Photography tips and techniques - learning the basics

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

Hi everyone! Over on facebook I promised I would get this blog post up tonight (silly me), so I am keeping my word like my mom taught me to. BUT it is very late and I really need to hit the hay and have no time to proofread it once more. So I am apologizing in advance if there are typos! 

I thought I would start out this post with a disclaimer (you are supposed to laugh here). I am not a professional photographer. I am not even an amateur. I am just a girl with a camera who loves to take photos. I have had a few people ask me to share some photography tips and although I still have lots to learn, I thought I could offer you a few tips that I have learnt thus far.

When my son was small, I had a Canon film camera and I managed to document him growing up. They were lousy pictures, but they captured memories that I will treasure forever. About 7 or 8 years ago I "upgraded" to a Canon Powershot point and shoot camera worth about $200 and took pictures with that. I discovered that I liked taking photos and 5 years ago I decided to buy a DSLR camera, a Nikon D90. I bought it in November, opened the box, looked at all the buttons on it, put it back in the box, put it in the closet and thought "what was I thinking?" That camera sat there untouched for months.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

The following February I saw an advertisement for a photography course in Provence, France. The course was in June when the lavender and sunflower fields would be in full bloom and the photos that accompanied the ad were spectacular. The gardening side of my brain took over and I paid the $1000 down payment. The (non-existent) photographer side of my brain said "what were you thinking?" and I went into panic mode. I was going to take a course in Europe and did not know even know what an f-stop was. I thought a shutter speed was how fast you could paint a shutter on your house. Really, it was a camera term?

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

I chose a few books recommended for beginners and started reading and playing with my camera. If I could recommend a couple books, hands down, Bryan Peterson's books win. I have every book he has ever written and they are amazing. His book "Understanding Exposure" is a great book for someone with a DSLR camera who was like me and has no clue what all the buttons are for.

Because I only had a few months to prepare for my photography course in Europe, I decided to take a few on-line courses. They were amazing! You can check out Bryan’s website for more information on his books and workshops.

I have to be honest, sometimes a friend will say to me "I wish I had your camera so I could take good photos like you." I want to scream and stomp the ground when I hear that. It is not about the camera you have, it is about the photography skills you have acquired. I know people with great cameras who take lousy pictures. I have also seen coffee table books that contain amazing photos using an i-phone. 

Sometimes people ask me what kind of camera I use or which camera is the best. The answer is: the best camera is whatever camera you have. Largely, it is your skills that will determine how your pictures turn out and not the camera you are using. 

My old garden (I have since moved) is featured on Better Homes and Gardens website. About 50% of the photos for my Better Homes and Gardens slideshow I shot with my old $200 Canon point and click camera. The other 50% of the photos were taken with my better camera, the Nikon D90. I think you would be hard-pressed to figure out which photos are taken with a $200 camera point and shoot and which are taken with a the better camera. If you want you can take a peek at the slideshow. That was about 5 years ago and now I look at the pictures and cringe because I like to think my photography skills have improved since then. lol. Here's the link: Create a Country Garden.

Okay, sorry for all the random chatter. Let's get started. 


Here's the deal. The purpose of this article is share a few quick tips to help you improve your photography right now. Tips that are simple and don't require anything but your camera. (No flash, reflectors, etc). If you want to learn more complicated stuff, there are entire books written about lighting techniques.

Generally speaking, the sun is your enemy. I say again, the sun is your enemy. If you place your subject in the direct sun, it will wash out the colours in your photos and it will also create harsh shadows. So either place your subject in the shade, take photos on an overcast day or take photos on a sunny day with some clouds but wait until a cloud covers the sun to take your shots. When I am working in my garden on a sunny day, I have my camera handy, but I only take pictures when the sun hides behind a cloud. I wait for cloud coverage, make a run for my camera and snap away.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

I used little pink boots for these shots, because they were bright coloured and handy to grab and take outside with me. They are not very exciting, but they got the job done. The same technique would apply to just about anything you are taking pictures of - children, hamsters, furniture, etc.

image 1 - Adorable pink boots photographed in the full sun. Notice the harsh shadows. Lousy photo, period.

image 2 - I moved the boots about 10 feet away and put them on my porch in the shade. No doubt a better photo.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

Of course there are always exceptions to rules. Sometimes the sun is your friend. When the sun rises in the morning you will have beautiful light for about one hour. In the evening you will have beautiful light for about an hour prior to sunset. That one hour time frame is about all you've got. I shot this photo just after sunrise when the light was very golden. I got up at 4:00 am, showered, drove 90 minutes and was there by 6:00 am. Did I want to get up that early? Absolutely not, but if you want nice landscape photos you gotta bite the bullet and do it. Portrait photography is also very beautiful at sunrise or sunset, as it is a very flattering light.

