There are about a million books about photography on the shelf of your local bookstore. I should know, because mine is one of them. But you don't need to remember a book's worth of tips and tricks to improve your photography; for the highlights, you might want to play with an online camera simulator. And when you get right down to it, there are just a handful of easy things you can do to make a dramatic improvement to your photos.
1. Remember the Rule of Thirds
Want to improve your photographic composition? Stop putting your subject in the center of the frame. The "rule of thirds" tells us that photos (and video--watch TV and movies for proof) look better when the subject is off-center, aligned about a third of the way from the right or left side. Here, you can see that the wolf's face is positioned on the line of thirds on the right side of the photo, and his eyes are almost exactly a third of the way from the top as well.
There are actually a slew of rules that can help you compose eye-catching and engaging photos, but this one rule is perhaps the single most important one. To be precise, draw two lines through a photo, dividing it into nine squares that looks something like a tic-tac-toe board. The rule of thirds says that the most visually interesting parts are along any one of the lines, or at any of the points at which the lines intersect. That gives you a lot of ways to arrange your subject, so experiment.
2. Minimize Your Depth of Field
This is one of those rules that begs to be broken (try some hyperfocal photography, for example), but if you're just starting out, you'll get some great results by following it to the letter, at least to start with. Shoot your photos so the subject is sharply in focus, but the depth of field is shallow enough that the background is blurry. This creates visual separation and emphasizes the importance of your subject. It also looks really cool.
Depth of field is a measure of how much of the picture is in sharp focus, and you control that with your camera's aperture setting. A small f/number will give you a relatively small depth of field--you can dial in a small f-number directly in Aperture Priority mode, or you can set your camera to a scene setting like Portrait mode, which will do the same thing.
3. Use a Fast Shutter to Get a Sharp Photo
One of the easiest ways to ruin a photo is by shooting with a shutter speed that's too slow, so you get dreaded camera shake. The antidote is pretty simple: Shoot with a faster shutter speed. But how fast is fast enough? There's actually a handy rule of thumb that has served photographers for 75 years: The shutter speed should be no slower than the inverse of the lens's focal length.
That's not as complicated as it might sound. Suppose you are shooting with a camera that has a 50mm lens. You can safely capture a sharp photo if the shutter speed is 1/50 second or faster. If you have a 200mm lens, the shutter speed should be 1/200 second or faster. And remember that for this guideline to work, you should refer to the lens's "35mm equivalent" focal length.
4. Eliminate Red Eye by Avoiding the Flash
Do you get a lot of red-eyed people in your photos? That happens when the light from your flash reflects off the retina in the back of your subject's eyes, giving them that tell-tale demonic glow.
Now that you know why it happens, you can avoid it. You can avoid shooting in dark situations, you can turn off your flash and rely on ambient light. Increase your camera's ISO to make the most of the available light. Or (if you have a digital SLR), you can mount an external flash on a bracket to get it further from the lens. Read more about this in "Avoid the Red Eye Effect."
Hot Pic of the Week
Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.
Great news! For a limited time (from March 1 till August 31, 2012), Hot Pic of the Week winners will receive one free downloadable copy of Corel PaintShop Pro X4.
Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.
This week's Hot Pic: "X-Ray" by Philip Gentili, Overland Park, Kansas
Philip says: "I wanted a picture that exhibited the starkness of winter. To add visual interest without impacting the starkness, I copied the top portion of the tree, inverted it, and placed it beneath the tree to simulate the root system."
He shot this image with a Canon T2I and edited it in Adobe Photoshop CS5.
This week's runner-up: "Edinburgh" by Paul Bild, Vancouver, British Columbia
Paul says he captured this photo with his Canon PowerShot G12, converted it from RAW, and then turned it into a black-and-white image using Topaz Software Detail 2.