I take a lot of pictures and I look at a lot of pictures other people take. I think I've learned a thing or two about what makes a good picture. I'm not talking about Ansel Adams here. I'm talking about a few things you can do right now to make everyone think you are a good photographer. These are not complicated procedures and if you follow them I guarantee your stature as a photographer will improve immediately. I realize everyone is going to take pictures of other people, so these tips are geared towards that.
Get right up next to your subject. Make it fill your viewfinder. For some reason we have an instinct to step back, to get as much as possible in the frame. People also tend to mentally enlarge the subject when taking the picture. The result? Your pictures are filled with boring little people.
Look At Your Background
An excellent tip when playing pool is, "think about your next shot, not this one." I.e. it's more important to look at the big picture (where your cue ball is going to end up for the next shot) instead of the immediate goal (putting the ball in the hole).
Similarly, in photography you have to look at the whole scene instead of just the subject. What's behind them? Is there a pole sticking out of their head? Should I step to the side to cut out that ugly trash can? Just think for a second.
Turn Off That Damn Flash
Consumer cameras are optimized to always produce a recognizable picture, not necessarily a pleasant one. Camera manufacturers assume you will be more upset if everything comes out black, so cameras are set to fire the flash way too much. And the fact is, people directly illuminated by a single flash look like crap. The harsh light shows every skin imperfection, makes people very pale, and compresses the image (there aren't any shadows to add depth).
So just set oyur camera to not flash. Along with this, shoot 400 speed film. You will be surprised at the pictures you can take in low light. Obviously everyone better be sitting still and you should probably get that setting sun behind you for illumination, but the result is a much more matural and attractive picture.
Move Subject Off Center
This one is kind of questionable, since very single photo book in the world mentions it. Still, what do you have to lose? Remember if you have an autofocus camera you need to center the subject and depress the button halfway to lock the focus. Then you can move the camera. Don't be afraid to do silly things like cut people off below the nose, even. At least you have a chance to get an interesting photo.
Determine Your Subject
This sounds retarded, but people often forget to ask the most basic question before pushing that button: what am I taking a picture of? This is especially evident in photos taken at family gatherings. Often group photos will have no focus, because the photographer didn't stop and think - they just pressed the button. Don't do that. Say to yourself, "ok, I'm taking a picture of aunt Edna." You will be find that your photos start making more sense, because the viewer will subconsciously pick up on your focus in the picture.
Take Too Many Pictures
Never take one picture when you can take two. Make sure you vary the shots, for example take a step to the left in between each. In the digital age, this advice is actually only relevant if you follow the next rule:
Throw Out The Bad Ones
This goes double for you fancypants digital photobugs! Never give someone a CD of all 3000 pictures of your Cancun trip. Pick the best 20 and upload them to a picture sharing website like Flickr. The world is drowning in crap digital snapshots, you don't need to contribute to that.
Don't Look Through The Viewfinder
Or at the screen or whatever. Don't do this all the time, but at least ten to twenty percent of your pictures should be taken this way. Your body knows instinctively how to point the camera and how far away you should be (that's assuming you've learned my tip above to move in closer already). Just hold the camera at chest level and fire one off. Even better, hold it up over your head. You will find the pictures will come out way better because of the different perspective. And who cares if you chop someone's legs off? You took a safety pic looking through the camera already, right?
Another fun result of this is it does not trigger people's "get ready for the picture!" reaction. When you bring a camera up to your eye, that tells your subject to put on a frozen smile and adopt their, "camera pose". That sucks. This is particularly effective when combined with turning off the flash.
Get Their Good Side
I stole this one from Merlin Mann. Generally you should try to take portrait photos from above the subject, at a 45 degree angle off center. Most people look good from this angle. In particular, it avoids creating double chins, which nobody wants to see. Note that this is one place where a little bit of camera zoom is good, because it de-emphasizes a person's nose. Closeups without zoom tend to make noses (and hands) gigantic because they are the closest thing in the picture.
Stop With The Zoom Already
Except for the one thing I just mentioned, zoom lenses are for suckers. Every camera comes with one because we are so fat we can't climb out of our SUVs to get a better shot. Don't use it. Instead, move your butt. One big problem which people don't think about is the amount of light that gets through a zoom lens drops off hugely when you zoom way in. You end up with blurry photos because your camera decided to fire the flash based on the amount of available light. This puny light does nothing to illuminate that mountain you were trying to zoom in on.
My advice is to get a 35mm camera like the Olympus Stylus Epic without a zoom lense. You will get better picture. Plus, all that zooming takes time, and that could mean the difference when going for that action shot.
People Don't Have To Stare Into The Sun
This got started back in the civil war, I suppose, when it was necessary to burn down a wagon to get enough light for a photo. My childhood is filled with memories of being forced to squint in to the sun for family pictures. I'm lucky I didn't get permanent retina damage. Plus, everyone will look like a dustbowl sharecropper in photos like that. Is that nice? No.
And, you are allowed to use the flash if you put people in the shade. This will bring out their features without washing them out, since you're already in a lighted environment.
That's all I have for now. I do plan on illustrating this essay with examples in the near future. As I said in the beginning, just follow these rules and your photos will improve. Dramatically.
Oh, and I realize there are 11 tips here. That's because This Is Spinal Tap is a great movie.