Simple Tips to Better Photography

August 1, 2015 at 12:06 pm (Bird photography, Black-and-White Photography, Colorado, Colorado birds, Dinosaur National Monument, fine art photography, Infrared Photography, National Parks, Nature, Nature photography, Photography, Time-lapse, Video, Wildflowers, Wildlife) (, , , )

Sunset at Mid-Hills campground

Visual Poetry

When I was an interpretive park ranger at Dinosaur National Monument last summer, I created a photography program to give amateur photographers ideas on how to improve their vacation photos.  The “Simple Tips to Better Photography” was a non-technical tutorial on the art of seeing. With today’s do-it-all-for-you digital cameras, most of the technical stuff is already done by the camera, and often done quite well.

But what snapshooters need to learn most is what I call visual poetry.  They need to learn how to make a compelling photograph.  Too many people don’t use their telephoto lenses to their best advantage, and that is one of the most important tools they have to capture the compelling part of the photograph.

Although this presentation is focused on landscape and nature photography, the same can be said about photographing people.

I began my presentation with a discussion about visual poetry, adapted for general audiences:

Communing with nature renews our sense of well-being, right?  And there’s a story to tell, YOUR story, and YOUR experience.  That’s what many of us do with photography.  And also blogs!


Just as a poem distills an experience into a word memory filled with feeling, a photograph captures a visual memory.  Snapshots are like a quick narrative – they record the scene but generally don’t have much feeling or emotion to them.  Photographs, on the other hand, are the result of thought, artistry, and experience.  They can be as simple and elegant as haiku (a raindrop on a flower), as structured as a sonnet, (a symmetrical dandelion seedhead) or as expansive as an epic poem (a panoramic landscape or a photo essay.)


Haiku -5-7-5

Storms in the distance

The camera tries to keep up

As light and dark dance


Sonnet – more structured and lyrical

(Shakespearean rhyme scheme is end-rhymed a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g.)

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,

When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Free Verse

Winter Poem by Nikki Giovanni

once a snowflake fell

on my brow and i loved

it so much and i kissed

it and it was happy and called its cousins

and brothers and a web

of snow engulfed me then

i reached to love them all

and i squeezed them and they became

a spring rain and i stood perfectly

still and was a flower



The sun did not shine

It was too wet to play.

So we sat in the house

All that cold, cold wet day.

                                –Dr. Seuss “The Cat in the Hat”


                Epic (“Hiawatha” by Longfellow)

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

The common element in making visual poetry is that the image carries emotion, and conveying that emotion requires more than aiming your camera and pressing the button.  Visual poetry means learning to see things you might have missed, taking the time to be aware of things large and small, and using techniques to convey that awareness and beauty to the viewer. 

You can then combine your images into the story of your vacation.  You can use the slide show (with PowerPoint or Windows Moviemaker) or you can use one of the many online publishers to create a hardcover book.  You can also share your photographic and written experiences in a blog!

This A/V example combines humor (Dr. Seuss) with a meditative interlude (haiku), just to give you an idea.

Another short example is this time-lapse of clouds moving across the sky near sunset at a particularly compelling viewpoint on the Colorado side of Dinosaur National Monument.  Time-lapses can either be done as video footage, or with a variety of high-resolution stills compiled in video-editing software.  This was done the latter way.

Finally, here is the presentation with the very simple tips to better photography.

Simple Tips for Better Photos (PDF)

Of course it’s better when I’m there to elaborate on these tips, but since I can’t be, here is some additional information to help.

Some simple tips for better photographs:

  • Use a polarizing filter. It takes away some of the blue haze, darkens blue skies, makes clouds more defined, and removes reflections from leaves and water.  Only works at certain angles to the sun.
  • Zoom in!
  • Vertical composition emphasizes height
  • Use foreground frames – trees, flowers, arches, leaves
  • Photograph during the “golden hour” – Landscapes look more dramatic early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Sunsets and sunrises can be fantastic.
  • Look for unusual perspectives. Look up, look down, look all around.
  • Find patterns and explore different compositions, different perspectives
  • Go macro! Most digital point-and-shoots have a macro feature designated by a tulip setting.  Take care in focusing when very very close.
  • Blur the background to emphasize a flower or bird. The larger the aperture the less depth of field (sharpness foreground to background.) (f2.8, f3.5, etc. are larger than f8 and f11).  A telephoto lens is more likely to blur the background than a wide-angle setting.
  • Crop your images with your camera or computer’s photo editor. Adobe Photoshop is the industry standard, but Adobe Photoshop Elements (around $80) will do everything you need and more.
  • Overcast light can be your friend. Bright sun creates harsh shadows and dilutes light colors.
  • Aim for the eye in animals. The camera wants to focus on the largest part of the subject, but if the eye isn’t sharp, the image won’t look right.
  • Rule of Thirds – avoid centering your subject or dividing the photograph in half. Place an important object or horizon line on an invisible line representing a third of the photograph.
  • Be in the right place at the right time. Don’t be a couch potato.
  • Experiment with different aperture and shutter speeds, filters, etc. For infrared use a special filter (R72, IR Dark Red 092). Hold flat against the camera lens if your camera does not have filter rings.  Use the highest ISO and the widest aperture if hand-holding.  Best to use a tripod and a more reasonable ISO such as 400.  If photos come out magenta like mine, convert to BW in Photoshop (using Mode), use Auto Contrast, and tweak with Brightness-Contrast.

Have fun!

Feel free to reblog or share


Online gallery:  Smugmug and Fine Art America

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Contact:  cindy at

1 Comment

  1. DesertAbba said,

    Great short course for us snap-shot types. Makes me want to dust off the ole beginners Sony digital SLR. Thanks!

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