Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's not the size that matters...Using a compact camera creatively - Part 5

A free online photography course for people wanting to improve their photos
(or "how to keep you friends and family from falling asleep when showing them your holiday photos!")

In the first part of this free online photography course geared towards compact camera users, we covered selective focusing, filling the frame with the subject and getting in closer to isolate or emphasize the main subject.

The second part of the course covered the various techniques that you can use to create lively, dynamic and most importantly interesting compositions.

In the third part of this course we discussed using light more effectively to enhance photos, fake sunsets and techniques for taking low light photos with no flash or tripod.

In the fourth part of this course we discussed using the limited flash with more thought and creativity to create photos with added depth and interest and to move away from using the flash in automatic mode.

Just a quick recap:

  • the main aim of this course is to highlight that you don't need a 'BIG' camera to take good photos
  • the main reason I'm doing this due to the frequency I hear people blame their equipment for the bad photos they took - from experience, though, bad photos are dues to being taken quickly with very little thought and almost no adherence to any excepted standard guidelines for taking good photos.
  • lastly my goal for everyone who participates in this course is that their families and friends which start to accept their invitations again to look at their holiday photos :-)

One thing about the compact camera is that I find it is too easy to take shots without thinking about the image. This is good in certain circumstances, but I think that the ease of use for these kind of cameras is a main, if not the root cause, of bad or average images (snap shots).

It seems that the name “Point and Shoot” reveals the problem behind the mentality of using this kind of camera. The name really should be “Look, Point, Think & Shoot”. This online course aims to help become people who look for and see images and then, before actually taking the picture, think about a few guidelines that they could apply to increase the quality of the image.

I have found that if we take a bit of time and put some thought into taking a shot, it is possible to get some really good shots from these “cheaper” cameras. This is what this free online photography course is all about - learning a few basic guidelines and hints and tips for people who want to take better pictures with their existing camera.

My aim for everyone is to take the tips and learnings over this series of articles and go out and shoot better images which people will proudly hang on their walls - physical or virtual :-)

At the end of each section there is a "go out and get your hands dirty" assignment. As part of this assignment you can email me your images and I'll give you feedback to help you improve. All of this is FREE, no strings attached and I won't sell your email address to anyone - that's a promise.

The topics covered in this free online photography course are:

Guidelines for taking better shots

Ideas for creating better memories

This lesson will focus on trying to get you to think about using the camera to create more interest photos as well as photos that you can tell a story with.

Ideas for creating better memories

One of the reasons family often tremble at the thought of get-togethers to see the holiday photos is because it’s a visual barrage of mediocre images which seem to have been haphazardly taken and put into a randomizer to be spit out in any old order.

For me the true test of success when you review your photos should be related to how many times you mutter that sentences: (1) “Why on earth did I take that?” (2) “What the #%$^$ is that?” and (3)”Huh?”

OK I admit the last one is probably not a sentence, but it’s still a comment often heard when looking at photos.

The ideas below are there to stimulate you into thinking about the photo you are taking and to try and make it more natural to ask a few questions BEFORE you press the shutter button. THINK before you CLICK


One of the easiest ways to get people interested in your photos is to change the perspective of the subject in the photo.

The image below is the standard “yawn” image that you often see of a flower or plants. This is usually taken with minimal effort from the photographer who at the most may have to bend slightly to get into position.

Image 1: The ‘yawn” view

The next three images change the angle of view and therefore the perspective of the flower in increasing degrees in relation to the view.

This angled view creates a more interesting image by allowing the view to ‘feel’ the texture of the flower. It’s also a less seen angle that the image above and therefore will be more interesting to view. The photographer probably had to bend down slightly further to take the photo but by much.

Image 2: A better perspective to view texture

The next image was taken in a field in the UK and was particularly interesting, but then I stopped and took some time to look at the detail of the wheat and realized that the blue sky made a good background for the wheat.

This was taken kneeling down and the interest some from the detail in the wheat kernels and the contrast with the blue sky. Added to that, the fact that very few people take the time to get down that low in fields, means that the perspective of the image is engaging to the viewer.

Image 3: Kneeling should become an automatic thought with a camera in your hand.

The final image was taken in my parents garden on a summer’s day and I took a number of ‘yawn’ flower images when I had the idea of taking a photo from the bottom of a flower looking up to the sun – kind of what a worm of lady bug might see.

To ensure that the flower didn’t go too dark because of the sun, I stopped down the exposure and turn of the flash to fill in the flower, giving me the rich blue sky and yellow flower.

I took this picture lying on my back in the garden. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun, but it creates a great perspective which very few people actually get to see (oh yeah, and dirt normally washes off clothes pretty good as well – so no excuses!)

Image 4: Lie down look up – what do you see?


Photos don’t have to always be saturated with colours. If they were they would start to become offensive to the viewers senses.

That said many photos taken on holiday suffer the opposite problem of being “sensory-less”, with bland colours and very little saturation (probably most of them are taken at midday in the bright sun!).

I always look for colourful things to photograph and also look for overcast skies or covered areas to ensure that the saturated colours really jump out at me.

My daughters have a tendency to dress in very colourful (bright) clothes – which make them easy to spot in crowds. This also makes it easy to create colour sensory overload images when we come across colourful backgrounds!

Image 5: Colour Colour everywhere

One thing about nature is that they, more often than not, have wonderful complimentary colour schemes. The flower below is the same one as the flower above, but this time I focussed on the red and yellow colour schemes and made the image interesting by changing the perspective.

Image 6: Nature’s glory

Lastly I also keep an eye out for colour contrast of colour and grey’s. The contrast makes sure that these always stand out when being viewed.

Image 7: Colour contrast works


I also recommend that you keep a look out for patterns around you – they are everywhere and if you put a number of different photos of patterns together they can create a striking impact on viewers.

I saw these oranges in the market and didn’t immediately think about taking a picture as I was busy thinking about what I needed to buy. However, after I had purchased some I then relaxed a it and the pattern jumped out at me.

The strong lines and shaped just keep me staring at it. To create an even more interesting image you could think about changing one of the oranges with an apple or lemon.

Image 8: Patterns can be found everywhere


Another technique to use when taking holiday photos is to get in close and take pictures of things which may not be obvious what they are straight away to the viewer. Let them ask the question “What’s that?” (which is definitely different to “Huh”?)

Abstract images taken with compact cameras need to be aesthetically pleasing to work well. Bigger cameras have more control over the depth of focus which can add in another dimension to abstract images, but you will have limited control with compacts.

This image was taken of an old steam engine at a country fare in the UK and it stood out to me for several reasons, (1) the repetitive pattern of the spokes, (2) the colour and (3) the middle of the wheel wasn’t round and create tension with the rest of the image.

Image 9: Pattern, Colour and Tension – good ingredients for interesting images

The next image was a fun one for me due to the name of the pudding “Spotted Dick”. As the name has a double meaning having pots of “Spotted Dick” in an image without any other context will definitely create a lot of interest from viewers.

Just to take the non-UK resident readers out of their misery – Spotted Dick is a very traditional English sponge pudding with raisins inside. You can find out more about this pudding at

Image 10: Spotted what? Make sure grandma is present when showing these images :-)

This last image was taken in Leiden, The Netherlands. These round plaques were all over the place and I didn’t know what they were for, but the contrast of the round plaque with the straight diagonal lines on the street bricks, I felt, made for an interesting combination.

My brother later explained to me that the plaques in the street are for tourists to allow them to follow the tourist walking routes that Leiden have in abundance.

Image 11: Contrasting shapes create interesting abstract images

Tell a story

Many times when people are travelling they will see an interesting place and take one picture and then quickly move on. Later when looking back at the images they get to this one image and one of two things happen:
  1. They forget what is was that was so interesting, because they didn’t spend that much time there, or
  2. They remember what the place was and tell a whole story about the place with the one image.
I strongly recommend that if you find a place interesting that you take a number (not too many) of images that can help remind you about the place and also help tell the story about the place.

The next set of three images tries to tell a story about a little street in Windsor, England (one of the places that the Queen of England lives). The street is the shortest street in Britain, which I thought was quite interesting – but then that’s just me :-)

The first image is not particularly brilliant, but I tried to capture a number of things, (1) The whole street (the main subject), (2) The name of the street (information about the street) & (3) The sign on the right which reads “The crooked house of Windsor (to get people asking questions).

I also tried to compose using the rule of thirds and leading lines which makes a pretty boring image somewhat less boring – if that is possible!

Image 12:The whole length of Queen Charlotte street

The second image captured the fact that makes the first image more interesting, i.e. that it is the shortest street in Britain. Again it’s not a brilliant picture by itself, but adds to the story as a whole

Image 13: The fact recorded about the street

The last image answers the question from the first photo. It reveals what is the crooked house (a pub) and why is it called the crooked house (because it’s crooked).

I had to stand in the middle of a street to take this photo and as cars were coming and going I didn’t have a lot of time to shoot (please do not do this by yourself and have someone who is very responsible looking out for traffic – I had my wife look out for me). Before walking out into the street I decided I wanted a picture of the whole house to show it is crooked, so by the time I got out into the street I was able to focus and shoot. This means I had done my thinking before doing the “point and shoot” routine.

Image 14: The last picture for the story that answers the questions form the first image.

The three images by themselves are not master pieces, but put them together as a set of three and they become much more interesting.

Capture a flavour

Trying to capture a flavour is similar to capturing a story, but the aim is not to just be factual (the “what”) but rather to try and be able to capture the essence of the place and how it was interesting to you (the “Why”)

In the next series of shots I tried to capture the essence of the Saturday Morning market in the city of Leiden, in the Netherlands. There are a numbers of reasons why my wife and I love this place (1) the location, (2) the variety and (3) the colours. So when we visited last year I wanted to capture these three ingredients.

Wide Shot

My first goal was to capture the location of the market – which is a long some of Leiden’s canals. We got there a bit early so not all the stalls were set up, but the morning light was great.
I took the first image for a few reasons:
  1. to capture the market stalls being set up to show the time of day with nice warm light
  2. to show the market being next to the canals and capture the beautiful reflections of the buildings in the water
  3. to capture some of the surrounding building architecture to reveal some of the historical nature of the town.
Image 15: The wide shot captures part of the flavour of the market

The next set of four images captures the different colours and variety of foods which are being sold in the market.

Image 16: The fruit and vegetable stall

Image 17: The flower stall

Image 18: The cheese stall

Image 19: The fish stall

If we had more time I would have taken some more detailed shots of the stalls and maybe also a few fact shots, e.g. name of streets, name of shops, etc. However we needed to rush off and catch a plane back home to the Philippines. That said I still feel that the "Flavour" of the Market was captured well.

Does it ask a question?

I like people to stay awake when looking at my photos rather than nodding off or coming up with lousy excuses about why they have to leave to go home after spending five minutes of looking at the pictures.

One of the more fun ways to get people interested in your photos is to include the odd photo which makes the viewer turn round and ask a question about it something like "what the ....?". To do this you need to look out for images that will get people asking questions, which are things which are not normally staring at you in the face.

I often find these kind of items are either found by looking up, down, under, around or upside down - basically things that you wouldn't necessarily see in your day-to-day life.

The images themselves still need to be sound photos - do not think that "point and shoot" will work here, or in fact at any time at all. All the guidelines that I have covered in these articles still apply, the only difference being that you probably need to spend more time looking for them.

The first image here stood out for me the first time that I saw it as it was such an unusual image. It is acutally the underneath of a Stingray taken in an aquarium and it was the first time I had ever seen the underneath of one. I had only previously seen them in the wild.

I watched the stingray swim around for a while and was intrigued by it's face and it looks like a very happy person with bucked teeth. After watching it for a while I saw that it was heading towards me so I pressed the camera up against the glass to avoid camera shake and pressed the shutter just as it went by.

Image 20: The underneath of a Stingray

The next image is borderline due to the lack of size comparison. This was taken on a canal trip in Leiden and shows the largest sundial in Europe. The sundial is actually located on the side of a multistory building and is really big - which is what this photo lacks - a size of proportion. With the limited time I had to take this image, I still like it and it still gets people asking "what the....."

Image 21: Europe's largest sundial

The last image here is one of my favourite, because it looks like a professional product shot and often the question changes to "How the.....?". This was taken in a museum with the camera pressed against the glass to avoid camera shake.

Museums and shops often have very good lighting setups, as they are done by professionals - however most of these places are also normally too dark to use without having to steady the camera. If you can look for these opportunities (without breaking any laws) you can take some very professional looking photos.

Image 22: Chinese tea pots - professionally lit, shot with a compact camera

The following shot was taken by a canal of a multi-person water bike, and I liked the contrast between the manual contraption and the modern day car behind it. This would definitely get everyone asking questions!

Image 23: Contrasting transportation vehicles

The following shot was taken outside of Leiden train station and I was overwhelmed by how many bikes I was looking at and to see that they were parked on multistory park levels! I think that anyone outside of Holland would be asking "What the....?"

Image 24: Multistory bike parking

The last image here was taken of my wife's feet, who had just purchased a pair of toe-less socks. Getting in close to her feet and removing any other reference definitely invites the viewer to ask what they are looking at. Had I taken a few steps back the focus on the feet would have been lost.

Image 25: toe-less socks - what next?

Fun shots

Nothing too scientific with this thought. always remember to look for fun opportunities to take some images and please don't take yourself too seriously - life it far too short for that.

I took the first shot whilst waiting for a train at the station. My family were sitting together and it immediately reminded of the say "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil". It took a little bit of convincing of y family to participate but I really like the finished image :-)

Image 26: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

The next image is of me when we visited my uncle in th UK. His garden was full of these sticky ball things and my youngest daughter put one in my beard for fun, they loved it and put a few more on and my wife quickly took a picture.

Image 27: Me - needing a shave badly :-)

The last image was taken by my mum, who saw my youngest daughter taking a picture of me with a camera nearly as big as her! Not a technically perfect shot but filled with fun.

Image 28: Smile you're on camera

Capture Reminders

A lastly - don't forget that you can use you camera for taking pictures of information you want to remember. The image below is of a sign near my uncles house which had a bed & breakfast place that my wife and I said we would like to stay in the next time we visited. No-one had a pen and paper to take down the details so we took a picture of it instead.

Image 29: a camera is as good as pen and paper sometimes :-)

Get your hands dirty

As this is the last part of this online course I'm not going to give you any specific tasks. I only urge you to go out and practice Thinking, Pointing, and Shooting to capture some of the topics covered above.

Send the images to with a subject title "Creating Better Memories" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

I have had lots of fun putting this course together and I hope that your friends will have more fun reviewing your next lot of holiday photos. Good Luck :-)

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