Today’s digital cameras make it difficult to take a truly lousy picture, but there are still some things even the best models can’t do on their own. The tips here (some of them classic photography techniques) won’t turn you into the next Ansel Adams, but they might prevent you from being upstaged by your eight-year-old with her smartphone.
The Golden Hours. The best photos are taken when most of us are either snoozing or eating dinner: about an hour before and after sunrise and sunset. When the light is gentle and golden, your photos are less likely to be overexposed or filled with harsh shadows and squinting people.
Divide to Conquer. You can’t go wrong with the Rule of Thirds: When you’re setting up a shot, mentally divide your picture area into thirds, horizontally and vertically, which will give you nine squares. Any one of the four places where the lines intersect (the four corners of the center square) represents a good spot to place your primary subject. (If all this talk of imaginary lines makes your head spin, just remember not to automatically plop your primary focal point in the center of your photos.)
Lock Your Focus. To get a properly focused photo using a camera with auto-focus, press the shutter button down halfway and wait a few seconds before pressing down completely. (On most cameras, a light or a beep will indicate that you’re good to go.)
Circumvent Auto-Focus. If your camera isn’t homing in on your desired focal point, center the primary subject smack in the middle of the frame and depress the shutter button halfway, allowing the camera to focus. Then, without lifting your finger, compose your photo properly (moving your camera so the focal point isn’t in the center of the shot), and press the shutter all the way down.
Jettison the Jitters. Shaky hands are among the most common causes of out-of-focus photos. If you’re not good at immobility, invest in a tripod or rest the camera on something steady—such as a wall, a bench, or a rock—when you shoot. If all else fails, lean against something sturdy to brace yourself.
Consider the Imagery. Before you press that shutter button, take a moment or two to consider why you’re shooting what you’re shooting. Once you’ve determined this, start setting up your photo. Look for interesting lines that curve into your image—such as a path, the shoreline, or a fence—and use them to create the impression of depth. You can do the same thing by photographing people with their bodies or faces positioned at an angle to the camera.
Ignore All the Rules. Sure, thoughtful contemplation and careful execution are likely to produce brilliant images, but there are times when you just need to capture the moment. If you see something wonderful, grab your camera and just get the picture. If the photo turns out to be blurry, off-center, or over- or underexposed, you can always Photoshop it later.
Smartphone Tips: When possible, don’t use the zoom tool. This reduces the picture’s resolution and can lead to fuzzy photos. Instead, it’s best to crop your photos manually. Also, it’s helpful to turn on the grid feature, which helps you compose your shots.
Special Considerations. If you’re going to any Indian reservations (many are near national parks), check the rules before you take photographs. In many cases you must purchase a permit.