creating better images

Image Making 101 - Basic Tips on Better Picture Taking

Text and photos by the “PhotoGuru”, Sean Arbabi


The increase in photography’s popularity today may come from our digital camera allowing us instant access and gratification in reviewing images taken just a second earlier.  But it doesn’t offer you the skills and techniques for producing a better picture.  When it comes to taking good photos, a familiar comment I hear is “When I get a good shot I’m pleased with, I don’t really know how I did it”.  The key in capturing quality images is to learn the techniques that produce a better photograph, to train your eye to see in two-dimensions (as your one-eyed camera does), to understand your camera and its various functions, and then on occasion to get lucky.  As Ansel Adams once put it “Chance favors the prepared mind”.


Composing a scene is arguably the most important aspect to great image making, but often it is not thought about by a beginner photographer.  There are a few basic rules you can follow to help when it comes to compositing a scene.

  1. The Four Corners Rule: This basic rule states that your subject is not interesting when placed in the middle of the frame.  Put your subject in the upper left, upper right, bottom left, or bottom right and you will create a more attractive arrangement to your photo.

  2. Rules of Thirds:  In some cases you can divide your image, whether horizontally or vertically, into thirds (a foreground, middle ground, and background).  This can give more perspective to your shot and help create a flow to your image more pleasing to the viewer.

  3. Getting in close: As Robert Capa, a famous war photographer in the mid 20th century, once stated, “If your photos aren’t good, they aren’t close enough.”  People often make the mistake of placing too much of their surroundings in a photo.  Get it close and “creativity edit” your environment to focus the image more on your subject.

It’s all about the angles: Photography really is all about finding the best point of view.  Sometimes creating a quality image means getting out of our five-to-six foot eye level, dropping down low and finding a higher perspective to take a photo.  Both on occasion can provide cleaner backgrounds, a unique perspective that most don’t see everyday, and often give you a better composition.

Once you understand these rules, put them to practice, and learn about how and why they work, on occasion you can go outside the rules and produce an amazing image just as well. I always say, know the rules so you can break ‘em- it is part of the art of creativity.


Good exposures are vital to great images, and can help to create mood and emphasize light or color, but unfortunately most point-and-shoot cameras do not offer manual controls (the ability to set the aperture and shutter speed instead of having the camera do so in the “automatic” setting).  Not to mention understanding exposure, or explaining the concept, is not easy to do in a few sentences.  The art of exposure will be something the PhotoGuru will have to address in a future article.  So if you cannot control your exposures, set your camera to an automatic setting and focus on lighting in the photograph- an aspect you can be aware of and potentially control.


Quality of light is yet another key component in every photographer’s arsenal.  Under most conditions, light sets the mood in an image, creates focus on the subject, and can add that intangible jaw-dropping “wow” response.  Yet again, the overwhelming majority of people who take pictures do so during the worst times of day, or place their subjects under the worst lighting conditions. 

Photographing Outside: When people travel, take tours, or visit a place, they often photograph during the most convenient times between 10am and 4pm- understandable, but unfortunately not the optimal time for quality image-making.  Light outdoors is often best the closer you are to sunrise or sunset.  The quality of light is warmer and more appealing at these times, less harsh than the high mid-day sun, and frequently intensifies colors in a scene.

Photographing People:  Another common blunder that occurs when people photograph their family or friends, is they position themselves between the sun and their subject, with the sun at their back, providing the most light on their subject’s face (imagine the sun behind you as you take a portrait of your family in front of you with full sunlight on their faces).  This often causes the subject to squint heavily since they are forced to stare directly into the sun, and the light now created on the subject and surroundings is flat and boring.  Instead, try a few different methods when it comes to capturing people.  First off, you can photograph them in ambient light, that is non-directional light where it is equally intense everywhere, such as shade or the diffused light from an overcast sky.  This offers little or no shadows on a face providing beautiful soft light complimentary for most people.  Another way is to turn your subject away from the direct sun allowing their eyes to be relaxed and open while taking their photograph.  And the last approach is to side light your subject giving them depth and dimension through the highlights and shadows created on their face and on the setting.

Backlighting: Often times thought of as too harsh or difficult to photograph, backlight (that is when the light source is behind your subject) in many cases helps to create beautiful moods and accentuate light in a scene.  Whether it is the light casting through storm clouds silhouetting your wife as she cross-country skies along a trail, the sunset behind your son as he tosses his Frisbee high above the beach, or the glow of colorful autumn leaves created by sun rays, backlight can add that dramatic final element to your image.


A common misnomer when people take pictures outdoors is they assume there is so much light they don’t need to utilize their flash.  I often tell people, when photographing their family and friends outside (at a wedding, event, park, function), to always leave their flash on.  The extra light fills in shadows on faces and is not only more flattering for the person being photographed (especially in mid-day sunny conditions), but also allows you to see their faces better in the final result. 

One way I like to use my camera’s flash is in backlit situations (mentioned earlier in this article).  First I face the person away from the sun, which provides them nice rim light on their hair and shoulders.  Then I use my flash to provide even and complimentary light on their face.  Just remember one thing when using your flash - the light from your camera only travels 10-15 feet on average and anything further than that will not receive much extra light.


Arnold Newman, yet another amazing photographer, once said “We do not take pictures with our cameras but with our hearts and minds”.  Although this may not translate into a specific technique or a tangible way to creating a better photograph, the quote is significant because it tells us it is your creativity and communication of emotions that makes a great image, and not the one-eyed plastic box we call a camera.  Yes, digital cameras are great, but they do not create better images, your eye does.

SIDE BAR: The Workshop Fix:

Want learn more but don’t have the time to go back to school?  A photographic workshop may be your solution. I love teaching workshops especially in wonderful locations including the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Fe, Seattle, or even as far away as Costa Rica.  They offer an enjoyable platform to learn more about photography directly from an instructor while sharing similar interests with kindred spirits.  Whether taking a one-day class, a weekend workshop, or a week-long course, you have the chance to gain knowledge and then use that newfound wisdom in the field when sharing in the camaraderie with other students.  And in the day and age of everything online, you now also have the opportunity to take courses online, and the PhotoGuru teaching classes on the web through a company called

On the web: (Sean Arbabi’s Photographic Workshop page) (Sean Arbabi’s Online Photo Workshops with (This article on

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To re-publish this article, please contact Sean Arbabi @ 925 855 8060, or email

Title: Image Making 101

Subtitle: Basic Tips on Better Picture Taking

Author: Text, photos, copyright by the “PhotoGuru”, Sean Arbabi / Arbabi Imagery

Words: 1432 (1651 words with the side bar)


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