7 Digital Photography Tips: The Modern Day Trends That Will Make or Break Your Photograph

Posted by Jared Polowick
Filed under Blog, Photography

Everybody and their grandma love to take photos. But one thing you have that will help you one-up your grandma’s shots – is a computer. Using a computer allows you to visit this lovely website to read some ground rules of photography, some techniques, tips, and then how to process them properly…and for the record, today’s movement to overprocess with HDR is not an acceptable way to process photos.

It doesn’t really matter if you shoot with an iPhone, a Canon 5DMII, or a Hasselblad H4D-40 – these tips will help improve whatever it is your camera is capable of capturing. Just after the jump are 7 tips that will truly help you consistently take good photographs.

Tip# 1– Shoot First, Beg for forgiveness later

Whatever you do, don’t say ‘Excuse me . . . would you mind if I photographed you?’ It’s just like trying to pick up a girl at a club, if you nervously ask for permission to ask a question, you’ve already come off as annoying or creepy. They’re now thinking ‘What is this guy going to do with my photos…?’ Shoot people with confidence and a big smile and you won’t have any issues. I’ve always wondered how a close friend of mine, Payam, photographed so many clubs, parties, swimsuit models, and people in public places with such great results. He’s got a great smile, seems non-threatening, and enjoys himself while doing it. That’s the way to be. Confident body language speaks volumes before your mouth ever will.

I had a professor tell me that she could pretty well shoot anything and everything as a woman. She said a man would have a hard time to try and go up and photograph a mother’s baby at the park without getting hit over the head. Ladies, use your natural ability to be non-threatening to your advantage and let your creativity take control. Men…wear a helmet?

With all that said, there’s nothing wrong with asking for permission to photograph someone after being engaged in conversation with them and establishing trust. This is quite good when photographing abroad in foreign countries. In a lot of areas of the world, people don’t have their photograph taken very often and they are often very appreciative when you talk with them, take a photograph, and show it to them on your camera.

If anyone does have an issue with you photographing them, just simply state what you’re planning on doing with the photos (ex. I’m posting them on my blog, here’s my card, etc.) and be courteous with them. But don’t forget to be aware of your rights as a photographer, especially if you’re shooting for commercial use. Photographer rights differ quite a bit between USA and Canada so be sure to read up on the details. Remember that a lot of places that seem public might not be. Mall security will probably tell you to stop taking photographs if you have a nice big camera but they legally can’t make you delete anything.

Final point: stop taking stalker photos. Man up and approach, smile, shoot, and continue on. Or establish trust first through genuine interest and get permission. Lose the super telephoto lens, shooting from the waist, pretending to have shot someone/something else when your target spots you, or whatever other creepy tricks you may have read about – it’s not fooling anybody.

Tip #2 –Use the rule of thirds

When I was studying design, in my presentations I often brought up how my composition utilized the rule of thirds to help create interest through energy and tension as well as leading the viewer’s eye from one point to the next. I was shocked to find that many of my peers were not familiar with this staple rule – and they were studying to be professional visual communicators!

The rule of thirds means to evenly break the photo into 9 segments with two horizontal and two vertical lines. The strongest elements should be placed where the lines intersect to increase interest. Pay attention when watching movies or TV or looking at professional photographs or paintings – they all utilize the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds is one of the cornerstone principles practiced in design, photography, and other art mediums. Read more about it here on Wikipedia.

Tip #3 – Dynamic Angles

Stop solely shooting from eye level. Here’s why: low viewpoint and high viewpoint angles can greatly improve the interest and meaning in your photograph. A low viewpoint can be used to emphasize certain elements, distort scale, or dramatize a picture. It can also create the illusion of speed and strength – How do you think Shane and I always look so strong and nimble?

Shooting from above helps orient the viewer by allowing the viewer to see the relationships between the different elements. Landscape and environment shots are great from above (think inside a club here) – it can really add a lot of depth to your photographs.

Just make sure it feels dynamic. If you change the rotation of your camera, do it a lot. No one likes seeing the horizon just ever so slightly draping off to the right. There are tools to fix that…

On the right is a shot from the infamous Dave Hill. He chose a ultra wide-angle lens and got down real low to the ground and made this photo interesting to look at just by using an unusual angle. This low-angle viewpoint makes her look like she is a force to be reckoned with (in addition to the custom sky treatment and painted in sunrise). If you haven’t seen his work before, do yourself a favour and check it out.

