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 truly 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 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. 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.

Marilyn by Garry
Photo: Garry Armstrong

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 nicely.

Don’t pose yourself or anyone staring straight into a lens. And not so close that you can see their pores. Shot that way, everyone looks like a criminal. Just put a number under their face and you’re in an episode of Law & Order.

Bette Stevens

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.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Take lots of pictures from different angles. Let your subject move around. You can move too. If you take two dozen shots and get one you like, you’re doing well. The more pictures you take, the more likely you are to get a few good ones.

Garry and Bette

When you look in the viewfinder or screen, don’t look only 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. Bricks or stone are great backgrounds. 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 for people pictures:

Everyone wants to look good. Everyone. At every age. 

Remember: NO trash cans in the background. Please!

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.


  1. Totally agree on all points. At the beginning inenjoyed just taking photos With time and experience I discovered all these aspects and try to bear them in mind. I dislike flash, it makes everything unnatural and really have to be sure not to forget the background. This is a very good guide you have written on how to take a photo.


    1. My father took the MOST awful pictures. There were ALWAYS trash cans in the background. I swear there’s not a single family photo of we kids without a can of garbage in the background. There are people I know who have amazing cameras who still have not worked out the whole “background is part of the picture” thing … or that a picture of a friend should not be ugly. We aren’t all going to look like fashion models, but we don’t have to look like something the cat dragged in, either. I never got around to mentioning not decapitating people at the wrist or ankles so that we look like we’ve had a recent date with the executioner, but I figure if anyone can at least make you look like yourself and not really hideous, you can probably cope with an amputated limb 🙂 But you know, there are people who simply can’t take a decent portrait to save their lives. They just can’t, even when they are good at other kinds of pictures.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Always amazed people don’t see the garbage can or other stuff as they set up pics. Hey, I’ve been guilty of it, too. Working too fast and NOT looking.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. And one other point: how willing is the subject? How comfortable are they about their own pictures? I have a friend who exults in ‘catching’ people in unflattering poses, and then sneaks the photo to them via email or with a greeting card. I figger, if someone says, please don’t, they mean it.
    That discomfort comes through very clearly.

    When you and I were growing up, the standard pose was posed/static, grouped, squinty-faced in the sun (look at the camera, dear) and clustered together.

    And my biggest peeve: for the lord’s sweet sake learn the difference between bmp and jpg when you email someone a photo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Even people who hate having pictures taken eventually know it’s time to have a picture taken. I do pretty well with them because frankly, I don’t like people taking my picture either. Garry does it all the time and I have learned to be patient about it. And HE has learned to wait until I’m not looking and try to take pictures of me that look like HE sees me.

      I destroy ugly pictures. Why would someone who is supposed to be a friend send you ugly pictures? What a nasty thing to do. Not much of a friend!

      I’m pretty sure Garry doesn’t know the difference between a jpg and a bmp, but I do all the processing, so he gets pictures “ready to go.” He has come a long with with computers, but picture formats? Seriously?

      It’s good to know who is NOT going to get your advice!


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