Simple tips to make the most of your digital camera and take the best summer photographs - by Jorin Sievers
Summer is the time of year when we use our cameras the most. It’s a happy time of holidays, family and celebration and – naturally – we want to capture these special memories to share with loved ones. Thankfully, the Kiwi summer lifestyle offers dozens of great photographic opportunities. From days at the beach, to hiking in the mountains and family gatherings with kids running wild – this time of year is fertile ground for photographers. If you see kids jumping off a wharf into the water: get a photo. If the family dog is an enthusiastic Frisbee catcher: get a photo. If grandpa Joe has fallen asleep in the sun wearing his silly Christmas hat after eating too much ham: get a photo. The possibilities are endless!
Best of all, you don’t need an expensive camera to take great photos. Chunky and costly digital SLR cameras are designed for people who want to get ‘arty’ with their photos. However, simple photos are often the best. So, all you need is a basic point-and-shoot camera. The one you’ve got now will probably do the job just fine. Modern compact digital cameras will usually take care of all the fussy details for you. There’s no worrying about getting the focus perfect and you don’t have to fiddle with settings to make sure the exposure is correct. Many cameras even have a handy function that only takes a photo when everyone in the picture is smiling! With all the technical stuff taken care of by today’s smart cameras, you can concentrate on the really important part: capturing the spirit of summer.
Okay, so what makes a great photo? Three things: a well-chosen subject, a well-composed frame, and – above all else – good timing. Let’s look at some of these aspects in more detail.
Composition is how you ‘frame’ your image. Simply put, it’s how you arrange the different people and things inside the photo to make them look their best. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Don’t rely on your camera’s zoom. Always get as physically close to the subject as possible when you shoot it. The subject’s presence will seem much more lively in the finished photograph. Also, it will eliminate unnecessary distractions in the photo between the camera and the subject.
Rule of thirds
The ‘rule of thirds’ is a classic way to make an image appealing to the eye. Imagine the image is split into three equal areas both vertically and horizontally – making nine areas in total. Now, place objects you want to photograph into these thirds. For example: a child’s toy in the bottom horizontal third, the child in the left vertical third and an adoring adult in the right vertical third. Things can overlap and they don’t have to be perfect ‘thirds’, but keep this rule in mind when playing around with photo composition.
Avoid the centre
The very middle of a photograph is often a boring spot to place the subject – especially people’s faces. Try placing your subject up against one of the edges of the frame, leaving room in the image for something in the background – or even ‘blank space’.
Excess head space
While ‘blank space’ can be great for composition, having a big chunk of empty sky above somebody’s head is a waste of space in the photo. Unless there is something interesting above a person’s head, try to leave no more than half of their head height again in blank space above them.
Photography is all about making available light work for you. How light hits your subject is critical to creating a memorable image. Keep these tips in mind.
Keep the sun behind you
It may sound simple, but a lot of people forget this one. If the sun is behind you, then it illuminates your subject properly, which lets your camera take the best photo. You see, a camera’s electronic brain sets the exposure level (the amount of light) for the brightest object in the frame. Therefore, if you’re shooting towards the sun, then everything else in the photo will be too dark to see – what photographers call underexposed.
An hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset are often when the best photographs are taken. These times of day are called Magic Hour because the sun’s light is gentler, often with a warm golden glow and a tendency for subtle shadows, which adds great atmosphere to your picture. While you can’t always shoot at Magic Hour, try to avoid shooting at midday, when the light is at its harshest.
Stop the squint
People squinting into bright sunlight aren’t very attractive in a photo. Although you want the sun striking their face, make sure it’s on a bit of an angle, so they’re not looking right into it, causing them to squint. You can also wait for a cloud to obscure the sun momentarily before releasing the shutter.
CAPTURING THE MOMENT
This is the difference between a good photograph and an amazing photograph. It means capturing that split second when things are at their most exciting. What makes a great moment? Many things. It could be a fleeting expression on someone’s face, a particular pose, or something else moving into the background that ‘completes’ an image. Capturing the perfect moment takes great patience and even greater timing. It’s an instinct that you’ll learn the more photos you take. Just be ready to press the button when you see that moment arrive, because it might last only a fraction of a second. Alternatively, you can help make that moment happen. Sometimes the right comment at the right time from the photographer can to bring a smile to a face. Also, you can choose to ‘stage manage’ a moment, by getting people to act it out for you; for example, getting kids to jump into pool when you give the word.
PICTURES OF PEOPLE
People are one of the hardest, but most rewarding subjects to photograph. Use these ideas to bring out their true personality in your images.
Keep backgrounds simple?
In a portrait photo you want the focus of attention to be on the person, not on the background. Therefore make sure the background isn’t too ‘busy’ with clutter or brightly coloured objects, as this will distract the viewer. Also be sure that things like lamp posts or tree trunks are not directly behind your subjects, as it can look like they are sprouting out of the person’s head. Another technique to simplify backgrounds is to use ‘short depth of field’ (see tinyurl.com/y939842).
Avoid pointing the camera at your subject for too long. Most people soon become self-conscious and display unnatural expressions. Avoid this by having your camera turned on, set up properly and knowing how you want to shoot before you aim it at somebody.
Eyes are the windows to the soul and it’s doubly true with a good photograph. Ensure the person’s eyes are clearly visible when you click the shutter. Often a comment or joke from you will make them briefly look into the lens. Alternatively, eye contact between two or more people in a photograph is enigmatic because it tells a story about their relationship to each other.
Summer is all about water: swimming at the beach, picnicking beside the lake, kids playing under the sprinkler. But water can be a tricky subject to photograph properly. Watch out for harsh reflections of the sun on the water, as they will ruin the colour and overexpose the image. If you want a high-energy ‘action’ water photo – say of kids splashing around – you’ll need a faster shutter speed to freeze-frame the water droplets in the air. Most compact cameras have a ‘Sport’ mode that will activate a faster shutter speed for you.
The little things
Often it’s the small details that really remind us of summer good times. Think of iconic seasonal objects like Christmas decorations sparkling on the tree, a delicious pavlova on the table or a colourful seashell. Get close to these subjects, switch your camera to ‘Macro’ mode (usually indicated by a flower symbol) and capture their summery essence. They’ll make great reminders of your time in the sun.
• Shoot more photos! Even professional photographers take many photographs of the same subject to get just one that they like.
• Keep it simple. Don’t try to get too arty. Simple, uncluttered pictures shot in good light at the right moment will always look best.
• Take your camera everywhere. You never know when the perfect moment will arise.