The proliferation of cell phones and high-end, point and shoot cameras has made everyone think they take great pictures. For some people, it’s true or close enough for folk music. Others, not so much. Facebook is the place where I am constantly reminded of how many people take awful pictures.
This is aimed at the photographically challenged. You know who you are.
First, let’s discuss equipment. No matter what you are using — cell phone or camera — it needs to be in working order. Clean lens, not scratched. If it’s an old cell you have dropped and doused, I feel safe saying it won’t take great pictures.
Ditto that old point and shoot camera that’s been kicking around your basement for years. Probably not going to give you the quality you seek.
If, on the other hand, you have a relatively new cell phone, maybe an iPhone 4 or better? Or by some miracle you have a real camera in working order? Or someone in your family has a camera you can borrow for a few hours?
If none of this works for you, consider giving up photography.
Okay. Moving on. You need light to take a picture. Flash is unflattering and cheap cameras need more light than expensive ones. You don’t need to know why, just take my word for it.
This means you should take your pictures outside in natural light. During the day. But not bright sunlight or in drenching rain. You knew that, right?
Rain is bad for cameras and cell phones. It’s the whole electronics versus water thing.
Bright sunlight creates unattractive sharp shadows and burns out highlights. It means you won’t be able to see anything in the bright or in shaded parts of the picture. Nor will there be much to see in the middle. Also, it makes people look all squinty.
Bright shade or a cloudy day will do the job.
Don’t pose yourself (or anyone) staring straight into a lens close up. Shot that way, everyone looks like a criminal. Just put a number under their face and you’re in an episode of Law & Order.
Have your subject turn slightly right or left. That includes you if you’re taking a selfie. Look at the screen and see if it’s an attractive picture. If not, keep moving the subject around until you like what you see.
Take a lot of pictures from different angles. Let your subject move around. You can move too. If you take two dozen shots and get one you truly like, you’re doing well. The more pictures you take, the more likely you are to get a few excellent ones.
When you look in the viewfinder or screen, don’t just look at your subject. Look at the background. No trash cans. No piles of rubble. You want a neutral, pleasant backdrop. Leaves, trees, grass. A wall is good too. Mostly, you want the background to not distract from the subject.
Avoid flash for portraits. It is unflattering, like full sun and for the same reasons.
If all the pictures are unflattering, unfocused, off-color, do the right thing. Delete them. No one will thank you for making them look bad. You don’t need to be a photographer to know the most important rule of people pictures:
Everyone wants to look good.
Avoid trash cans in the background. Please!