Man's hand holding up an iphone and taking a picture

How to Take Better Pictures (Even Without a Fancy Camera)

The #1 “compliment” photographers get is, hands down, “Your pictures are so beautiful! You must have a really nice camera.”

Ooof. 

While I don’t want to make anyone feel bad for giving such a comment—goodness knows I’ve probably delivered my fair share of unintentional offenses—please allow me to very lovingly set the record straight. As Brett puts it, that’s like telling a good mechanic that he must have a really nice set of wrenches. Or telling a marathon runner that she won the race because her shoes are just top notch. While good tools certainly make a big difference, telling a photographer that they must be good because they have a good camera disregards all of the hard work they’ve put in to learn how to create beautiful photos. It also implies that the only way to take good pictures is to shell out a bunch of money for expensive gear.

I’m here to tell you that neither is true.

You can absolutely learn how to take beautiful pictures with point-and-shoot cameras or even your phone. There’s actually an entire industry based on iPhone photography! But just like you can’t become a great mechanic just by buying a nice set of wrenches or run a marathon by getting a fancy pair of shoes, learning how to take pictures well takes some study and practice. The good news is, even learning a few basics can take your photos from meh to masterpiece. Here are a few skills to master if you want to up your photography game, regardless of what camera (or phone) you’re using.

Get to Know Your Camera

The most important step you can take toward taking better photos is to get to know your equipment. What settings are available to you? Do you know what they do and how to use them? Take some time to get to know the camera you’re working with and how much control it will give you over the quality of the photo.

Just keep in mind that some of those bells and whistles might not actually make your photos any better. Things like filters might be fun to play with, but they’re a bandaid fix. There’s nothing wrong with using them, but you’ll be happier with the outcome if the photo is good to begin with.

Look for the Light

They say that photography is “painting with light.” Light can make or break a photo, so learning how to see light with a photographer’s eye is essential to taking better photos. Watch for the way light interacts with your subject. Is the lighting even? Is it back lit? Is there a tree that’s casting funky shadows on Aunt Ruby’s face? Is the sun so bright that it’s making everyone squint? Is there a reflective surface that’s going to wash out part of your picture? Don’t be afraid to move your subject or yourself so that you can get better lighting.

Sunlight willow tree branches covered in ice

And don’t be afraid to use light and shadow to your advantage. Good contrast can create depth, like in the photo of Notre Dame on the left, and fun shadows can be a subject of their own, like the shadow of St. George on the right.

Also, the built-in flash on your camera or phone is probably going to do you more harm than good. These flashes will wash out whatever is closest to your camera with a really unflattering blue light and leave the background completely dark. Or if you’re shooting in a large space, they’re not going to be bright enough to reach subjects that are far away. It’s usually a far better choice to use an off-camera flash or light source if you can, or adjust the exposure settings (if you have that option).

Exposure

This isn’t the post for an in depth tutorial on how exposure works[1], especially because you might not have the option to control your shutter speed, aperture, or ISO (the Exposure Triangle settings) if you’re not using a dSLR. The biggest thing to remember here is to watch for “blown out” (overexposed) highlights or too dark (underexposed shadows). This is an extreme example, but I tried to take a picture of an osprey diving for a fish right in front of me, but I failed to check my exposure settings. The result is such a washed out photo that you can hardly tell there’s a bird in it. Because I shoot raw (unprocessed), I was able to get a little bit of the detail back with editing, but it’ll never be a great photo.

To combat something this with a phone camera, make sure your focus point is on the most important part of the photo. Most smartphone cameras these days will let you do that by touching the screen where you want to focus. The camera will automatically adjust the settings so that the focal point is well-exposed. If you aren’t shooting on a phone, or you’d like to have a little more control, many cameras have a simple +/- exposure setting. If your photo is a bit lighter or darker than you’d like, bump the exposure up or down until it looks right.

Composition

Have you ever heard someone described as having an “eye” for photography? Their pictures always look really good, and they just seem to have a magic touch?

