Choosing a camera is an important part of taking good pictures—but here's the thing: Learning how to take good pictures will significantly boost your photos whether you are shooting with a point-and-shoot or a DSLR. The camera (and lens) will determine things like resolution and versatility, but it's the photographer that determines many of the aspects that create a good photo, like exposure and composition.
Looking to learn how to take good pictures? Here's how you can do just that, even if you don't have one of the best cameras.
Know Your Gear
A DSLR doesn't do much good if you don't know how to use it, but in the same way, understanding the limitations of a cheap camera will improve your images as well. Take some time to get to know your camera. What features does it have? If your camera has advanced features like manual modes and RAW, learning how to use them is going to help. Even exploring the scene modes on a basic camera will help you troubleshoot and improve your photos.
Discovering your camera's limitations is important too. Don't expect to go out photographing wildlife with a camera with a 3x zoom lens—instead know that limitation and try instead to shoot sweeping landscape images. How big can you print your photos before you loose quality? The iPhone, for example, shouldn't be used for prints above an 8x10. How hard is it to carry your camera on that long hike? If you want to take good photos with the camera you already have, you need to understand what your camera can—and cannot—do.
Stop Centering the Subject
Most people, by default, center the subject (or the main object/person in the photo). While a center composition or arrangement has its place, often placing the subject off-center creates a more interesting image. The Rule of Thirds suggests imagining the image is divided into threes both vertically and horizontally.
By placing the subject on one of those lines (or even better: where those lines intersect), you create a more dynamic composition. Why? The rule of thirds encourages you to leave empty space in an image, which helps draw the eye towards what's important in the image. If you are photographing action, try leaving that empty space in the direction the subject is moving in. Or, if you are photographing a person or animal that's looking to one side or the other, arrange the shot by leaving that extra space where they are looking.
Don't stop centering the subject completely though. Placing the subject in the center is a good idea if you are looking to show pattern or symmetry, for example if you are photographing a reflection. A center composition is also sometimes a necessity for filling the frame (which we will explore a bit next).
Don't be Afraid to Get in Close
While far off landscapes certainly have a (big) place in photography, most amateur photographers are afraid to get in close when filling the frame with the subject can actually be a very effective technique. Getting in close, through either a good zoom or with your feet, helps to blur out the background and bring out the details. For example, every portrait shouldn't be a full body photo—try getting just the head and shoulders. Exploring macro photography is also a good way to take good photos in a location that feels ordinary.
Explore Different Angles
I'm guessing that, when you take a photograph, you hold the camera up to your eye and shoot, right? But taking every photo at eye level is a sure way to make all your photos look the same. Instead, try shooting from different angles by climbing to a taller vantage point, or simply kneeling or sitting. Consider what you are photographing as you explore angles. Children and pets are often best photographed at their eye level, not yours. Shooting from a low perspective can also make an ordinary object seem large and imposing (just be careful photographing adults this way, up-the-nose-shots often aren't that flattering).
While climbing to a higher perspective is often harder than simply kneeling (or even laying down), the photos are often worth the extra effort. On one extreme, a birds-eye-view makes everything seem tiny and shows more of the scene. Shooting just above eye level is flattering for almost any body type. Look for things in your surroundings to use like stairs and benches, or bring a step stool with you.
Learn Exposure Compensation (or Scene Modes)
Not every camera has the manual modes that allow you to adjust exposure, but most cameras have exposure compensation. (If you do have an advanced camera, learning manual modes would be a big help). Exposure compensation allows you to adjust how light or dark the image is without understanding (or having access to) manual modes. If your image is too dark, using a positive exposure compensation number will lighten the image—for really dark images, use a higher number. In the same way, negative exposure compensation values will help correct an image that's too bright. Exposure compensation is usually designated by a symbol with the + and – signs. If you can't find it, check your camera's manual.
Some basic cameras don't offer exposure compensation, but every basic camera has scene modes. Exploring these options is a good way to take better pictures with a simple camera. Instead of staying on auto all the time, choose a scene mode for the specific image you are taking. For example, for pictures of people, use the portrait mode. Scene modes are named after the scenarios they are designed for, like Beach, Low Light, or Pets and Kids. Using scene modes tells the camera what you are shooting so it can pick better settings than you get with auto.
Use a Tripod for Low Light.
Whether you own a point-and-shoot or a DSLR, a tripod will help you get sharper images by preventing camera shake. A tripod is the most beneficial when shooting in low light—like inside a concert hall or when shooting at dusk. But, tripods can help sharpen your shots even in daylight, so try one whenever it's not too burdensome to carry around.
Use Flash in an Untraditional Way
Flash is traditionally used the light up dark scenes. And while I'm not saying you should stop using flash for those photos, one of the best uses for flash is when there's actually too much light. Have you ever took photos in the middle of a sunny day and noticed dark under-eye shadows and probably some funky nose and chin shadows? Turning the flash on will help fill in those shadowy areas (which is why this technique is called using fill flash). The camera won't do it automatically, but head into your camera menu and turn the flash mode to always on (sometimes designated with the lightning bolt symbol). Just remember to turn the flash back to off or auto when you're finished.
Fill flash is also a great technique to use when the light is coming in from behind what you are shooting. If you are out taking photos and your subject is turning up as a silhouette, turning on the fill flash will help correct that. A common example is taking a portrait with the sunset in the background—since there's no light in front, the faces will be dark without a fill flash.
Look for Great Light
The word photography, when translated from the Greek roots, means “writing with light.” Light is absolutely essential to taking good photos. Professional photographers know how to manipulate light, but you don't have to be a pro to learn how to find great light. The best day to take pictures outdoors is actually on an overcast day—that way, you don't get those funky shadows and don't need a fill flash. In any weather, an hour or two before sunset and an hour or two after sunrise are excellent times to take pictures. By shooting when the light is great on a cloudy day or before sunset, it's easier to get good pictures without a lot of the technical knowledge.
When taking pictures inside, if you can, set up by a north or south facing window. Because of where the sun rises and sets, north and south facing windows will have great light any time during the day. Shoot with the window to one side or behind you, though. Be careful not to shoot with the window directly in front of the camera—that's a lighting set-up that needs advanced knowledge to really get right.
One thing great photographers have in common? Lots of experience. The more photos you take, the more your photography skills will improve. Try keeping your camera at your side wherever you go, and shoot anything that inspires you. When you look at your photos, think about what you don't like about them, so that next time you can work to change that. Practice with a variety of different scenarios, indoors and outdoors and with both moving and still objects, for example.
One of the biggest ways budding photographers can improve their images is to get feedback. Not feedback from your mom (or anyone else who's always going to only mention the good things), but feedback from someone else who's also interested in photography. If you don't have friends that have taken up photography as a hobby, join online photography communities and share your best images inside the forums and ask for feedback. By getting input on your images, you can find out what your strengths are and what you need to work on. Just don't get too discouraged at the negative comments, everyone starts somewhere.
Today, nearly everyone owns a camera, whether it's their smartphone or a fancy DSLR. And while getting an advanced camera will give your more flexibility with manual modes and higher resolution, you can learn how to take good pictures with any camera by working on aspects like composition and angles, as well as learning to find good light. Even if photography never becomes a serious hobby for you, you'll have better images of your memories to look back on—and that's something truly valuable.