Tip #4 – Cropping doesn’t end in the camera

And now we’re entering the darkroom…the digital darkroom. Back in the old days of film you might have seen images like this that showed the outer edges of the film strip. These black edges were displayed with a certain elitism that the entirety of their intention was captured (nothing more and nothing less) and thus they do not need to crop. Cropping was seen as a tool used among amateur photographers to strengthen their compositions in post.

Well there’s nothing like that in today’s digital world that can authentically say ‘this is an unadulterated image’. So it’s all up for grabs. Use the crop tool to straighten those crooked horizons, move your subject onto a third, zoom in to fill the frame, etc. I actually crop my photos to the point where sometimes I’ll shoot with extra room around my subjects just to give me room to edit it down to perfection in post.

Tip #5 – Fix The White Balance

This is a really simple fix if you have a nice camera and have the ability to shoot RAW. Those stuck with small pocket cameras or cell phones, this tip is difficult to practice (but not impossible). The overall color tone of an image can affect the overall perception greatly. Iconic movies and photographs are quite often recognized because of their colour treatment. Bad example – but Domino was a movie instantly memorable because of its colour (and highlight blowouts, ultra high-contrast, and smeary-effect due to being cross-processed). I know, bad example.

Take a look at the shot below from a gathering I photographed earlier this year. The hall was lit with fluorescent lights that (unfortunately) will make anything in a photo green. Besides looking like I’m shooting stills off a SAW set, people look sick and the photo is unappealing. Our eyes automatically adjust to different qualities of light but a camera can only capture what physically exists. Ignoring the colour of light is quite similar to our selective hearing, which is demonstrated when microphones pick up the air conditioner running, cars driving by outside, and other sounds we automatically tune out.

If you have RAW, simply tune the temperature/tint dials by eye or use the white balance eyedropper tool to select a white point in the photograph. A proactive tip for more important shoots is to photograph a piece of bright white foam in the area you’ll be photographing in. Then when you start processing, you can base the white balance settings off of that photograph, create a preset, and apply it to the remaining shots for perfect white balance.

For those stuck with JPG, there are a million and one ways to go about altering the overall colour of a photograph in Photoshop. I usually start with Hue & Saturation adjustments and edit the green/yellow channels to get what I want. For shots involving people, warmer is better – it makes them seem healthier and livelier. To the right is an example of a diptych I put together with a couple photos I took with my iPhone. I used a soft brush and low opacity to colour adjust the faces to proper skin tone while painting the background a cooler colour. This magnifies the contrast between subject and background and actually manages to make them look healthier at the same time. All the big time television shows have this look (CSI is the perfect example) that use algorithms to colourize skin tones warmer while everything else becomes less saturated and cooler.

Tip #6 – Add Subtle Vignetting

A few of my photographer friends tease me about how I apply vignetting to 100% of my photos. But they can’t argue with the facts – photographs with vignetting increase viewing pleasure by up to 25% (this is an unfounded statistic). It helps provide subject isolation (most people take overly busy photographs) and leads your eye into the photograph. The trick here is just like using drop shadows on the web – it needs to be so subtle that you don’t actually notice it unless you’re looking for it. Just like my distaste for overly HDR processed photos, it is very easy to overdo vignetting especially with visually lighter photographs. Subtle on the left…not so subtle on the right.

If you have Lightroom or Aperture, you can use the lens-vignetting tool in the opposite direction to get a good vignette. For some reason the post-crop vignetting tool in Lightroom tends to have less of a pleasing multiplying effect so I never use that tool.

If you only have Photoshop or a similar editor, add a new layer and paint in your own vignettes with a soft brush and very low opacity. Being stuck to a circle vignette is boring so if you have to do it by hand, you might as well paint in the details exactly the way you want to.

Tip #7 – Expand Dynamic Range / Boost Contrast

I mainly always do this step in Photoshop, even after editing RAW files in Lightroom. HDR stands for High-Dynamic-Range, which means there are lots of details in the highlights and shadows. What normally happens is that the photograph is so over-processed that any dynamics in the photograph have been removed (strong shadows for one), awful haloing artifacts run rampant, and generally HDR is applied to photographs that should have never made it out of the rejected bin.

