symmetry!
Hack 7: Straighten your lines
Instead of just clicking away when you see something interesting, take the extra second to make sure horizontal lines are horizontal, and vertical lines are vertical. We all have the habit nowadays of just pointing our cameras in the general vicinity of what we are shooting. I propose you take a moment and line yourself up perfectly with that building or person.
Hack 8: Max out the aperture
What most people perceive as “artistic” photographs (AKA better than most) are ones that use a big aperture (small f-number) to blur the background or foreground, to call more attention to a subject. If you are using a kit lens your aperture will likely only go down to f/3.5, which isn’t a very big aperture.
The biggest impact item, and cheapest investment in gear that can make your photos go from okay to awesome is a lens with a huge aperture. I recommend purchasing a 50mm f/1.8 new on Amazon for $130-200 (Canon 50mm f/1.8 or Nikon version) or you can usually find them in perfect condition, used, for between $80-150.
Hack 9: Know where the light is coming from, and the quality
It’s funny how easy it is to take great photographs if you are just simply aware of these two things. Think about this: if you are shooting a photograph of someone outside and the sun is directly behind him or her, they will show up as a dark silhouette. If all you did was switch positions with this person so they are facing the sun, they will be nicely lit.
Being aware of the direction and quality of light can also ties into step 4 above. I walked outside of a building, looked down an outside walkway and noticed the shadows formed a really cool pattern because the sun was very bright and coming in from the right. This made an interesting arch pattern that almost looked like an MC Escher sketch.
Hack 10: Use the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is the simplest and most under-utilized tip in the book. Are you ready for the quickest and easiest lesson yet? Here we go: go into your camera and turn on the “Grid” function which will show a grid in your viewfinder with horizontal and vertical lines when you look through it. 99% of new photographers put their subject smack in the middle of the frame when they compose the photo. The viewer also sees 99% of photos with the subject right in the middle of the frame because they look directly at a person, item, etc. This gets really boring really quickly, as we discussed earlier.
The tic-tac-toe rule
Imagine a tic-tac-toe board when you look through your viewfinder. Some cameras have a ‘grid’ function you can turn on to see this through the viewfinder. You always want to line up the point of interest where the lines meet each other. When you compose your photo, line up the point of interest at either 1/3 to the right or left of the frame, and/or the top or bottom 1/3. You want to give your subject room to breathe in the frame.
I caught this at a huge Halloween party Miller-Coors sponsored. You can see who got the attention at the intersection of the top and left 1/3 marks. Note the people on bottom all line up with the bottom horizontal 1/3 line.
If you follow these 10 hacks, your photography will take a giant leap forward. I recommend experimenting with one of these hacks per day for 10 days. After you get used to thinking about each one, you will eventually internalize the lesson so it will just happen instinctually. That’s when photography really gets fun. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.
Please share any additional tips in the comments section below.
For more on these hacks grab Mike’s eBook Hacking Photography: A Plain-English Guide to Taking Impressive Photos – Fast, Click here to view more details.