How to shoot a good photo

How to shoot a good photo


I have been getting many requests so I decided write this article on How to shoot a good photo. This will help budding photographers and enthusiasts in improving their photography skills and help them to shoot a good photo but also help them in getting a “Wow” photo.

What is the need for providing photography tips when any google search would yield a lot of tips on photography? I have more than two decades of experience in photography. However, I can only classify myself as a learner as I consider wildlife photography to be a lifelong learning. When I look back at the photographs I had taken a couple of years back, I wish I could go back in time, and utilize my present knowledge to capture those moments in a better manner. So why do I try to provide tips?

In the eighties and early nineties when internet was not available, I didn’t know how to learn photography. Hence the pace of learning was very slow. I had to resort to trial and error method. I used to painstakingly note down the shutter speed and aperture used to find a correlation between good shots and the exposure used. Whenever possible, I tried to observe other photographers. I have been continuously learning. However, I believe I am still scratching on the surface and have a lot more to learn. Being a wildlife photographer, I have the twin challenges of evolving as a photographer and learning more and more about Nature. The book of nature is so vast that even after a life long pursuit if you can claim to have learnt to paragraph out of that book, then you should consider being very fortunate. I believe, it is easier to learn fast with like minded people. This makes me try to share whatever little bit I have learnt till date. With the advent of internet, it has become easier to look at each others work, critique and learn at a much faster rate.

What makes a Good Picture?

When you look at various pictures, you will realise that some pictures stand out from the rest. I have described the various elements and some of the techniques that help in improving an image.

1. Background:

If your background is clean and uncluttered then your shots will standout. I used to shoot when ever and where ever I saw a tiger. Later on most of the shots used to be trashed as I used to often find a distracting branch or tree or bush in the scene. It is better to wait till the animal moves to an area with better background or if possible you should move and shoot from an angle where the background is more pleasing. At times, there may be some distracting highlights in the picture. For example, there might be a portion in the picture which may have got burnt and that portion or patch is likely to distract your attention from the focal point in the picture.

An out of focus sky in the canopy near the head of the Crested Serpent Eagle distracts

In one of the photography competitions, a participant had shot the image of a kingfisher offering a pebble to its mate. It was an excellent behavioral shot, but it was marred by bright highlights of the sunlight filtering through the canopy. In such situations, you have to change your position to avoid those highlights or distractions.

Clean background in this case enhances the portrait of the river tern

At times, different colour combinations may be a distraction. You have to decide how much to discard. A minimalist approach often works wonders.

2. Space:

When shooting an animal allow space in the direction it is moving. If a tiger is moving and you frame it in such a way that the tiger is towards the right and there is lot of space behind, then our eyes will immediately focus on the negative space. If an animal is looking back, then it is better to frame it in such a way that there is ample space in the direction it is looking.

This image of a wild tiger looking at the tree was composed to leave more space in the direction the tiger was looking

Of course, like every other rule, this can also be broken. At times, people take artistic pictures of an animal looking or moving out of the frame.

3. Environment:

The environment is very important for the animal. During my initial days in photography, with only a 300mm lens, I used to strive hard to get that frame filling shots till I was shaken up by an comment. I was once proudly showing some of my close-up tiger shots to a Divisional Forest Officer. His first question was whether they were taken in a Zoo. That cynical question left me pondering. In USA, there are lot of photographers who shoot captive tigers and other animals in farms. If I don’t show the actual environment, then my shots won’t be any different than the shots of those photographers who shoot captive animals.

Apart from this reason, there is also the fact that an animal can’t live away from its environment. There is a complex relationship that exists between the animal and its environment. A well composed photograph shot in beautiful light can be much more valuable than a close-up shot of an animal. You can click the animal or bird in adverse climate and get some exceptional images.

