Photo Basics: Simple Rules for Taking Better Photos, Pt. 2

Don’t miss out on Part 1 of this article where we discussed how to use your digital camera.

Good composition starts with the basics. It doesn’t matter whether the subject is a landscape, a person or an object, whether the shot is horizontal, or vertical, placing the subject correctly within the frame is critical. A few simple rules of thumb can help, Moreover, while some of the rules of composition can be “bent” for effect once in a while, others must always be respected.

All photos should have a “raison d’être” — a reason for their existence — and if it isn’t perceivable to the person looking at the image, then the whole point of the image is lost. Most people take photos for a reason, be it to remember something, to capture a fleeting moment that may not reoccur, to mark an occasion, to capture a subject that they find particularly attractive or beautiful. That must come across in the image for the photo to have meaning.

Verticals and Horizontals

You don’t see the world at a slight angle, so avoid photographing it that way unless you are doing it intentionally, for effect. Align your horizon in the frame. A beach photo that has the ocean seemingly pouring out one side of the photo is disturbing to the viewer. One way to align a flat surface, such as an ocean, is to align the surface of the water to the lower part of the frame by pointing the camera up until they are parallel, then lowering the camera gently and evenly so the water occupies one-third to a little less than one-half of the frame horizontally, while the sky occupies the rest.

If your camera can display grid lines — a number of cameras have this feature, generally as an overlay on the monitor — don’t hesitate to use it, it can be very practical and save you time and effort.

While the technique described above works well with ocean photos, it is much less effective when the subject is a lake or a harbor. Lakes for example have visible shorelines and their shape can make it difficult to determine what is “level”. In this type of situation, find a vertical. Look at the frame and consciously see where your eye is drawn for a vertical or horizontal reference point. Then align your shot based on that point.

Photos of vertical subjects are more difficult. The perspective distortion produced by a camera can easily lead you astray. You can pay attention to the vertical elements in the scene and go to some length to ensure that they are straight in the frame, only to subsequently realize that somehow something is amiss.

Cityscapes are particularly difficult and require an “overall” approach to deciding what is acceptably straight. Simply making sure the most dominant building in the frame is vertical often creates the impression that other lesser buildings appear to be off vertical. With an “overall” approach, the general impression upon seeing the photo will be that things are as they should be.

However, if the image still looks crooked, emphasizing an angle or moving to another point of view may be the only solution. One tip: street scenes are frequently best captured from the center of the roadway, looking down the street, as the perspective tends to be more natural. (Watch out for cars though!)

Avoid Distracting Elements

Distracting elements come in a variety of ways. They can be people, animals or things that intrude in the frame and partially block the subject; jarring or clashing colors, items irrelevant to the subject. Some distractions are hard to control while others can be avoided:

Obstructionist tourists, pedestrians, livestock or vehicles demand patience until they move or can be enticed to move. Stationary objects can be avoided by moving closer or to the side; or by using a zoom to in effect “crop” the offender out.

Avoid adding your own distracting elements: many cameras offer a date/time function. Avoid it unless you consider it’s absolutely necessary. Time date stamping applied directly and permanently to photographs adds nothing to them, and are nearly impossible to remove cleanly at a later point. Moreover, the information is always recorded as part of the metadata of the image file and can be read easily.

Focus Point

The focus point of every image is critical. Follow these tips to stay focused.

Make sure the subject stands out sharply: The subject should usually be dominant and the eye of the viewer should be drawn to it, but it need not be centered. Using AF-Lock — this feature kicks in on most auto-focus cameras when you the half-press the shutter release and the image comes into focus — and reframing while keeping the shutter release half-pressed will ensure your subject is in focus.

Portraits: Focus on the subject’s eyes and use the zoom — if available — to frame your subject. If the camera has aperture priority, select a wide aperture, it will help throw the background out of focus. If the camera doesn’t have an aperture priority mode, it may have a Portrait mode. If so, use it since this mode will force the camera to use a wide aperture. If the only flash you have is the one on the camera, turn it off and use the light from a window or any nearby incandescent lights.

If flash is the only option, then avoid flat surfaces — walls, etc. — immediately behind subject because the flash will create a hard and slightly offset shadow.

When framing, always allow space for the gaze of the subject; and always point the camera slightly downward to avoid the areas under the subject’s nose and chin.

Think First, Shoot After

A few seconds of thought about the point of the photo before taking it is the most valuable step in the process. Visualize the image before taking it, and you’ll find that it helps enormously in capturing a better photo.

Adapted from

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Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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