A pro offers advice gleaned over the years to help take better photos
I would wager that every photographer who has been shooting for some amount of time, say 10-20 years, has a memory bank of successes and disasters spinning in their head every time they pick up a camera.
My photography started by borrowing my dad's Kodak Retina IIIc camera from the 1960s and taking a school trip to Europe in 1982.
The 35mm with manual adjustments was a big jump from my 110 Kodak Pocket Instamatic that I had used occasionally, along with my Brownie Starmite. I had no idea what I was doing but I knew to set the aperture to F-16 if the sun was out and don't bother if it's dark.
Fast forward to an associate degree in photography from Chowan University, a BFA in photography from the University of the Arts and 25 years of daily commercial and personal photo shoots, I have accumulated quite a few ideas of things that would qualify as tips.
These are a few things that come to mind that are common sense ideas. But as noted earlier, sometimes the obvious is the most obscure. Being decisive and instinctual at the same time doesn't happen by accident, it's something you train yourself to do.
1. This is probably too simple for a tip but then again, the obvious is always the most obscure. Shoot every day, run wild with your camera, and make lots of mistakes. Read the manual, get to know it. Get to where the camera feels so natural in your hands you forget about it and take pictures on instinct.
1.5. Carry a camera always. This helps with rule number one.
2. To hone that instinct, practice photography instead of staring at your phone when you're in a situation of extreme boredom. For instance, when waiting in a coffee shop to meet someone that may or may not show up, look at whatever is in the window and think about how you would frame it and what your composition would be. Think about what the exposure would need to be too. This is also something you can do while driving. Instead of being annoyed at the driver in front of you, take their picture. Or at least think about what it would look like and how it would translate as a print. I think some people call that "inner reps."
3. If you love a photo, print it. Otherwise, your photos will be on the cloud, or on a computer hard drive or a telephone. All of these things are prone to fail and become obsolete over time -- and that time often comes without advance warning.
4. There are times when a fantastic photography situation arises, whether it's a job or an opportunity to photograph a sailboat passing in front of an incredible sunset (that's every day at Wrightsville Beach). When that happens, make the most of the opportunity. Start by looking at the light and setting your camera, starting with the ISO. Begin thinking about how much depth of field you would like and how fast the shutter should be to stop this instant. A tripod is always fantastic. It's a place keeper, like a bookmark; it allows you to think, and keeps the camera where you want it. It's always good to slow down, breathe, look, think and get your shot. Or try again tomorrow.
5. When I teach photography classes, I call this tip number one. Never set your camera on a table with a strap hanging over the side. Once while in college, I was able to buy my second Nikon body at a good price and I was very excited. I got home and set it on the table. I came walking back to the room, snagged the strap and it fell on the ground and bent the winder (what we used to advance the film). So after that it was a double-stroke camera; it took two winds to advance one frame. Thank goodness the camera still worked. Lesson learned -- it's the least I can do to pass that on.
6. Study the masters. Learn about photography and painting and everything in between that relates to composition storytelling: light, beauty, form, texture, balance. Some of the simple concepts are the rule of thirds, the rules of symmetry, the perfect square and on and on. It's almost always the case when I read about illustrious photographers that it turns out they started off as painters, or something that provided a visual education that gave them an instant framework with composition in photography.
7. After you have learned the rules, make it a point to break the rules.
8. If a shot is giving you a hard time and you struggle with the composition, one of the quickest ways to eliminate the problem is to come in close and focus on the eyes or some detail and throw everything else out of focus. Think of how many times we take great photos on the beach only to see blue trash cans everywhere, or powerlines in the sky -- just move in closer. Which leads to the next tip.
9. Think about where you place the camera. For most adults, it's somewhere between five and six feet off the ground looking straight at a subject. What happens, however, if you lay on the ground and look at that same subject? Or if you climb a tree and look at that same subject, or if you can get an aerial view or an underwater view? All of these things can lead to dramatically better images.
10.Don't let the cost of equipment get in the way of great photography. Digital photography has been around long enough that now you can go on eBay or East Coast Film Lab and buy an old digital camera that takes really great pictures and it can be much cheaper than what's new. Or if you buy a new camera and get a nice lens, don't worry about all the other lenses and all the accessories: the flashes, the grips, the straps, the nonsense that goes along with it. Just think about how to use it. Forget about other options until you absolutely have to have it for some visual solution.
11. Here's an idea: if you're bored with your current camera phone or whatever you do photography with, go and buy a cheap film camera and shoot film for a while. The tip is really "try something different" -- do something to mix it up totally, such as a different time and day, different place, etc.
So to wrap up, the long and the short of great photography is to do it every day and make lots of mistakes. And by the way, there really are no mistakes, they're just bad pictures that can teach a lesson. So go out and get excited about something and photograph it.