Last Updated on 03/07/2021 by Edy Ragnoli
Easy guide on how to take professional photos through six simple tips any photographer can follow.
Today, everyone can take pictures with countless devices and in a great variety of occasions. But how can you stand out from the crowd and go beyond general snapshots? How can you move to the next level in photography and show up amazing images that will make your travel memorable and your blog and social pages outstanding?
You can attend a photography course or workshop, but this takes times. Alternatively, you can learn how to take professional photos in a few minutes by following these 21 tips for great pictures everybody will remember. Let's get started.
Basic Tips for Taking Great Pictures
Look Your Subject in the Eye
A great way to make a picture mesmerising and engaging is holding your camera at the people's eye level. When you do that, you stoop at the subject level and can catch the magnetism of the eyes and smile that makes the viewer feel inside the picture. This is even more important when photographing children.
With this technique, you don't need the subject to directly look at the camera all the time. But don't confuse it with playing with eye contact which is used to show the subject in a different way and change the feeling of an image thus conveying different messages.
Use a Plain Background
When you take a picture, look at the viewfinder and make sure there's no distracting background that can pull the view away from your subject. Thanks to a plain background, your subject looks better, stands out, and attract all the attention. Here are some examples of what to avoid and what to include in a picture to create an effective plain background.
Use Flash Outdoors
Shooting outdoors, in daylight, may appear a good way to take perfectly enlightened pictures. But sometimes, the image you take can be not as good as how your naked eye sees at that moment. This can happen when the sunlight is behind the subject and creates shadows. In these cases, what you'll get is just a silhouette.
If this isn't the kind of picture you're looking for, you need to remove that unpleasant shadow that hides the subject's details. You can do that by turning the flash on outdoors which can literally transform your image shots during the day. More specifically, you can use the fill-in flash mode when you are within five feet from the subject, or the full-power mode if you are beyond five feet.
Move Close and Fill the Frame
For more professional-looking and captivating photos, I recommend you move close to the subject (if it's smaller than a car) and fill the frame with his/her face. In this way, you can avoid distracting element in the background. As a result, your shot will emphasise the interesting details of your subject such as wrinkles, moles, iris of the eye, and so on.
While getting closer, make sure you keep within the closest focusing area of your camera (generally, three feet or about one step away). Otherwise, you'll get a blurry photo. Read your camera manual for specific details.
Lock the Focus
When you use the auto-focus feature, you can get very sharp pictures, but if you don't tell the camera where to focus, you may end up getting terrible images with blurred subjects.
Imagine you are taking the picture of your beautiful child. How would you react when you see the portrait is not in-focus while the meaningless background is perfectly sharp. This occurs because most auto-focus cameras focus on anything in the centre. But sometimes you need to move the subject in a different position to improve the composition and take pictures like a pro. So how can you keep the subject in focus? Follow these steps carefully.
- Lock the focus with the subject in the middle by half-pressing the shutter button.
- Move the subject in the right position while still holding the shutter button.
- Finalise your shot by pressing the shutter button completely all the way down.
Know Your Flash’s Range
Flash is useless if your subject is beyond the flash range. The result is obvious. Your picture will be still dark although flash is on. So, verify the maximum flash range and keep your subject within it. For most cameras, it's five steps away (or less than fifteen feet). But read your camera manual for the precise value.
Watch the Light
A beautiful subject is nothing without a good light. Light can dramatically change everything subduing defects or enhancing details. For example, soft light on a cloudy day can hide unwanted wrinkles on your subject face. Instead, sunlight from the side can create some depth and movement avoiding boring flat images. In the next paragraphs, I described additional ways to create depth.
To find the best light and make your subject look good, experiment and take some pictures moving the subject or yourself. For landscapes, try taking pictures early or late in the day when the sun is not straight above us, giving a bright yellow light, but at the ground level, producing an orangish light. Keep reading to discover how to create beautiful effects using light.
Take Some Vertical Pictures
Taking vertical pictures is another step in learning how to take professional photos. Smartphone users know it full well. This can be more challenging with a camera or heavy DSLR. But in this case, you can use a battery grip that not only gives additional batteries but also allows you to hold your camera vertically and shoot easily even in this position.
On the other hand, a lot of pictures look better when they are vertical, from portraits and jumping kids to towers and lighthouses. Next time you go on a travel and want to catch on camera the amazing heritage or beautiful local people, try taking both horizontal and vertical pictures and see which one is better.
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Master the Fundamentals of Composition to Take Professional Photos
Choose a Strong Focal Point
The focal point is the central point of interest in your picture. Creating a strong focal point is essential for taking professional photos.
How can you find a focal point? When you go out and take your camera, look carefully at what's in front and around you and ask yourself what you want the user to pay attention to, which element can make the picture stand out from the others.
Without a strong focal point, the eye doesn't have anything to rest on. And without an “attractive protagonist” to stare at, the “stage” (your image) becomes boring and the viewer will move to another shot.
To enhance the focal point and make it stronger, follow the composition rules I explained below.
