Here are ten ways you can make your photos better. Because I first presented these at a Parish Life Day workshop in the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware, each starts with a quote from scripture. I have taken some liberties with the translations into English.
1 – Let your light shine that all may see good works. [Matthew 5:16]
Love the world with your camera and the world will respond by looking its best.
John Rutter says in the refrain of his hymn, Look at the World, “Praise to you, O Lord, for all creation. Give us thankful hearts that we may see…” I love the idea that we cannot truly see unless we have thankful hearts. My experience is that the world wants to be photographed, that it likes to show off to those who love what they see. I like, too, Philippians 4:8. Let me slightly misquote it: “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy—focus on such things.” Photography, all of art, every human endeavor, is not primarily about technique, but about pursuing excellence, seeking the good. God looked at the world and saw that it was good. Seeing that the world is good is not a matter of putting a rose-colored filter on the front of your camera. Getting good photos is primarily a matter of learning to see what is excellent. And excellence wants to be seen, is eager to be seen, cries out to be seen. Open your eyes to see it. There is excellence in the ordinary and in the everyday. Shine your light on the world. Become a suitor. Romance the world. Make your images a love song. Refresh your eyes. Let them see the world anew. Turn them loose to run free.
2 – Let there be light. [Genesis 1:3]
Illuminate your subject.
Nothing brings out the excellence of a subject like good lighting. Sometimes that means waiting until the light is best, coming back later in the day, perhaps near sundown or sunrise. Sometimes it means moving people so that they are facing the light instead of having their backs to it. Sometimes it means using your flash. That’s something you can do even on a sunny day if someone is wearing a hat that is casting shade on their face. Light from a window or doorway can be quite pleasing. Usually light from the side is more pleasing than light from a flash or from directly overhead. If you have to use a flash, use it at lower power, or bounce it off the ceiling, or use a diffuser of some kind to soften the light. Learn to use simple portable lights. Set up a studio. Hire a lighting crew.
3 – Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way. [Isaiah 35:3]
Hold the camera steady.
Many photographs are spoiled by a shaky camera. This is often a problem in low light situations because the camera’s shutter is open for a longer time. If you can, add more light or move to a brighter location. Smart phone cameras are especially difficult to hold steady because they have so little mass. Learn to hold your hands steady. Relax. Take up yoga and mediation. Don’t click the shutter, release it. Brace the camera against something solid or even something that will give the camera more mass. Use a tripod or even a monopod. Keep calm and carry on.
4 – The wise photographer puts things to the right or left. [Ecclesiastes 10:2]
Compose using the Rule of Thirds
Don’t shoot photos, take them. The camera is not a pistol; your subject is not a target. Pleasing images rarely have the subject dead center. Instead place your subject dynamically to the left or right, up or down, using the Rule of Thirds. That is, place your subject one-third to the left or right, up or down. There are more complicated rules of composition involving the Golden Ratio, right angles, and logarithmic spirals if you want to pursue such geometries. Many artists have. Even I may do it some day.
5 – Gather the elect from the four corners. [Mark 13:27]
Look for lines going to corners.
Keep your eyes open for lines that come from the corners rather than lines that come from the sides. Scenes in front of the camera often have objects in a line, or objects that are lines such as highways and railroad tracks, sidewalks and railings, lines where walls meet the floor or ceiling. If you can, move your camera so that one or more of these lines go to the corner of the image you are making. Chances are it will improve your composition.
6 – Separate the things one from the other. [Matthew 25:32]
There are many ways to separate the subject from the background.
Light the subject but keep the background dark. Focus on the subject, but throw the background out of focus. Let the background be a different color or texture from the subject.
7 – Compose in the world with simplicity. [Second Corinthians 1:12]
Eliminate the extraneous, keep the essential.
There is almost always some easy way of simplifying an image. This is often a matter of geography or geometry, of moving the camera to one side or the other, or moving it up or down to get a simpler background behind the subject. Sometimes you can move the subject away from a distracting background. Another way to eliminate confusing background detail is to throw it out of focus or to make it dark.
8 – Come near to God and God will come near to you. [James 4:8]
Closer is often better.
Move in closer to the subject, or zoom in closer, or both. Fill the frame. This may be the easiest way to simplify your images. Of course, if you are photographing people, they may not want you getting too close.
9 – Love casts out fear [1 John 4:18]
Learn to put people at ease when photographing them.
The most commonly repeated phrases in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, are “Have no fear!” and “Do not be afraid!” People are easily spooked. Nearly everyone is afraid of getting their portrait taken. Putting people at ease is an art, and there is no better way to do that than for you, as a photographer, to love how people look, to enjoy photographing them, knowing that if you wait patiently they will show themselves to you and the camera. Especially if you are photographing an event, people have to see at a glance that you are enjoying yourself, that you are having fun. It helps if you are not using your flash or are using is at low power. It also helps to use a lens that allows you to stand back from people rather than in their face. That way, they may not even pay you any attention, may not even think of being afraid. It helps to warm up to the task, knowing your first five to ten minutes shooting an event will be uncomfortable for yourself and others. Eventually you will get over your initial reservations and the people you are photographing will come to accept you as part of the event.
10 – As for you, be fruitful and increase in number [Genesis 9:7]
Clear your threshing floor, burn up the chaff. [Luke 3:17]
In other words, shoot prolifically, but edit ruthlessly.
Even before the advent of digital photography, there were more photographs in the world than there were bricks. Now, with little to stop us, our memory cards and hard drives quickly fill with tens of thousands of images, often more than we can track. My advice is to shoot prolifically but edit ruthlessly. Start by looking at your photos while they are still in the camera. Delete the obvious mistakes and the unwanted duplicates. Then, after downloading them to your computer, edit them again. My rule is to delete any photo I never want to see again. In all this, learn from your mistakes, if there is something to learn. Are your images always slightly tilted? Are you ignoring the edges of the frame? Are you forgetting to hold the camera steady?