using your built-in flash

As far as using the built-in flash on your camera - don't! Built in flash sucks, always. Don't get me wrong, if an spaceship landed in my backyard at night and ET came out of it and my only option was using my built-in flash, I would use it. A picture of ET with flash is better than no picture of ET. It does have some purposes when you have no other options. The same thing applies to your grandma's birthday party - if you have to use on-camera flash, go for it. Capturing the moment is more important than a well lit photo. I am only saying that if you have a choice, try not to use your on-camera flash because your results will be similar to putting your face on a photocopier or scanner and making a print. You seldom get good results with your built-in flash. Of course if you have an hot shoe flash, that is cool. (A built-in flash is the flash that is part of your camera. A hot shoe flash is one that you buy separately and mount to the top of your camera).

remove the clutter

This is one of the most important tips I will share with you today - remove the clutter from your photos! Take another look at the pink boots.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

image 1 - When I look at this photo my eyes are all over the place. What is that rusty thing beside the boots? Is that snow in the background or a giant melted ice cream? There are way too many distracting things in this shot.

image 2 - Perfectly clean background. It is very clear that my subject is the pink boots.

If an object doesn't add something to your photo, then it takes something away. So, make make sure your neighbours ugly garage, shed or swing set is not in your photo. Wouldn't a garden hose laying on the ground in my lavender photo ruin it? I have seen endless photos of beautiful gardens with garden hoses in the shot. Really? Get rid of it! And it you can't get rid of unwanted clutter, reposition your subject or reposition yourself, then take your shot.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)
Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

Once again, there are exceptions to every rule. I took these two photos and there is clutter everywhere. Sometimes clutter is just part of the story you want to tell. A water hose for firefighters is fine, but a water hose in your garden photos - not so much!

you gotta move like a boxer

Sometimes people settle for taking one or two photos of something. If you want to take better photos, then take more shots. Try standing on your feet or standing on a ladder. Try sitting on the ground and try laying on the ground. Different vantage points can make a significant difference in your results.  

I will never forget something I read by one of my favourite photographers.

If you want to take better pictures, you gotta move like a boxer.
— Joe McNally

If you want some real inspiration, Joe McNally's blog is unbelievable. Joe has literally travelled the world taking photos for the top dogs - National Geographic, Life and Sports Illustrated. I dream of taking a course with him someday (so please buy more paint because his courses are pricey, but so worth it! - sorry I could not resist saying that. lol).

First off, I have studio lights so these chair photos are taken in my store using them. I still have snow on the ground here, so dragging the stuff outside was not really an option. Likely you don't have studio lights, so you have two options. Place your subject in a well lite area of your home (but out of the direct sun) or take your subject outside.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

Where you position yourself while taking a photo makes a big difference in the results. 

image 1 - I was standing up. 

image 2 - I was sitting on a chair.

image 3 - I was sitting on the floor. Best shot in my opinion.

image 4 - On an unrelated topic (but I had to put a photo in the 4th box) … nothing drives me crazier than unnecessary junk in a photo. The last thing I always do is check the edges of my photo before taking a shot. It is so easy to miss stuff that doesn't belong like part of the wall trim and a broom in this shot.

The height you take a photo from makes a huge difference in your results. Test different heights and see what works best for your subject. I often lay down on the ground or crouch down when taking pictures of flowers. When photographying children, usually it is best if you are down low at their level.

Last fall I spent almost an entire day taking photos of a friend's garden and afterwards she commented that she could not believe how much exercise I was getting. To take good photos you have to try all sorts of angles (which means moving your feet because the flowers aren't going to move). I wrote up a blog post on Patti's garden and it is truly a spectacular garden.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

All of these dog photos I took while laying on the ground. Notice how the backgrounds are all clutter free. All the shots were taken outside using grass or leaves as a background and all of the pictures were taken on an overcast day or in the shade. Trust me, dogs are not that co-operative. Most dogs won't sit still very long and getting them to look at the camera is very difficult, especially if their owner is present. So sometimes having the owner make them sit before giving them a treat is a good option.

Notice the bottom photo of the dog with the blue collar. I am not really pleased that the photo has the leash metal clamp thingy in it, but the dog was a runner and the owner did not want to take off his leash. I consider this unwanted junk and would have removed the leash from the dog, had it been an option. Sometimes you just have to go with what you have to work with.  

playing with props

First off, I would like say to two things to defend my furniture "staging". lol. First, I am very new at this furniture photography gig and took my first picture of furniture just a few months ago. Second, most of stuff is still packed away in boxes from my move and I have a very limited selection of staging items available to me and I am way too cheap to go and buy more stuff. As soon as spring arrives here in cold Canada, I will be sorting through my boxes for some staging stuff (because it is in cold storage). So bare with me. 

