Photography 101 – Just In Time For the Holidays!

The holidays officially begin this week and cameras everywhere will be wearing out their shutters.  I’ve decided to pass on some tips to optimize the use of your camera.  I’ve been playing around with photography for several years, but it’s only been in the last year that I have invested in a high quality SRL camera.  I like it, but rather than tell you what you can do with one, I’ve decided to invite a few friends of mine to pass on a few tips.  I promise that if you let them “drop some knowledge on ya” the quality of what you are photographing will improve tremendously.  Before we get to them though, a few handy tips from yours truly.

First, it’s a basic rule, but remember the “Rule of Three.”  Divide the scene you are photographing up into thirds in the viewfinder.  You don’t want the main focal point dead center in most situations.  It’s more interesting to have it off center.  You should also try to balance out your photos.  Have something in the foreground and the background, or on the left and the right.  This rule is probably the simplest and easiest way to improve what you are doing.

Second, remember the best camera you can use is the one you have with you when you want to take a picture.  I once heard Annie Leibovitz make this point, and I think it’s a good one.  Too many people get hung up on having “the right” camera or “a good” camera, and therefore avoid taking pictures.  Don’t do this.  Many of the smart phones today have pretty decent cameras built into them.  Remember, though, to take your time, just as you would with a real camera.  Hold the camera steady, and take several photos, with flash and without.  Also, there are several different photo apps available.  I’d suggest Hipstamatic over the more popular Instagram.  I like the variety of lenses and film types your can use. I also don’t really like weeding through the random photos of everyone I know.

I just returned from Chicago, and challenged myself to only use my iphone 4 exclusively while I was there.  I was pleased with the results.  A few examples:


Speaking of random photos…..edit, edit, edit.  Not every picture I take is a masterpiece.  Most aren’t.  However, I don’t feel obligated to show everyone the picture of the Eiffel Tower and my thumb, or the one of my cousin, the giant blur.  Don’t be guilty of a massive Facebook photo dump.  Load your photos onto your computer and then pick those that have the best composition, and those that best reflect your experiences.

So without further ado, let me introduce you to Jeremy, Timarie, and Kjell.

Jeremy currently live in the Northeast and has a special knack for photographic people.  He suggests:

Striking photographs are all about telling cohesive stories, and that means clean, purposeful composition. Well, that’s not entirely true: you do need an interesting subject and good light, but composition is the element you generally have the most control over. New photographers often suffer from tunnel vision – they point the camera at something pretty, and ‘click’, there’s Aunt Joanie looking out over the Berkshires… right there along with the overflowing rest stop trash. And unless you’re trying to make a statement about the state of America’s rest areas (or family reunions), it’s very likely that photo will never enjoy life beyond the memory card. That’s of course a blunt example, and, furthermore, that’s not to say that photos should be sterile and devoid of real life. An overflowing trash bin might actually add to some shots, but probably not in this case. So go ahead and find your subject in the viewfinder, and then take an extra second or two to deliberately look around the whole frame for trash – that is, any sort of clutter that takes away from the mood. I’m fond of the below photos – the angle of the lines on the sidewalk, the chalk-drawn sign, the soft light, and the black shoes and pants of the bystander. But a few seconds earlier I’d taken almost the exact same picture; only that time, the bystander (a friend) was clutching a plastic water bottle that I completely missed. Sometimes clutter *is* the subject though. The chaos of wrapping paper, empty boxes, and AA batteries at your nephew’s birthday party. A sea of green and brown beer bottles, half-empty wine glasses, and fried calamari at a going-away bash. But even here, certain things just don’t belong (a single crumpled paper napkin in the center of the beer bottle scene? An issue of Newsweek off in the corner somewhere at the birthday party?) – you’ll know them when you see them, and it can really pay off to either choose a new viewpoint or take a moment to declutter. Think of it as a game of ‘which one of these things does not belong?’ and you’ll be rewarded with stronger photos.


Timarie is a photography instructor who specializes in taking and using digital photos and manipulations.  She has taught me so much, and offers advice, particular to capturing meaningful details.

As a photographer it is easy to become overwhelmed by a completely awe-inspiring location. Photography is about telling a story through imager, but as photography we do not always have to tell the whole story in one image. Our eyes are designed to take in an entire scene, so as photographers we just start snapping pictures of everything we can see. For instance, how can you capture the enormity of a mountain range or the depth of the Grand Canyon without including the entire scene? Those encompassing images are usually the images we show people when we tell them about our travels, but there are tiny enounces of a space or details of a moment that can become lost in these pictures. Find and photograph the details others may miss or overlook. Detail photography is about taking pictures that support the story or lead the viewer to seeing a story bit-by-bit drawing out the beauty of the situation, place, or person one image at a time.

After you take the pictures that includes very thing you see, begin looking around for the details that make a person, place, or thing special. You may spot a unique architectural detail, or the way the afternoon light hits the last half of your scone and teacup, the way a strand of hair sweeps over the side of a persons face, or the reflection of an orchid into a dark pool of water. Detailed images add interest and intimacy to a group of images. They are the images that make a person stop and look a little closer.

At first you may find it difficult to spot the unique characteristics of detail images. Keep looking. Walk up close to your surroundings. Look for small areas others may not notice. Pretend you are trying to win a game of I spy. Try to find a color that contrasts against its background or a view of an object from above or below, look for the way light catches and object, or a unique reflection.

You do not have to have any fancy photo equipment to capture the details you just have to be willing to take the time to look and soak up the special details. If you are using a point and shoot camera you may try setting your camera to macro or flower setting. If you are still not able to get close enough to the object and frame up the detail as you wish, try the normal camera setting but position the camera a little further from the object. After the camera is a little further from the object zoom in with your lens. If you have an SLR camera you could invest in a macro lens. Your aperture is also something you want to take advantage of when photographing for the details. Finally, make sure you have enough light. Camera movement is very noticeable in detail images.

Kjell, a quasi-professional photographer, takes a variety of interesting images, ranging from portaits, to nature shots, and some professional work for books and publications.  His words of wisdom include:

I find it very important that people try to master the manual settings of the camera, instead of always keeping it on automatic mode. Exposure is determined by three key settings: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. There are dozens of combinations of these settings that will produce a correct exposure. Each alters the style of the photograph. Perhaps a blurry background, or a crystal sharp subject and horizon. Grainy evening photos or smooth and defined details with lights sparkling sharp as diamonds..

Knowing how to set these elements in harmony makes a great difference when you want to make a photo of something you can only photograph once. Or perhaps an event or subject you will not very easily see again. It’s a pity that you should have to walk away with a blurry and grainy image of the pyramids at night, just because you did not take the time to read a couple of chapters in a book and practice a little.

I know reading about photography is not the most exciting way to spend an afternoon. So if reading is not your thing, then there are many YouTube instruction videos explaining these elements. Simply sit down in front of your computer with a friend. And have fun together experimenting with the manual settings of your cameras while watching the instruction videos. It will make such a difference in how your photos will look, and the quality of preserving your memories.

To see more of Kjell’s work, visit his website:


Categories: Advice, Asia, Europe, My View of Things, North America, Thoughts


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  1. Holiday Gift Guide for the Traveler in Your Life | Toland Travels - December 5, 2012

    […] easy way to improve your photos is to read this article on photography, found here.  🙂  Another way is to purchase a better camera, and it might not be as much as you think.  SLR […]

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