5 Tips For Taking Great Photos Even If You Don’t Know What You’re Doing

Let me start by saying that while I have learned a LOT about taking photos in the past 3 years, I am by no means an expert. I’m not even a photographer, since my eyes glaze over when people start talking ISO and shutter speed. The only part of photography I actually understand is aperture, and even then I only know a small number means I get a fuzzy background and that looks fancy so, like, do that? Right?

But after owning a Nikon D90 for a while and reading a zillion articles and books and tutorials I feel like I’m qualified to give 5 tips for taking great photos even if you don’t know what you’re doing. And the top 5 things I’ve learned about photography DON’T involve super fancy camera settings or post-processing. Photoshop and Lightroom are amazing programs but if your main goal is to take better pictures of your kids – either for your blog or just for their scrapbooks – you don’t need editing software. I promise. Just be more mindful of the following things when you’re snapping away:

1. Use natural light. It’s all about the light. Yes, your camera has a flash and no, I’m not saying flash is evil. Skilled photographers can do amazing things with artificial light. But when I use flash, everyone comes out looking like a deer in the headlights and/or a flesh eating zombie so I take advantage of natural light whenever possible. I don’t mean direct sunlight – it can often be too harsh – but light coming through a window, a shady spot under a tree or that magical golden hour right before sunset are all better places to take you kid’s monthly baby photos than under your ceiling fan lights at 8 pm. (This goes DOUBLE for photos of food.)

5 Tips For Taking Great Photos Even If You Don't Know What You're Doing

August, 6pm – the light is behind the trees so even though Caroline is backlit it’s the nice halo-type of backlit. Plus it shows of her ginger curls in a way head-on light wouldn’t.

2. Pick a great location. My couch is moss green, filthy and makes a terrible backdrop for photos. My kitchen is OK but the dark counters and wood cabinets make it a cave. The rest of my home is always a mess. But the park less than a mile from my house is gorgeous – stone pathways, arbors, fountains, lots of shade, space for playing and running and bikes. I’m not capturing our “everyday” in the sense that we are in our house but I am capturing a typical afternoon in our neighborhood. It’s easy to bring the camera along, sit in the grass and let the gingers run in circles while I mess with my settings. Having a great location makes all the rest of the tips MUCH easier.

5 Tips For Taking Great Photos Even If You Don't Know What You're Doing

This was spontaneous wish-making…something that wouldn’t ever happen at home in our family room.

3. Pay attention to your background. This is why you’re shooting at the park instead of in your house (as cute as my tiny gingers are in those photos, the background prevents them from ever becoming prints I hang on the wall). But it also means take three steps to your left to avoid capturing that trashcan or people scooping dog poop or a couple having a fight behind your kid (all actual things I avoided during this shoot). Even if you are in your house, do your best to get blank walls, plain cabinets and doors in the background rather than piles of brightly colored toys and laundry. You can crop in post-processing – even basic, free programs allow cropping – but these are tips for AVOIDING all of that so try to remember to look behind your kid’s adorable face.

5 Tips For Taking Great Photos Even If You Don't Know What You're Doing

Things going on around Evan that you can’t see because I framed the photo well – trash can, people fishing, teenagers loitering and smoking and doing general annoying teenagery things.

5 Tips For Taking Great Photos Even If You Don't Know What You're Doing

There were some people sitting on the edge of the fountain at first, so I took close up shots until they wandered off. Then I backed up and let Evan throw his penny.

4. Children looking at the camera are better than children not looking at the camera. I should have just called this tip “Bribery”, but that seemed crass. I take a LOT of pictures of the backs of heads, butts, shoes, etc. But when you’re trying to take memorable photos, try to get your kid’s face as much as possible. Some of the best ways to get a child to look at you are shouting, waving your arms, playing “Can you see my eye through this camera?” and promising candy/ice cream/ponies. Mostly it’s a matter of following step number 5…

5 Tips For Taking Great Photos Even If You Don't Know What You're Doing

As cute as Caroline’s ruffle skirt is, her “leader of the tiny bike gang” face is way cuter. (Although, technically, the composition of the facing away photo is better…BIKE GANG. I MEAN COME ON.)

