Everyone wants a nice picture of themselves. (What a nice picture of them means is much more complex). You are not a serious photographer, (you only have a phone-camera or a basic compact), you would like to take a nice picture of that person, so you ask them if they will smile for you, you press the shutter and wow, what have you got?

Actually the reason I am thinking about this, is that I have been looking at some pictures on Facebook recently. In general I like Facebook, more than a billion of us like Facebook, and it is the biggest repository of peoples’ photography on the planet. Much of it could simply be better. Serious photographer or not, a little thought about how you take someone’s picture can easily shift your photos from almost there, to captivating.

What is the thinking you should do? We don’t need brilliance, we just need pictures that your subject will be happy with.

These are my 5-basic-rules for better photographs.

1. Learn how to focus your camera. Nothing fancy, nothing too technical, but find how to get your camera into spot focus mode, if you don’t feel comfortable learning the alternatives, then this will most often get you a decent result. When you hold your camera up, place the focus point over the subject’s eyes, half press the shutter until the focus point locks, (beeps, or small square changes colour to green typically), then hold the shutter while moving the camera/phone to place the subject  where you want them in the picture, then press fully to take the picture. In a phone camera, hold the phone, press the screen over the eyes, wait till it locks focus, then move the phone camera to place the subject where you want in the screen, then press the shutter button. Some cameras/phones use face detection, that is generally OK and getting better so don’t worry about using that. Knowing how to spot focus is a good fallback however. One quick way of doing this can be to find a photographer friend and have them set up your camera for easy spot focus; it is generally the simplest and most reliable approach.

2. Look for distracting objects near to or coming out of their heads. Even the most experienced photographers will make the mistake of missing the only tower in the scene growing out of their subject’s head. (It happens less often to them, but it happens occasionally. You try to minimise this, not guarantee that it will never happen). In general, try to position your subject’s head where the scene or background has some space.

3. Just think for a moment about the light. Does the subject have the sun in their eyes, are they blinking and uncomfortable, if so, turn them around with the sun BEHIND them, turn on your flash (this is another learn how to force-it-on thing, ask a photographer friend if unsure) and have your subject relaxed, with lovely backlight while the flash fills in their faces; always better than squinting. Have they got bright overhead lighting, causing eye-sockets to look like zombie-sockets? Simply move them to somewhere with light that will fill their eyes from the same height as their eye sockets. A window, a sidelight in a room, low sunlight, even your flash (but away from those common spotlight downlighter ceilings) will be worth trying.

4. Take control of your subject. This is the most important principle. Many people have a vaguely guilty feeling when they are taking someone’s picture, the result is that you just point and shoot to get it politely over. The trouble is that this contributes to people having bad results with blurry focus, distracting objects next to their heads etc. If you would simply say to your subject, “sorry, would you mind moving to…..and would you please look in this/that direction…’ll just take a few moments and you look great standing right there….etc.” Very few people really mind that, in fact most people hate not knowing where to stand. They will be worried that the picture taker has just “spun the barrel” on more photographic Russian Roulette which will result in another blurry, clock-face-on-the-wall-behind-sprouting-from-one-ear, overhead-lights-casting-Bela-Lugosi-eye-shadows posted for all friends on Facebook. Take charge, nicely but firmly and help your subject to feel OK about you taking their picture. The critical part of this is something that Rick Sammon said on a podcast I used to listen to: “Fall in love with your subject”. The person you want to take your picture, is someone who you think likes looking at you. Be that person for your subject!

5. Review together. Simply look at the picture afterward with your subject and decide whether they are happy with it. They may spot something you haven’t, or they may reveal something about what they don’t like about themselves. Ask if they would like to try another quick one, but “with the other side that they prefer showing” etc. Involve them in trying to make it work for them.

The picture at the beginning? Mine I’m afraid. A snap that I would rather was buried. A few more moments to reposition myself to position that light somewhere other than my excellent subject’s head might have given me something worth cropping and saving.

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This is another picture of HB from today. Sometimes pictures are taken because of magical light, but today’s picture was simply because she was wearing her Marie the kitten top. She is more than a little fond of the Disney cartoon, The Aristocats, and the little kitten Marie singing the line “rikki tikki tikki” is just the very essence of a good-life for her. My Sister in Law, Linda happened to witness HB singing along with this and characteristically remembered this and sourced “from god-knows-which-supplier-of-legacy-cartoon tops” this magnificent and sweet top. My readers perhaps won’t be as impressed as I am, but HB’s other big favourite is The Rescuers, with it’s sweet mousy heroes! You guessed it, she is also the very proud owner of a Miss Bianca mouse top; truly awesome!


