© All rights reserved. Laura Adams, 2013
If only I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, "Wow - that's a really nice camera. It takes great pictures!" That's like saying your car mechanic has a miracle screw driver...a camera is simply a tool that I use to do my job. I have some beautiful images that I've taken with a $50 plastic toy camera. I can take some pretty good images with just about any camera - but, I've had lots of schooling, studying, obsessing, and practice over many years. (Yes, I have some nice camera bodies and lenses, but most people wouldn't really be able to tell the difference between the images from a $500 camera body and a $3,000 camera body.) Seriously.
So, what are some really easy ways to improve the images that you're going to take this holiday season? Apply these suggestions to ANYTHING that you're going to photograph and I guarantee that you'll have nicer images immediately.
Read the manual and practice (just a tiny little bit!)
I know, I know - this first one takes about a half an hour but you'd be amazed at how many people simply do not read the manual that came with their camera. Set aside 30 minutes and a really simple table top display. It can be of anything that doesn't move. Go through your camera's manual and take test shots using each of the features that you cover. Look at the images so you can see (really see) what each function does - play with everything from your white balance (tungsten will add blue to your image to balance out all of the yellow from tungsten lights), to aperture priority mode for a more shallow depth-of-field, and anything else that is in your manual and available on your camera. If you have a completely automatic point-and-shoot, there will STILL be in-camera settings that you can tweak to get the best quality images out of your camera.
Check your quality settings - you could be shooting for the web instead of for prints!
Check the quality settings in your camera. If you're shooting at a low resolution .jpg setting, that will be fine for posting pictures to Facebook, but not so much for printing. Shoot at the highest resolution your camera allows for. You can always downsize your photos for the web or smaller prints using your editing software of choice, but if you want to make bigger prints of anything, you'll want the biggest files you can capture to work with. You can always get rid of excess pixels, but up-sampling existing pixels in an attempt to create a larger file usually doesn't work so well (yes, there is software to do this, and some of it is decent, but you're reading this because you want better pictures NOW, right?)
Use good quality SD or CF cards. The faster the card, the faster your camera can potentially write files to it, and the faster you can shoot (important if you're shooting in burst mode). You will still be limited by the speed of your camera to write the files, but you could significantly increase the capture/write time of your image files. I've had excellent results with SanDisk products. I rotate my cards so that the work is spread out amongst my collection, and I replace them regularly. I never download images straight from my camera, I only do this with a good quality card reader so my camera isn't ever hooked up directly to my PC. Don't delete images from your cards when they're in your camera (this is statistically when you have the greatest chance of card failure), do that from your PC. And believe it or not, I believe using smaller capacity cards is a better practice than large, mammoth ones, so if one goes bad, you don't lose all of your images from your holiday. Make sure your cards are big enough so you aren't changing one out every 15 minutes, but I'd advise against putting all of your holiday memories on a single 32 GB card.
Clean up the background. No, really, clean up the background.
This next one is really super important for portraits. And I mean really important. It's the quickest way to improve your images and take things from snapshot to frame-worthy. LOOK AT THE BACKGROUND. Clear the clutter off of tables or counter tops if you're photographing someone in front of them. Holiday dinners mean holiday tables, covered in dishes, glasses, used napkins, etc. - and nothing ruins a really nice picture of someone more than a half-filled bowl of Aunt Ruby's potato salad (or that pink water bucket in the pasture, for my horse friends). Sure, it may have been delicious, but you really don't want to commemorate it as part of next year's Christmas letter, do you?
Soften the light - your family will LOVE you.
Lastly, and this one is a really neat trick - soften your on-camera flash. This will take the harsh lighting of your camera's flash and transform it into light that is softer and more flattering. Take a white piece of tissue (I've used a single-ply of Kleenex, peeled apart, in a pinch), tear off a rectangle that is just big enough to loosely cover the front of your flash. It should resemble a billowy "C" shape, kind of like a sail on a sail boat. Secure it over your flash (I've used small pieces of masking tape on the top and bottom that I've put on/peeled off jeans or something a few times so the adhesive isn't strong - use whatever tape you're comfortable with, but remember, this is your camera. Don't use something that you won't be able to get off or that will remove or harm the finish on your camera body!) The softer light will help to fill in wrinkles (!) and soften shadows. It's a tiny little tool that will help make that on-camera flash kinder to everyone you're photographing. Women love it. And some men.
Happy holidays to everyone, Take lots
of pictures, capture your memories, and use these tips to get better images of those you love.
Now go take pictures!