Alright, back to my tips. Although I ranted and raved about decluttering photos, again there are exceptions. I thought the photo of just the blue chair and white stool was a little boring and needed a little something to make the the picture pop. What better than a little pair of pink boots? 

You know how I said that you have to try taking pictures from difference angles, well you should also try a variety of staging options - just like you should try a variety of poses when taking photos of people. Unless you are using an old film camera, photos are free and the more you take, the better chance you will get one you are pleased with.

When I was taking that photography course in Europe, the guy teaching the course said he would he would be pleased if he ended up with just one photo that was portfolio worthy. Just one photo. Wow! Kinda shows you a professional photographer has to take a whole lot of pictures to capture just one amazing image. I like more than one photo I took in Europe, but obviously I have much lower standards than he does because I am not making a portfolio.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

images 1, 2 and 3 - I tried the boots in several positions.

image 4 - I tried adding a pair of gardening gloves to the shot. Bad. You can't even tell what they are in the photo.

image 5 - I tried moving the gloves. A little better, but still not my favourite.

image 6 - I tried adding a few more props. Worse results. I put some adorable little pink fabric flowers that I bought at the dollar store specifically for this photo shoot on the ground, but you can't even tell what they are. Kinda looks like I need to sweep the floor.

Chair painted in denim and stool painted in flour sack - Sweet Pickins milk paint - via My Painted Door (.com)

I am not sure what your favourite photo is. There is no right or wrong answer, but here is my favourite. I liked how the boots on the stool seemed to balance out the photo. 

Because I sell milk paint and am trying to show the product, I took a few close ups shots. You can easily do this by setting your camera to the macro setting (usually the button on your camera with the flower image on it).

positioning your subject

Remember when I said you should take photos from different positions (standing, sitting, laying down, etc.), well you also need to put some thought into the positioning of your subject.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

Of course I had to add the little pink fabric flowers to these shots because they did not work out so well in the pictures of the blue chair and I was determined to use them. 

image 1 - My first shot and I didn't like the angle of the stool.

image 2 - I changed with angle of the stool and took another shot. I then realized it was not the angle that was bugging me, but rather the white stool did not stand out enough on the white background. I also did not like where the wall and the floor met - it cut the photo in half.

image 3 - I pulled the stool away from the wall and took another shot. This time I did not like how the small section of white wall cut off the top of the boots.

image 4 - I pulled the stool even further away from the wall and to me this was the best shot. It seemed to show off the stool the best. 

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

Once I was pleased with my background I took three more shots.

The top left shot is taken from a standing postion. Just a bad angle.

I sat on the floor and took two more shots. I liked them both and called it a day.

Stool painted in flour sack Sweet Pickins milk paint - via My Painted Door (.com)

props for people

Props are great for all kinds of photo shoots. This photo shoot was at a farm so I thought it was suitable that I bring along a bucket of apples. You see, these kids hardly knew me and I thought the bucket of apples would help break the ice and get them smiling. After taking some family shots, I wanted to take photos of each kid by themselves. I pulled out the bucket of apples and asked them to "perform" for me. 

I am certainly not saying that the parents necessarily wanted to buy some of the silly pictures with the apples, but the purpose of the apples was to get them smiling and laughing.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

First there was Renee. Calm and very beautiful Renee. I would imagine she has never had a bad photo taken of her. She decided to try and balance an apple on her head and she executed it perfectly.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)
Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

And then there was Kieran. Apparently the joker of the three. He wanted to juggle for me. When I got home I couldn’t stop laughing when I looked at the pictures. I shot about a dozen pictures of Kieran juggling and three of them had the apple in front of his left eye. If you had asked me to capture these shots, I could not have pulled it off with 500 shots. Yup, some things are just flukey.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

And then there was Matthew. Serious and very handsome Matthew. He chose to just eat the darn apple! Teenage boys are always hungry.

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)
Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

This is where the craziness began. Put three siblings in a barn window for a lovely group shot …

Photography tips and techniques - via My Painted Door (.com)

and see how long that lasts!

I sure remember days like that with my own 2 sisters and 2 brothers. We used to take road trips in a station wagon to Saskatchewan in the summer. Imagine the craziness!

for the painters

The blue chair is painted with two coats of denim blue Sweet Pickins milk paint. I used Extra Bond on the first coat. I lightly distressed the chair with sandpaper and then topcoated it with tung oil to protect it.

The white stool was previous painted a light blue. I used two coats of Sweet Pickins milk paint in flour sack. I used Extra Bond on the first coat. Again, I lightly distressed the stool with sandpaper so that the blue paint would show through and then topcoated it with tung oil to protect it.

Posted on April 16, 2014 and filed under Photography Adventures.