Better Photos: Improving the picture

Improving the picture

Hints and tips
by Philip Grosset

Cottage with no leaves
The photo on the left would benefit from some foreground framing, as on the right. It was only a question of moving back, so as to include the tree branches. These add depth to the scene. Watch any amateur photographers in action and you can often pick out the more experienced: they are the ones who have moved from the most obvious camera position to search for foreground framing!
The other main fault with the photo on the left is that the roof comes exactly halfway up the picture. Usually try to avoid having the horizon exactly in the middle as it cuts the picture in two. It would have been even worse if there had been no chimney pot to break the line.

Boy It's usually better not to position your subject right in the middle of the picture as I've done in the photo on the left. It's often more interesting if the main subject can be positioned to one side, as in the photo below, leaving room for him to move (or look) into the picture.
Boy to side of picture Intersection of thirds shown
As mentioned previously, the best place for the main point of interest is often at or near the intersection of thirds, as shown by the lines I have added on the right. This is also known as the rule of thirds. If you have an automatic camera, though, remember to focus on your main subject before you swing away from it. Notice how the boy's red shirt helps him to stand out from the background.

The composition of the picture can be changed by using a zoom lens (or separate lenses of different focal lengths, such as a wide angle or telephoto). This way, the apparent distance between background and foreground can be modified:

Foreground flowers far from background Foreground flowers near to background
The photo on the left was taken at the telephoto end of the zoom. The one on the right used the wide angle end of the zoom. Notice the change in the foreground-background distance: the telephoto setting (on the left) makes the background appear much closer in. (The same foreshortening effect can be seen if you look at the path in front of the house in the picture on the top right of the page, for which I also used the telephoto end of the zoom. Here the telephoto usefully reduced the apparent distance between the foreground leaves and the house in the background.)

Portraits should preferably be taken using a telephoto setting (if possible, around 80-90mm) to avoid distortion. If you use a wide angle setting, your subject can end up with a very large nose and a generally distorted face, as shown on the left below:

Girl distorted
Using a wide angle setting (as on the left above) is not a good idea for portraits. Compare this with the same subject taken with a telephoto setting on the right. It's still a glum photo - but at least it's not distorted!

The subject on the left is too near the right of the frame. If your subject is looking to one side, as here, always leave more space in front of him than behind him. One way of achieving this may be by keeping the eyes central, as on the right.
Ely cathedral
Automatic cameras can sometimes be fooled by a very bright (or very dark) background, as in this photo taken in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, where the camera meter was so misled by the bright window that all the chapel interior was lost in darkness. The result is bad underexposure of the main part of the picture (it is too dark).
Ely cathedral
Here, I swung the camera completely away from the window towards a dark area, semi-depressed the camera button (this usually locks exposure as well as focus), then swung back to this original position before fully depressing the button. This is an improvement - although the interior is now slightly overexposed (too light)!
To get the exposure right, as on the left here, it proved necessary to include just a small part of the window when the exposure was locked on. Like so much in photography, you learn by trial and error! If in doubt, always be prepared to take more than one photo.
Here's a dreadful warning. Be very careful not to let your camera cover or fingers get in front of the lens - or this can happen. It is very easy to do this with a camera phone.
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