Digital photography has democratized the medium. More people are taking more photos than ever before, and they're sharing them online with friends and family in record numbers. It's easy to place the blame on the camera if your images aren't as nice as some others you see online, but by following a few guidelines you can improve the quality of your photos—without having to shell out big bucks for a new camera. Keep these 10 easy tips in mind next time you head out to capture the world around you. And if you have any tips that have helped you take better pictures, please share them in the comments section.
1. Get Basic Composition Down. The heart of a photograph is its composition—the position of different elements in a frame. The easiest rule of thumb to learn and remember is the Rule of Thirds. Basically, you'll want to break your frame into nine squares of roughly equal size. Try and align the subject of your photo along these lines and intersections and imagine the main image divided over these nine boxes. This gives you a more dramatic, visually interesting shot than one where you subject is located dead center. Many newer cameras have a rule of thirds grid overlay that you can activate when shooting.
2. Adjust Exposure Compensation. As long as you aren't shooting in full manual mode, your digital camera is making decisions that determine the exposure of a photo—in English, how light or dark the shot appears. Generally speaking, a camera looks at a scene and tries to determine the appropriate exposure based on the correct lighting of an 18-percent gray card, which is why there are special scene modes for snow—without them, the camera would try to make the white snow gray.
If a photo is too light or dark you can either delve through the dozens of scene modes that are available in modern point-and-shoot cameras, or simply dial in a bit of exposure compensation. Many cameras have a physical button for this, identified by a +/- symbol. If your photo is too dark, move the scale up above zero; if too light, move it down a bit.
3. Choose the Right Mode. Your camera is likely to have scores of shooting modes, ranging from fully automatic operation to very specific scene modes. If you're shooting fast action you can put the camera into Shutter Priority ("S") mode and increase the speed at which a photo is taken—setting it to 1/125 second or faster will help to freeze action. In lower light you can use Aperture Priority ("A") mode to make sure as much light is entering the lens as possible, or if you're shooting landscapes on a tripod you can close the lens's iris to increase depth of field, keeping everything in sharp focus from the foreground to the horizon. If you're a D-SLR shooter, you're more likely to use the A or S modes, while point-and-shoot cameras will often feature more specific modes that cater to activities like sports, low-light use, or landscape shooting.
4. Watch Your White Balance. Your camera will try and set white balance automatically based on the type of light in which's you're shooting. Different light casts different types of color—sunlight is very blue, tungsten lighting is yellow, and fluorescent is a bit green. In many cases, the camera will automatically detect what type of lighting you're under and adjust the color in photos so that they look natural. If you're shooting under mixed lighting, or if the camera is just having a hard time figuring things out, you can set the white balance manually. On most point and shoots you'll have to dive into the shooting menu to adjust this, but many D-SLRs have a dedicated White Balance button, often labeled "WB." You can correct color in iPhoto or Picasa later on, but you'll get better-looking photos if you get the white balance right in the first place.
5. Think About Lighting. Pay attention to how much light you have and where it's coming from when taking your photos. If you're shooting outdoors, be careful not to take photos of a person when the sun is at their back. If you're grabbing a photo in front of a monument or landmark and don't have the flexibility to adjust your position you can use the camera's flash to fill in shadows. You may have to manually activate the flash, as there's a good chance that the camera will think that it's unnecessary on a bright day.