Five Simple Steps To An Awesome Photo :: Digital Photo Secrets

Five Simple Steps To An Awesome Photo

by David Peterson 19 comments

Stop right now! Wherever your photography is right now, it doesn’t matter. You could have ten years of experience with your camera, or you could be a total beginner. I am about to show you five simple steps you can take to get a good photo right now. If you follow them every time you’re out in the field, you’ll notice a dramatic improvement. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, give these 5 steps a try.

Get Closer To Your Subject

No matter what you’re shooting, it almost always helps to get in a little closer. This is the first step. Just walk up closer to your subject. If your subject is the sunset or something far far away, consider zooming in a little more. You don’t have to do anything drastic. A bit of extra closeness helps to solidify the central theme while adding drama.

Also, don’t believe that just because you don’t have a big fancy zoom lens you can’t zoom in really far. In most scenarios, you can walk right up to your subject to fill the frame with it. Walking accomplishes the same thing, and it doesn’t set you back a few hundred dollars.

If you're a reader of my free photography tips, you'll remember that "Move Closer" was my number one tip. And for good reason. It's hands down the most effective way to turn your mediocre photo into an awesome shot.

Up close and personal. These birds look more interesting when they fill the frame.

Look For The Good Light

Now that you’ve moved in closer, it’s time to asses the lighting situation. If you’re outside, it’s important to pay attention to the direction of the sun. You almost always want it shining on your subject. If you have to change your camera angle to accommodate the light, do so. Your subject will be much more illuminated, giving you a better looking photo.

Sometimes you can do interesting things with a backlit subject. This photographer used the sun to draw emphasis to the subject’s hair

I oftentimes find myself circling around my subjects, looking for the best possible angle for the light, something that works well with the other aspects of the photo including framing.

Think long and hard about how you’ll compose your subject

Once you know how the lighting will work with your subject, it’s time to compose. Almost everything comes down to this. Where you place your subject is critical on so many levels. You ultimately want to create visual movement in the scene you are photographing. It’s all about the way you use positive and negative spaces, making openings for the eye to enter the photograph and exit. Photographers and visual artists call this “composition.”

You can compose your image in a variety of ways, but the best ways tend to follow what is known as the “rule of thirds.” Imagine dividing a scene into three distinct regions, both from top to bottom and left to right.

What you get is a grid that looks like this:

Do you see where the lines intersect? That’s where you usually want to place your subject. Take a second look, and you’ll notice the person where the bottom and right lines meet. You’ll also notice the tree where the top and left lines meet.

The upper right corner is a good place for your eye to exit the scene. In most compositions, you’ll need to place something positive (i.e. a subject) and something negative (i.e. empty space) where these two lines meet. The better you can balance these two visual forces, the better your photo will look.

Wait for the right moment and keep checking

A lot of amateur photographers are about as patient as the people they photograph, and when it comes to taking a good picture, that just doesn’t work. You have to keep snapping and snapping with the settings you’ve picked, and you need to keep doing it until the right moment arrives. Be more patient than your subjects. Be the one convincing them why it’s important to keep taking more pictures.

And keep checking. Digital photography is awesome like that. Have a good look at the LCD, and if you can, bring a laptop with you to the field. That’s what the paid photographers do, after all. They’re always checking out their images, looking for little ways they can improve them. Once they think they’re on to something, they change a setting and take more pictures. That’s the habit you need to get into.

And That's it!

Be aware of the above three tips when you're taking your next shot, and you'll have a much better photo.

Advanced Changes

Now that you know everything you need to know about setting up your photo, it’s time to dial in your camera settings.

Most of the time, your camera's auto settings will take an adequate photo, but because your camera's sensors aren't perfect, sometimes you need to give it a helping hand and let it know how you want it to take the shot.

I personally like to start with the white balance because it’s the easiest. All you need to know is the kind of shooting situation you’re in. If you’re outdoors, pick the outdoors pre-programmed setting. If you’re indoors, pick the setting that corresponds to the lighting in the room.

You can also set the white balance by taking a photograph of a neutral object like a gray card or a blank white piece of paper. Most cameras have a custom white balance setting that allows you to pick a reference photo for your white balance. When you do this, your white balance turns out perfect, and your colors truly pop. See my article on White Balance for more info.

With the white balance figured out, it’s on to the aperture. What kind of scene are you photographing? If you’re getting really close, and you want the background to be out of focus, switch to Aperture Priority Mode and pick a low f-numbered aperture like F5.6. If you’re shooting a giant landscape, and you want to see far into the distance, pick a high f-numbered aperture. It’s all up to you.