5. More is more. As long as you’re shooting digital, keep shooting. At a photography class just a couple weeks ago one of the pros told us to STOP taking so many photos and really focus on getting the shots right the first time. I am definitely going to work on that…soon-ish. But if you aren’t a pro, my advice is take tons of pictures, especially of kids. You might only get a few worth saving but that’s the magic of digital – delete, delete, delete. When your kid is running away from you, shout their name and start snapping – those just-turning-around faces are great and you almost always get eye contact. The same goes for jumping, swinging, splashing, dancing, and running kids – it’s better to have too many shots to choose from than miss a moment you loved.

5 Tips For Taking Great Photos Even If You Don't Know What You're Doing

Dancing kids are hard to keep in focus but too cute to miss, so I took at least 30 pictures in 60 seconds.

5 Tips For Taking Great Photos Even If You Don't Know What You're Doing

Swinging pictures are even harder than dancing pictures (plus the light on the playground wasn’t as good) but I got this one from a collection of many.

I’m not saying you’re going to get magazine-worthy photos from your point-and-shoot or your cell phone camera, but I wish I had known all this stuff from the beginning when I was taking pictures of Baby Evan with my Panasonic. Just remembering to set the baby down somewhere without burp cloths in the background would have made a huge difference.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I’ll try to help or find someone to help. And feel free to link photo tips that you’ve found helpful (or written!) in the comments.

All my photos in the post are straight out of my camera (Nikon D90, 50mm 1.8f lens) – no cropping, no exposure changes, no editing. All I did was watermark and resize the files for uploading. I did use my camera’s manual settings when I shot but I do that fairly often now and still don’t get great results. These photos look nice because I took them mindfully, not because I have amazing technical skills with a DSLR. 

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11 Responses to “5 Tips For Taking Great Photos Even If You Don’t Know What You’re Doing”

  1. raincheckmom says:

    Gorgeous pictures of the barnbarn. Mormor loves it!

  2. Thanks for the tips! Your littles are super cute.

  3. Audrey says:

    Those are great tips. The photography class teacher is right and wrong. He wants you to be mindful of the background and stuff, which are things you already mentioned in your tips. So many people just shoot shoot shoot without paying attention to stuff, but if you pay attention to the other stuff you can shoot away – especially when it comes to photographing groups or children. I always take 3 pics of a group because invariably there is someone not looking at the camera when they are told to. *eyeroll*

  4. Brigid Keely says:

    You didn’t mention it but you totally do it… one of the biggest things is to get on the same level as what you’re shooting. If you’re shooting kids crouch or sit or get on your knees. Otherwise you’re shooting down at them and it just looks off. Obviously you can get artsy and lie down and shoot up at them or purposely shoot them from above or whatever. But just getting on their level helps quite a bit.

  5. Amy says:

    I have so much trouble with paying attention to the background. Spencer always ends up with a chair right behind his head or whatever.

  6. the grumbles says:

    These are excellent. Light light light light light light light, AMEN. And with kids, you really can’t take too many shots. There’s so unpredictable/wiggly. The key is to wait until you’re done and then delete all but the best 3 or 4.

  7. Kimberly says:

    you are inspiring me to take the kids to the park later and practice :)

  8. molly says:

    Yes to natural light. All of Landon’s birthday photos at Chuck E. Cheese suck because there was no natural light at all. SUCK.

  9. Sarah says:

    Love these! And now it’s my turn to say I kind of wish I had gotten to go to that photography thing with you! Gah! Want to do a do-over and meet in some fun-tastic city and take a lot of pictures and eat lots of food? Please say yes!

  10. Oooh, I didn’t realize you were shooting with a D90?! I need/want a new camera AND a new nifty 50 lens. I’m using my FIL’s one from the 70’s which means no autofocus and no light metering. I’m getting really good at metering light by myself, but no autofocus with children is freaking IMPOSSIBLE.


    And I’m jealous you took a class. I need to do that.

  11. […] think I am ready to call myself a photographer – something I didn’t think was possible less than a year ago. I know enough about my camera now to make it do what I want 90% of the time and enough about […]

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