26 Quick Photography Tips

November 28, 2010
I love sharpies.

I love sharpies.

I hope those of you in the States had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend – I know that I did, and I’m not looking forward to getting back to the daily grind!

During the month of October, I was tweeting and posting on flickr some daily “quick tips”. I didn’t make it through the entire month, but I did promise to share all the tips over here, so here are the 26 Quick Tips I have to share – no matter what kind of camera or editing software you use, I think you’ll find at least one tip that applies to you!

Use Ctrl+Shift+O in Picasa to open photos in an editor

Those of you that have been reading for a while know that I use Picasa to organize and tag my photos, but that I use a combination of UFRaw and Gimp to edit them. I even wrote once about how I would find the photo in my file system in order to open it for editing (and someone was nice enough to point out the File –> Locate on Disk option. Even better, though, I found the File –> Open File(s) in an Editor option. Which is also activated by Ctrl+Shift+O. Since I have Gimp set as my default editor, with the UFRaw plugin, it automatically opens my Raw files in UFRaw!

Use Levels to make the foreground pop

I used to take a lot of pictures with the cheap version of lighting – the lamp on my side table. I would turn off all the other lights in the room to make the background as dark as possible, and I’d end up with photos like this:

Before Levels

Before Levels

The background is darker than the foreground, but youc an still see the outline of the entrance to my dining room. A quick adjustment of Levels in Gimp, gave me this:

After Levels

After Levels

It’s such a small adjustment that I feel makes a big impact.

Shoot in Continious (Burst) Mode



I actually shoot in continious mode 99% of the time. Pretty much the only time I don’t is when I’m using the timer or remote. Why? Because I have a big enough memory card to do it, and I like having an option of three or four photos in order to pick the best one. There are some other benefits, too – you can get sharper photos because when you press the shutter and release it, you tend to shake the camera a bit, so the photos in the middle when you’re just holding down tend to be a bit more sharp.

When do I find it the most helpful? When taking photos of living things. It’s really great for group photos – the more chances you have to get everyone’s eyes open at the same time, the better! But even that photo of my cat Maia you see here, it’s from the middle of a group of photos where her eyes are droopy or squinty. I happened to get just the one where she’s looking clearly at the camera.

Try Different Sharpening

Did you know that FX Foundry has six different methods for sharpening photos? I have to admit I still use the default Unsharp Mask that comes out of the box from Gimp the most, but there are some photos where other methods just seem to work better. If you’re unhappy with one method of sharpening, but sure to try some others. You might get a feel for which methods work best for which type of photos (and if you do, let me know!)

Reformat your memory card, not just delete

I’m not going to prentend to understand all the ins and outs of data storage, but my basic understanding is that when you delete the files, they still remain there somehow, but if you reformat the card, you’re really wiping out all the data. While this might sound scary, I’m assuming you’re not reformatting until you have those photos backed up anyway. The real reason to do this is that if you reformat every time, you’re less likely to get a corrupt card in the long run. I repeat that I don’t really understand why this is (although, I suppose it makes sense if deleting isn’t really “cleaning things up” and your start piling more things on there, things could get confusing), but I will say I’ve always reformatted and never had issues with a corrupt card (*knocks on my wood desk top*), and I have friends who were just deleting and have had issues.

As for how to do that, check out the menu system in your camera. In my camera (a Canon Rebel XTi), it’s under the first orange (tools) tab, at the bottom it says Format. And yes, you should format the card in camera, because your camera is formatting it specifically for itself. Related, you should avoid using the same card in different cameras, if you’re lucky enough to have more than one camera!

Think about the background!

Grassy background

Grassy background

Think about the background for your photo. If necessary (and possible), move your subject to an area where the background “fits” more. For instance the photo you see here is one of my last CSA baskets of the year. I don’t usually take the baskets directly to my back yard, but I felt the green grass was a more appropriate background than the kitchen counter for a basket full of fresh veggies (and had the added benefit of there being better lighting out there).

Use everyday objects to spice up your photos



Related to the above tip, look around for everyday objects that have a great pattern or texture to them to add a little life to your photos. For instance, in the photo of Yoshi you see to the right – the background is actually a cookie cooling rack sitting over some bright yellow construction paper! I’ve also used placemats, window shades and mirrors as “fancy” backgrounds.

Play with layers in Gimp scripts!

Most of the Gimp scripts I’ve used create at least one new layer to my photo, often changing the blend mode and/or opacity of that layer. I like to play with those layers – changing around the blend mode on some, removing others all-together, playing with the opacity, etc. I usually end up with something I like better, but even if I don’t, every time I play with the layers I gain a better understanding of the different blend modes in general and of that script in specific.