4. Horizontal vs. Vertical:

Our natural tendency is to shoot horizontal. Beginners often tend to shoot in horizontal mode. When you experiment with the vertical orientation you will realise that the shot gives an entirely different meaning. If you shoot for stock, the agencies will urge you to shoot the subject in both horizontal as well as vertical formats. If you want your photo to be featured in the cover of a magazine, then vertical format is better. However, the photo editor of the magazine may as well choose to crop a horizontal photo into a vertical format.

The horizontal and vertical modes also invariably give different meaning to the shots.

A rare shot of Ratufa indica on the ground infront of a tree in horizontal

The above image of the Indian Giant Squirrel taken in horizontal mode makes you feel that it is below a huge tree. The tree trunk gives a feeling of an old growth tree.

Malabar giant squirrel in vertical orientation

In the above shot taken in vertical mode, the lines in the bark lead your eyes up and gives you a perspective of where the Indian Giant Squirrel lives; high up in the tree.


5. Light:

The word photography has been derived from photon (light) and graphein (writing) which literally means writing with light. However, most of the times we fail to remember this fundamental aspect of photography and ignore light.

Light – Colour and Quality :

The quality and colour of light plays a major role in photography. If you look at the light during sunrise and sunset, you will realise that the light is warm and is known as the golden light. During sunrise and sunset, the sun is low in the horizon and the light passes a longer distance within the earth’s atmosphere before reaching us. In this process, the light gets diffracted and results in this colour. At other times of the day the colour temperature is different.

In the early morning and evening light, the subject is evenly lit without any harsh shadows. This time is of the day is of particular importance because; carnivores are most active during early morning and evening. Earlier it was believed that tigers hunt late in the evening and early in the morning. However, carnivores are unlike humans and don’t have any fixed meal times. They will eat when hungry and will hunt when they are hungry or when an opportunity comes their way. I have photographed tiger stalking a deer at noon on a hot summer day. So there are always exceptions.

A wild tiger drinking water early in the morning in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, India

The golden light of the morning soon disappears as the sun rises up in the sky and it gets hotter. The light becomes harsh and our facial features tend to react to this light. Except for professional athletes, who are used to playing in the harsh daylight, others tend to squint a lot. A harsh shadow also forms below the eyes, nose etc. A picture taken during this time doesn’t have the same impact as a picture shot during early morning and evening.

Kestrel on thorns shot on an overcast sky

This situation can be avoided to a certain extent, when there is an overcast sky. The cloud cover acts like a huge diffuser and the light is uniformly spread out and is not harsh. Though the colour temperature is different – about 7500 Kelvin and the golden glow of the early morning and late evening is missing, still the pictures come good due to the subjects being evenly lit. In the days of film, photographers used to use a warming filter. Today, the same result can be achieved by shooting in digital and changing the white balance. A lot of photographers use a fill flash (you can dial a negative compensation to your flash to reduce its output). The flash has the same colour temperature as daylight, about 5500K. Use of a fill flash helps to remove the shadows or to give daylight appearance and produce a catch light in the eyes.

Light Angle of Incidence:

Juvenile Bramhiny Kite Haliastur indus in sidelighting.

When I was a kid, I had often heard my dad telling his student who was photographing us that ‘the sun should be on your back’. I had remembered that and later realized that frontal lighting illuminates a subject clearly. If you are a bird photographer, then frontal lighting is your best friend as it brings out details well. However, frontal lighting can appear very flat as well. In these situations, changing your position will change the angle of light and will completely change the mood and the image. An example of a juvenile bramhiny kite (Haliastur indus) photographed from two different positions is given here to illustrate the concept.

Juvenile Bramhiny Kite Haliastur indus on the mound

When light illuminates a subject from the sides, the shape of the subject comes out well. At times you may need to shoot against the light as well. You need to watch your exposure. The metering system of the camera easily gets fooled in backlight situations and the resulting image appears dark. You may need to give a positive exposure compensation to the meter reading or you can also set the exposure manually.

