Photographer’s Cheat Sheet

I’ve been working on the notes I’ll be using for a beginner’s photo class I’ll be teaching and out of that preparation has come a cheat sheet of high-level concepts that I tend to repeat over and over.

I always state that photography can be broken down into two components: Lighting and Composition — if you don’t have those two things, you don’t have a good photograph. Of course, this doesn’t take emotion and the psychological attachment that people have to some images, but from a purely photographic standpoint, I stick by my claim.


Color quality is a term often used to describe how conducive a light source is for a photograph. This is subjective to the type of image you are photographing. For portraits, florescent light is poor quality while morning daylight is high quality.
The time of day affects the quality of light. Morning and evening light is softer than noon-time light and therefore more appropriate for portraits.
Color temperature is measured in Kelvin (K). Higher temps are blue/cool, lower temps are red/warm. 5,500K is neutral daylight. Calibrating your white balance (for digital cameras) or filters (for film or digital cameras) can be used to correct color temperature.
Direction of the light source makes an impact on the mood of an image. Angling the light source against the subject matter can create depth and add detail.
Soft light vs hard light. Choose which type of light source you want for your picture. Portraits typically work better with soft light, but hard light can add a dramatic affect.
Distance and the size of the light source also affect whether the light will be soft or hard. Diffusing materials can be used to soften a light source (bed sheets work).


Rule of thirds. Draw a tic-tac-toe grid on your frame and position your subject matter in one of the intersections.
Portrait vs landscape. Choose the orientation of your picture to match your subject matter. People are vertical (typically), while landscapes tend to be horizontal.
Pay attention direction within the frame. Subjects looking off-frame should have less space behind them and more space in front of them. Likewise, if something has a sense of motion in the frame, allow for space in front of it so that it feels like it has room to move.
Foreground AND background are both important during the composition of an image. Watch out for tonal similarities between the foreground and background — it’s easy to take a picture where the subject looks like he has a branch growing out of his head.
Contrast, be it with color or brightness or focus, is how you create separation between foreground and background.

Et cetera

Take your time. Most of the time, photographs do not have to be rushed. If you know you’ll have limited time, spend some time scouting the area and prepping the image.
Look first then shoot. Spend a second looking at the entire frame before you take the picture. Is the subject prominent? Is somebody photo-bombing your image? A quick look before you snap the shot can save countless hours of post-production.
Take more pictures. Get out there and take pictures. If you see a picture you like, try to replicate it. Retake a picture that didn’t turn out how you wanted it to.
Read and explore. From photography blogs to Flickr, there are thousands of ways to get inspired and educated. Take advantage of them.

Let them interact

Let them beTaking group pictures at a wedding can be draining.  Most of the time, the bridal party just wants to have fun — and who can blame them!  They’re not at the wedding for pictures, they are there to support the bride and groom and to have a good time.  I understand this and do my best to allow the day to roll along as uninterrupted by me as possible.

Here’s a quick set of images from one of my previous weddings that embodies this idea.  Basically, I sat the whole bridal party down, got them chatting about this and that and then I disappeared.  Well, I didn’t really disappear, I just went back to my camera bag, grabbed my 80-200 2.8 lens and started shooting the group “paparazzi style”.  It took them a few minutes to even realize that I was taking pictures of them, all the while they were relaxed and having a good time.

Lightning fast tip — shoot shoot shoot

Last week, a very powerful storm passed right over my house at 60mph. I knew the weather was going to be bad, but I didn’t expect a spectacular light show. After staring at the huge bursts of lightning for 5 minutes or so, I realized that I should probably snap a few pictures. So I grabbed my camera, slapped it on my tripod, ventured out to my back deck and proceeded to snap off 258 pictures.

The beauty of digital photography is that there is virtually no cost difference between shooting 10 pictures as there is with shooting 1000 pictures granted you have the memory cards to hold those pictures. Simply shoot to your heart’s content and then edit them later.

Now, I don’t normally shoot lightnlng, so it took a couple of tries before I got an exposure that I was happy with, but once I got things set up (ISO 640, 1.6 seconds, f/5.6, 17mm lens) I simply took as many shots as I could as fast as I could for as long as my finger would allow me to. In between some of the shots, I would double-check my exposure and change things up a wee bit, but for the most part, I was just trying to catch the lightning — which is not so easy.

Of the 258 pictures that I took, less than a hundred had any brightness at all. Less than 50 had any resemblence of lightning, and only about 15 had a decent amount of lightning. Of the 15 with decent lightning, I found 2 that I really like and a handful more that I deem workable.

If I were a gambling man, I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting money on my ability to produce a high percentage of fabulous lightning shots from one thunder storm, but thankfully, I don’t have to be. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you take before you get one that you like, it’s that you took a picture that you’re happy with — so keep on shooting.

Photo tip: turn your flash off

Photo tip: turn your flash off
One of the first things that you can do to improve your images is to turn your flash off. This is especially true if you take pictures of people. The flash which is built into your camera is quite powerful — in fact, it’s too powerful. What’s worse is that all that power is focused right in the middle of your picture.

Try this exercise. Either find a large window (if you’re shooting indoors) or a shade tree (for outdoor shots) and position your subject so that they are facing the source of light. Now, take some pictures — some with the flash on and some with the flash off. Take those pictures, download them to your computer (assuming you’re using digital), and take a look at them. I’m going to guess that the overall color quality is better with the flash off than it is with the flash on.

I’ll get into more details on this topic in a later post, but for now, play around with your camera’s flash turned off. It’s not always possible to take the pictures you want without a flash, but there are a lot of times when using the the flash is entirely unnecessary and lowers the color quality of an otherwise great image.

The images that I’m showing here were all taken indoors without any flash or strobe equipment, just a big window on an overcast, yet bright day.