How to take great digital photos
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
Wednesday 08 July 2009
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.
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."
"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.
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