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Taking Better Picures

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This is the Maroon Bells in Colorado, and of course it is a spectacularly beautiful spot. But the photo is made better by following rules: 1) There is good foreground (flowers), okay middle ground (lake) and a great background (mountains). Together they make a great shot. 2) There is a leading line (the shoreline) from the bottom left leading your eye into the center of the picture. 3) It follows the rule of thirds. Imagine a tic-tac-toe board over the picture. The most interesting things should lie where the lines intersect. It’s a very common mistake to put the main item in the dead-center of the picture. That rarely works! In all these pictures, the center of the picture is the least interesting part.

Many of you have been very kind and said how much you enjoy my photographs. As I have said in comments to readers, some of my happiest moments in life have been while shooting pictures. It seems to involve my whole being in a very unique way. It always involves being in a beautiful part of nature, which makes me very happy. But is also involves my mind in the mechanics of the camera and taking the picture. I am not very in touch with my creative side so the artistic part of photography does not come naturally to me. But somehow, taking pictures seems to bring it out. The result is that photography actually becomes very Zen to me, very alive in the present moment.
I suspect many of you have taken lots of pictures, but secretly wish you could get better, more dramatic shots, so I thought I would do a post on how to take better pictures. Trust me, it is a skill you can learn! Here are my rules if you want to get great pictures:

  • You might think you can only take great pictures if you have a very expensive camera. But that isn’t true. The quality of the camera is important, but nowhere near as important as your skill level. Some people have a natural eye, but I don’t. Over the years I have read dozens of books on nature photography and learned the rules and follow them (Rules like: having a main subject, rule of thirds, leading lines, depth of field, exposure control, having a foreground-middleground-background, white balance, grain, shooting in the “golden hour”, filters, etc.). With the knowledge, and lots of practice, will come an intuition into photography that gives you some amazing photos.
  • Once you know the rules, 90% of the time you will follow them, but sometimes you need to break them. Once you get the shot you think you want, try new things. Shoot the scene vertically or from high overhead or down near the ground. Zoom in or out to change the central focus of the picture. Move the main subject to different areas of the picture. Just freely experiment!
  • Control over the camera is critical. To be able to follow the rules, you need as much control over the cameras functions as possible. This is where most Point and Shoot (P&S) cameras fail. They can take great pictures but you can’t take control and mold the picture into what you want it to be.
  • The quality of the light is extremely important. Learn the rules of when to shoot. But learn how to make use of poor light because there is so much of it! The key to taking great pictures in the harsh mid-day light (when we are most likely to be out shooting) is to use a polarized filter. Software simply can’t do it as well as a physical polarizer.
  • The more time you spend outside, the more likely you are to take great pictures. A traveling, boondocking, vandweller is in the ideal position to build up a portfolio of pictures that make you say “Wow!” when you see it.
  • Become a hiker. If you can only shoot from within 50 yards of your car, you are going to miss lots of great shots. Some of the very best days of my life have been when I was out for a hike to take pictures of a beautiful place.
  • Carry the camera with you all the time. After some practice, you will see beauty all around you.
  • Learn to take great pictures when you push the shutter button. My photo editor is Picassa, which is a free download from Google. I love it!! My goal is take a picture that needs nothing else done to it. But most shots are improved with some minor editing so the minimum photo editor is plenty good enough to me. I want to be in nature taking pictures, not sitting behind the screen of a computer!
  • Buy Photo Guide books that are guides to locations where you can take great shots. See the Tip in the side bar to the right for my recomendations

Lots of lessons in this shot of an arch in Canyonlands NP: 1) That’s the sun rising in the distance which gives it the red glow on top. The time right before and after Sunrise and Sunset is called the “golden hour” because of its fabulous, warm light. Shoot then! 2) Frame your picture with whatever you have on hand. 3) Include a foreground, middleground and background. 4) Use a tripod. 5) For extremes of exposure, use HDR (High Dynamic Range) software to merge different shots into one properly exposed shot. With the camera on a tripod, I took 5 different pictures of this scene. Some were overexposed to get the dark areas and some were underexposed to get the bright areas. The software merged them together to make one properly exposed picture.

Even though skill and ability is by far most important, having a camera that gives you some control over the picture is very important. You might think you must have a DSLR to get great pictures, but it isn’t true. I own and use a Sony DSLR, but I can promise you that you can take great pictures with a P&S also. In fact I haven’t used the DSLR in several years because it is so big that I rarely carry it. Instead I have a P&S with me nearly 100% of the time and it lets me take great pictures.

This is a view of the Zion Valley in Zion NP from on top of Angels landing. Here are some rules that make it a good shot: 1) Go for a Hike! It was a very difficult hike to get this shot, but well worth it. I remember that day like it happened yesterday and I loved every second of it! 2) This picture was taken at noon, because that is when there is the most light on the walls of the canyon. I used a polarizer to deepen the sky and take some of the glare out of it. 3) I left some of the mountain I was standing on in the picture (at the left) to become a foreground.and center of interest. 4) The valley acts as a leading line to grab your eye and pull it into the picture giving you the illusion of depth.