6. Perspective:

In a two dimensional image by arranging spatial elements in a particular manner, we can create the sense or illusion of a three dimensional scene.

I very quickly learnt that perspective plays a very important role in photography. Most of the times, we shoot from our eye level. We don’t even think twice about shooting the world from our subject’s eye level. Shooting from such a height will give us a much different perspective.

Ever thought of how the world looks like to a child? If you crawl on your own belly by the side of an infant, you will get a much better idea about how the world appears to the child. When you are lying on the floor and shooting a child, the resulting photographs would be much more intimate than what you would have got, had you shot from your own eye level. Often this aspect makes the difference between a winning shot and an average one.

Similarly, in wildlife photography, most of the times, we try to climb on the roof of a jeep to get a better view above the bush and tall grass and miss out on the dramatic impact of shots which are shot at an eye level of the animal.

Too often, nature and wildlife photographers stop the vehicle and immediately start shooting. Does the car know which is the right place for us? How will the driver know where to stop? I have been guilty of doing that myself. Once, when I saw a tiger in water, fearing it will disappear, I started shooting where the driver parked. Later, when I moved about twenty feet ahead, I could get some nice shots. If you have encountered the legendary snow man ‘yeti’ or a mythical fire breathing dragon then you can just shoot from where ever you are. The importance of that shot will overcome shortcomings in sharpness, composition etc and will be a million dollar shot. For the rest of the situations, photographic principles apply.

Several years back, I was shooting near the confluence of two rivers from the top of a mountain. I had barely walked couple of steps away from my jeep. The beautiful view had made me shoot all my shoots near the jeep and then speed off. I could have tried for a different view, as everybody driving on that road would have shot from the same point. I was skimming at the surface. I didn’t discover the place properly. Later on when I came back from the trip, I realised my mistake. A very costly mistake indeed, since five years have past and I have been unable to go to that place again. When ever you are shooting, move around your subject if possible and explore all the options of shooting from different angles.

An image of Elephant walking away to break the rule


7. Sharpness :

A lot of people have commented on the sharpness of my photographs. The National Geographic Photographer Ed Kashi once asked me if I use more that 1/1000th of a second shutter speed to get such sharpness. The fact is, normally I don’t use such shutter speeds as light is never enough in wildlife photography. So one can use any kind of support available like a tripod, monopod, shoulder pod or bean bag etc to steady the shots.

A wild tiger cub yawns

When you are using a camera handheld, there is a rule of thumb for selecting a shutter speed for getting acceptable sharpness. The rule says that you have to shoot at a shutter speed which is equal to 1/focal length of the lens. If you are using a 300 mm lens, then the shutter should be a minimum of 1/300 seconds or faster.

When I started using lenses with Image Stabilisation, I thought that I don’t need a tripod. I quickly realised how wrong I was. Every system has its limitations. One needs to understand it. When I am shooting in a safari, there is always someone or the other who would be moving. I hate sharing a vehicle with other photographers; however there is always a driver and a guide and invariably at the critical moment, some one will just move a little bit.

I find photographers shooting from top of an elephant or from a boat, handholding their intermediate or long lenses. When I am shooting from top of an elephant, I either use a 300mm lens or 70-200 f2.8 lens mounted on my monopod. I have also tried a Bush Hawk shoulder pod and have found it to be very effective. There are different versions available. I have seen people creating shoulder pods themselves with some ingenuity.

One of the cheapest and effective ways to increase the sharpness of your shots is to use a bean bag. I have often used a towel folded and kept on the vehicle and shot from it. This has led to some very sharp shots. This shot of the tiger was shot using a folded towel to steady the camera. This will help in getting you a good photo.