Surround yourself with creative friends

If you’re feeling like you’re in a rut creativity-wise, just surround yourself with creative friends. They don’t need to know a thing about photography, in fact, it’s often nice to get a completely different perspective than someone who already has their own photographic style. I’d rather here the outrageous “can you do this?” ideas and say “well, no, but that gets me thinking… I could do this…”. For instance, in October, I did my first Senior Photo shoot – for the younger brother of a friend of ours, there were five of us out there, including the subject of the photos, and we all had similar personalities and shared a crazy sense of humor. Not only did it make the day fun, but we all contributed different ideas for some of the more creative senior photos I’ve ever seen! It was really a blast and got me excited about photography again.

Turn off “Shoot w/o card” mode

When I first got my camera, it would allow me to shoot photos without a memory card in the camera. There was no internal memory, so all this did was display the photo on the LCD screen, and then it would be gone forever without any way for me to transfer to my computer at a later time. Can you imagine how dangerous this is? I could have taken the memory card out to transfer photos to my computer, never put it back, and then gone out on a long photo walk without ever realizing that there was no card in there! I don’t know if your camera even has this option or not, but for me (once again, with a Canon Rebel XTi), it can be found in the menu under the very first tab, there’s an option called “Shoot w/o card” and I have it set to off. When it’s set to off, the camera will tell you there’s no memory card in if you try and take a photo.

Turn off the beep!

I suppose this one is more of a personal preference, but I hate when my camera beeps when the auto-focus focuses on something. I find it distracting – especially when I’m “in the zone” taking photos and I just want to feel the camera in my hands. I know that sounds pretty cheesy, but it’s true – I find the beep a bit too… technical? I don’t know how to describe it. Anyway, I first turned off the beep when going to a wedding when I didn’t want the beep distracting other guests of the wedding when taking photos of the ceremony, and then I realized I really preferred it that way, so I kept it off. Once again, I don’t know how to do this on your camera (if yours even beeps at all…), but on my camera it was in the first tab of the menu, there was an option called Beep, and I set it to Off.



Zoom In

You don’t always have to see all of something to know what it is, so really zoom in and fill the frame in order to get more interesting photos of everyday things. For instance, to the left you can see the hoodie that I bought when on vacation this year. I knew I wanted a photo of it because it was the only new thing I brought home from the vacation, but pictures of hoodies aren’t really exciting. I’m not saying the photo you see here is the most artistic photo ever, but I think it’s a bit more exciting than typical clothing shots I take.

Lazy Vignettes

I’ve written before about a few ways to create vignettes in Gimp, and that’s just a couple of a handful of different ways I’ve done it before, but they all require a bit of work to get themd one. Sometimes, when I’m feeling lazy, I’ll just run the LOMO script from FX Foundry, because one of the layers is a vignette. I can just remove all the other layers and I’ve got a vignette with little effort!

Buy a remote trigger!

I did an entire year of daily self portraits without a remote for my camera. I have no idea what I was thinking. After I got one I realized how much I love it even when NOT doing self portraits (though, they’re definitely pretty handy for that). If you don’t already have one, I urge you to buy one (or ask for one for the Holidays!). They’re pretty inexpensive as far as camera equipment goes, and I think you’ll find you’ll use it more than you might think you would.

Also, for those of you that wondered, because I did before I bought one… I can only speak for my Canon, but if I have my lens set to Auto Focus and click the button on the remote, yes, it auto-focuses just like if I hit the shutter on the camera itself.

Set textures to Burn for a more grunge look

I’ve written about adding textures to your photos using Gimp, but I told you to set the blend mode to Overlay. If you set it to Burn, you’ll get a grungier look, like you see in this photo:

Setting textures to burn gives you a grunge look

Setting textures to burn gives you a grunge look

Shoot in RAW to correct colors

It’s much easier to correct the color balance of photos if you shoot in RAW. You know how when you’re shooting photos you can select what white balance you want to use? Well, when you shoot in RAW, your RAW editor (I use UFRaw) will allow you to pick whatever white balance you want to use after-the-fact. In fact, you can even use sliders to get the white balance to an exact amount, and not just use the preset ones that come with the camera. I understand that shooting in RAW isn’t for everyone, but adjusting the color balance is something that I have really come to appreciate a lot.

Save your Curves settings

I actually just talked about how to do this in this article, but just remember, you can save your Curves settings. This is especially useful once you get into adjusting the Red, Green and Blue curves. You often end up with some cool effects that you might want to duplicate later.

Don’t always focus on things

Bokeh Tree

Bokeh Tree

I don’t think you need to know what something is in order for it to be a good photo. For instance, I love this out of focus picture of a tree in my backyard. It’s not just playing with bokeh, though. Zoom in on things so close that it’s hard to tell what it’s a picture of (I seem to recall a magazine I read as a kid doing this and you were supposed to guess what everything was) or play with colors. Just try to play around remember there are no hard fast rules when it comes to photography.

Try rotating backwards

I know I’ve mentioned it more than once on this site, but I prefer to rotate backwards in Gimp. Just set the Direction radio button to Corrective (Backward), and then set the Preview dropdown to grid, then try rotating. Instead of your picture moving when you move the mouse, the grids will move, which means you can align the grids up with something on the photo that you want to be level. This is hard to explain, but pretty easy to use. Try it at some point if you’ve never done it and see if you like it better.

