Make images, not pictures
Here’s a collection of answers that I usually give when people ask me how they can become better photographers. It’s not that complicated.
The best camera is the one you carry with you
Here's what I usually answer when people ask me which camera is the best. Simple, it’s the one you move around every day. Then I shake my head slowly and calmly explain why that’s not true. The best camera is probably the one in your home, in a drawer, still unboxed. The one you pick up when Christmas, birthdays and holidays come around.
Stop doing that. Instead:
Make your best camera available
Like somewhere really central, where you can reach it quickly and easily and all the time. That way, the best camera will, de facto, be the best camera you have with you. And be sure to bring it. A turn to your local grocery shop with the kids on a beautiful summer night will give more back, make it more spontaneous and above all, present more fun pictures of less stressed kids than one where you command them in a row and force them to smile on grandpa’s birthday. Also, they get used to the camera, which is good when the occasions described above actually arises. Finally, the light is always better in the evening than in the middle of the day, but we’ll get to that.
Leave Auto Mode
Whatever you do, do not put that best camera you can get in Auto Mode. Most likely, images will be shady and ”look flashy”. Also, Auto-mode is better safe than sorry, meaning it will want to use the flash whenever possible, and you will end up with photos with which you are not particularly pleased, having to edit shining faces, red eyes, dark backgrounds. Worst of all, the images will say nothing. No meaning thought or message. They are just photos, not pictures.
Put your best camera available in P mode.
P means Program, and it makes the camera do the same as in Auto, only without flash. Built-in flashes have killed more pictures than they have helped. As you grow confident, you can advance to the S and A modes, which stands for Shutter and Aperture. (A) decides how much light is allowed into the camera and (S) decides for how long.
With the camera in one or the other mode, S adjusts to A (and vice versa), meaning you can play with an object emitting very little light or a lot, for a short or a long time or depending on its speed. A racing horse should be shot in S mode because, in the end, it is always the light that makes the picture. Always. Now, this is when you switch to M, for manual settings, and prepare to start all over again. But once there, you will never leave it because it gives you full control and full control is what you are looking for.
So. What do you do if you forget the best camera available and have to trust the one ALWAYS with you, the one in your cell phone?
Get too close
Zoom with your feet. Not with your fingers, except when necessary. Not only does the image become pixelated and lose sharpness when zooming digitally, it rarely makes the image more exciting. We humans like faces and eyes, the closer you get them, the better. Or be as far away as possible if the view allows. Say your backdrop is a sunset on Santorini and you are there with your parents. Only then can you back up. Otherwise - get closer.
Get on your knees when photographing children
There are already enough pictures on children from above, where a surprised youngster looks up into the camera. We've seen that. Also, that’s how we look at them all the time. The world does not need that angle. Instead, get down to their level. Or, more preferably, send them higher than you are. On a roof of a playhouse, on a climbing post, on a rocking board. Swap angle, or get down on theirs. Just not from above.
Work with the sun, not against it
It is the one who supports the light, remember? And the lower in the sky it hangs, the better the pictures you get. When on the beach at high noon, the image stored in your memory is better than the one on the screen, because it’s just too bright outside for your mobile camera. Sad! Also, the light comes straight from above, casting dark shadows under the eyes. Do you have to take a picture just then, put the person under a tree, or maybe in a doorway? Somewhere between total shadow and light. The foliage above or the gate will give a less bright, more indirect light than the bare sun. It’s still bright, but not too bright. It's perfect bright!
If it’s bright and sunny outside, put your sunglasses in front of your mobile camera. Just as they help your eyes handle bright light, they support the camera take better images the same way - by turning down the light. Even better, the sky turns blue, in the ocean glimmer is less bright, black becomes blacker. But you should expect smart ass comments from friends and family.
Separate hot and cold light
A constant source of trouble is when light from a lamp meets natural light. Sometimes it's warmer than the other, but no camera in the world can combine the two into a sensible whole. Only your brain does that when it's in the middle of it. Instead, choose one of them, preferably later. Drag the one you want to photograph to a window. Position them, so light falls on one side of the face. That way you get a single light, a natural light, and the picture will be way better.
Everyone has something beutiful
This is very abstract, but at the same time, one of the few absolute truths in life; Everyone has something beautiful. It may be the eyes, a cheeky smile, the teeth, the jawline, the hair or the wrinkles around the eyes. Everybody has something. Something that is them, that you can work with. Take a second and find out. Decide to catch it, and you're halfway to an excellent portrait. How do you get it? By joking. Crack a stupid joke. Disarm.
Best of all? Lie!
I've taken some of my absolute best portraits when I explained that I'm just going to "test the light". Hey, I've already done that. But that means that the person on the other side, in nine cases out of ten, has yet to tense up and feel awkward. You're only "testing the light", remember? And a relaxed image is what everyone wants.
If people are not smiling on command: ask them to peer with their eyes a little. A little. They shouldn't close their eyes, just peer. Believe it or not, but it makes them look a little bit cooler.
Because when people fake a smile, they open their eyes wide. When we laugh for real, we close our eyes. When we kiss we close our eyes. That's how the muscles in the face work.
Everyone knows touching up an image is as important as taking it. Sometimes an image needs a lot of work, and sometimes it needs a few nudges in the right direction. The thing is that the more you do right when you take the image - thought through manual settings in your best camera, choosing a smart location for your mobile - the less you need to work the image afterwards. Whatever you do, do not use the filters in Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook. They are overworked, and everyone knows you are filtering the shit out of the picture out of desperation. If you decide to ignore that, thinking "I'm filtering!" - do yourself a favour and click on the filter icon once and drag down the effect the filter.
Here's what you should do instead.
Get one or two good editing apps. There are thousands of them out there, and I have tested many of them. The only ones I would recommend are Adobe Lightroom (Android / iOS), Darkroom (iOS) or Snapseed (Android / iOS).
Start with either Snapseed or Darkroom. They are easy to understand, intuitive and cost nothing. Besides, they come with a series of presets that are significantly more discreet than Insta, Snap or FB will ever be. And with a picture with the right settings, the right light and a relaxed object, small adjustments are enough.
If you still feel the urge wanting to use filters, download VSCO (Android / iOS) to your phone. But you do not need to. Oh, another thing. You may be interested in Mextures (iOS) as well. Mextures offers a series of well-developed light leaks if the image allows. Which, by now, it should.