How to take great digital photos

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Digital cameras are getting smaller and more powerful. But despite all the megapixels, memory cards and special effects, taking a great snap still requires a grasp of the basics. Simon Usborne gets a photographic masterclass

In this point-and-shoot world of phones with double-figure megapixels and lightning-fast uploads to interminable Facebook galleries, taking photos has become as easy as texting a friend or "tweeting" about breakfast. But like most things, you get out what you put in – if you wave your camera in the general direction of your subject and jab the shutter, don't be surprised if your snaps are a dull mess of blurry faces, wonky horizons and out-of-focus animals.

There is another way, of course, and to help turn this amateur snapper into a, well, slightly less amateur snapper, I'm spending a morning with professional photographer David Parry. After more than 10 years of peering through viewfinders, Parry, who works for Canon, knows his f-stops from his ISO but says you don't have to be a pro to improve. "Just taking your time and thinking about what's in the frame will transform your shots," he says. "And there are some really simple things you can do to go a step further and take really great photos."

And that goes for everything from mobile phones to chunky SLRs worth more than a small car. My camera for the day is somewhere in between – a Canon EOS 500D, the latest in the company's line of entry-level, digital SLRs. Like the competition, the 500D combines all the knobs and dials of a pro camera with the user-friendliness of a point-and-shoot.

To learn how to get the most out of this sleek beast without burying our heads in text books, we're embarking on a whistle-stop tour of some of London's lesser-known sights. First stop is West London's Holland Park, which lays barely a pigeon's flap from its grander but less intimate sister, Hyde Park. We've hardly stepped into its leafy embrace when Parry begins giving me tips.

Take the broad view

"When you get somewhere new it's easy to go straight in and start getting close-ups," Parry says. "But my advice is always to get a wide photo of the whole scene first. It helps add context and if, say, you're travelling and going all over the place, it will help you remember where you were when you flick through hundreds of pictures."

Scene-setter in the bag, we head further into the park and hear a loud squawk that Parry identifies as coming from a peacock. Let's shoot it! Ha, photography joke. We laugh. But maybe the peacock hears and doesn't get it, because we walk around in circles trying to find the elusive bird. Certain it must be hiding in a tree (if not certain peacocks can fly), we settle for a pigeon.

Bend the knees

"It's always good to crouch to the same level as your subject," Parry says. "If you're looking down on a small animal or a baby, in the picture they'll look short and you won't see their face."So we crouch, only for the damn pigeon to fly away just as my finger is poised over the shutter. Damn.

Still photography

We jump in the car and zip south for a special tour of one of London's most recognisable, if least-visited landmarks. Battersea Power Station, with its four white chimneys, is Europe's largest brick building and helped keep London charged with electricity from 1935 to 1983. While it's waiting to be redeveloped, its remnants serve as a fantastic location for films (Batman almost got blown up here in The Dark Knight) and student photographers.

After a tour of the stripped-out, cavernous turbine halls, we head for the twin control rooms. We're here to take pictures in low light. Gloomy cathedrals, dim museums and other big indoor spaces are a nightmare to shoot without getting blurry pictures. And a flash won't illuminate a room bigger than, say, a kitchen. The 1930s control room is only lit with a few strip lights, which give its banks of dusty dials and Bakelite fixtures a spooky feel. How are we going to capture this?"First, turn your flash off if it's on auto," Parry says. "Then, the key to non-blurry pictures is holding your camera as still as possible. If you don't have a tripod, lean against something and rest your camera on a table or against a column. Then, half-press the shutter to focus before gently squeezing the rest of the way. At the same time, hold as still as you can and breathe out slowly. Another way to stop your shutter finger shaking the camera is to use the self-timer."

More advanced cameras allow you to change the ISO, a measure of the device's sensitivity to light. I turn the Canon up to 3200 (that's high, apparently) and practise Parry's breathing technique to miraculously add light to the dark room. Sometimes it's so dark the camera can't focus because it can't see the object in front of it. To solve this problem Parry gives me a bonus tip – use a torch to throw light on the matter, allowing the camera to lock on. Then switch off the torch and shoot – this may confuse some cameras but it works for us.