8. Mirror Lock up :

When you press the shutter button, the mirror goes up and comes down with a thud. If you are shooting in very low shutter speeds, then the resulting vibration from the mirror might reduce the sharpness of the image. To remove this, there is a feature in some of the camera’s called mirror lock up. By using this feature, when you press the shutter button the mirror goes up and is held there. The view finder now is blacked out and you can’t see the subject. When you press the shutter button again, the shot will be clicked. This helps in dampening the vibration caused by the mirror.

However, in the canon cameras the MLU button is hidden deep within the menus. Initially, I was too lazy to use this feature. However, when I tried Mirror Lock Up, I found it very useful. I have got sharp shots at very low shutter speeds when I used MLU. The following shot was taken at 800mm, ISO 320, f8, 1/30th second using MLU.

Image of Tigress and cubs – a frame within a frame concept

When early in the morning or late in the evening, the light is low and changing rapidly, it becomes an absolutely essential tool.

Mirror lockup helped in getting sharp shot in extreme low light


9. Panning:

When I was taking my first steps in photography, I had read about panning. However, I used to dread it as trying to pan would have costed me several rolls of film. Today, with the advent of digital cameras, learning panning has become much easier.

Our normal tendency when shooting wildlife or sports is to use the fastest shutter speed possible. This helps in freezing the action. However, that looks good when the action is something distinct. In wildlife photography, it looks good if a kingfisher is tossing an insect or fish and you use the fastest shutter speed to freeze action. However, if a tiger is just ambling or running at half pace, freezing the action may not result in a very pleasing photograph. If the light level is low, you can reduce the shutter speed and pan the camera. If you are able to do it right, then the subject will remain sharp and the background blurred giving it a sense of action.

The trick is to use your lower body as a fulcrum and move the camera parallel to the subject. Depending upon the speed of the subject movement, the shutter speed varies. In the Canon Image Stabilised lenses the mode 2 is meant for panning.

Panning can give interesting results to even mundane subjects. In this image, the panning depicts speed – as if clicked from a speeding car:

Panning shot to give an impression of speed

10. Flash blur :

Charging Gaur - flash blur

Charging Gaur (Bos Gaurus) using flash blur technique

You can selectively use a low shutter speed and fill flash to get interesting results. The low shutter speed based on the ambient light will capture the overall mood and the scene. The flash will help in capturing the subject.

I was fortunate to witness National Geographic Staff photographer Ed Kashi shoot in our Nokia Chennai factory. After watching him for a while, I had asked him as to why he was not using flash as I had seen his flash blur shots in National Geographic stories. He told me that he used to use the flash blur technique couple of years back and was no longer using it. He then said that it’s a good idea to try it here and later on in the evening he thanked me for reminding him about the flash blur technique. I could see that when he started using flash, his body language changed. He was totally charged up as he knew his getting the desired results. However, one should realise that you can’t be a slave of a particular technique. Flash blur technique had become a fad for sometime, and like every fad it had dropped off. However, you can use a particular technique according to its utility.

One interesting flash blur shot was when I was charged by a Gaur (mistakenly called the Indian bison). The light levels were very low as it was drizzling and I started experimenting with the flash. The shot was taken at F4 with my Canon EF 300mm F4L IS lens at second at ISO 800. The resulting shot always tickles the funny bone in me and I can’t stop bursting into laughter.

11. Frame within a frame :

Often one can create a frame within a frame to direct or limit the attention of the viewer to one part of the image. I must admit that among the photographers I have seen, I find Ed Kashi’s work (National Geographic photographer) very appealing. The following image of ruins utilises this concept. The image of the Tigress and cubs posted under Mirror Lock Up was also created with the frame within a frame concept.

Ruins of Hampi created with a frame within a frame concept

You can also use this concept while clicking wild animals on the move. At times it gives some very nice results like the image below where an elephant’s leg and its swinging tail has been used to frame a wild tiger.

Elephant and the Tiger to illustrate the frame within a frame concept

There are many more tips, however these few will definitely help you in knowing How to get a good photograph. If you have any questions on How to shoot a good photo, then ask in the comments below.

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