4 Digital Photography Tips for the Year Ahead

4 Digital Photography Tips for the Year Ahead

Once in awhile, we all need to step back and take stock of where we are and where we’re going.  As readers of DPS, you probably do this periodically in pursuit of better photographic skills.  Photography should be a fun, creative outlet and way to express yourself.  Unfortunately it’s easy to get lost in the details or the vastness of it all. 

As with most talents, there are some foundations and rules on which you should build. Once you have mastered these rules, you can start breaking them to expand your creative repertoire, venturing beyond your old stomping grounds.  After all, breaking rules can be the best part of art; this is where you find your unique style as an artist. 

So if you’re just starting out, or you want a refresher on some important foundational guidelines, follow along and see what I think are four basic tips of digital photography to master before heading out into the great unknown.

(Too much headroom)

(Too much headroom)


(closer crop)

Rule #1: Composition

Composition carries a lot of baggage.  I’m going to make it simple and narrow it down to a few aspects I consider important.

Portraits and headroom: One of the most common mistakes I see photographers make is the misuse of headroom. 

The bottom line is, don’t leave a lot of space between the top of the subject’s head and the top of the frame.  Avoid the tendency to put faces square in the middle of your viewfinder where your focus brackets may be. 

In order to capture the emotions of the face, start by getting in as close as you can.  At times you may even chop off the tops of a few heads.  Unless the sky is particularly amazing or the trees more fantastic than your average set of trees, don’t try and force getting the surroundings into your image.  Generally the background should not be more prominent than the subject. 

Right are two family portraits I shot.  The image I gave the client has minimal dead space above the head and is cropped in so you can really see the emotions in their face.  The other has too much background.

Candids and framing: If you’re a wedding photographer or photo-journalist, you’ll find yourself trying to get balanced pictures that seem polished, but in fact were taken quickly. In these situations, you can’t pause the action to create nice compositions.  Not being in control of the environment, you must always scan your surroundings and move your feet in order to frame your images in interesting ways. 


Try to find lines that will draw the eye to the subject.  Use windows and doorframes, pews, people and even occasionally swords.  Not too long ago I helped shoot a military wedding and was able to get some nice compositions using these techniques.  As the couple left the chapel I noticed their silhouette nicely framed by the door and fired off a few shots.  Adding some contrast and a B&W filter, exaggerated the effect.  The other image with the traditional military arch set itself up for a nice composition.  I just made sure I was behind and inside the doorway to get the right framing.

DSC_5321 1316DSC_6354 1128

Through the distorting glass: Use your lens to distort relative sizes and perspectives.  Most commonly, I use my wide-angle lens to essentially blow-up the things closest to me as the photographer.    

A typical shot shown below is with the larger-than-life bride’s bouquet.  I usually crouch low below the bride and have her point her flowers right into the lens.  Don’t be afraid to tuck the subject away in the corner of the frame and even have them out of focus. 

There will be plenty of other standard shots; these are the creative fun ones.  The other example shown here uses the wide angle to exaggerate the length of the couple’s vintage ride.  It’s often a pain to constantly switch lenses.  Try keeping your wide glass mounted on a second camera or with a second photographer.

Note: It doesn’t all have to be done at the time of shooting.  In post-production, start experimenting with the crop and straighten tools.  Most image editing packages are non-destructive so try a few versions of an image and then get a second opinion.

For more tips on composition check out this DPS article.

Rule #2: Learn about your Camera

(Automatic Settings)

(Automatic Settings)

(Dragging the shutter)

(Dragging the shutter)

What are all those buttons and dials anyways?  Those buttons and dials can manipulate your photos drastically in ways you may not realize.  Try to wean yourself off shooting in auto-mode.  Start by playing with aperture or shutter priority and pay attention to how the camera balances the exposure.  When you feel like you have a handle on things, have a go at manual. 

Like I said above, you have to know the rules, not so you can follow them but so you can know when to break them. 

For example, I frequently use a technique called “dragging the shutter”.  This effect requires some manual tweaking and is best achieved outside of your automatic modes.  Dragging the shutter allows you to control how much ambient light you let in while still using your flash to pop and freeze the subject.  

