By MARCUS R. DONNER
First the bad news: It's not the camera's fault the picture is bad. In the years I've spent looking at photos taken by reporters, the unfortunate truth as to why the photos weren't good was invariably operator error, not a problem with the camera. Today's point-and-shoots, and consumer digital SLRs, are very good at getting photos properly exposed and in focus.
Now the good news: There are a few simple things you can do to make your photos better.
Composition – Frame like a pro
The Rule of Thirds
If you only do one thing to make your photos better, do this. Artists have used it for hundreds of years and it's one of the most common compositional techniques of photographers. You can see it every day in professional photographs in your daily paper, website, blog or National Geographic. Imagine that the viewfinder of your camera has lines that spilt the frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically – as if you've drawn a tic-tac-toe board on the viewfinder. Those lines, the thirds, are where you want to place the subject of your photo. Photos that are centered, which is what most amateurs do, tend to feel static. Photos that place the subject on one of the thirds, either horizontally or vertically, are more compositionally active.
It can be as simple as putting the horizon on the top or bottom third. Best of all is to place the subject where those lines cross on the axis of the vertical and horizontal thirds, as in the photo above. The singer's face is on the crossed lines.
Start looking around and you'll see that professional photographers are using this simple technique every day. Why? Because it's so effective. Here are some examples to look at on the web:
• http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/2007- 11/tonga/teague-text.html
• http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/2007- 11/hunters/poole-text.html
The Decisive Moment
"A velvet hand, a hawk's eye – these we should all have. … If the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless." – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Think of Bresson's Decisive Moment as that one moment when the whole story can be told in a single photo. Pros are always looking for these moments, because getting the moment trumps everything else. Here are some things I tell photographers starting out.
• Shoot a "safety photo:" This is the photo that gets the job done – a photo you know you could publish. It might not be the most exciting photo, but if you get nothing else, it will work. Why shoot this photo? Because once you have it you can try other things.
• Shoot creatively: Experiment, get creative, tilt the camera, shoot from a high angle, or a low one. Don't be afraid to try. Your experiment may turn out to be the best photo you shoot. And if it isn't, that's okay – you still have your "safety photo." Plus, you often learn from those failed experiments and next time you'll make it work.
• Shoot, shoot and shoot some more: How do photographers get those great photos? Not just a good photo, not just an adequate photo, but a great photo. Well, they work the situation and they shoot lots of photos. They are looking for the best of the best. A professional photojournalist will shoot dozens if not hundreds of photos per assignment. It's the digital age; it doesn't cost anything to shoot more frames, to try more options. It's what the pros do. In the June 2000 edition of National Geographic the average story had 15 published photos. Editor Bill Allen wrote that the average number of frames shot per story was 29,000. You don't have to shoot 29,000 photos, but shoot more than two or three.
• Fill the frame: What you exclude from the frame is just as important as what you include. Remember, you are trying to tell a story clearly. As famed war photographer Robert Capa used to say "if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough. "
• No posing: Don't pose photos if you can help it. Instead, take photos of real people doing real things.
Look for good light
Photography is nothing without light. Pros are always looking for good light. Taking advantage of good light can go a long way in making your photos more visually appealing.
One of the best times is "magic hour" – that hour around sunrise and sunset is always some of the best light of the day. The next time you see a sunset, turn around and look at what the light is doing behind you. It's great.
Indoors, the light through a north-facing window is almost always nice all day long. If you're shooting a portrait, using light from a north-facing window is natural studio lighting. Sometimes this kind of light is called Rembrandt lighting. For it to work the subject has to be close to the window.
Avoid bad light
Outdoors during midday is some of the worst light of the day. You'll have the deepest and harshest shadows in the hours around noon. Avoid it if you can.
Flash – a little goes a long way
Most point-and-shoots, if left to their own devices, will blast your subjects with flash. Nobody looks good in the harsh glare of a flash. Turn it down. Most cameras, even many point-and-shoots, allow you to adjust the flash. Instead of overpowering the room with light, the flash will simply fill in the shadows and look much more natural. Take a minute to read the manual on your flash and learn how to turn it down. It might take a bit of experimenting to get it balanced right, but when you do you'll have a nicer picture.
Marcus Donner is a visual storyteller based in Seattle, Wash. As a director of photography, he coached staff and defined the look of a daily newspaper for eight years. Other experience includes photojournalism, cinematography and film stills, teaching workshops, and picture editing for print and multimedia. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, HBO, Investors Business Daily and The MacArthur Foundation. Clients include The Sundance Channel, Reuters and the Associated Press.
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2008