Watch that Reflection

When I was talking about using everyday objects up above, I mentioned that I like to use mirrors sometimes. I, obviously, did that for the photo at the top of this post, but be sure to watch out what’s also in the reflection. I wasn’t thinking at first and set up the mirror in my bathroom because the light is actually really good in my bathroom. But then I realized that it wasn’t just the Sharpies getting reflected! So I moved the mirror out into the hallway and what you see is a white wall instead!

Pick an organization system and stick to it!

There’s no much point in taking photos of memorable events and things in your life if you can’t find them later. I don’t think there’s anyone “right” way to organize your photos, but I can say you should really thinking about what’s going to work best for you… and then stick to it. I didn’t give it much thought at first and when I finally did and decide what I was going to do, it was easy to do going forward, but none of my old photos were organized that way, so it made it harder to find my older photos, and a pain to go back and reorganize them all (in fact, I still haven’t finished after coming up with my system over a year ago).

If you care, my basic system is as follows: Whenever I upload photos of my memory card, I put them in a folder on my drobo (a fancy external harddrive that automatically saves all the files on multiple drives incase one dies) that’s named “YYYY_MM_DD – short desc”. that’s obviously the date followed by a short description of what’s in the folder. For instance, I have a folder called “2010_10_05 – Smashed phone” from when I dropped my Android phone and the screen shattered back in early October. Then I review all the files in Picasa to decide which ones I want to edit (by hitting Ctrl+Shift+O!), and edit them in Gimp. Once I’ve saved them, they show up in Picasa, where I mark them with a star and tag them. I mark them with a star because I save all my photos, even the “rejects”, but if I ever want to see just the “good” photos, I can filter by the starred photos in Picasa. After they’re tagged, I export them to my laptop harddrive (usually resized, sicne I don’t upload the full size images most of the time). This way I have them there for uploading, and so that if I’m on the road and someone wants to see a photo, I can pull it up.

Remember that Canvas Wraps actually wrap

I love the canvas wraps I have in my house, and I often debate ordering some more – but one thing you really have to keep in mind when ordering them is that part of the photo actually does wrap around the frame! For instance, here’s a picture looking up at one of my wraps hanging on the wall:

bottom part of a canvas wrap

bottom part of a canvas wrap

As you can see there’s a good portion of the photo that’s not seen when you look at it straight on. So, before you order a wrap, make sure there’s not a vital part of the photo (like somone’s eye!) that’s going to to be hidden on the side of the wrap.

Use the crop tool to see the Rule of Thirds lines

You may know that the Select tool in Gimp has a Guides dropdown that allows you to see the Rule of Thirds guides as you select parts of your image, but if I want to quickly the guides on my photo as a whole, I prefer to use the Crop tool. Why? Well, it has the same guides dropdown, but the reason I prefer the crop tool is because if I make my select bigger than the photo itself, it “snaps” to the outside edge of the photo. If you try this with the select tool, it doesn’t do the same thing – so in order to select the whole picture you have to actually carefully select just the photo. The crop tool is just easier!

Now I know where I was!

Now I know where I was!

Take photos of signs

When I go on photo walks, I like to take photos of signs of where I am. It isn’t because I necessarily think they’ll make good pictures, but mostly so that when I finally get around to editing the photos (sometimes a month later), I can remember exactly where I was! For instance, when I went to Conneticut earlier this month, I went on a walk around Williams Park, which I’ve been to a handful of times but can never remember what it’s called. With a photo of the sign, it doesn’t matter that I can’t remember!

Put the camera down!

Feeling frustrated? Not like your photos? Sometimes I think the best solution for a creativity block is to just put the camera down for a few days. Don’t force yourself to take photos just to do it. From my personal experience, at least, I started to resent the camera and found I wasn’t taking pictures because I wanted to but because I felt I should. Once I took some time away and picked up my camera because I wanted to, everything felt much more natural and I started to get better photos.

Lie down for a different perspective

Some of my favorite photos have been taken while lying on the ground. Don’t take all your photos from standing up or sitting down. Get up high and down low for some different perspective.

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Filed under: Photo Editing, Photography
  •  These all advice from this article will improve the overall quality of our pictures and  I have been considering getting some gallery wraps done and it is a good tip to remember.

  • Taufique

    These are really good ideas to take good photos!!

  • Shotslot

    Great tips, especially the turn off shoot w/out card one...I must remember to do that!

  • Mothman0

    Great read.

    Question about the wraps. Do they also wrap BEHIND the board at all?

  • Great question... one that I didn't know the answer to, so I had to go pull one of my wraps off the wall - and yes, they do, I'm not sure how much because the wrap has a backing that ends up covering it up. I will say, though, that I ordered my wraps from mpix.com and they show you which parts of the photo will still be visible.

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