Follow The Rule of Thirds
Putting your subject in the centre is just one way to take good pictures. But if you really want to make your photos look professional, you must follow the rules of thirds and move the important elements off centre in both horizontal and vertical pictures.
The rule of thirds makes your frame an imaginary grid with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines that divide it into thirds. As you can see on the image above, you can create more interesting pictures by placing the subject on one of the four intersection points.
In landscape photography, the rule of thirds is applied to give greater importance to the foreground or the sky, thus placing the part to which you want to give greater prominence to 2/3 of the image.
If the main subject is the foreground, you will have to position the horizon line in the 2/3 at the top, while if the main subject is the sky, perhaps while you are taking a nice night photograph or while there are moving clouds, you just need to frame a larger portion of the sky, moving the horizon to the second down horizontal line.
Use Leading Lines
The world is full of lines. Nature, buildings, and shadows draw lines everywhere and a good photographer knows how to frame them in the picture and create a composition that makes the image compelling.
How can you take professional photos through leading lines?
Leading lines are natural shapes that can guide the viewer's eye to the focal point. Some examples are rivers, fences, walls, trees, shadows, roads, railways, crosswalks, bridges, and so many more. They make a kind of direction to take the viewer where you want to. When you start mastering leading lines in your shots, you make the viewers pay attention exactly to the subject you choose.
In addition, through the proper and clever use of leading lines, you can change the mood and convey different messages. In fact, there are four types of leading lines and each of them has its specific use.
- Horizontal lines: They transmit calmness and are mainly used in landscapes and nature photography.
- Vertical lines: They convey power and hierarchy and are used in fashion and street photography.
- Diagonal lines: They create movement and communicate change. You can use them to emphasise the distance from foreground to background. They are great to create depth and make the picture more immersive.
- Converging lines: They are strong elements to draw attention to your subject. It's best practice to place the focal point at the axis/point of convergence.
Put Some Thought Into Perspective
Perspective represents the angle from which you're taking the picture. Perspective is the point of view you want to create for the viewer. By changing the angle or distance you shoot from, you can dramatically improve the mood and look of your photo.
So, next time you are out shooting, try seeing the world in different ways, out of your comfort zone. You'll realise a simple change in perspective can make your photos much more professional.
For example, you can shoot looking down or up or you can lie down and shot from ground level. Other great ideas we often see around are reflection photos and images taken through objects. Have you ever taken a picture looking through a glass of wine with the sunset on the horizon? How many times have you caught an object on camera through the reflection on a mirror, window, water, computer screen or metal such as a brass trumpet?
To make all those pictures look professional, I suggest you read and learn all the tips for beautiful photos through perspective. Then unleash all your creativity and experiment over and over again.
Adding a sense of depth to your photos helps make them more engaging and professional. By creating depth, your travel photos are more than a mere flat piece of paper with some shapes printed on it. They become a door to take the viewers through an immersive journey and make them feel what you felt when you shot your pictures.
You can add depth and dimension into your photos using different techniques. The easiest way is to add elements in both the background, middle ground, and foreground. Below some examples.
- Put the subject of your portrait some steps far from the wall behind her/him.
- Use leading lines.
- Shoot through something.
- Play with colours, blurred background, and perspective.
Make Your Subject Pop by Using Bokeh
Bokeh is the popular optical effect to highlights the subject by keeping it crisp and clear on a blurry background.
Don't confuse it with focus lock. The bokeh effect is a way to render a creative out-of-focus background through the use of camera lenses. In this way, you can create backdrops that draw attention to the subject and help you make eye-catching and dreamy images.
To achieve this result easily, bring the subject up close to the camera and shoot in front of a distant background. But this alone is not enough. Indeed, there are several tips you should follow to achieve a beautiful bokeh effect.
One way is using the right lens with a wide aperture (or low f -stops), from f/1 to f/3.4. I recommend you use a fixed-aperture lens, even though some premium zoom lenses can create a quite good bokeh effect. But with a typical kit lens – the one that comes with an entry-level camera and that features a narrow aperture (f/3.5 or f/4.5) – you can rarely get this effect and, if you succeed, the quality is pretty low.
Frame Your Shot
Framing is a powerful photo composition technique that can make your pictures look professional and engaging.
How many times have you taken a picture through a hole, tree branches, metal wire, window or foliage? That's photography framing. It means using natural elements for your composition to keep the subject inside them and draw attention to it.
When the frame is very close to the camera, it also adds depth. And if you position the subject in the middle ground and make the frame blurred, you can eliminate distracting elements and highlight the subject even more.
Make Sure You Have Good Lighting
Take Advantage of Camera Flashes and Diffusers
Light is an important factor for taking professional photos. Camera flashes and diffusers can help you manage light effectively. So, it's important you know the several types of flash units available on the market. Let's see the most used.
Built-in and Pop-Up Flashes
They are constructed within the camera body and fire the light directly towards the subject which is not always the best solution for high-quality images.
a) Dedicated attached flash: This unit fits into your camera's hot shoe (on top of the camera). It can communicate with the gear and lens and gives more flexibility and creativity. It can rotate vertically and horizontally thus you can bounce the light off a surface, either a wall or ceiling. The result? Light spreads much more and is less intense.
b) Hammerhead flash: This unit is separate from the camera body and sits on its side. This means you can avoid red-eye, like with the attached flash. In addition, a hammerhead flash produces more light and gives a better angle and grip. That's why it's widely used in wedding and press photography.