The more manual controls a P&S gives you, the better your pictures will be. Having full manual control is best, but the minimum control you need is Exposure Compensation. The amount of light that hits the film or sensor of the camera is measured in “F Stops.” Inside all of today’s cameras is a small computer program that meters the light coming in and chooses the right stop to use. Most of the time they do a great job, but they are very easily fooled into giving less than ideal exposures. But if your camera offers Exposure Compensation you can override the cameras choices by two stops over and under, making the picture either darker or lighter than the camera thinks it should be. If your camera doesn’t have it, it shouldn’t cost too much to upgrade to one with it and your photographs will get dramatically better.
If you have the money, I highly recommend a Canon G12 Point and Shoot. I paid $379 for mine, but it was worth every penny for these reasons:

  • It is the best P&S you can buy, has a great lens and gives you outstanding control over the picture.
  • You can buy an attachment that allows you to put screw-on filters on it which is critically important to great photos.
  • Best of all it has lots of physical controls so you don’t spend all your time sorting through menus to get control.
  • The screen is big and bright and it swings out and turns in a 360 circle. I love this feature. I can hold the camera over my head or down next to the ground and just twist the screen so I can see it from above or below. I can even turn it around so I see the screen when shooting a self-portrait.
  • It has a flash shoe, so it can use the full line of Canon external flashes and take advantage of their amazing abilities.
  • It is much smaller than the DSLRs and I carry it in a bag on my belt 100% of the time. Since I always have it with me, if I find a shot, I can take it.

I would not use it if I wanted to make 3 foot by 5 foot enlargements, but for the web or normal size pictures you can’t see a difference between it and DSLRs. I bought mine from Best Buy and bought the 3 year extended warranty with it.

I wish I could go into greater detail on this, but I simply don’t have time. I strongly suggest you find some good books on nature photography and study them. I wish I could recommend some books for you, but it’s been a long time since I have had any of them so I can’t remember which ones I liked and which I didn’t, so you are going to have to do your own research. Bob

This is Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierras. Several rules make this shot work: 1) The splash of color in the foreground grabs your eye. 2) The leading lines of the reflection lead your eye into the picture. 3) A polarizer took the glare off the water and deepened the sky. 4) Most important of all there is a good foreground, interesting middleground, and good background. They mesh to become a memorable picture.


  1. Brian Howard

    Again Bob, beautiful pics and a great lesson on photography. Thanks, Brian

    • Bob

      Thanks Brian! Bob

  2. CAE

    Your Convict Lake shot really captures the feel of the place. Went there a few times as a kid.

    • Bob

      CAE, the Eastern Sierras are one of my favorite places. You were lucky your parents took you there as a kid! Bob

  3. Kimberly

    These are great tips! I am not yet on the road,(hoping to be next year) but I hike and carry a camera with me 80% of the time”just in case”. Your
    shots are absolutely beautiful! Thanks for writing!

    • Bob

      Thanks for your kind words Kimberly! maybe out paths will cross out here Somewhere! Bob

  4. Andy

    Hi Bob
    I was going to ask before you did this post if some of your shots were hdr. I just started using hdr and use photomatix for the tone mapping. it really is a unique way of pushing digital to capture amazing photographs i only came across hdr a few weeks ago. You must have been shooting hdr when it was very new and not many people knew about it.

    • Bob

      Hi Andy, I have only used HDR one time, and that was on the arch shot. Like I’ve said, I love to shoot pictures but I hate sitting in front of the computer editing them. So i tried it out that one time and it turned out pretty well. I’m pretty sure I used Corell Paintshop Pro Photo. I have tried several of the serious photo editors but their learning curve is overwhelming to me and I always give them up and go back to Picassa. It is simple, intuitive and plenty powerful enough for me. Bob

  5. don

    What HDR software do you use? I’m kind of interested in trying it but the software (and explanations of the process) I’ve seen make the process sound really difficult.
    The photos were all beautiful and the commentary was excellent. Nice quickie photography class!

    • Bob

      Ho Don, I’m glad you like the photos, I really enjoy taking them. I know people can get better photos just by following a few simple rules so I hope I was able to convey them. I find it hard to find a balance of giving enough info to be helpful, but not too much so people get bored.
      I’ve only used HDR software that one time for the Glowing Arch photo. I’m pretty sure I used Corell Paintshop Pro Photo Editor. My Canon G12 camera has a built-in HDR setting. I just have to put in in HDR mode, put the camera on a tripod, and it will automatically take three shots and stitch them together using it’s internal processor and software. I haven’t tried it yet, but one of these days I will. I’m sure it is not the only camera that will do that, there are probably other P&S that will also. Bob

  6. Gennifer

    Great photos and wonderful explanation! I’m a pro photographer looking into vandwelling so that I can spend more time out shooting in nature. Just stumbled across your blog today. Lots of great info here!

    • Bob

      H Gennifer, checked out your blog and loved it! Vandwelling isn’t for everybody but for a Pro Photogrpaher (or any artist) it is nearly ideal because it puts you out where the photos are. Plus, there are so many “artsy” communities across the country that you can make many new connections and get new perspectives. That’s true all over the country, but I am prejudiced and think it is more so in the Southwest.
      I wish you the best as you follow your dreams and if there is anything I can do to help feel free to ask!

  7. Bob

    Rob I agree completely. But 99% of my readers are just shooting snapshots and I firmly believe their photos will benefit from learning the rules. Once you know the rules you can benefit from breaking them. But most people just shoot without much thought and I wanted to give them something to think about before they press the shutter release.

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