A Very Very Basic Guide to Taking a Better Photo

Tips & tricks stolen from the pros.

Under pretty much every Eye Candy post here on Rookie you will find at least one commenter asking, “HOW DID YOU TAKE THESE PICTURES WHY CAN’T I HAVE YOUR SKILLLLLLZ?” Now, it’s true that all of our photographers have mountains of skillllllz—and were probably born with a gift for expressing themselves visually—but they too had to learn the basics before they could take great pictures.

Another question we get on a lot of our photography posts is “What camera did you use?” Unless you’re doing 3D photos like these, getting a specific make or model of camera isn’t as important as you might think. Neither is having a really expensive camera—a fancy machine isn’t better at teaching you how to be a good photographer, and you’d be surprised to learn how many professionals use cheap ones.

For example: Petra uses a Canon AE-1, which you can find for under $100 on eBay, Craigslist, or a used-camera store, on all her shoots, and gets the film developed at the drugstore. Eleanor often uses a disposable camera, a cheap old film camera called the Yashica T3, or a 35-millimeter analog SLR (the Canon EOS 300) that can be had for about $25 on eBay. A ton of Tara’s work is done with cheap cameras: these two were taken with the webcam on her HP laptop; this one was taken with a disposable camera; this with a waterproof disposable. Also, she says, “all my photography pre-October 2009 was shot with a cheap point-and-shoot.” Lauren Poor used a disposable camera for this shoot; for this one she used “the cheapest digital point-and-shoot [she] could find,” took videos of her friends, then took screenshots of those videos. “The tools you use are important when they’re used thoughtfully and for specific purposes,” Lauren says, “rather than mindlessly selecting the most expensive camera.”

Whatever camera you’re using, take some time to get to know it. Become friends with it. Just like friends, every camera is different, and each one has its own habits and quirks. Learn what all the parts of your camera can do.

But some of the most basic things you can do to take better photos apply to all cameras, always. Here are a few of those, to get you started.

(A huge caveat: Obviously, rules are made to be broken. But you’ll be better at breaking rules in interesting ways if you know what those rules are in the first place, and why they exist.)

1. Holding Your Camera

One of the most common problems that beginning photographers encounter when they’re using a hand-held camera is “camera shake,” which results in slightly blurry pictures. A good way to avoid this is to place one hand under the camera, and brace that arm’s elbow against your ribs. This will give you more stability. You could also kneel on one knee, with the other knee forward so you can rest your camera-supporting arm on it, or lean against a wall or something for extra support.

2. Tripods

Apart from your own body parts, the most common form of camera support is a tripod. Using a tripod is a sure way to achieve a sharper image, and will give you room to concentrate more on light and composition. Tripods are best for situations where you know you’re going to be in the same position for a long period of time—say, when taking portraits or still lifes. They’re also good for taking photos in low light, because you can slow down your shutter speed (to give the photo a longer exposure, or more time for the inkling of light to have an effect on your film or your digital camera’s image sensor). When you’re shopping for a tripod, look for one that’s sturdy, with extendable legs that can easily be raised and lowered. Look around on Craiglist and eBay or at your local used-camera store for deals. Sometimes a good one will show up at the thrift store, so keep an eye out there too.

3. Picture Composition

One of the most important things you can do to improve your photography is to learn to see like your camera. Maybe you’ve noticed that some of your photos don’t draw a viewer’s attention to the thing you wanted to spotlight, or don’t capture what looked super compelling to you in person, or just aren’t that fun to look at. There are a lot of possible reasons for these problems, but a big one is composition—literally where all of your image’s elements are within the frame, and in relation to one another.

In a well-composed photo, all the elements of composition—color, line, tone, pattern, space, and perspective—are working together to make the image compelling. If you train yourself to visualize a photo’s composition before you press the shutter, you’ll be able to say more with your photographs. Take note of what’s in the foreground and the background, and how things look from different angles. Notice details. Notice shadows.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, who basically invented modern photojournalism, was a master of composition. He captured thousands of spontaneous moments that looked too perfect to be real by recognizing what he called the “decisive moment,” which has everything to do with being at the right place at the right time. Some examples:

Madrid, 1933

Gare Saint Lazare, Paris, 1932

Manhattan, 1961

Cartier-Bresson was known to stake out a location and wait patiently, like a hunter, until flawless composition appeared naturally before his eyes, in order to capture the perfect image.

To incorporate Cartier-Bresson’s method in your own practice, be alert to your surroundings, keeping a keen eye out for those “decisive” moments.

