Taking Your Photos From Blah to BAM!

Fellow Weddingbee writer Quiche is headed to Paris with her mom this weekend (lucky girl!), and mentioned that she would like to hear a few basic tips for taking better pictures. I’ve tried to write this post with all of you in mind, including those of you who are still using the point-and-shoot you got for Chrismtas from your mom 4 years ago (p.s. you might want to think about giving up that new pair of shoes and investing in a new camera if that is the case, you will be so happy you did.)

I tried to write the tips progressively, so that each tip would build on the one before. Hopefully this will help you see how putting each of these steps together can work to create beautiful photos no matter what kind of camera you have.

The first step to taking better pictures is reading your manual. After you read through these tips, go track down your manual (either in person, or by searching for it online), and figure out which buttons you need to push to change the settings.

Tip #1

Try turning your flash off.

The flash off setting symbol looks like this:

I see a lot of people post pictures like the one below and then say “Sorry, my camera sucks.” Your camera probably doesn’t suck, you just need to learn how to use it a little bit better.


Here’s the same setup, with the flash off this time. This photo could still be improved upon, but it looks much better than the one above.


Here’s another example. When I use the flash from farther away, the results are much better, but I’ve got that distracting shadow in the background, and if your intention in taking the picture was to capture the rings they are really blown out.


Though the color isn’t as nice in this photo, when I look at it, my eyes go right to the rings and the statue it is sitting on.


Tip #2

Learn how to use the macro setting.

When someone wants to take a close-up picture of something and they leave the setting on their camera set to Landscape, represented by this symbol , they end up with a blurry picture like the one below. Then they cry and say “If only I had a nicer camera, then you could see how pretty my rings are!” Again, the camera isn’t the issue, your settings are.


The only change I made to the settings on my camera between the photo above and the photo below was to change my setting from Landscape (represented by the mountains), to Macro, which has a symbol that looks like this . I can’t tell you exactly how to do this on your own camera, you are going to have to read your manual to figure it out. But those 2 minutes of manual reading can have such a drastic effect!


Tip #3

Utilize the rule of thirds, aka, stop centering all of your images.

In short, the rule of thirds divides your images up into 9 boxes. If you are a rule of thirds stickler, you will try and get important elements of your photo to fall along the lines created by the boxes. In the photo below (from Wikipedia), the horizon sits on one line, the tree sits on another, etc.

Can you picture how this wouldn’t look as nice with the tree sitting exactly in the middle?

That’s all really complicated though, and I don’t actually think to myself “Do the elements of this photo fall along the lines of the nine boxes?” when I am taking a picture. Instead, just think about moving your subject to a point in the frame other than the center.

Here is a nice picture, but it’s almost exactly centered. It looks good because things are in focus and there is a giant gold cocktail ring front and center (and who doesn’t want to look at a giant cocktail ring?), but by utilizing the rule of thirds I can make things look a little bit more interesting.


I like the way the shot below looks much more than the one above, with the hand positioned slightly on the right side of the photo. If my goal was to get my engagement ring in focus I probably would have thrown this shot out, but since my goal was to illustrate the rule of thirds, I kept it to show it to you.


Tip #4

Change your perspective.

Instead of taking pictures of things directly at eye level, give your photos a paradigm shift!

You could crouch down and shoot up…


Or lean over your subject and take a picture with the lens of your camera pointed down toward them.

Either way you do it, changing your perspective can sometimes give you drastically different (better!) photos than you would have captured by shooting at boring old eye level.


Tip #5

Try taking more than one photo.

Don’t go overboard, filling up your memory card, but sometimes it takes time to get just the right picture. Right now for my engagement shoots I take about 400 pictures and only keep around 130 of them. That’s definitely higher than what I do normally, but if you are taking pictures of your mom standing in front of a fountain, take a full body shot with her to the right of the frame, one with her doing a funny pose, and another from the waist up. When you get home and look at all of them on your computer you can decide which one you like best and only keep that one (or keep them all if you like!)

A few other tips to think about:

  • Try changing the white balance settings on your camera. By default it is set to AWB, or auto white balance. When it is cloudy you can change it to , which will warm up the color in your images for you. If you are inside under tungsten lighting you can change it to . If the colors just don’t look right in your image, try changing the white balance. It’s a great way to edit “in camera”.
  • Try shooting on “P”, which means Program, instead of Auto. Program lets you make minor adjustments to things like exposure (how bright your photo is), and then does the rest of the calculating for you based on those settings. Go find your manual, so you can learn what the different settings on that twisty dial on top of your camera mean.
  • It is absolutely, positively, beyond a doubt okay to cut off the top of someones head. If you are doing in a delibrate way, it can look really nice. I sometimes hear people say “Oh, what a pretty picture that could have been if only the top of her head wasn’t cut off!” That is just silly logic to me. Does the top of her head really add that much to the photo?