Below are two otherwise identical photos.  One used the camera’s automatic flash settings, the other was a manual drag.  Note the ambient hues the sensor soaked in.  Look for an upcoming article to more fully explain this technique.  If you have a photo you took with unique manual settings, share it in the comments.

Here is a good primer on some basic settings and what they can do for you.

Rule #3: Follow the Light

As photographers, we rely completely on light.  I loved this DPS article “Photograph the light, not the land.”  You could insert any word for land, and it would still hold true.  

Creating your own artificial light, or getting good results with available light is a critical skill.  Lighting can drastically change the outcome of otherwise similar images.  Light at 12 noon can be perfect for landscape photography but too harsh for a portrait.  If you aren’t thinking about the light and it’s effect to your image, you’re only doing half your job as photographer.

For portrait work, I try to plan for late afternoon before sunset.  If possible, I avoid portraits on sunny, cloudless days.  They result in lots of blinking and the shadows exaggerate the subject’s features.  Flash photography is a must for some types shooting.  My general rule is, use it only when you have to.  Others may use it in almost all situations.  Share your thoughts below.

(Natural light with a little fill flash)

(Natural light with a little fill flash)

For a good primer on shooting with available light check out this great article.

Rule #4: Explore the Industry

If you’re reading this post then you’re already doing this, so hats off to you.  Study the photography of others and compare it to your own. 

Do your pictures grab you like their images do?  Is your contrast high enough? Are your colors vivid enough?  Are you focusing in the right places and using proper depth of field? 

Flipping through photography and travel magazines can be a good reference.  Never stop searching and trying to mimic the positive things you see in other’s photography. Here are some of my favorite sites: Strobist, Lens Culture, DP Challenge, Pology, and of course my own photography blog.


Any one of these tips alone (or together) won’t be the key to great photography.  It’s not just about following all the rules or breaking them here and there.  It’s about developing a style.  You can’t please everyone all the time.  Strive to satisfy your desire to be creative; there are enough personalities out there looking for what you’ve got.

What would you Add?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Chas Elliott is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

Some Older Comments

  • Digital photography July 23, 2010 06:13 pm

    Really these 4 tips are great. It will help me a lot to improve my digital photography skill. Thanks for sharing.

  • Eileen March 3, 2010 05:48 am

    Great article and tips. Thank you.

    I look forward to the "dragging the shutter" tutorial 'cause I don't have a clue what that could mean!

  • Joe March 2, 2010 10:47 am

    Excellent article, useful information for begginers and not too beginners

  • Bonnie Rannald March 1, 2010 08:44 am

    Well written with easy to follow tips that definitely help in getting better photos.

  • Annette February 28, 2010 02:32 am

    Thanks for a good reminder - studying and attempting to mimic other photographer's work is a good learning tool. I always feel like I'm "cheating" just a little, but I do learn so much!

  • Paul Griffiths February 27, 2010 09:25 pm

    For another tip I would like to suggest use Black and White more this year. It gives you another angle and really tunes you into the play of light. I like to keep it simple and your suggestions are practical and useful.
    Paul from New Zealand

  • matt (blueflash) February 27, 2010 03:07 am

    nice post, well written with good info. i am in the middle of a mini-series on my blog about camera basics. i like your spin on it, it's good non-camera specific tips. nice job.

  • Bob Stares February 27, 2010 02:21 am

    I used to be a snob when it came to dissing the use of flash but I have come to my senses. No longer is flash used as my "last resort". Quite beautiful and superior results can be obtained on sunny cloudless days when using flash if one is smart enough to use open shade or re-direct sunlight from well lit areas into shaded ones using reflectors or umbrellas. Also, using reflectors or umbrellas as diffusers work great on sunny days when flash can be used as a supplement to "fill" certain shaded areas of the image. Suddenly, the photographer now has control over the scene rather than the scene controlling the photographer. Don't be afraid of flash and reflectors, they are a photographers best friend when lighting conditions aren't the best...

  • Rupesh Gorai February 27, 2010 01:23 am

    I am using CANON 350D DSLR. While shooting full size protrait in side my studio AutoFocus is not working properly. I do not want to use Manual Focus. What i will do?

  • tom February 27, 2010 12:12 am

    Great article
    i just started taking pics with a canon xsi
    didn't know you could change the flash that way

  • Kenneth Hyam February 26, 2010 09:03 pm

    I found this a very clear yet inticate article full of great ideas and practical tips. Very many thanks!

