A Very Very Basic Guide to Taking a Better Photo

Tips & tricks stolen from the pros.

3b. Cropping

Cropping is basically controlling the way an image is framed. When you’re taking a picture, think about what you see in the viewfinder. Do you want the subject to fill the whole picture, or do you want it to look really small? Would the picture look better if you turned your camera on its side, to an “upright” frame position? Is there anything in the frame that distracts you from the subject of your photograph, and can you leave it out? What you don’t show is just as important as what you do, when you’re trying to tell a story.

Consider getting closer to your subject—sometimes close-up shots can show more detail, which can give a viewer a richer understanding of your subject and/or its surroundings. The brilliant photojournalist and war photographer Robert Capa loved getting close to his subjects. He said that if your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough!

Robert Capa, Normandy Invasion, June 6, 1944

It also helps, much of the time, to have a real relationship with your subjects. Robert Capa was a soldier, so he was able to capture at close range the details of other soldiers and their lives during wartime. The photo diaries on Rookie work because the photographers are taking pictures of their actual lives, in intimate close-up.

3c. Perspective

Every photo has a perspective—that’s just the view from the camera lens, and how objects are perceived by it. But when you get to know the basics of perspective and can skillfully apply them, your photos will have a greater sense of volume, space, depth, and distance.

Changing your viewpoint or the position of your camera will ultimately determine the perspective of your image. Move around and see what your camera sees. Do you want the objects in the background to appear a lot smaller than those in the foreground? Then move close to the foreground subjects, and focus on them. Do you want a building or a person to look tall and imposing? Lie down on the ground and point your camera up.

The surreal work of Bill Brandt emphasizes scale and perspective. His work provides a lot of great examples of what you can achieve by playing with scale, depth of field, and abstraction:

East Sussex Coast, 1967

Eaton Place Nude, 1951

4. Light

When you take a photograph, you are literally recording patterns of light. The very word photography comes from two Greek words that together mean “drawing with light.”

The type and amount of light in an image, the color that the light casts, and where the light is most concentrated will all impact the feeling your photos convey. You can, of course, control all of these variables very precisely if you use only artificial light sources, in a controlled indoor environment. If you’re using natural light (aka the sun), though, there are a lot of variables—mainly time, weather, and location—all of which will affect the brightness, clarity, color, and tone of the light in your photos.

A good way to experiment with the varying qualities of natural light is to choose a subject and shoot it outdoors at different times of the day. Note the variations that occur at these different times—the shadows, the highlights, and the overall color of the image. The time of day affects the intensity of light and the colors in a photo. If you’re taking a photograph in the first or last hour of sunlight in the day (also known as “the magic hour”), the reds and yellows will be much stronger in you results, and the shadows not as dark, as at other times of day. The magic hour is called that because it makes everything look beautiful and magical.

Take a look at this series Olivia did back in August. A perfect example of what the magic of the sunset and twilight can do to your images!

A lot of photographers—especially people who use digital cameras—love a cloudy day, because it softens the edges of everything. But maybe what you’re shooting would benefit from the hard edges that a sunny day will give you. Experiment in different weather conditions. Sunlight looks different in different parts of the globe, too. If you get a chance to travel, bring your camera along and observe whether the light in your photos looks different depending on what city you’re in.

You can use lighting to accentuate the physical characteristics of your subject. Harsh light accentuates high-contrast textures—photographing a weathered rock or aged hands in a harsh light will emphasize the rugged characteristics of these surfaces. Softer light is usually better when you’re not trying to accentuate surface details.

5. Character

It can be hard to pinpoint what gives a photograph its character—its attitude, its mood, and the feeling it gives you. When looking at a photo that you like, ask yourself, What is it that draws me to this subject? Is it someone’s facial expression, or a particular pattern appearing on a building, the way two objects or bodies are interacting, or something else altogether?

Character is kind of the X factor that takes a beautifully lit, well-composed photograph over the top. There are plenty of professional photographers who make decent livings taking photos that are technically flawless, but ultimately boring. Capturing a feeling is way more important than any of the tips above. Use your camera to tell a story that means something to you. Use it to notice what you love about the world, or what makes you excited, or mad, or antsy. To quote Lauren Poor again: “There isn’t really a universal guide for making a ‘good picture.’ There’s so much possibility for discovery and creativity, and so many different kinds of photographs that function in so many different ways. Figure things out for yourself, understand how you can create and how what you create will function. And just have a friggin’ blast creating and discovering!” ♦

This piece was adapted from a fold-out wall poster that Ruby made called A Basic Guide to Analogue and Digital Photography, which can be found here.


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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 (: