9 Quick and Easy Tips (from the Pros) for Taking Better Photos

Here's advice from six pro photographers to use this holiday season—and all year long.

By Rachel Cericola

Recitals, the winning goal, a monologue, graduations, birthdays, and more--there are a lot of special moments during childhood. Most likely, you're going to want to capture some of those in pictures.

The holidays alone can generate hundreds of photos. Family meals, hanging stockings, opening presents, and hugs are all prime moments you may want to capture. Even with a decent camera, you might struggle to snap great photos.

Instead of hoping for the best, we asked six professional photographers for tips on how parents can take better pictures. Here’s what they said.

1. Go Manual

To take more than throwaway snapshots, you may need to get comfortable with settings outside of the little running man or the flower. Messing around with advanced controls will make better photos.

“Motion requires you to set the camera at a fast shutter speed. And extreme lighting situations require you to control the amount of light entering the camera,” says family photographer Sarah Sloboda. “The best way to do that is to get a camera with manual settings and learn how they work.”

And you don't even need to mess much with the manual setting. Controls like Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority let you dial in a particular shutter speed, for example, while letting the camera properly expose the shot automatically.

2. Set the Shutter Speed

Kids often seem like a blur, even when there isn't a camera involved. Trying to get a good photo of action-packed moments may seem impossible. To avoid taking a bunch of blurry images, set your shutter speed high.

“If you are using either 'manual mode' or 'shutter priority mode' for sports, make sure the shutter speed is set to 1/200 sec or higher; 1/100 and lower won't work, because it will create a motion blur,” says Yana Shellman of Yana Shellman Photography. “Sports motion is fast, so you need to make sure the shutter opens and closes fast enough to freeze that motion.”

Flickr/houserockr

Indeed, it's a good rule of thumb to just set the shutter speed as high as possible --1/200, 1/400, 1/800, or more --to freeeze the action. As evidenced in the photo, you can actually use blur to your advantage, as long as you pan the camera with the subject you want to keep still, or hold the camera on something steady.

3. Use Light as Needed

The wrong kind of light can ruin photos. It can be blinding, wash out colors, and even cast ugly shadows. However, light is often your friend when taking photos. Alice Bil, owner/photographer at studioEPIC.com, says you should use natural light from the windows or outdoors when shooting individual portraits. If you’re shooting action shots though, consider packing a lens hood, which can be had for as little a $15.

“I always bring a lens hood to shield out the sun,” she says. “If you do not have a hood, a black umbrella will work as well. Just balance it on your shoulder.”

Another important lighting tip: Generally, don't shoot directly into bright light like the sun. Put the sun to your side or over a shoulder. And beware of scenes with blotchy light, with light and shadow intermixed. It's hard to get a good exposure that way.

4. Don’t Go Low With ISO

School auditoriums, skating rinks, and dinner parties can be pretty dark--and your camera will struggle a lot more than your own eyes, so it might not be immediately obvious to you just how little light is in the room. If you don’t have enough light to take decent photos, tweak the ISO setting accordingly.

“This tells the camera how sensitive to light you want it to be; the darker the room, the higher you'll need your ISO to go,” says Tom Clarke of Thomas Robert Clarke Photography. “There is a trade-off, though. In most consumer cameras, the higher the ISO, the more the quality goes down. The trick is to find a happy medium. I'd start around 1600 indoors and maybe drop to 800 or lower, if you can. That said, new cameras even at the consumer level, are putting out impressive images at much higher ISOs.”

5. Work the White Balance

Pictures should recreate a moment in time. That said, sometimes your finished work features people looking a lot more... orange... than you remember. Try tweaking the white balance for a better result.

“Consider the environment and what the main light source is. Is it fluorescent, incandescent, natural, or a bit of everything? Cycle through your white balance settings, taking a picture at each one and see which has the most accurate coloring,” says Clarke. “In time, you'll get the hang of it and will be able to judge the proper setting without going through the ritual.”

6. iPhone Hacks

Most of us don’t always pack a professional SLR camera. However, you probably always have your phone handy. While some take great pictures, it can be difficult to get a good shot with that tiny lens. Be prepared to do a little tapping.

"If you’re trying to shoot on your iPhone, the main trick is to tap the screen where the light is brightest. That way, it exposes for that area, instead of taking an average of the entire frame, which will wash out a lot of stage lighting,” says Sloboda. “You might have to tap in a few slightly different places to get it the way you want it. “

7. Use Apps

Having that phone allows you to take a ton of photos—mainly bad ones. Hopefully, there’s a gem or two in the lot. If not, don’t despair. Download an app that can take your phone beyond those default features.

“Adjustable shutter speeds, high-quality bursts, lighting, and filters can usually be found and used to your advantage,” says Tieece Gordon of JK Photography. “Whether you want to take a great photo or edit one later one, you should be able to do it all without an expensive camera or editing suite.”

Check out Camera+, an app that runs $2.99 for the iPhone and $4.99 for iPad users. “It's got some great features including image sharpening, straightening and white balance,” Gordon says. “It's also fairly easy to use, even for beginners.”

8. Invest in Equipment

There’s a reason why professional photographers create such awesome images. It’s because they invest in the best equipment.

Celebrity photographer Mark Steines says to invest in your photo equipment. Photo: Mark Steines.

“I’ve got lenses that are $3,000,” says Mark Steines, celebrity photographer and host of the Hallmark Channel’s Home & Family. “Hello, it’s just glass—but the glass is everything.”

Steines says that lenses in particular can be very expensive, but are a really good investment. Of course, you can also buy used, rent through BorrowLens.com, or even ask friends and family for gifts cards that can be pooled later. “Once you buy that lens, it’s going to last you a lifetime,” he says.

9. Try to Get Better

Sure, you could take a photography class, but that could be expensive or not coordinate with your current schedule. Steines says you can learn almost anything about photography through KelbyOne.com. This subscription website offers a variety of photography-related classes for all skill levels.

“I’m a visual learner. They go out in the field and show you how to take pictures. There’s so much great stuff there,” he says. “I look at it like a university.”

KelbyOne subscriptions start at $19.99 per month and offers course in everything from Lightroom and Photoshop to nighttime photography, gear, and much more.

“A photograph means so much to us. That’s why we’re out capturing. That’s why we’re there,” Steines says. “You are stopping a moment in time and keeping it forever. That deserves our commitment and deserves the best we can give it.”

Main photo: Pixabay/fudowakira0.