When you select Aperture Priority mode, your camera will change the shutter speed to make sure the photo is correctly exposed. But sometimes, that will cause problems like for sports scenes where the shutter speed needs to be fast to freeze the action. So for sports shots, instead choose Shutter Priority Mode.

Bump up the ISO a little bit when you’re working indoors, and you don’t want to use a flash.

ISO speed is also important, but it’s only something that matters if you’re indoors and running out of light. If, for example, you’ve found a good aperture setting, but the shutter speed is unreasonably low (1/30s or lower), then it doesn’t make much sense to take the picture because it will be blurry. But if you increase your ISO, you’ll be able to use a faster shutter speed without darkening the shot.

In the grand scheme of things, the best pictures are taken when all of the right factors come into alignment. As a photographer, watch the lighting, composition, and camera settings. But nature will decide when the time is right for the ideal picture. You just need to be there waiting for it to happen, pressing the button.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. David Caplan says:

    I read and devour your most brilliant insight on photography! I do have a problem that I hope you can address. I understand bumping ISO for flashless indoor work. However for the life of me I can't get the white balance correct. It's either green or orange in contrast. AWB seems to work better then other presets but still not the quality I am striving for. Help!

  2. Chris I. says:

    great tips thank you

  3. Sandra says:

    Hi David ,I'm back to start again as my last amble wasn't the right time for me ,so I couldn't finish it .HAPPY BIRTHDAY to you hope it's a very pleasing one ,I am always reading your tips and things and find them very good and since I have been reading them my photography has got a lot better ,I'm no were near perfect not even close but I have got better at looking into the camera and seeing what is there ,so as to avoid crazy things in the shot ,lol
    Thank you for all your knowledge that you have transferred to us all

  4. Wolf says:

    Dear David,

    I truly enjoy and appreciate all your good tips on photography. Even though I can call myself an "award winning photographer", I have no real clue regarding the technical part of photography. I'm an artist (painter & musician) and use, dare I say it, the "Auto" setting on my Canon T3i - which is a shame, I know I could do better with manual settings. Oh well... :)



  5. Vicki Ruge says:

    Thanks David, Happy Birthday I to am a beginner in the ways of photography I have saved all your emails and I just love the way you explain things and make us think how we can take a better photo.

  6. vance killian says:

    Thank you so much David and happy birthday! Your tips and trainers have boosted my confidence not just in my photography abilities but also in my daily life. I realized that a little more patients and attention to detail can make an amazing difference. I have you to thank for the progress I've made. I'm on my way up, reaching for the big times

  7. Patrick says:

    Hi David, I am very keen in photography and would like to pick up the tips to photography. Have read some of the tips given by you and found it very useful. Perhaps I am looking into purchasing the book from you which is just the basic one called the secrets to photography , which I had received from you in my email. Pls allow me sone time ro consider which one to subscribe and I will reply to you. Had got a G12 cannon camera and is still trying to figure out the various functions. Would Like to shoot with various settings rather than using the auto mode. Am quite new to the settings , perhaps David , you can help me to decide why can I start off with the basic lessons, such as understanding shuttle speed, ISO, aperture , depth of field, uses of the TV mode, AV mode,low light mode, custom 1 & custom 2 settings etc. Looking forward for your reply . Regards Patrick

  8. T~ says:

    Happy Birthday, David!

    (I hope the year ahead brings you continued blessings as you have so generously shared with the rest of us!)

    I'm one of those basically self-taught photographers who still insists on learning things the "hard way" (apparently). Your newsletters are always timely, highly applicable and, on rare occasions... "refreshers" that I didn't realize I actually needed! (Most ALWAYS, though, the information is timely and not "recap" at all.)

    Above all, you inspire me to try new things.
    That's an indispensable gift... and you give it generously... more often that you know.

    You are appreciated!
    Thank you for everything you do.... and again... may this be the happiest of Birthdays for all the greatest reasons.

  9. sprasad says:

    thanks David
    it is wonderful to get your tips on photography. i have started to look inthe photo in a new way

  10. Dawn says:

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY David!!!! I read over your tips all the time. Although I don't always get that 'great' picture, I have gotten a few good ones that I'm very pleased with and they have all been with thanks to you!!! Thank you for all the great tips!!!

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9 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.