February 17, 2022

How To Take Better Photos

After a St. Louis winter cooped up indoors, getting outside with a camera is a great way to clear your mind and free yourself from the endless scroll of social media — even if you end up posting the pics to Instagram when you get home.

In the words of street photographer Joel Meyerowitz, "Once you have a camera in your hand, you have a license to see. And seeing is what photography is all about." It seems almost too easy, but it's true: simply having a camera around our necks or in our pockets often encourages us to take a closer look at the beauty all around us.

But capturing that beauty can be frustrating, especially for new photographers, whose dim, blurry shots often fail to live up to what they see with their own eyes. If that sounds like you, here are some tips to keep in mind on your next photo walk.

Two of our favorite cameras, neither of which has any megapixels.

Your camera doesn't matter (much)

You can take great photos with any camera, even the one you already have in your pocket — almost all modern smartphones have fantastic cameras. But, like any task, some tools are better suited to particular jobs.

For example, if you want to take sharp photos of birds in flight, you'll need a long telephoto lens, which can be very expensive. If you want to take photos of insects, you'll need a macro lens, which can also be very expensive. If you want to take architectural photos with perfectly straight vertical lines, you'll need a tilt-shift lens, which — are you starting to see the trend?

If you have those tools, use them. But, if not, find the types of photos your camera is best at. Smartphones and entry-level cameras take great landscape photos, are perfect for street photography, and with some computational magic can capture good portraits with the kind of out-of-focus backgrounds that would otherwise require an expensive prime lens.

Our camera reel is loaded with mediocre photos, and a few good ones

Take lots of photos

Ray Bradbury gave this advice to new writers: "Write a short story every week," he said. "It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row." The same sentiment is applicable to photography. It's easy to take a bad photo. The best photographers do it all the time. But a typical 32gb memory card can hold nearly 5,000 photos — it's really not possible to take that many bad photos in a row.

Just make sure you're not taking the same photo 5,000 times — move around, explore different angles, change focus, and take shots that are a little under or over exposed (called bracketing).

And be prepared to spend some time winnowing the wheat from the chaff.

This photo of a late-afternoon baseball game wouldn't be nearly as striking if taken at noon or on an overcast day.

Find good light

Likewise, it's almost impossible to take a bad photo of an interesting subject in good light. And, oftentimes, light alone is enough to make a subject interesting.

Look for soft, directional light — evening sun or indirect light streaming through a window — and expose for the highlights in your scene. If you're shooting on a smartphone, touch the screen and adjust the brightness of the photo until it looks the way you want. Avoid noonday sun, with light coming from directly overhead, which tends to cast dark, unflattering shadows under people's eyes.

In this photo from a candlelight vigil, the frame is almost completely filled by a woman's hand holding a candle.

Fill the frame

War photographer Robert Capa said, “If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." (Capa died in 1954 after stepping on a land mine trying to get closer to advancing troops in Vietnam, so take the quote as both advice and warning.)

Like any rule, there are exceptions, but generally, your main subject should be large in your viewfinder. If you have a zoom lens, zoom in tight. If you don't, walk closer and zoom with your feet.

By shooting from a low angle, the demonstrator and the statue are both framed against the sky.

Avoid cluttered backgrounds

Photos flatten three-dimensional space, compressing the foreground and background of a shot onto the same plane. Nothing can be more frustrating than taking an otherwise great photo only to realize when you get home that it looks as if a tree or telephone pole is growing out of your subject's head.

Often, it can be enough to simply take a step to the side, and the problem is fixed. Other times, you may have to move your subject to a more plain background, or you can try shooting up so that they are framed against a clear, blue sky.

This photo of our dog, Ben, was taken at his eye level.

Snap from the eye level of your subject

If you're taking photos of a dog or a toddler, get down on their level and look them in the eye. You'll get a cleaner background, plus it's much easier to connect with a child or pet when you see the world as they do, which can make for a much more impactful image.

Alana crocheting in a patch of sunlight.

Take photos of things you care about

Photography is a great hobby, but it takes on much more meaning when you point your camera at things and people you truly care about.

Take photos of things you love: pets, flowers, food.

Take photos of places you love: your childhood house, the park where you had your first kiss, the river where your dad used to take you fishing.

Take photos of people you love: your spouse, children, friends, parents and grandparents.

In 20 years, when those things are gone or look significantly different, those photos will be more important to you than any masterpiece by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

A multiple exposure made in camera by taking one shot then flipping the camera upside down and taking another.


Don't be afraid to try new things. Play with slow shutter speeds, which can blur motion in interesting ways. Take multiple exposures, which can yield fun and often unpredictable results. Build a pinhole camera, which can be made simply and cheaply out of a soda bottle, coffee can or cardboard box.

There are no mistakes, only practice. The most important thing is to get out with a camera and have fun. And don't forget to share your best photos with Patch.