I realized that some of my photos from my last engagement session illustrate a few of these principles really well. Many of you already read and comment on my photo blog, so please indulge me in reposting them here!

Here’s a centered photo to show you that it’s sometimes okay to put your subject right in the middle of the frame.

And here they are again, in the same location, but I put framed them in the lower right corner instead of centering the camera right on their faces.

Here are two good examples of changing your perspective.

For this picture I came in close and pointed my lens down toward them.

And for this shot I crouched down low (which always makes my pants fall down my bum) and made the focus of the picture their shoes, not their faces.

And a good example of a cropped head. I like that part of his face and the top of his head are cut off. Photos like this are definitely personal preference though. Do you like close crops like this?

Some of you might be saying “Well, it’s easy for you to follow these rules when you have that fancy-pants camera of yours.” So, I thought I would show you a few images from my trip to Europe with my mom last May. I didn’t have any fancy-pants camera then, just my lovely little G9 point-and-shoot.

Here’s a good example of what not centering a photo can do. By shifting the coliseum to the right in my frame, I was able to capture one of the most historic buildings in the world AND the pretty blue sky behind it.


If I remember correctly flash photography wasn’t allowed in this museum, so I had my flash off.  If it had been on, the photo of this photo would have been completely blown out and awful. Also note that he isn’t centered.

Oh, and if you ever get a chance to visit the Vatican, turn your flash off. It’s downright rude to take pictures of the Sistine Chapel with your flash after specifically being told not to. And your photos are going to suck with the flash on anyways so you are ruining one of the most priceless artifacts in the world for nothing.


Here I did my best to center my subjects, but instead of shooting from a distance at eye level I got really close and shot up.


And a photo of some lovely looking Italian tomatoes, taken using the macro setting. Don’t they look mouthwatering?


I hope that these simple steps (really, they are so simple, just try them!) will help you take your photos from okay to good. If you want to take them from good to great, you are going to need to know a little bit more. :)

If you end up using my tips and posting your results, please let me know. I’d love to see any changes you make to your photo taking skills, and if I hear back from enough of you I would love to write a post on it!

48 thoughts on “Taking Your Photos From Blah to BAM!

  1. You’re going to want to slap me for asking this, because I’m clearly getting ahead of myself – but can you explain about ISO and aperture? I see people talking about them, but I don’t really understand what they mean….

    Jenna Reply:

    Yeah! I can totally do a post on ISO, aperture, and shutter speed!

  2. Thanks for these tips. I really must save up for a better camera. The one on my blackberry just doesn’t have these settings even though it’s quality is better than my old digital one. x

    Jenna Reply:

    Ahhh, you are right. Phones on cameras are one of the exceptions to the “I bet you have a camera that can do all of these things” statement.

  3. I always turn off my flash because the pictures look terrible and then I end with the lovely blur. Do I just need more ambient light? Or is a tripod the way to go? Kind of a pain in the butt for trying to capture an ‘in the moment’ shot. :)

    Jenna Reply:

    Yeah, when you turn the flash off the camera has to be held extra still to compensate for the lack of light.

    Try bringing your arms in really close to your body. That’s one reason why shooting through the viewfinder instead of using the LCD can be really helpful. It gives you more support and you are able to hold the camera a little bit steadier.

    The best thing to do is to find more light!

    And there are definitely times where you just have to use a flash. I’m not anti-flash, just pro being proactive about experimenting with different settings.

    Rhiannon Reply:

    also take a deep breath and exhale. when all of your breath is out take the picture. it’ when your at your most still. It sounds a little like photo yoga! Thanks for all the awesome tips!

  4. Thanks for sharing these tips! I need to find out where the white balance is on my point & shoot camera, as I think that would help!

  5. Thanks for the tips! I’ll definitely try some of these things, and if I come up with something decent, I’ll send it your way!

  6. Thanks for this, Jenna. My camera has the 3×3 guides on it and I had experimented with centring, but wasn’t quite sure how best to use them before now. Thanks for the great tip!

  7. I heart the macro setting. It makes me feel like I know how to take pictures. :-)

    Also – did you find your wedding rings? I thought you had lost one during the move, but I see three there. That’s nice.

    Jenna Reply:

    I did! I was so happy I cried.

  8. Okay so you might look at me and shake your head when you read this. But I have a Canon EOS Rebel XTi and I have no clue how to use it. I am very greatful that you posted this. I want to take better pictures. I love going to Michael’s Fire scene and getting pictures of him in action. I wonder also like Britt about a tripod? I really need to learn how to use my camara better. Thanks for the awesome tips!

    Jenna Reply:

    One thing you can do on your dSLR is adjust the strength of the flash. Doing so can help keep your subjects from looking completely blown out.

  9. Thank you for this post. When I was in Vegas I was thinking I need a better camera, but then I started playing with and found a ton of features I didn’t know existed! I think along with learning more about my camera and these tips I’ll be a better photographer!

