Taking decent photographs

I’m not a serious photographer and I don’t play one on TV. But I’m tired of looking at dark, fuzzy, tiny photographs that don’t tell anything, so here’s a way someone who knows nothing about photography–such as Yours Truly–can take a decent picture.For some examples of my photography, which I consider barely acceptable, here’s a windup train and an American Flyer electric.

The second photograph is worse than the first, for two reasons. I took the second photograph indoors, and used a rug as a backdrop. The texture of the rug detracts from the photo. As does the lack of light.

I took the first photograph outside. It wasn’t all that sunny of a day, and it was about 9 in the morning on a Saturday. I used a white towel as a backdrop. A neutral-colored sheet would have been even much better, but I had the towel handy. The photograph is small enough that the towel’s texture doesn’t detract as badly as it normally would.

So the first trick is to use a decent backdrop.

Light is trick #2. Get enough light on your subject to not need the flash. Light up the room, take a shot, and see what happens. If the camera flashes, get more light. Better yet, take the object outside. In the daytime, of course. Ideally, the majority of your light should be coming from behind you and the camera, rather than from behind the object. A little bit of light behind the object to eliminate shadows is a good thing, but too much will look harsh.

Focus is trick #3. I assume you know to push the button halfway to focus it. That’s the first step. The second step is to take five or six shots because one of them is likely to look better than the worst of them.

The rule of thirds is something they actually teach you in school. (I spent about a month studying photography in journalism school because they make everyone do that. The rule of thirds is about all I remember.) Professional photographers can disregard this rule the way professional writers sometimes disregard rules about sentence fragments. People like me need to follow it. Look at an existing photograph. Mentally draw two horizontal and two vertical lines, dividing the photograph into thirds. The intersection of each line is what the human eye is going to find interesting. So at the very least, position your object so that part of it is hitting as many of those points as possible.

Use a tripod. You’ll get sharper pictures because a tripod holds the camera steady. I didn’t use a tripod for either of these shots, so it’s not absolutely necessary, but it helps. For small objects, a three-inch pocket tripod from Kmart will do just fine. Mine cost about $5. For larger objects, a larger tripod is necessary. Generally speaking, even a cheap and nasty tripod is better than no tripod, so long as it isn’t so wobbly that it can’t hold the camera straight.

And finally: Crop. After you’ve taken the photograph and you get it into the computer, crop it. This lets you make the picture smaller without losing resolution. It also lets you get rid of unnecessary whitespace and/or objects. Did you catch the edge of your backdrop, revealing the concrete or table underneath? Crop it out. Did you forget the rule of thirds? Crop the picture to move the object into place. I cropped both of the pictures I used as examples because otherwise you’d have seen two pictures with lots of towel or carpet and itty-bitty trains. But I wanted pictures of trains, not man-made fibers.

If you follow these simple principles, you can set your camera to auto everything and get a decent shot. The idea is to make the job as easy on the camera as possible. If you halfway follow the rule of thirds, you get an even better shot.

I almost forgot one other thing. I cleaned the objects in the photos. You might be reluctant to clean objects for sale on Ebay for the legitimate fear of damaging them, but at least brush the dust off with a soft brush, such as a makeup brush or soft paint brush. Chances are, anything you photograph looks better without loose dust covering it.

Following these tips won’t make you look like a pro, but your Wikipedia articles will look better and so will your Ebay listings. And on Ebay, a good, clear photograph means more bids and higher prices.

2 thoughts on “Taking decent photographs

  • October 2, 2004 at 9:45 am
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    A tripod’s best, but any support helps. Often I lean against a tree, or on a broom-handle. I guess that would be a monopod.

    For a more philosophical discussion of photography, you might enjoy Hiawatha’s Photographing.


    Yeah, but it’s a moist heat.

  • October 3, 2004 at 6:56 pm
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    Another focusing trick is when taking a shot of a group of people make sure that the focus point of the camera is not between their heads. I’ve seen so many ruined photos because the camera focused on the back ground. Point the camera so the focus point is over the subject, then press the shutter button half way to focus, recompose and press the shutter all the way down to snap the shot.

    Some of todays cameras have multiple focus points, but set to fully automatic, the camera isn’t always going to figure out your subject isn’t right in the center. Most will let you pick one of the other points, but then most people are not going to want to always fool with selecting them.

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