Five Tips for Winning Photos

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A lot of photos arrive in my inbox each week, entries for our weekly Hot Pics contest. I feel honored to be privy to so many slices of my readers' lives. I see artistically crafted vistas taken on vacation; silly moments with kids and pets; special events like birthdays and proms; and photographic experiments captured on lazy Saturday mornings. Sometimes the entries are even inspired by tips or suggestions from this very newsletter.

Of course, only one person can win the Hot Pic photo contest each week, and there are some common characteristics that separate good photos from great ones. This week, I tell you how to avoid the five most common pitfalls. Work on these, and you stand a good chance of making all of your photos look better.

1. Focus on Your Subject

The first rule of composition is to think about your subject. There should be a specific element in a photo--a person, a flower, a cat, a building--that you want to emphasize. Typically, you'll want to arrange the scene so that this subject is along one of the "third lines" in your photo (not dead center or way off to the edges). Imagine dividing your photo into a grid with two vertical and two horizontal lines; if you put your subject along one of these lines, you'll get the most visual impact. This trick is called the Rule of Thirds, and it's perhaps the single most important guideline in photography.

And be especially careful to put the subject in sharp focus. If the subject is sharply defined, it's okay (and sometimes even a good idea) for the rest of the photo to be out of focus. How do you know that your photo works? Show it to some friends, and their eyes should be drawn to the subject like a magnet.

The reader who submitted this Hot Pic entry clearly saw beauty in these flowers, but this photo doesn't really deliver a definable subject. The flowers are out of focus, and the photo lacks crisp composition. For more on the Rule of Thirds, read "Photo Composition Tips."

2. Watch Your Exposure

It's totally understandable: You get so consumed with capturing your subject that you forget about basics like exposure settings. Getting the proper exposure is important, though, and you can't always rely on your camera to get it right.

You don't have to get a Ph.D in exposure to take beautiful photos, though. One important trick is to make sure you avoid shooting in very contrasty lighting. If you can see both direct sunlight and shadow in your viewfinder, you'll almost certainly have exposure trouble--try reframing the shot to get more even lighting in the scene. The mid-day hours are especially bad for outdoor photography because of all the overhead light you'll have to contend with. Likewise, if there's strong sunlight in the background, the camera will probably overcompensate and underexpose the subject. For more tips, check out "Use the Best Light for Awesome Photos."

The photo on the left suffers from these sorts of exposure troubles. The entire image is somewhat overexposed, and due to uneven lighting, there are ugly "blown out" sections, such as on the girl's shirt. Consulting the camera's histogram could help avoid this kind of trouble; for more information on that, read "Use the Histogram to Avoid Exposure Issues."

3. Keep It Level

When you're composing your photo in the viewfinder, your brain is not always your strongest ally. That's because your brain filters and "corrects" the data that your eyes see. Consider this photo, for instance.

The reader who submitted this cool fireworks shot no doubt framed the picture carefully and pressed the shutter release, never realizing the camera was tilted by about 25 degrees. The reader was busy trying to take a photo, and his brain didn't want to bother him with information like "the scene isn't level." His brain assumed the photo was level, since his brain wasn't getting any "tilt" data from the ears, which regulate balance. So the brain simply filtered that information out of the equation.

Bottom line: You need to consciously think about keeping your photos level, since your brain won't go out of its way to help. And if you do accidentally take some crooked photos, all is far from lost. You can easily straighten them with the Level tool in almost any photo editing program.

4. Freeze the Action

No matter how cute the animal you're photographing, be sure to freeze the action, or the only thing people will notice is that it's, well, blurry.

Of course, this advice applies to all of your photos, even ones that don't involve fast-moving furries. You should practice techniques for taking steady photos, use a tripod when you can, and learn how to use the Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority control on your camera to freeze the action with a fast shutter speed. And when you need to, bump up the ISO to enable faster shutter speeds in low light conditions. Read "Capturing Subjects on the Move" for more details on these techniques.

5. Forget the Date Stamp

Finally, allow me to mention one of my own pet peeves: date stamping. I've seen many wonderful photos over the years that are ruined by the inclusion of a date and time stamp. Take a look at this gorgeous photo for one recent example.

Date stamps were handy before the digital age, and many point-and-shoot film cameras were happy to oblige by embedding the date in the negative. Even today, some cameras offer the option of stamping the date in the digital image. But there's no reason to permanently mar the image itself, when the photo's metadata already contains the date and time of the shot, along with a wealth of other information (such as exposure data, the lens you used, and more). My advice: forego stamping the date and time on the photo, and use a photo organizer (like Windows Live Photo Gallery) to sort or search by date.

What if you later regret taking a photo with your camera's date stamp feature enabled? Follow the instructions in "Get Rid of that Ugly Date Stamp."

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Grasshopper," by Steve Creek, Lavaca, Arizona

Joe writes: "I had just parked in a wooded area to do a photo walk when this grasshopper jumped onto the hood of my vehicle. I thought that the reflection from the hood and the various bits of sand made for a great photo."

This Week's Runner-Up: "East River Sunrise," by Paul Corcoran, New York

Paul says that he stitched this photo together from six individual photos using AutoStitch. He then tweaked the exposure settings with IrfanView. He used a Nikon D300.

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

This story, "Five Tips for Winning Photos" was originally published by PCWorld.

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