Diffusers, instead, are accessories for flashes. They're made of semi-translucent material to spread the light over a larger surface and then soften it. There are many types of diffusers and several ways to use them to take professional pictures.
Use Light to Create Interesting Effects
The quality of light can make or break your shot. In fact, good light can create beautiful effects and uplift your pictures. In addition to flashes, you can also use sunlight at your advantage. For that, you must know the right day time and some creative techniques.
Silhouette: You shoot a subject in front of bright light and set the camera until it becomes a dark silhouette on a bright background.
Shooting in hard light: You shoot during times or in areas with a lot of bright light to get attractive contrast and shadows.
Shooting during twilight, the golden hour and blue hour (magic hours): They are the perfect moments to create compelling effects and take photos like a pro getting the most out from the sunlight. These moments happen both in the morning and evening and depend on the elevation of the sun but also on weather conditions and pollution. During the magic hours, lighting is diffused, warm, and soft. During the night, instead, you must consider the moon too as a source of light.
Let's dig into this a bit more.
The sky features golden tones and goes from red and orange to yellow. The light doesn't produce strong shadows and is ideal for landscapes or for creating some interesting effects in portrait photography. At the right time and with the proper sun elevation, you can also take really cool pictures of the full moon otherwise less visible.
The sky is of a deep blue with saturated colours, cold colour temperature, and colour gradients from blue to orange. These conditions are perfect for landscapes, city and urban photography.
The sun is below the horizon but its light is still visible. Twilight is the time between night and day, so before sunrise and after sunset. For different types of photography, you can distinguish between civil twilight, nautical twilight, and astronomical twilight.
Understanding when the magic hours and twilight happen can be challenging, but I recommend you two apps that can make this easier and fun.
Free Golden Hour Calculator
All-In-One Photo Planner
It shows you the golden hour, blue hour and sunrise time based on your location.
It plans the best moments for your photos based on 2D maps of the sun, moon, and the Milky Way worldwide. It's rich in features and perfect for any photographer.
Upgrade Your Photography Gear and Accessories
Pick Up a Lightweight and Stable Tripod
Light and composition techniques are just some of the steps to take professional photos. You can use other gears such as tripods to improve your images, especially if you want to excel in certain types of photography such as long exposures, 3D images, tethered photography, time-lapses, traffic trails, and more.
Furthermore, using a tripod allows you to work hands-free, to position your camera for the shot and then talk with the model, arrange the photo set and adjust the lighting units or sit and wait for the right moment like in cases where you need a lot of patience (I explain this in the last paragraph so keep reading to know why).
What's the best camera tripod to take great pictures? There are many models on the market and the choice can be difficult. I'd like to make it simple for you and recommend the two models I prefer to use.
Use Professional Photo Filters
Photo filters are tools to mount on the camera lenses to create unique effects during your shot. You can use filters to take professional photos in particular conditions and create interesting variations of light perception. The result is an enriched professional-looking photo.
One of the best photo filters is the NiSi Starter Kit Plus V6 for 100mm plate filters by the Nisi Italian company (the best manufacturer in the world for photographic filters). It creates true-to-life colour pictures and comes with a complete set of accessories.
There're several types and models of camera filters and each of them has its specific features and applications. I talk about that in my article The Best Travel Photography Equipment to Use where I describe them and give a lot of suggestions to help you move to the next level in photography.
Learn How to Edit Photos Like a Professional
To create stunning images you can take professional photos, but you can also add a final touch by editing your pictures like a pro through the use of photo editing software.
You can use a set of different applications or manage everything just within one app such as the Adobe Lightroom photo editor software. It's very versatile and useful, especially if you are on holiday or travel frequently. In fact, Lightroom is a cloud-based photo service and helps you edit, organise, store, and share photos from anywhere.
Photography Learning Resources
Develops an Aptitude for Patience
For many photography styles, you need a lot of patience. This is the final step to learning how to take professional pictures. Let's make some examples.
Landscape photography: you must first do some preliminary inspections at the location. Then you must wake up early in the morning or work in the late evening to exploit the golden hour and blue hour.
Macro photography: most times you need to wait for hours before an insect such as a rare butterfly, alights and stop on a surface (object, branch, flower, stone, etc.) to catch it on camera properly.
Nature photography: let's assume you would like to shot a fast or, even worse, a very discreet animal such as a lynx. You may not see it at all or wait for days before seeing it and for just a few seconds.
Did you learn how to take professional photos?
Now that you know the top 6 tips for great pictures, you can take photos like a pro and produce astonishing images that can stand out from the crowd. So go in the field and practice day after day.
Share your experience and best photos with us. Show the world the beautiful results you achieved following the best photography tips. And if you have more suggestions, feel free to write them in the comments below. We're happy to hear from you.