Photographically, these were using my 500D with the new 24mm f2.8 pancake. These were taken wide-open with a 1/60th second shutter speed. They are not pin sharp, but they are good enough as fun snaps!


Strictly speaking for a moving child, I should have had a faster shutter speed, but it was hard to juggle checking aperture, ISO and resulting shutter speed. You see, I have given up on using Canon’s auto ISO on the basis that it is simply not reliable enough. In this case I chose 800 on a judgement call, but 1600 would have been a better choice. I know that there is a view that a good photographer should do everything fully manually, but I am not convinced by this. Interacting with people is challenging, and if your camera can be trusted to take the aperture that you have chosen, (a sensible thing to leave in the photographer’s control), and to ensure that it chooses an appropriate ISO setting to match the shutter speed rule-of-thumb plus a little more to be safe, then that will save you time and let you focus on your subject. The trouble is, as I said a few days ago, the Canon algorithm is simply unreliable. If you search online on the subject, you will find that I am far from alone in this view. The algorithm seems to try to hard to keep as low an ISO setting as possible, presumably to minimise noise in the image, but I would rather have a sharp, grainy/noisy image than a soft/blurred clean one. Modern noise reduction in processing can do a huge amount with noise anyway, so I feel Canon badly misjudge this. My suggestion would be that Canon simply put two auto ISO settings in the menu. One would be the existing one, used for landscapes, stills etc. The second would be labelled (auto ISO people/moving) or similar, and this would simply favour the higher shutter speed to give the desired aperture, and would still motion within reason! Feel free Canon, just send me a free 5D Mk3 for my idea!

IMG_6120Please forgive the mini-rant (rantette?) As soon as Mr Canon visits me with a reasonably sized notebook, they will cease.


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I didn’t spot this photographic opportunity, my 3-year old daughter did. We were playing and walking in Barshaw Park Paisley today, when she got excited by the “line that was drawing”. I realised immediately that the jet trail contrasted in its linear neatness with the organic trees. Realising that the park offered no foreground interest, I exposed for the sky and the jet trail knowing that it would make a silhouette of the trees and house. I didn’t like the complete blackness, as it begged the question, “where to crop the bottom of the silhouette”? I used the brush tool set on dodge (lighted) to bring back a hint of foreground detail without leaving enough to distract. What it now hints at may be more intriguing than what is there!

The trail itself was very beautiful and I suppose it is sad that the water vapour that we see in the trail is the safest part of the exhaust of a jet engine in terms of the environment!

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  • Sj

    OR… Some could dispute your last comment and waffle on about chemical trails…



This is a picture of Gillian from my 100 portraits project taken in the “beanscene” cafe in Kelvingrove in Glasgow. It was not one of my more skilful shoots as I used too large an aperture to get two sharp eyes in every image. Generally though there were enough sharp to have a few choices. This one was great fun to revisit and process, as I love the soft and natural window-light on Gillian. I slightly exaggerated this with a grad filter tool to darken the left of the image. I desaturated the colours just a little as Gillian’s red cardigan distracted the eye too much from her face. Having desaturated I did something I almost never do to an image, and I darkened Gillian’s mouth a tiny bit to restore definition using the brush tool on a “dodge” setting. Finally I added my addiction of vignetting and straightened the picture frame a few degrees.


Hope you like it!

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This is the very famous and very beautiful Buachaille Etive Mor overlooking the Rannoch Moor and guarding the entrance to Glencoe from the south. It is one of Scotland’s most famous “Munro classified” 3000ft mountains and probably the most photographed of all of them. This was another dip into my Lightroom archive from 2007 and I had discounted this image at the time due to a lack of a decent foreground. (The classic view from this side is usually from the river at Kings House hotel). I was just grabbing this shot quickly in passing and wasn’t near the river. Tonight I realised that I could simply crop and treat it as a postcard style panorama. It is a bit of a cheap trick to make something of an incomplete composition, but the light was beautiful. Apropos of nothing, this is the “Munro” that I climbed more than any other in my hill climbing days. I also climbed one of the simpler rock climbs, “Agag’s Groove” on the Rannoch Wall on the right of the cleft that drops straight down from the summit. “Curved Ridge” is the finger of rock to the left again and between the two clefts straight down from the summit. Just in case anyone cares:-)


This is from the lochan a little further on at Rannoch Moor. I posted one from the same shoot a few days ago but spent some more time looking tonight. (sadly I have corrupt files in the folder – a real worry and a reminder to backup).


A different format of the recently posted shot and a different treatment. A bit darker.


And finally, a black and white take on the Black Mount from a different part of the lochan.

It really is fun to go back to old images but with more advanced software and more processing experience.

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