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Picture Perfect

I love taking photographs.  At every party, reunion, vacation, or other special event, I always have my camera at the ready.  There is something almost magical about photography.  When you press that button, time stops.  Fleeting emotions suddenly become eternal and once-in-a-lifetime suddenly lasts a lifetime.  So how much to you actually know about photography?  I would guess that very few have taken a class or earned a degree in the subject.  In fact, most probably haven’t even read through the owner’s manual, which is a shame because it provides a wealth of information not just on the mechanics of the camera, but on how to get the most out of it.

While I am by no means an expert, I’d like to share a few example photos as well as a few tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your camera during your next vacation.

full depth of field, aperture example

1: Read the Manual

It may make for a bit of dry reading, but reading your camera’s manual is the first vital step to understanding your camera and how it works.  What does this mean for your pictures?  Until you know how a camera works and what all of those buttons and dials really do, you can’t utilize the full potential of your camera, which means your photographs will always be lacking something.  I keep mine handy in my camera bag just in case I need to use it as a quick reference guide while out in the field.


2: Experiment

After you understand the basics of your camera, the best way to learn what it all means in the field is to experiment.  Start simple by using the automated settings like sports mode or landscape.  Then experiment with different white balances or perhaps change the ISO to see what happens.  Next, utilize the semi-auto modes like the aperture priority or shutter speed priority.  These allow you to take control of the single most important part of your photograph while the camera adjusts the rest.

shallow depth of field, aperture example

What does that mean?  Well, let’s say that your kids are running around playing tag.  Given how fast they are moving, shutter speed is probably the most important aspect of the camera.  If the shutter is open too long, the kids become a blur.  Shifting to the shutter speed priority allows you to pick how fast you want the shutter to open or close and then lets the camera select the necessary aperture to make that happen.  Or perhaps while hiking you spot a flower in full bloom and want to capture the brilliant petals, but not the grass and dirt behind it.  Switch to aperture priority and select an f-stop of perhaps f/2.8.  This changes the depth of field and creates a beautifully dreamy photograph where the flower is in focus, but the background is not.

Once you have a better understanding of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, you can try out manual mode which puts you in complete control.  While this mode may not work for extremely fast-paced picture taking where things are changing quickly, it is definitely worth using for those times when you have a minute or two to adjust the settings yourself.

changing angle example

3: Pick Your Focus

When taking a picture, don’t be afraid to change your focus.  Instead of locking in on the the face of your child as she reaches for a butterfly, focus on the butterfly or perhaps her hand.  While viewing a beautiful landscape, consider shifting focus from the mountains in the distance to the lone twisted tree growing up out of the rock only twenty feet away.  Experiment and have fun with it.

4: Change the Angle

Going along with #3, changing the angle can have a huge impact on the resulting photograph.  Don’t be afraid to get down on your knees or even sprawl out on the grass.  Look down from above or shoot from below.  Changing the angle can change the feel of the photograph as well as the impact it has on the audience.  Just remember to always be aware of your surroundings.  Don’t lean out over ledges without proper safety gear.  The perfect instagram photo isn’t worth risking your life.

Rule of Thirds example


5: Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is a guideline for the composition of photographs, paintings, and other artwork.  It is by no means a strict rule, but more like a guideline that can be helpful when deciding how to frame your photograph.  If you imagine the rectangle of your photograph as being split into three horizontal sections and three vertical sections by the intersection of four lines (think tic-tac-toe), you can see a grid that creates nine stacked rectangles.  These smaller rectangles and lines create the framework in which to compose your picture.  In landscapes, horizons should be matched up to either the lower or upper horizontal line.  A person standing in a scene should line up with with of the two vertical lines.  And for something like a flower?  Place it at an intersection point.

After you get comfortable with composing photographs, you can play around with this rule and stretch it a bit.  Sometimes, central composition is best, though it can be a bit boring if used all of the time.  Other times, just moving the focus of the photograph to one side or to the extreme edge may give you the drama you want for the photograph.  Again, experimentation is key.  If you don’t like how the photo looks, take it again with the focus moved to a different line or intersection point.

6: White Balance

Most people probably don’t think to mess with the white balance on their camera, which is a shame because it has such a significant impact on the color of the photograph.  Have you ever taken a picture of a stunning sunset, one rich in reds, oranges, pinks, and even purples, only to look at the photograph later and find that none of the colors match what you saw?  The white balance has a lot to do with that.  Our brains automatically filter and adjust the information that our eyes take in and apply it to what is being seen.  If we take a white piece of paper outside, it will still look white.  A camera, however, has to be told how to process what it is seeing.  A white piece of paper taken outside may appear orange or even green depending on the time of day or what objects are around it.  That’s where white balance comes into play.  This setting can be adjusted to tell the camera what kind of light is available and how that light may influence the colors in the photograph.

Slow shutter speed example


7: Invest in a Tripod

A good tripod can make a world of difference in the quality of your photographs.  As humans, it is nearly impossible for us to stand perfectly still for much more than 1/60 of a second.  Our bodies are constantly adjusting to keep us upright.  We don’t notice it in our day-to-day lives, but I’m sure you’ll notice it the next time you try to take a picture in dim light or to capture the white swirl of water as it pours over a rapids.  Having a good tripod handy allows you to take that perfect landscape picture or capture those fireworks with ease.  If you find yourself without a tripod, brace the camera against something stationary – a tree, rock, building, etc – to help stabilize the camera for those tricky low light pictures.

Hopefully these tips will up your photography game and get you excited about taking control of your camera.  Remember, the more you practice, the better you will become, so grab your family and friends, pick up your camera, and start snapping!