Well, the good news for the rest of us is that you can develop an eye of your own by learning some tools of composition.

Rule of Thirds

One way to create a visually appealing photograph is to use the Rule of Thirds, in which strong horizontal or vertical elements are aligned roughly 1/3 of the way from the edge of the photo. Imagine a grid like this over your photo (and some cameras will even give you the option to overlay a rule-of-thirds grid on your LCD screen):

Anything vertical should line up with one of those vertical lines, and horizontal elements should line up with one of the horizontal lines. If you don’t have a strong vertical or horizontal element, you can align points of interest with the intersection points.

For example, in this photo of the surfer, the horizontal line created by the waves is roughly 1/3 of the way from the bottom edge of the photo, and the vertical line created by the surfer dude is 1/3 from the left of the photo. The point where his feet touch the board sits right at that intersection point.

In this picture of a dressage horse, I don’t have any strong vertical or horizontal elements, but the horse’s eye is right around the top right intersection point.

Dapple gray horse

This isn’t to say that you can’t center your subject in the frame, but that works best if the subject is really striking or iconic and your shot orientation matches the orientation of the subject. This photo of the Eiffel Tower, for example, works well as a centered image because it’s a striking vertical subject and the photo is in portrait orientation. It would not work if I had shot it as a horizontal image.

Eiffel Tower at Night

Leading Lines

Leading lines are a great way to add depth to your photo, show perspective, or draw the viewer’s eye to a point of interest. For example, in this picture of an arcade (indoor shopping area) in Europe, the lines created by the floor and shop facades create a feeling of depth.

Leading lines aren’t always straight, though. In this photo of Mont Saint-Michel, the river creates a curvy line that leads the viewer right up to the castle.

Island citadel at low tide

Viewpoint

Another technique that creates perspective is to pay attention to your viewpoint. Where you are in relation to your subject can have a big impact on how it looks. Your perspective helps tell the story of the photo. Because I was high above the houses of Edinburgh on the left, you can see a lot of them. You can tell that I’m in a city. If I was at street level, you’d only see one or two houses in the frame and the feeling would be completely different. In the photo of the Ferris wheel on the right, I stood right underneath it to evoke a sense of the height.

Framing and Cropping

Be sure to watch out for how close your subject comes to the edge of your photos. If your subject will fit in your frame, make sure there’s space around the edge. Not only does this help you avoid accidentally cutting off the top of Uncle Joe’s head, it also helps your photo feel more balanced and intentional.

Blue lantern
I should have left a little more space on the left edge of the photo to help it feel a bit more balanced.

If your subject doesn’t fit easily in your frame, either move backwards to give it more space around the edge or make your cropping choices carefully. If you’re taking pictures of people, for example, watch those arms and legs. The general rule of thumb is to avoid “cutting off” your subjects appendages at a joint (wrist, ankle, elbow, or knee). It’ll look better if your crop line is about midway between two joints.

On the flip side of the coin, you don’t want to leave so much space around your subject that it’s hard to see. This Farne Island puffin, for example. It’s a fun action shot, but it would have been much stronger if he filled more of the frame. If I were to crop the photo down so that the subject takes up most of the image, it would become pixelated and blurry.

Puffin taking flight out of the ocean

Patterns and Repetition

Repeated elements or patterns can be a great way to create interest in a photograph. These Red Devil pilots made for a fun shot because they were all lined up so nicely for me, as were the repeated windows in this cloister.

With repeating patterns, another fun tip is to use the Rule of Odd Numbers. Patterns with an odd number of repetitions will almost always look more balanced than those with an even number. In the photos above, there are nine planes and three windows.

Background

Whenever you’re about to take a picture, be sure to watch for things in the background. We’ve all seen that picture of Uncle Bobby with antlers coming out of his head because someone didn’t pay attention to what was behind him when they snapped his photo. But even things like busy backgrounds can detract from your photo. In this photo of the gardens at Schönbrunn Palace, the trees in the background make the topiaries just about disappear.

Garden with topiaries and a walking path

But this picture, which I took in the same spot but looking in another direction, doesn’t have the distracting background and shows off the subject a lot better. We’ve still got green trees in the background, but because the greenhouse is there to provide some contrast behind the topiaries, they’re a lot easier to see.

Greenhouse surrounded by gardens and topiaries

Straightness

Unless you’re going for an artistic effect, please 👏 please 👏 please 👏 make sure your photo is straight. Watch your vertical and horizontal lines. If they’re tilty, your photo won’t look as nice. While you can adjust this with some editing after the fact, it will require cropping, which means you lose space at the edge of your photo. It’s always better to make sure a photo is right when you take it, rather than relying on editing later. (That tip goes for all of these skills. It is always best to get it right in camera rather than relying on editing to fix the mistakes.)

Depth

Even if you don’t have a camera that will let you control depth of field, you can still create a sense of depth by adjusting your position or using other objects to create scale. For example, in the photo of the guitar player, we get a sense of depth because the guitar is angled toward the camera, creating variations in focus. And in the photo of the hot air balloons, a sense of depth is created by the variation in the size of the balloons. Because we know that they’re roughly the same size in actuality, the balloon on the left looks further away because it’s so much smaller. And fun fact: the photo of the hot air balloons was shot on a disposable film camera! I had zero control over the settings, so composition was the only tool I had to work with.

Timing

Another skill that will help improve your photography is timing—learning to take the photo at the right moment. When I first started learning photography as a kid, I went to the zoo with my mom (who is a great photographer). I took a picture of a fox pacing in its enclosure and turned to walk away.

“Wait,” Mom said. “Why did you take the picture when you did?”

I shrugged. “I dunno.”

“What was the fox doing when you took the picture?”

I shrugged again. “I dunno.”

“When you’re going to take a picture, take a moment to make sure you’re taking a picture of something interesting. If you take the picture when the fox is facing away from you, it won’t be very interesting to look at.”

To this day, that stands as one of the most memorable photography lessons I’ve ever had. I took another picture of the fox, but this time I waited until it was looking right at me. I distinctly remember getting that roll of film (yes, film!) back from the lab and seeing the difference between the first photo of the fox’s hiney compared to the second photo of the fox’s face.

When you’re taking pictures, don’t just snap and run. Sure, there will be times when you just have to get the photo quick before conditions change. But if you can help it, I can guarantee you’ll be happier with the results if you stop, breathe, check your composition, and wait for just the right conditions.

If I had taken a picture of this duck a few seconds earlier, he would have been in the shadows. But by waiting for him to move into the sunlight, it creates a fun spotlight effect that frames the subject.

Duck in the water, spotlighted by sunlight coming down through the trees

The Proof is in the Photos

Now, I know some of you are probably thinking that it’s unfair of me to use photos that were (mostly) taken with a dSLR to illustrate how you can take good pictures without one. So to prove my point, my husband has very graciously allowed me the use of some of his photos. These were taken on a trip he took to the UK, and the only camera he had was an iPhone. Click on the images to read my thoughts on what he did well.

Time to Practice!

The #1 best way to improve your photography is to practice—often. I saw a huge improvement in my photography when I did a 365 project, which required me to take pictures every single day for a year. Even now, I definitely notice a difference in my photography when I’m getting out to shoot regularly and when I’m not.

So take heart! If you can’t afford a nice camera, you can still learn how to take nice photos with the camera or phone that you have. Pick one of the skills listed above and practice it until you’ve got the hang of it, then try something else. The more you shoot, the better you will be at seeing the good photo opportunities all around you.

Happy snapping!

Handwritten "Jess"

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Footnotes

[1] If you are interested in learning more about exposure, I highly recommend Digital Photography School’s excellent introduction to the Exposure Triangle.

Featured image by Pexels

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