The first impulse is to blame your camera. But that's the easy way out. "Almost any camera can take a good picture," says New York—based photographer Paul Costello, who contributes to many national magazines, including House Beautiful and Travel + Leisure. Though you might be relieved to hear that the answer to better photographs doesn't mean you'll have to drop hundreds of dollars at your local camera shop, capturing photos you're proud to show off does mean making some basic changes in the way you shoot. We asked the experts for tips on how to get the best possible pictures.
1. Get to know your camera.
It sounds obvious, butwhether you're using a digital, a point-and-shoot, or a professional-grade camera, you need to experiment to figure out exactly what it can do. Even a fully automatic model is likely to have different flash settings for day and night, affecting things like shutter speed and aperture, which, in combination with the camera's built-in light meter, affect the film's exposure. Shutter speed—the amount of time a camera's shutter is open and the film is exposed to light—is measured in seconds and fractions of seconds, typically from one second down to 1/4000 of a second; the shorter the time, the less light the film is exposed to. Aperture refers to the size of the opening on a camera's lens that allows light into the camera body, and is measured in f-stops. If you have a fully automatic camera, you won't need to worry about adjusting either of these features—they change themselves, depending on the flash setting you use—but you should still shoot a few rolls before setting out on the road to see how your camera handles different situations. And if you have a manual camera, you'll definitely need to play around with at least the basic settings to get comfortable with making adjustments.
2. Start with the right film
The market may be mad for digital cameras, but professional photographers are still devoted to good old film: they might use a certain brand to bring out, say, the red in Moroccan villages or the greens in an Irish landscape. But most of us stock up at the local drugstore, where the main decision to be made is whether to go with a generic brand or spring for Kodak. Next time, try professional film instead—Costello insists he can tell the difference between a photograph shot with a consumer brand and one using professional. Professional film must be refrigerated; it has a shorter shelf life than consumer film, which is designed to sit around for long periods of time. In addition to high-grade film from Fuji and Agfa, Kodak makes a professional line that averages just $2 more per roll than its consumer film. You'll find them at camera shops, or you can purchase online at BHphoto.com. The higher the film speed, the more sensitive it is to light, so carry 100 (for outdoor shooting, especially at midday) and 400 (for everything else), and you'll be ready for any situation.
3. Aim for backlighting.
According to Costello, the most difficult time to take photos is during the hours you're likely to be out and about—at midday. Shooting then isn't out of the question, but it does require practice. "If it's summer in Bombay and the sun is straight overhead, there's not much you can do," he says. But when you do want to shoot in the middle of the day, try for backlighting: if you can get the sunlight behind the person or thing you're shooting while avoiding a glare in your camera lens, the object will be surrounded by a slight halo. Photographer Ericka McConnell, who shoots for Bon Appetit and O, the Oprah Magazine as well as T+L, suggests that those whose cameras accommodate it use a basic hood that screws onto the camera lens to help reduce glare. "It's a little tricky to make sure the sun isn't coming directly into the lens," she says. "If you see a glare, then it's going to be in the picture." Costello also advises more-advanced photographers to carry a handheld light meter to get the correct light reading, since the sun coming directly into the camera can cause underexposure and loss of detail.
4. Shoot in the morning and evening.
You're best off taking pictures in the morning and in the hours just before and after sunset, when the sun is less harsh and you have more options with the way light illuminates your subject. Richard I'Anson, a Melbourne-based photographer and author of Travel Photography: A Guide to Taking Better Pictures, says that if you're looking to add dimension to an image, you should make use of the shadows you'll get when the sun illuminates your subject from the side. To bring out colors, shoot when the light is hitting your subject from the front.
5. Use the flash . . . or not.
Although many professional photographers prefer to make use of natural light only, for the amateur photographer, flash can be a godsend. Although it might seem counterintuitive, use your flash during the day, especially when shooting people. "The easiest thing anyone can do is put on the flash. It opens up the shadows on a person's face," says Bob Krist, the author of Spirit of Place: The Art of the Traveling Photographer. But at night, turn off the flash unless you're shooting people from no more than 10 feet away. If you want to shoot a cathedral or town square and it's pitch-black out, you're pretty much out of luck, since no pop-up flash can illuminate such a big area. "A little flash isn't going to light up the whole street," says Krist. Also, most flashes produce lower-quality prints by creating too much contrast between light and dark areas. If you're shooting in the early morning or at dusk, when there's just enough ambient light to capture on film, keep the flash off and choose a slower shutter speed (on fully automatic cameras this will happen as long as you keep the flash off); you'll capture even more light.
6. Set up your shots.
The biggest mistake made by amateur photographers is unknowingly cluttering a picture with objects and people that aren't the focus of the image. "The human eye tends to magnify whatever it finds interesting. The lens doesn't do that," says I'Anson. "Fill the frame with your subject. Often it's as simple as taking two or three steps closer or zooming in."
For a different kind of photograph, Krist recommends keeping the subject out of the center of the photograph while following the rule of thirds. Divide the viewfinder into thirds horizontally and vertically; anywhere the lines intersect (some cameras have such a grid on the viewfinder) is where the eye will be drawn.
7. Take a stance on tourists.
Costello suggests visiting prime spots in off-hours to avoid the clamor of tourists in your photos—"you know, the Taj Mahal in the distance, and a bunch of people wearing sweats in front of it"—an especially good option if you're using a point-and-shoot and don't have as many options for varying the way people and motion will look in the shot. For those with manual settings on their cameras, McConnell advises using a slower shutter speed to blur the motion of those visitors and still get a clear shot of your actual subject. But don't go below 1/15 of a second; shoot in the early morning or at dusk if possible; and keep your flash off. And be aware that shooting with slow shutter speeds can result in completely blurry photographs if you don't brace the camera against something. Whether to carry a tripod is a matter of personal preference. Most photographers, including Costello, insist on using one, but McConnell never does, having trained herself to hold the camera steady. Mere mortals should consider toting a folding tripod (about $50).
8. Don't skimp on processing.
When you've worked hard to get the best shots, stay away from one-hour developing and convenience stores; instead, use a professional shop with its own lab or a professional online mail-in service such as AandI.com. Professional photographers often use slide film, which requires very exact measuring and allows little room for altering the exposure in processing. Color print film, however, is quite flexible, says Krist: "Prints tend to be more forgiving of exposure error—you could cook the negatives over fire and they'd still make a decent print." The problem, he says, is that the inexperienced staffers and automatic processors at non-professional developers can't help you out. Automatic processors are designed to print for average exposures, but often you'll need adjustments made for over- and underexposures, changes that can be done easily in a lab that pays more attention to detail. For example, shooting in snow is a challenge because the bright rays it reflects can throw off your camera's light meter, which is designed to measure average levels. The underexposed print, if automatically processed, will look gray. A professional can easily adjust the exposure problem while developing your pictures, giving them the look you intended.
9. Don't underestimate.
To get the perfect shot, take a lot of pictures. "Bring twice as much film as you think you need," says Krist. After all, he says, if you really want to come home with great photos, "The cost of film is the cheapest part—not half as expensive as paying for a trip back to get what you missed."
The Best Alternatives To Digital
If you're ready to play the professional, it's time to invest in an SLR (single lens reflex) camera, which lets you swap lenses and add flash units depending on the situation. Because it's not loaded with extra features you'll never use, the entry-level Canon EOS Rebel 2000 (top) isn't as intimidating as most. In addition to manual operation, it has a fully automatic mode and special settings for specific kinds of shots (portrait, sports, landscape). It's also gently priced, which the experts say is ideal—spend less on the camera body and shell out more dough on a great lens. 800/652-2666; www.usa.canon.com; $350.
Another good choice is the Minolta Maxxum STsi (bottom), which has the same basic features as the Canon, plus the ability to take panoramic pictures. And the lightweight body makes for easy toting. 201/825-4000; www.minoltausa.com; $588.
Just looking to upgrade your point-and-shoot?Check out the Nikon Nuvis S (not pictured), which has drop-in APS film loading, a 3X zoom lens, red-eye reduction—and one of those famous high-quality Nikon lenses. 800/645-6687; www.nikonusa.com; $310.