That said, it is possible to expand the range in a photograph the right way. One trick I’ve always done in Photoshop is to create a duplicate of the layer, convert it to Black & White (not desaturation, not enough contrast), and set it to overlay. This is usually too strong of contrast so I then apply a moderate amount of Shadows/Highlights. After that I lower the opacity of the top layer to the point where I’m happy with it. Using the eraser with a soft brush and low opacity is a great way to add selective contrast as well.

Conclusion

Utilize these tips and I guarantee you’ll start getting a ton more ‘likes’ on your Facebook photo albums. If something really struck home as useful or if you have any questions, let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you.

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010
9 Responses to “7 Digital Photography Tips: The Modern Day Trends That Will Make or Break Your Photograph”
  1. jess
    October 26th, 2010
    12:41 am

    JARED! This is super helpful! I can’t wait to try some of these soon, especially the post-processing bits that I suck so much at. keep it up!!


  2. Jared Polowick
    October 26th, 2010
    11:40 am

    Hi Jess, I’m glad you found it helpful. I didn’t want to dwell on the actual steps of post-processing to keep the jargon/technical aspects out of this post. If that’s what people are looking for, I’ve been considering releasing vidoes of how exactly to use some post-processing techniques in step by step details.


  3. Jay S.
    October 28th, 2010
    11:45 am

    Jared,

    Nice start to a blog. Perhaps you might want to expand to the various tools you use, or that are out there. I’m thinking of things like onOne, Nik, Graphic Authority, etc. More and more folks are no longer satisfied with just the base image, and want to you some creativity along with it. That said, you need a good image to start with and these are some good steps for folks to follow.


  4. Jared Polowick
    October 28th, 2010
    11:05 pm

    Hey Jay. Thanks for mentioning that and I do believe photographers should experiment with plugins and filters – to learn what they can from them and then move on. I suppose it comes down to personal taste, but just like when I was learning Photoshop I used and experimented with every filter in the book. Now I never venture into the filter menu except for high pass.

    Even when it comes down to a more creative spin on an image, I love to manipulate it my own way with the more basic but harder to master tools such as levels, masks and brushing, and dodging/highlights.

    When I think about professional photographers like Dave Hill who spends days perfecting every last detail to truly make his vision come to life…it makes me realize that the people trying to replicate his style through a simple plugin or preset in Lightroom are just in a phase.

    I do agree a good image is completely necessary before getting too heavy into post-processing. Thanks for the comment though, it sounds like more people are interested in what options are available and how to replicate styles in post so I’ll have to consider that for the next one!


  5. Janice
    December 21st, 2010
    11:42 am

    Hi Jared,

    There’s actually an option for adding vignette in Photoshop. It’s under Filter > Distort > Lens Correction. Hope this helps.

    Janice


  6. Jared Polowick
    December 24th, 2010
    1:23 am

    Ahhh good call Janice. I do remember using it in Photoshop but I had forgotten about that feature as I usually make all my corrective changes in Lightroom. It’s kind of a hassle to export from LR and re-open in Photoshop with such large images sometimes so I feel that once I’m in Photoshop, I might as well brush in my own custom vignette to my liking. Doing it with a paintbrush gives a more realistic look of physical vignettes that you’d normally see from tiny lenses, stacked filters, light leaks, etc. But definitely, good call!


  7. Ed
    October 20th, 2011
    4:30 pm

    I’m also not a fan of the overdone HDR shots but would like to know how to do it tastefully. I’d love to see a video tutorial on how you process your HDR photos. Do you use various techniques to achieve a certain look? What’s your opinion on Photomatix and ‘artificial HDR’ using LR’s tone curves?


  8. W. Shane Duquette
    October 20th, 2011
    5:25 pm

    Hey Ed,
    If you’re talking about shots like our on our about page or out tattoo photography they actually aren’t HDR at all – at least not in the traditional multi-exposure sense! We use a simple bounced flash for lighting, and then in Lightroom we work from one photograph and use a ton of fill light, recovery and contrast. That produces a pretty wacky looking photo, so we process one in a more traditional way. We pop them into Photoshop and place the wacky one on top of the normal one, turn the opacity down to 50 on the wacky one and there you go. Setting the wacky layer to “luminosity” works well, too. I usually use the “enhance monochromatic contrast” option in the levels panel, and then we shrink it to the size we want and sharpen ‘er up 🙂


  9. Jeff Oram
    May 30th, 2012
    5:42 am

    Phtography is wonderful, it’s changed so much in the last 50 years but it still such a powerful medium 🙂


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