  • gina chandran February 26, 2010 07:47 pm

    nice tips for a starter like me.

  • Scott February 26, 2010 03:47 pm

    These are some great tips. Even if you've heard it before they're good reminders. I did find myself wondering about that last photo though. In the first set you talk about head room and how the grass or trees are not as important as your subject, and then in the last photo I see a lot of things that keep pulling my eyes away from the people. Perhaps if I knew the people that wouldn't be so much the case, but bright colored buildings and store fronts, parts of bags of trash, junk in the street, graffiti on the walls and a dozen other things too distracting for me. I wonder if there isn't a way to get the urban background without taking the interest away from the subjects.

  • Cathleen February 26, 2010 11:05 am

    Thank you so much for explaining the "dragging" - that was my assumption. I'll have to check out how to control the flash. As far as noon shooting - my suspicion would be the "temperature." In the morning you're going to have more blue in your photo whereas in the afternoon, it's warmer. Noon is pretty much in the middle and even tone - am I right? I've noticed that when I shoot in the afternoon things are much more orange than in the morning - a lot cooler - a little more color correction involved if I'm shooting at those times of day.

  • Beautiful Horizon Photography February 24, 2010 02:21 am

    Great article! It was truly helpful, looking forward to hearing more about dragging the shutter...

  • Nicolas Boivin February 22, 2010 02:59 pm

    I loved the article but I must say this :
    "Light at 12 noon can be perfect for landscape photography" ??

    It might be that I've been drilled to think this by the pros I've studied, but isen't noon the worst light for landscape photography on a clear day?

    I must admit that I have seen some quite good images taken at noon, but I would not go and say that it's "perfect".

    Beside that little detail, really nice post! These tricks are really great ways to improve quickly the quality of anyone's pictures and I'm glad you shared it with us!

  • John Roberts February 22, 2010 12:49 am

    I admit that I'm no expert, but something I've found useful for learning about my camera is to familiarize myself enough that I can press the right buttons in the right sequence in the dark or with my eyes closed. When you try this, it forces you to learn more of what choices you have and it also helps when you need a new setting in a hurry.

  • Chris February 21, 2010 03:27 am

    Great Article! Keeping it simple with great points to ponder.

  • Remington February 21, 2010 12:53 am


    Dragging the shutter is basically using a slower shutter speed to capture as much ambient light in the background as possible.

    Rear sync (or rear curtain sync) is a flash mode that you can set on your camera so that your flash fires just before the shutter closes, By doing this, the sensor captures the ambient light first and then pops the flash to light/freeze your subject. In this case any motion trails are behind the subject.

    Most cameras are defaulted to front sync where the flash fires as soon as the shutter opens. When this happens, your flash freezes your subject first and any motion trails will appear ahead of the subject.

    Pointing your flash backwards is another great technique for creating a softer spread of light by bouncing you flash off a wall or ceiling behind you. I use this when I'm shooting inside and up close where straight on flash or pointing your flash straight up to bounce off the ceiling can create really harsh light.

    Hope this helps!

  • Remington February 21, 2010 12:51 am


    Dragging the shutter is basically using a slower shutter speed to capture as much ambient light in the background as possible.

    Rear sync (or rear curtain sync) is a flash mode that you can set on your camera so that your flash fires just before the shutter closes, By doing this, the sensor captures the ambient light first and then pops the flash to light and freeze your subject. In this case any motion trails are behind the subject.

    Most cameras are defaulted to front sync where the flash fires as soon as the shutter opens. When this happens, your flash freezes your subject first and any motion trails will appear ahead of the subject.

    Pointing your flash backwards is another great technique for creating a softer spread of light by bouncing you flash off a wall or ceiling behind you. I use this when I'm shooting inside and up close where straight on flash or pointing your flash straight up to bounce off the ceiling can create really harsh light.

    Hope this helps!

  • AJ February 20, 2010 06:55 pm

    Great post, Good to get back to basics!

  • Remington February 20, 2010 12:02 pm


    No problem - Rear sync (or rear curtain sync) is flash mode that fires the flash just before the shutter curtain closes. This allows the sensor to gather as much ambient light first and then it fires the flash to light your subject. Most cameras are defaulted to front curtain sync where the flash fires when the shutter first opens. When this happens you get a big burst of light first usually followed by an underexposed background (like the first image in Rule 2 above). With a slow shutter you will also find light trails in front of your subject...which looks weird.

    Pointing the flash backwards, is a great technique to bounce the flash off a wall or ceiling behind you and create a nice soft spread of light. However, this is not rear sync. I also use the backwards bounce. It's great when you are inside and in close to your subject where straight flash, or straight up ceiling bounce, will be too harsh.

    Hope this helps!

  • Al February 20, 2010 06:23 am

    Ok, bear with me here Remington,
    So when using the "drag the shutter" technique you rear sync (meaning point the flash backwards?), then use a slower shutter speed (all with a higher ISO and larger aperture)?

  • Karen Stuebing February 20, 2010 12:53 am

    Agree, these are all good tips. To challenge myself, I just started participating in the Daily Shoot where each day you are given a different assignment. It really takes you out of your comfort zone.

    I love shooting candids and will carry my little but beloved digicam, the Olympus C5050Z, with me along with my Pentax K10D with the 18-250 mm lens. The Pentax is very conspicuous so I will use the Oly when I want to remain inconspicuous.

    Very true about cloudy days for outside portraits. Ever shot someone with a cap on in the bright sunlight. It ain't happening without fill flash which has its own set of problems.

    As for lighting, most of us don't have studio lighting and have to make do with what we can use inside. I open drapes and move lamps around and even have used large, very bright flashlights. Without extra lighting, using a flash inside creates very strong shadows .

    And speaking of flashes, I wonder what dragging the shutter is too? Looking forward to that article.

    The only thing I would add to this list of tips is to become proficient in post processing. I'm still working on that one. :)

  • Harsh February 19, 2010 06:10 pm


    great article and great tips.. these seem soo simple yet enhance the pictures soo much..
    my humble photoblog exploring my city, Delhi - delhithroughmylens.blogspot.com

  • Diane February 19, 2010 04:13 pm

    Nick I feel the same as you about winter - blech - very hard to be motivated. I love these tips and will put them on my cheatsheet cards I keep in my camera bag so I can try them out when inspiration hits!

  • Prateek February 19, 2010 03:28 pm

    Completely agree with the article and Greg Taylor.
    Making the properties of your photograph public on flickr is one of the best services a photographer can do to another. My flickr portfolio @ http://flickr.com/prateek-shoots

  • Al February 19, 2010 02:05 pm

    good article.....so what is "dragging the shutter"?

  • Kamera gue February 19, 2010 11:48 am

    Great article, I also wrote an article similar like this one in my own site yesterday, in Indonesian language. But this one is much better explained and better sample photos.

  • celeste February 19, 2010 07:25 am

    Great article, this will really help me.

  • Greg Taylor February 19, 2010 06:57 am

    I loves posts like this it reminds me of the basics of photography. Sometimes, keeping it simple is the best way to get a great photograph.

    I am all for manual settings. On my Flickr page I make my properties public so other photographers can see what settings it took to obtain the viewed photography. It is truly the best way to learn.

    Know your camera, know your settings, know your light - trust your instincts.

  • Remington February 19, 2010 06:50 am

    I have used the "drag the shutter" technique. Be sure to have your flash in rear sync since you will be using a lower shutter speed; the flash will freeze your subject for sharpness and any subject movement will be behind them and create a better look. Front sync does weird things motion blur.

    Outside, I sometimes drop my exposure 1 to 2 stops to saturate the sky and then use off camera flash with + EV to light my subject. Great for dealing with really bright surroundings...kill the ambient light and create your own.

  • Nick February 19, 2010 06:40 am

    Great tips! You will never stop learning about photography, you just can't. You will always be learning how to be at photography.

    I try to practice as much as a can, but I got to say the winter season is kind of my break from photography. I take photos when I can during the winter season, but it's too cold for me. hehe.

    But these are some great tips and I'm going to put them to use when I practice.

  • Fábián Gábor February 19, 2010 05:44 am

    Great resume. I will try wedding photography this year and will need to make fast decisions, so practicing is crucial.