  10. Love the tips, great idea!!!! Thanks for stopping by the blog….umm and since your giving away tips for free why don’t you give away some of those yummy rings too!!!

  11. I’ll never be a photographer. I leave that up to the real artists like you, but I do like to experiment as a picture taker.

    I love your tips about moving and trying different angles. It’s crazy sometimes how just moving that centimeter or so makes a completely different picture.

    I also have a strange love affair with my macro setting, I love any excuse to flip it on.

    I still have to find a good way to photograph paintings though. Taking something that is supposed to be a two dimensional interpretation of something three dimensional and taking a picture sure does mess things up a bit.

    Jenna Reply:

    Taking pictures of paintings is really hard. You just can’t seem to convey what it really looks like in person.

  12. Totally handy!!

    Like Cate, I have the 3×3 lines on my camera, but have never used them, because I didn’t know why they were there.

    Bring on better point-and-shoot shots!!

  13. This is a great and informative post. I love all of the examples. I would love to read a post on how you enhance your photos after you’ve taken them. Have you already done this? For some reason I’m thinking you might have…

    You take beautiful pictures.

    Jenna Reply:

    I haven’t but a few posts like that are in the works. They are pretty time consuming to write so I better start working on them!

  14. Great tips Jenna and I’m really looking forward to your post on ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. And yes- I will stop being so lazy and go get my manual now :)

  15. You have no IDEA how much it means to me that you took the time and effort to do this! Thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart. :)

    I have printed these out and am going to play around with things while I’m at work today & tomorrow. & they have a permanent place in my “Paris – 2009″ file folder.

    Jenna…you are amazing!!

  16. I’ve followed you on Wedding Bee and always enjoyed your posts. This post is incredibly helpful! Thanks so much!

  17. Thanks for these awesome tips! I am definitely one of those blame it on the camera and bad light kinda girls! No more excuses : ) I am really looking forward to the ISO post!

  18. This is awesome! I am actually printing this out for reference later!! More photo-taking-how-to’s please!! What a blessing!

  19. Pingback: Advanced Photo Settings Week | That Wife

  20. Pingback: That Wife » Blog Archive » Navigating Your New dSLR

  21. Following all your links today because we DID get a new DSLR. And I knew all these things once upon a time with my true and steady manual film camera by my side, but years of shooting digital P&S have ruined me.

    Besides my unending gratitude over all the work you put into this series, I also offer you a pants tip (’cause I had to laugh at that “bending over” bit): If you purchased a maternity belly band, you can wear it after the baby as several extra inches of convenient cover for the pants situation. They sell similar bands specifically for low-rise pants, but rewearing your maternity band is basically the same deal. I’m 18 kinds of wreck in the months since our baby, but at least my backside has remained thoroughly covered (for once)!

  22. Jenna – i just have to tell you.

    I have referenced this post, sent people to this post, and suggested someone read this post about 3 dozen times in my lifetime.

    that is all ;)


  23. Came back here through 7 Links today, and I just wanted to say (because I don’t think I did before) this post has helped me SO SO MUCH in taking better pictures of my daughter. I seriously thought my camera was broken until I started trying to use some of these methods, because my pictures were just always so terrible. I still need to teach others to use the camera well (eg I couldn’t run the camera in the delivery room when T was being born so we have LOTS of blurry shots of her being placed on my belly) but my every day shots have improved drastically due to this post. Thank you.

  24. Pingback: Photography Resources for Beginners «

  25. I like the cropped head photo, because it’s balanced as it looks great/pleasing to the eye. Unlike accidentally cropped head photos. Lol.

  26. Not sure if you realize this, but all of the photos on this page have disappeared.

    Jenna Reply:

    Oh no! I will definitely fix this in the next few weeks. Thanks!

  27. Great info, but the pics are no longer available. I would LOVE to be able to see the examples you’re talking about so I can really get an idea of what you mean. I’ve been loving your photography posts so far. You’ve been able to explain the aspects of photography that have had me baffled for years in a way that I can understand. Now it’s just onto the practice! Thanks so much for putting these together.

    Please fix the pictures so I can see them :)

  28. I’m sorry! I didn’t read the posts and see that you are already aware of the picture problem. Ignore that part and just read the other part lol

    Jenna Reply:

    I’m glad they were helpful Julie! Maybe I’ll do an updated one while I’m staying with my parents and have a bit more free time :)

  29. Hi there,
    Just checking out your site (http://thatwifeblog.com/2009/03/18/taking-your-photos-from-blah-to-bam/) for photography tips and found that some of the photos linked to Flickr are not longer active. Liking what I see on your site but just wanted to let you know about this.

    Jenna Reply:

    Thanks Jane! I need to figure out if I should just delete that post altogether, or take new photos and update the post. It seems to be a popular link on Pinterest so probably worth my while to redo it!

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