(95) Tips for Better Digital Photos (Updated 12-19-04)

1. Read the manual.
2. Use a tripod.
3. Move closer.
4. Use your flash effectively.
5. Learn how to read histograms.
6. Read a book.
7. Take a photography course.
8. Learn how to use image manipulation software.
9. Use a dedicated photo printer.
10. Keep shooting.

After you purchase your new digital camera, spend an hour or two reading the instruction manual. You really need to know what all those buttons do. There is a lot of helpful information displayed on your camera’s monitor or view finder, and it is there to help you take better photographs. Of course you have to know what all that stuff means, and the instruction manual will tell you.

Mount your camera on a tripod, and your photos will immediately improve. You will eliminate camera shake (if your tripod is sturdy), and it will force you to be more careful in your composition. A tripod is a necessity in low light conditions. If the light is low (and you are not using a flash) then the shutter speed will usually be so slow that a hand-held camera will result in blurred photos.

Improve your composition by moving in closer. Fill the frame with your subject to emphasize it and to eliminate extraneous or distracting details. While you are at it, develop the habit of looking around at all elements in your view finder or LCD monitor. Experiment with different angles.

Bad photos are often the result of inadequate lighting. Using a flash will often add just the “pop” that is needed for your images. In low-light settings, many cameras will automatically fire the flash. But there are some special situations that you should consider. In a bright-light situation where the subject is back-lit (such as on a beach), use the “fill-flash” setting to brighten the shadows. When you want to shoot a subject in natural lighting, use the “no-flash” setting. When using a flash to shoot people in a low-light situation, use the “red-eye reduction” setting. You don’t know how to do all this? Read the manual.

If you are shooting digitally, then chances are that your camera will allow you to review an image’s histogram. A histogram is a bar-graph of pixel luminosity, with the darkest pixels on the left, and brightest pixels on the right. If an image’s pixels are clustered on the left, your photo is probably underexposed. And if the pixels are clustered on the right, it is probably overexposed. Learn how to interpret these histograms, and how to correct exposure problems. Again, read the manual.

Read a book on photography (or read several). I recommend “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson as a good first book. Warning: if you get this far, then you are probably bitten by the camera bug, and you are dangerously close to the precipice.

If you are ready to take a formal course in photography, then you are probably a goner. How much do you really want to improve? There is no substitute for formal lessons. And there is no substitute for submitting your work for critique by professional photographers. I heartily recommend online photography courses from You get weekly lessons, homework assignments, and your work is viewed and critiqued by your classmates and instructors.

Obtain and use image manipulation software (see my article on this subject). Bottom line: most digital images will benefit from some degree of enhancement (contrast, luminosity, color saturation, or sharpening).

Use a dedicated photo printer (see my article on this subject). Avoid “all-purpose” printers or combination printer-fax-copiers.

Finally, keep shooting. I have often joked that the devil loves a dusty camera. If you aren’t shooting, you aren’t improving. Shoot a lot (it’s digital, so you aren’t paying for film). You may only get one great photo for every 500 that you take. But if you aren’t shooting, your yield is zero.