3a. The Rule of Thirds

An easy way to achieve good composition is to use what many artists call the “rule of thirds.” This divides the frame area into nine segments, like so:

You place the main thing you want people to look at (in the case of the Cartier-Bresson photo above, the boy on the bike) on one of the four points where the lines intersect. Now, you might assume that if you want someone to look at something you should place it dead center—but for some magical reason, people’s eyes seem to be drawn to those four points, and the other three-quarters of the image counterbalance that point nicely. Look at that photo without the grid, and imagine how different it would look if the boy on the bike were in the center:

If those points are empty, your photo may lack focus. If you center your subject, your image might feel a little boring or static.

If you are photographing something with a really defined horizontal line, such as the horizon on a landscape, try placing that line in one of the “thirds” instead of in the middle of the frame. The image might be more interesting that way:

The rule of thirds isn’t a steadfast commandment (none of the things I’m saying here is!). Study the way photos and paintings that you like are composed, to get an idea of what works.


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  • Abby November 12th, 2012 3:40 PM

    I don’t know what’s wrong but A) the main page doesn’t load if you just type in the URL… I had to google search and go to a different part of the site first… and B) there’s no article showing for me…

    I don’t know if it’s just me but I thought I should let you guys know…

    • Anaheed November 12th, 2012 3:41 PM

      Our server was down — we’re fixing it all right now. Thanks!

  • MissKnowItAll November 12th, 2012 4:25 PM

    Thanks for the tips!

  • Tihana November 12th, 2012 4:40 PM

    These articles you have been posting lately are awsome. From DIY for dummies to this. It’s like someone has been reading my mind.

  • darksideoftherainbow November 12th, 2012 4:47 PM

    thank you for the tips! my little sister is very interested in photography so i will definitely be forwarding this to her (as i do with SO MANY rookie posts) !!

  • ElleEstJolie November 12th, 2012 4:50 PM

    I WAS WAITING FOR SOMETHING LIKE THIS! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!! As an aspiring photographer, this is great advice! Thank you!!!! xoxox

  • I.ila November 12th, 2012 4:51 PM

    Yay! This was lovely. I still love my black and white film class though. I just enjoy playing around with filters and light and the control you have in a darkroom.
    Also, I don’t have a digital camera…

  • momobaby November 12th, 2012 5:08 PM

    This is great. I’ve really been meaning to try and get bvetter at photography. I love it but I’ve always been a little too lazy. This is a nice little guide to start, I think.

  • DreamBoat November 12th, 2012 5:08 PM

    AHH THANK YOU, ROOKIE. I totally needed this, and my brother is like ~a magical photographer wizard~, so he’ll love this!
    ROOKIE RULES <3 <3 <3

  • strawb3rrysandsugar November 12th, 2012 5:08 PM

    This is so helpful especially to someone like me who runs a blog! Read mine?

  • jessthetics November 12th, 2012 5:12 PM

    This article is just what I’ve been looking for! I’m trying to get better at taking photos, wish me luck :)

  • erica84 November 12th, 2012 5:18 PM

    Thank you for the tips! I really like to photograph but am not so good at it, this really helped alot!

  • onewithahippiesmile November 12th, 2012 5:39 PM

    this is a really good and useful tutorial, congrats, i luvd it! im a photography enthusiast, especially with analogic cameras, and will certainly use these tips when photographing, they really helped me xx

  • Resh November 12th, 2012 6:09 PM

    OOOOHHHHH!!!!! So that’s what the grid function in my phone’s camera was for!! Total Dummy (: :::facepalm:::

  • Maddy November 12th, 2012 6:16 PM

    All the photos are missing for me :(
    I saw your server was down and hope you guys can retrieve them without any trouble.

    • Anaheed November 12th, 2012 6:17 PM

      Is this true for anyone else? What browser are you using, Maddy?

      • Maddy November 12th, 2012 6:23 PM

        I was on Firefox, but they’re back!

  • vintagewhimsy November 12th, 2012 7:00 PM

    Thank you for this! It’s so helpful!! Now I want to go to Italy and wait around for the perfect picture.

  • koalabears November 12th, 2012 7:15 PM

    I love this article, thanks a lot <3

  • lydiajamesxxx November 12th, 2012 7:15 PM

    This has such good advice! I’d like to say I’m pretty good at photography but there’s always more to learn. :)

  • Claire November 12th, 2012 7:53 PM

    About a year ago, I was really hot on getting a 35mm camera and learning how to take gorgeous pictures like the ones featured in your Eye Candy section. Then I discovered Instagram and am now a total poseur who takes iPhone pictures of cats and Thai food and tries to make them ~*artsy*~. Maybe there’s still time for me to reform my sad little self.

