Every day, talented photographers post hundreds, even thousands of incredible images on social network sights. When you see them, are you often in awe of these shots? Do you find yourself wondering “How do other photographers get their pictures to look so good?” Or, “ Why do my photos look like snapshots while everyone else’s look like works of art? What camera or processing trickery do they know that I don’t?”
The good news is that you’re not alone: no photographer started creating magic the minute they picked up a camera. It can take months or years of work until YOU are completely happy with the pictures you take. But there are some things you can do right away to help prevent your photos from looking like snapshots.
1. Stop letting the camera decide
If you treat your DSLR like it’s a point-and-shoot camera then you’ll end up with point-and-shoot snapshots.
Left in one of its automatic shooting modes, the camera will choose where to focus, the aperture, shutter speed and ISO mix required to make an exposure, how saturated and sharp the image is… pretty much every shooting parameter.
There’ll be times when it does an acceptable job. But your camera doesn’t have a clue what you’re photographing or how you want to photograph it. It’s pre-programmed to deliver a specific set-up for its scene modes and defaults to the safest settings in fully automatic mode.
For more interesting and creative results, you need to take control of the picture-taking process. Your camera’s Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes allow you to do this, while still retaining a degree of automation.
2. You’re not exploring more interesting compositions
Snapshots are taken spontaneously with little thought to the composition. But deciding how to arrange things within the frame and what things to leave out of it are crucial steps to giving your photos more weight.
Some photographers are lucky and find that good composition is instinctive, but most of us have to learn the basics and work at it.
Think about using the Rule of Thirds as a starting point in order to help position the focal point of the photo in a more interesting position.
Check the edge of the frame for distracting elements and make sure you’re not cropping off the main subject at an awkward point, such as the waist or knees in a portrait.
Use the Live View display’s grid overlay to make sure the horizon and other straight edges are level. Try alternative crops when you’re processing your photos on a computer too, as this will help you develop your eye for a picture.
Before you take a photo, ask yourself what you’re trying to show. How does the scene or subject of the photo make you feel? Which parts are you drawn to? Is this the best angle to photograph it from?
3. You’re not paying enough attention to the light
The quality and quantity of light will make or break a photo. If you’re not shooting in light that complements the subject, or the look you’re after, then you’ll end up with a so-so snapshot.
We’re not suggesting you should take all your photographs during the ‘golden hours’ at the start and end of the day, although that is the best light available. No, shooting at dawn and dusk might be the classic advice for landscape photography, but it doesn’t suit every subject, or every shooting timetable.
Some subjects work better with more directional, hard-edged light, while others are better photographed under softer, more diffused light. The harsh, burning light you get in the middle of clear, sunny day is generally the least flattering, particularly if you’re creating portraits or close-up photos, but sometimes, that’s all you have to work with.
If the light’s not working, then try enhancing it: a diffuser or reflector can help you manipulate the existing lighting, while fill-flash will allow you to reveal detail in shadows that would otherwise be lost.
4. You’re not looking at the background of a photo
How many of your photos have been ruined by a distracting and plain-ugly background?
We’ve all done it: concentrated so much on framing the subject and making sure it’s tack-sharp and perfectly exposed, that the background becomes largely ignored.
No portrait-sitter will thank you if there’s a tree or telegraph pole sprouting from their head, or the horizon splits them neatly in two.
Landscapes lose their impact with a shiny red car parked in the distance, and wildlife photos look woeful when a distracting mash of twigs and branches takes attention away from the animal.
Make the background the first thing you think about and the last thing you check before pressing the shutter release button and your photos will look more professional.
5. You’re not keeping an eye on the shutter speed
Slow shutter speeds can lead to blurred photos, either because the subject moved or because you couldn’t hold the camera still during the time it took to make an exposure.
The thing is, a slow shutter speed is an easy thing to miss – after all, there’s so much to think about before you press the shutter release.
If the camera’s shooting mode is set to Aperture Priority then you’ll be focusing on setting the appropriate aperture for the subject or scene you’re photographing and letting the camera take care of the shutter speed.
To get around this, consider using your camera’s Auto ISO setting.
This will automatically adjust the ISO setting to ensure that the shutter speed is fast enough for sharp handheld photos, whatever aperture you choose.
6. You’re not close enough
If your photos lack impact, the chances are that the focal point of the picture is too small in the frame.
Everything looks much bigger through the viewfinder than it does when you review your photos on the computer.
Obviously you can crop photos later to tighten up a baggy composition, but doing this means that you won’t be realizing the full potential of your camera’s sensor.
Try and think about any ‘dead space’ before you take the photo. Taking a few steps forward is often enough to do the trick, and, unlike zooming a lens, brings you closer to the subject of your photo.
This is an advantage when it comes to street photography and photography that requires a reaction from the subject, but perhaps less so when you’re photographing African Big Game.
7. You’re not being subtle enough with flash
Used inappropriately, flash is notorious for making photos look like snapshots.
The deer-in-the-headlights look caused by automatic on-camera flash being used close to a subject in low light is a classic: all bleached-out subject, red eyes and featureless black background.
The trick here is to balance the flash with the available light by choosing a higher ISO setting or a slower shutter speed – you’ll need to use the camera on a tripod with the latter to prevent the un-flashed areas of the picture being blurred.
Whenever possible, move the flash away from the camera with an off-shoe camera cord, or wireless flash sync, to control where the shadows fall. If you can’t do that, try pointing it towards a white ceiling or nearby wall for a softer quality of lighting.
8. You’re not spending long enough processing photos
Photos that aren’t processed, or processed without care, can have that flat, straight-out-of-the-camera snapshot look.
You don’t have to manipulate a picture to the point where it bears no resemblance to reality.
A Levels adjustment, a tweak of Curves, a slight crop, perhaps a shift in White Balance – this may be all that it takes to lift your photo from snapshot to hotshot.