Take better pictures

This article contains some simple tips for taking better pictures.  It’s intended for those using smartphones or simple cameras although those with DSLR’s might also find it useful.

Composition

This is all about the art of making a pleasing picture.  Of course, it’s very subjective and what pleases one person someone else will think is awful.  However, there are a number of rules of thumb that can help:

Rule of thirds

Imagine four lines dividing the screen up one third from the bottom, one third down from the top, one third in from the left and one third in from the right you get a grid.

Create a picture so that your lead item or strongest point is on one of the lines or on the four intersections between the lines, see the red lines on Photos 1 and 2.

You don’t have to follow this rigidly, but in general it will give a pleasing picture.  Figure 3 shows another example with the mountain on the upper intersection.

Photo 3 another example using upper intersection

Photo 3 another example using upper intersection

However, sometimes, a square image dead centre looks best – it all depends on your subject matter! (See also figure 5 later).  There are other composition guides such as the golden circle, but they are all just that – guides, not rules that must be obeyed.

Action space

Make sure your subjects have room in the frame, for example a portrait where the person is looking left, position them on the right of the frame.  If you have a vehicle in the picture make sure there is space in front of it within your image.

Horizons

Keep them level!  Minor slopes can be dealt with in editor software, but it’s best to get it right in camera.  Ideally avoid putting the horizon in the dead centre of the picture, put it on a rule of thirds line. See Photo 4 (the larger image below) for the difference to Photos 1 and 2

Background and foregrounds

In your eagerness to take the photograph it’s very easy to miss antenna masts sprouting from people’s heads, feet chopped off at the ankles, litter, untidy objects and so on.

Don’t be afraid to move your vantage point to get rid of them, and take your time.

Technical & technique

Lighting

Arguably the most important thing to consider as photos are all about recording light.  We only see images because light reflects off your subjects and you will hear people talking about the quality of light, harsh light, soft light and so on.

  • The midday sun is very strong, producing intense shadows, and is a harsh light.  Photography can be difficult in these conditions.
  • Overcast days produce a more diffuse, softer, light that can give better photos but on the other hand images can be a little flat and dull.
  • Around sunrise and sunset are the so-called golden hours where the sunlight takes on a more mellow and warm hue and this can give some spectacular pictures for scenery and showing antennas.
  • Try to keep the light behind you or to one side of your subject as this makes it easier.  You can take photos against the light but you may need a better camera than a smartphone and you will certainly need some practice.

Various lighting conditions emphasise different colours within the light, and your camera has a setting called white balance that needs to be properly adjusted so that the areas that are supposed to be white are in fact shown as white.  You can keep it on auto or make manual adjustments on many cameras, but note that mixed light sources can give difficulty and snow will often appear blue!  Some editing software can correct this.

Contrast & exposure

Smartphone and small compact cameras have a limited range of brightness levels that their sensors can resolve.  DSLR’s are better but the issue still applies.

If your picture has very bright and very dark parts then you may have trouble getting what is called an even exposure.  Your camera may have manual exposure compensation, which allows you to make adjustments to what the automatic system has done, but even that has its limits.

Generally, with a digital camera it is best to ensure that your exposure is correct for the bright areas in your image, which will make the darker areas go very dark, but they are more recoverable in software later.  If the lighter image parts get rendered as full white they are called burned out and are irrecoverable as the data has been lost.

Focus point

This will vary with the subject.  Most smartphones allow you to focus on specific subjects by touching the screen, if yours does then try to use the facility.  For people focus on the eyes, for landscapes and the like focus about one third in between yourself and the horizon.  Otherwise, autofocus normally does quite a good job.

All camera lenses have what is called a focal plane, which is the zone of distance from the lens in which subjects will be in focus.  You may need to move your vantage point to properly focus on what you wish to photograph.  This particularly applies if you’re trying to take close-up pictures.

Camera shake

This causes your photographs to be out of focus and usually has one of two causes.  Rushing an image, jabbing at the shutter button, will almost certainly give you a muzzy picture as you move the camera while the image is being recorded.  Take your time, be gentle, and you will get sharp pictures in normal lighting.  Slowing down also enables you to get better compositions.

Low light levels bring more problems, both with camera shake and also the introduction of digital noise.  Brace your camera against something solid, being very careful not to move it while you take the picture as the low light levels magnify its effects, and you should be okay with camera shake unless the lighting is very low.

Digital noise (coloured speckles in the image) is related to the sensor and very broadly the more you pay for the camera the less there is of it!  In more advanced cameras there are settings to reduce its effects but generally it appears under low light conditions.

Lens distortions

Most smartphones have what is called a wide-angle lens so they can capture scenery and the like to best effect.  However, for portraits they have a big disadvantage: noses and foreheads get quite enlarged and pronounced.  You won’t be able to change the lens so if this happens move back until the distortion disappears and then take your photograph.

You can then, within limits, make your subject larger in software by means of a process known as cropping, where you simply cut away the bits of the picture you don’t want.

Processing

You may need to process your pictures to achieve the results you’re looking for.  There are numerous photo editing programs on the market, some free others rather expensive.  You can change contrast, brightness, crop, add visual effects and so on but in all cases bear in mind that usually less is more.

I’ve put together a basic guide for using the Microsoft Windows 10 version 1803 Photos App

Legal and publication matters

There are some legal issues to consider when taking and subsequently using pictures. The Royal Photographic Society has a blog page at http://www.rps.org/regions-and-chapters/regions/headquarters/blogs/2017/july/what-can-you-photograph that gives general guidance but a web search will yield detailed commentaries.

And finally

Photography is a big subject and people spend their lives learning how to get the best out of it with equipment sometimes costing many tens of thousands of pounds.

Nevertheless, the simple techniques outlined above should help you get better pictures of your amateur radio activities.

Above all don’t worry about perfection, have fun with your camera, however simple!