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild November 12th, 2012 9:09 PM

    Wonderful tips! I love the Bill Brandt shots you’ve shared here.

    <3 Melissa

  • FlowerPower November 12th, 2012 9:26 PM

    When I saw the title for this post I was THRILLED. I will definitely use these techniques in my photography! I try to read about “how to take pictures”, but sometimes those books just get so dry and wordyandjustdragonandthenyounevergetthepoint, SO this post was enjoyable and full of information! Anyway, I love to take pictures and have been using a point and shoot for quite some time. However, I really want a new camera. I’ve been looking to buy a used one off of Amazon. I want a DSLR that’s small, not too complicated (good for a “rookie” like me ;), and in a reasonable price range. So, I was thinking of getting the (drum roll)…. Olympus Evolt e 420! It has what I’m looking for in a camera and in it’s features (it can take 3.5 frames in a second, it has photo editing tools, it comes with a remote, etc.) I’ve talked to some experienced photographers and they’ve been telling me to get a Canon T3i rebel, or Nikon d300, and so on. But, they look so big and complicated (and they’re expensive even if they’re used. I really think I’m going to get the Olympus, but I was just wondering if anyone could offer me some advice. Thanks:)
    (I also want a camera to start my own blog :)

    • Pashupati November 13th, 2012 7:22 AM

      I have an Olympus E-420. It’s easy to use after you got a little experience, but at the beginning I was kind of lost! Also, it’s lightweight. I didn’t know they still made it, because when I tried searching for it, there were only newer Olympus E-520, E-620, etc. When I finally found it, it wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be because it was the last one they had!
      One thing that bother me, though, is finding Olympus xD picture cards where I live, so I just use the small 2Go Olympus xD I bought with the camera and will probably buy a bigger CF card when I get some money. CF cards are cheaper and I’ve been told they’re faster, too, so I guess it’s not a problem if you can’t find Olympus xD cards.
      One thing I liked doing at first was taking pictures through a small tulle coupon of any color. It gave me interesting stuffs but these were pictures I took and deleted immediately so I can’t share :/

      • Pashupati November 13th, 2012 7:22 AM

        NB: I got it in 2009. If you can still find it, it’s a good camera.

        • FlowerPower November 13th, 2012 7:30 PM

          Thank you so much for your reply! You’ve got me set on getting it for Christmas :) You can find almost anything on Amazon. I never used to buy things off of websites, but now I’m slowly getting accustomed to it. A lot of times there’s just a wider variety of products on websites.Also, I used to put a floral scarf over my point and shoot, and then it gave this really cool hazy floral effect on my photos, I’ll have even more fun experimenting with the Olympus!
          Thanks again c:

  • Jenny November 13th, 2012 12:52 AM

    This is incredible! & I feel like every single one of these ‘rules’ (cept lights) can apply to writing or really any other art form that is trying to say something/anything!

  • Lillypod November 13th, 2012 2:03 AM

    This is really great. And its totally true that the camera isn’t always the most important factor. My mum is a professional photographer and gets so angry when people compliment her expensive camera instead of her talent…

    “Nice picture! you must have an awesome camera…”

    If you have a great meal do you compliment the chef on their oven? NO!!

  • ReallyChristian November 13th, 2012 2:17 AM

    This is the stuff I learned in my college photo classes everyone, so it’s real good advise.

  • ivoire November 13th, 2012 3:51 AM

    this is so gr8
    i am compelled to take many photos on various cameras now whee!

  • harlequingold November 13th, 2012 4:51 AM

    i was totally in the exact same body position as the model in the Eaton Place Nude when i saw it, haha so startling

  • viamorone November 13th, 2012 5:37 AM

    I was expecting something new, great guide but very basic tips that I thought everyone figured out on their own. It would be lovely if you could do something a little more advanced :)

  • Kriss November 13th, 2012 6:45 AM

    Ahh, good old basic tips! It’s always good to revisit these and refresh your memory! Actually I loved the part with examples of some of the photographers here and the link to their flickrs. Kinda made me feel good to see that many of them use(d) simple cameras for their works, since when I started getting more interested in photography, I’d use a simple point-n-shoot Samsung camera. Which did an amazingly good job! And now, when I actually invested in a decent Nikon DSLR and a nice lens, everything that people notice is the camera – “Oh, you take good picutres, you must have a good camera!”. I’m sorry, but I absolutely HATE (yes, it’s a harsh word, but I’ve heard that sentence wayyy to many times) it when people say this! You can have all the best equipment money can buy and still take boring and uninspiring photos, that have nothing behind them, no story, no emotions, no creativity. When will people realize that it’s not the camera that takes a photo? (well, technically, it does, but you guys know what I mean…)
    Anyways, this post and the examples made me want to take more pictures again, I feel so bad now, since I’ve been so busy with school and work… gotta get back on track. Thanks for the motivation! (here’s a link to my flickr, I don’t really use it that often though) (I mostly upload my stuff on my blog, would appreciate if you’d check it out :))

  • Mikazuki42 November 13th, 2012 8:45 AM

    These are really great tips. :) I love taking photos, and this really summarizes the basics in a way that’s informative and not just “oh here’s what you should do go do it.”

  • Helenus November 13th, 2012 12:57 PM

    Great post! The rule of thirds is something i’ll definitely keep in mind from now on.

    (Also, Sonic Boom in today’s background! Very nice.)

  • Isil November 13th, 2012 1:25 PM

    I have a Canon AE-1 too, it was my father’s but he gave it to me because he doesn’t want to deal with analog cameras. Now we have a cheap digital camera (it’s olympus vr310: and it’s like impossible to take a good photo with it. But I took many beautiful photos with my Canon AE-1. However, it’s so expensive to print the photographs, I know a district that made the print-outs cheaper but it’s 1 hour away from home and I can’t go there all the time. There are two full films waiting in my room to print since July. My point is, I can’t use the Canon all the time. And you mentioned way cheaper cameras but you didn’t mentioned cameras like my Olympus VR310, what can I do with it?

  • hollierose November 13th, 2012 2:26 PM

    Thankyou so much for this! I have a really professional looking camera and everyone just expects me to generate perfect pictures from it, but they haven’t been too impressive so far. This has definitely helped a lot :)

  • Vera November 13th, 2012 3:54 PM

    “Capturing a feeling is way more important than any of the tips above”

    the rule I live by :) glad it was in there and that people agree

  • saramarit November 14th, 2012 3:23 PM

    Great article. I learned the basics on an Olympus OM10 that I got for around £30 on ebay, super sweet Zuiko 50mm 1.8 included. I still love shooting black and white film, it’s got a little something that digital is missing. Polaroids are fun too and I’d still like to try large format photography. There is no end to the fun you can have with cameras!

  • Guinevere November 15th, 2012 7:54 AM

    LOVE this article!
    I have a Canon AE-1, too! My first roll of film from it was *AHEM* not so good (like, at all), but I think that may have been because the film in it was almost 15 years old, so… My photos from that camera have gotten a lot better. :)
    I also have a few other film cameras, including a Canon Rebel T2, a Brownie Holiday, a Diana Mini, and a Soho Myna. Usually I have to stick with my Rebel, AE-1, or Diana Mini, since the film from the other two camera is either WAY expensive or doesn’t exist. :(

    Does anyone else think that film is, um, better than digital in general (I don’t mean to sound snooty, but………)? I feel like it has so much more depth and color. Digital photos are more refined, and I feel like it harder to capture what’s there in front of the camera with digital (I mean, I don’t really want to deal with white balances, but then again looking back at past pictures on a digital camera to see if I have the shutter speed or diaphragm opening the way I want it is totally useful. Also if I need pictures quickly, I would go digital.). I guess they both have their pros and cons; I just feel that this has so much more depth and powerfulness than this, which is too purified and too perfect? You know? Maybe it’s just me. XD

  • Dayzee November 23rd, 2012 12:36 PM

    what do you do if you just want a camera which you can plug into your computer and upload your eye candy

    • Anaheed November 23rd, 2012 3:08 PM

      I think almost any digital camera made in the past few years will do this for you.

  • MarkMyWords November 26th, 2012 11:22 PM

    Great article; I needed this before my recent trip to Europe!

  • Bumblecake December 17th, 2012 5:08 PM

    This is amazing!! It has inspired me so much to experiment with phototaking and not to underestimate any camera! When I learned about the camera’s used for them pictures I was like :O Will definitely be investing in some disposables and a scanner!

  • Emilija Vanagaitė December 22nd, 2012 6:59 PM

    Thanks for sharing tips (: