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A good photograph is one that makes a clear statement. In most cases this statement is about our feelings for what we saw in the viewfinder when we were taking it. If the photograph does not meet our expectations, there may be several reasons, both technical and aesthetic.

The source of the problem is in the difference between the way we see things and the way a camera records them (plus the way a monitor displays them or a printer prints them). In the first instance, most of us have two eyes, but a camera has only one lens. We “build up” a 3-D image in our minds of what we are looking at and we can only clearly see what we are focusing on.

In contrast, the camera flattens the scene down to two dimensions by simply recording the light reflected towards it for a given moment in time.

The image we build up in our minds stays with us for a few seconds even if we shut our eyes - or look through a viewfinder!


Take lots of time

All this means is that the surest way of improving anyone’s photography is for them to spend longer looking through the viewfinder.

It actually takes a few seconds for the viewfinder image to “take over” from the mental picture you have of the scene. Take some time to look around the edges of the frame then begin to slowly move the camera around and watch how the background moves relative to the subject. Only now will you really be able to tell whether you have a tree growing out of someone’s head or not.


Take lots of pictures

A very close second in the race for best photographic tip goes to: - take lots and lots of photographs.

Digital photography brings with it one very big advantage over its film cousin - which is the cost of actually taking a photograph. For a few pence worth of electricity, the digital photographer can take hundreds and hundreds of photographs. The more photographs you take, the more you will come to understand the relationship between what you take and what you get. This really amounts to taking many variations of the one photograph.


Aesthetic variations

This is the key to learning about photography. Even in the simplest situation, like a single outdoor portrait, there are almost an infinite number of different shots that can be taken. Without moving from the spot, you can frame horizontally or vertically (landscape or portrait format) and zoom to include or exclude the background to your subject.



However, as soon as you start to move, you begin to alter the perspective of your shot. As you move, the background of the shot moves relative to the subject, so you can place the subject against different backgrounds. The lighting also changes as the angle between you, the subject and the sun changes.

Take pictures from all the way round, from different heights, from near and far at different zoom settings (if you have them). When you get them home, study them carefully and make a judgement about which ones you prefer.



All these pictures represent different ways of seeing, or viewpoints. The metaphor of language is commonly used when describing images; we talk of “reading” a picture and ask what is “says” about its subject. The viewpoint is part of the “statement” made by the photograph.

A simple example of this is the picture of a small child. Taken from standing height, it will “feel” like an adult’s viewpoint. Taken from eye-level with the subject (or below) it will “feel” much more like the child’s viewpoint.

As you learn how different viewpoints affect the image, you move towards deciding in advance how you will depict your subject. The next stage is to decide how well this has “worked”. Refine the process by taking more pictures, and try to make it “work better”


Framing and composition

Viewpoint isn’t the only issue here; framing and composition play an equal role in how “good” your photo turns out. Whilst it is very easy to reframe by cropping the image in editing, unless you intend to use only part of the picture in a larger work, the composition of your photo will be largely dependent on the camera’s viewpoint.

Framing your picture in the viewfinder first of all involves making sure you can see the entire frame. Most viewfinders actually show slightly less than the whole picture, which accounts for the occasional surprise at the edge of frame. If your eye is too far away from the viewfinder, you will only see the centre of frame; if you frame someone's face like that, the picture will come out with them looking a lot smaller than you expected and with a lot of empty space above their heads.

As a general rule, the subject of a photograph should be the most obvious thing in it and, in many cases, this is achieved by simply filling the frame with it. Next, you need to consider whether anything else in the frame is a distraction (leads the eye away from the subject) or an attraction (leads the eye towards the subject or complements it in some way).


These are the elements of your frame and as the camera moves or zooms the relation between them alters. The form of any three dimensional object (in a photograph) is dependent on the angle it's taken at. The same object can look big, small, fat, thin etc. depending on your viewpoint.

The LCD monitor on the back of most digital cameras is a real boost to framing, not only do you easily see (almost) the whole frame, you can also take much lower and higher shots and still check the framing. It is also much easier to see the effect of moving the camera to improve the composition without stepping off the proverbial cliff.


From any viewpoint, many different “frames” are available, which include or exclude the elements visible from that point. Using a zoom lens increases this number dramatically.

It’s worth noting that with the lens “zoomed in” (telephoto), very small movements of the camera can produce dramatic changes in composition. With the lens “zoomed out” (wide angle), you may need to move a few feet to significantly alter the composition unless you are very close to something in the frame.


Whilst there are “rules of composition”, for most people, it is an entirely instinctive reaction to what they see in the viewfinder. When the framing and composition look “right”, they release the shutter and that is exactly what you should do. Again, the learning process for this is trial and refinement, to find what “works best” for you. The most useful thing to do at the beginning is to look at other people’s photographs. Once you recognise what you like, you will see these same compositions appearing in your own viewfinder. Composition is simply the image from the point of view of its visual elements, things like lines, spaces and texture (detail) and considers how the human eye is naturally “drawn” around the picture. For instance, if we look down a road, our eyes are always drawn to the far end, where all the lines converge. The process works whether we look at the scene itself, a photograph (or drawing) of it, or as it appears in the viewfinder. Often the best compositions are very simple and obvious and clearly draw the eye around the image in an interesting way.


If what looked interesting in the viewfinder still looks good on your monitor in the cold light of day, then you are halfway there. You can easily refine the framing with editing programs and often find other interesting “frames” within the original photograph.

The more you take pictures, study them carefully and decide what you like best, the better your pictures will be. With very few exceptions, all the best pictures you have ever seen were selected from a large number of similar pictures, with slight variations in composition, lighting etc.

It is not unusual for a professional photographer to take hundreds of pictures of the one subject and spend hours selecting the “best” one. Until digital photography became available, the amateur could not afford the film and processing to do this. Now, for a few pence worth of electricity, that barrier has been broken.


Last tip - use a tripod

As you get (hopefully) more interested in photography, you might start to wonder what camera accessories are available that would improve your photography.

First on your list should be a tripod.

The greatest thing a tripod does is give you time. You have time to study the image in the viewfinder very carefully. You know that you will give the finished print (if you like it) a great deal of scrutiny; if you are still happy with the image in your viewfinder after careful study, you are more likely to be happy with the final result.


It frees you from worrying about the camera itself when you are concentrating on the composition, lighting, exposure etc. It gives you a much greater range of shutter speeds to work with, which will allow you to use longer lenses (zoomed in) in darker conditions. You can ignore the camera warning about the shutter speed being too slow. It also allows you to work earlier in the morning or later in the evening when natural lighting is often at its most interesting.


These are only a few tips to get you started. If you are serious about improving your photography but maybe can’t spare the time for a college course, why not try the Online School of Photography. They have several courses ranging from beginners to advanced. You can learn entirely in your spare time and at your own pace. Each course includes lesson materials online, tutorials and projects to follow and your own personal tutor to help you every step of the way. You can find out more information about the online school of photography by visiting their web site.


Go to the Online School of photography web site



How to improve your photographic skills