Lines of beauty

Back into the light and on our way to the security gates past Battersea's towering chimneys, Parry gives me some advice for getting more interesting photos of buildings.

"A good way to make buildings look more interesting is to capture lines that lead your eye to the subject. These can be railway lines, a path or a road, all of which will add depth to your photo. If you're taking a picture of a huge wall, like here at Battersea, or other architectural features, try tilting the camera to add jaunty angles to the scene."

Energised by our tour of the power station, we head east to London Bridge, famous for its train station and singularly boring bridge (Tower Bridge, the next one east, got all the interesting features). The area is also home to Borough Market, a foodie's delight under the railway arches. It's full of colour, bustle and people. And when it comes to photos, people are good.

Your own lenses

Before Parry and I go our separate ways, he offers me once last tip. "Sometimes you see people on holiday watching a sunset or a performance or something like that, and they're so focused on getting a nice shot they forget to look at what's going on through their own eyes. Photos provide great memories, but don't forget to watch in the first place."

Practical snaps: Getting the best results

The eyes have it

Walking further into the park, we spot a more willing subject – one that won't scarper at the crucial moment. It's a life-size statue of a man, walking, called "Walking Man". Time for some portrait practice.

"A good principle for portraits all photos is the 'rule of thirds'," Parry explains. "If you imagine dividing the frame into a grid of nine squares, pictures look better if your subject is positioned on one of those lines, or where they cross. In portraits, aim to get the eyes roughly two-thirds of the way up the frame. It's also great to fill the frame with your subject's face but to avoid distorting it, take a step back and zoom in – the face will look more natural and will stand out more because the background will tend to blur."

Mono mania

"Nearly all digital cameras have a black and white mode," Parry says. "Sometimes it can offer a different feel to a picture by looking at textures and shadows rather than colours."

Parry points out areas of light and dark in the rafters of the market that add interest. And when I take a candid shot of two bin men having a chat, they seem to stand out more without the distraction of all the background colour and the glow of their luminous jackets. The monochrome moment is a nice end to a day of discovery and, flicking through my gallery of shots, I'm struck by how, well, all right they look. And while most camera phones don't have an option to shoot in black and white, try uploading them to your computer and turning them monochrome then. iPhone users can play around with a number of apps that add different colour effects.

Figures in a landscape

"Lots of people come back from holiday and their photos have nobody in them," Parry says. "People instantly add scale and interest to any shot. If there are crowds, it can be fun to try and blur them while the background stays focused. If you can control your shutter speed, slow it down, hold your camera steady and experiment. It's also nice to get candids – shots of people going about their business. Just make sure you're discreet."

By using a wrought iron column for support and slowing the shutter speed to an eighth of a second, I master the people-blurring effect, which Parry tells me also works well to blur moving water in rivers or fountains. Adding ghostly figures to the market scene certainly makes the images stand out. Parry then encourages me to take a couple of close-ups of people. "Never be afraid to ask someone if you can take their photo – the worst they can do is say no," he says. I get an emphatic no from a heavily-pierced antipodean behind a beer stall, but get the thumbs up from a chap with a fantastic slicked-back side parting who's selling orange juice.


Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'


Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'

Animal welfare charities have urged the boy band to cut the scenes

The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin married in Venice yesterday
peopleAmal and George Clooney 'planning third celebration in England'
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley at the premiere of Laggie at Toronto Film Festival 2014
theatreActress 'to make Broadway debut'
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Business Focused Business Analyst - Finance and Procurement System Implementation

    £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reading are...

    Helpdesk Support Analyst - South West London - up to £22,000.

    £20000 - £22000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Support Analyst ...

    Datacentre Consultant (Infrastructure Consultant, HyperV) £45k

    £45000 per annum: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Datacentre Consultant (Datacentre,...

    .NET Developer (C#, .NET, Support) - Coventry - £45k

    £45000 per annum + Excellent Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: .NET Develope...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker