Updated: Feb 19
Whether you’re using your phone’s camera or a DSLR, these fail-safe photo tips will help you create killer images on your own to help promote your brand, business, or just for fun, WITHOUT extra equipment.
Before we jump into the details, try this quick exercise:
Take a look at some of your favorite images you’ve seen online, or scroll through your Instagram feed and notice which images stick out to you.
What is it about those photos that commands your attention?
Where does your eye go?
Do these photos have anything in common?
Often, just having a beautiful subject or an interesting pose isn’t what makes you stop scrolling to admire an image. Other elements, like lighting, composition, background, or angles all combine to make an image stand out from the rest.
#1 - LIGHTING
(Disclaimer: There are entire books and courses that exist about lighting, so the tips I give below are lighting basics utilizing natural light.)
Whether you’re shooting indoors or outdoors, you’ll want to aim for nice, even lighting for your subject. This can be achieved based on where you decide to set up and time of day.
A few things to avoid when shooting outdoors:
Harsh, direct sunlight that creates high contrast shadows (most often seen in the middle of a sunny day)
Speckled light that creates uneven lighting (most often seen under tree shade as the sun peeks through leaves and branches)
When shooting outdoors, the lower the sun is in the sky, the softer the light will be. This is why photographers love shooting during “Golden Hour”--the hour before sunset or the hour after sunrise when the sun is lowest in the sky. This soft, angled light helps create even lighting on your subject’s face, especially when the sun is backlighting your subject or slightly off to the side behind them. (Note that having your subject face the sun when the sun is in their eyes may make them squint in the photo).
Another way to achieve even lighting is to shoot in a shaded area. When the sun is lower in the sky, it creates longer shadows, which is another benefit to shooting earlier in the day or later in the day. But you can still get great photos shooting in the middle of the day in a shaded area! Look for the sides of buildings, stairways, or a covered outdoor space. If needed, you can also use blankets or a light modifier disc to help block unwanted sunlight.
A few things to avoid:
Harsh, direct sunlight coming in through the windows that creates high contrast shadows and uneven lighting
Depending on your space and what you’re shooting, overhead lights may help or hurt an image (see more below)
The first thing I tell business owners who want to do a shoot in their space is to observe their facility throughout the day. At what time does the sun shoot in through the windows? When does the light look most beautiful during the day?
Even light coming in through the windows or through sheer white curtains is one of the prettiest light sources you can have when shooting indoors.
Depending on what you’re shooting, overhead lights can help or hurt an image. While they might make a room brighter, they can also create harsh shadows, especially if your subject is a person. However, if you’re shooting a product or just the space on its own, this may not be an issue. I encourage you to experiment and try different things to find the lighting scenario that will work best for your needs. If you still have trouble getting the kind of lighting you want, you may need to invest in some external lighting equipment (more on that in a future blog post!).
#2 - BACKGROUND
When it comes to your background, my best advice is to keep it clean and keep it simple!
The more things there are to look at in an image, the more distracted the viewer will be. They may even get confused on what they’re supposed to be seeing.
Let your subject be the main focus of your image and get rid of any clutter or unnecessary items in the shot. Look for backgrounds that are simple and don’t compete with the subject for the viewer’s eye. If there has to be other elements in the photo, arrange them so they appear neat and organized (if possible).
Another thing to consider is that our eyes tend to go to where the light is in an image, so shapes are best framed by lighter backgrounds, versus hidden by darker, busier backgrounds.
If there’s just no way around having a busy background, try using your phone’s Portrait mode, or your camera’s aperture priority mode and get the f-stop down to as low a number as you can (between f/1.8 and f/4). This will help blur out the background and keep your subject the main focal point. (Note: The farther back your background is from your subject, the more it will blur).
If you aren’t able to get close enough to your subject to make them the main object in the frame, you can always crop the image afterwards to frame just your subject (feel free to disregard this last part if your goal is to give equal attention to your subject and their surroundings, like if you’re shooting outdoors in a beautiful landscape).
If blurring out a busy background still isn’t giving you the results you want, or there just isn’t an ideal spot in your space to use as a background, it may be time to bust out the white bed sheets. Try experimenting with white or different color fabrics and hang them up on the walls, over a room divider, or with a makeshift frame. Clamps, clothes pins, or even duct tape can help secure your new background.
No joke, I’ve shot headshots in my shower against the white wall. I’ve also shot product photos on my white bathtub ledge with a white shower curtain for the background. Sometimes you’ve just gotta use what you’ve got and make it work.
#3 - ANGLES
Angles can make all the difference between a boring photo and a fantastic photo. The great news here is that there isn’t just one right way to shoot a subject, and playing around with different angles allows you to be super creative!
When first shooting a subject, I like to go with the safe, “no fail” angles before starting to experiment. In general, shooting your subject directly from the front, directly from the side, and/or from a 45-degree angle (somewhere between directly front and directly side) are good places to begin, depending on what you’re actually shooting. Check out some examples below.
Keep in mind there is a lot of room for variation here, and the optimal angle may change depending on whether you’re going for a straightforward photo or an artistic photo.
Generally if you’re shooting headshots, photographing from straight ahead or to the side at a 45-degree angle with your subject looking at the camera is a good place to start. If you’re shooting a pose or exercise, find the angle that shows the clearest shape of the body (how would the exercise be shown in an instruction manual?). Remember that there isn’t necessarily one correct answer here.
Start at eye level or slightly above eye level with your subject, then feel free to experiment further by going higher or lower than your subject. Review your work - what angles appear most flattering for your subject? Which image makes you think, “Yes! This is the one!” when you see it?
Photographing a Room or Space
If you’re trying to show a full room, aim for a 45-degree angle (from the corner of the room) if your space is on the larger side or more square. If you have a more rectangular space, with equipment laid out in a nice row, place yourself in the middle of the shorter wall and shoot from there. Your camera height should be on the higher side so you can see the layout of the room, and to simulate what someone’s eye would actually see if they were in the room.
If you’re trying to show a segment of a room, try shooting it from head on or a 45-degree angle with the camera at standing eye-level height. Then experiment by going higher or lower with your camera angle and see which angle best suits your needs.
Photographing a Product
When shooting a product, you want the viewer to be super focused on the product itself, so Tip #2 about Background is extra important here in addition to angle. Products are best shot from straight on, at a 45-degree angle, or (not yet mentioned) from directly above.
Shooting products is a lot of fun because there is so much room for creative experimentation, especially with how you “style” your product with other elements or accessories (ie, photographing a water bottle with weights next to it, or on a beautiful shelf with plants around it).
Business owners showcasing specific products have had great success with flatlays. Flatlays are styled product photos shot from directly above. Most flatlays are done on a simple white background, but I’ve seen plenty done on wood floors, black gym mats, or surfaces with an interesting texture (cement, tiles, etc). In fact, here's one taken outside on a yoga mat! Again, sometimes you just have to start with what you have and make it work.
In sum, angles are how you orient the camera around your subject, and how high or low you shoot the photo from. One extra element I want to add in is proximity to your subject--how close or far away you are from your subject once your angles are set. If you are able to zoom in or out with your camera, you don’t have to move yourself at all. But sometimes you have to physically change how close or far away you are in order to achieve the ideal shot.
You’ve got your beautiful photo subject ready to go. Add in nice, even lighting + a clean, simple background + the right angles and BAM! You’ve got yourself a scroll-stopping photo!
Remember, the above tips are basic strategies for wonderful photos. But there’s something to be said about learning the rules, and then breaking them. Use these tips as a starting point, then continue to experiment. After all, that’s what all great photographers do! The experimentation never ends, and that’s where the fun begins. Happy shooting!
P.S. - One thing I forgot to mention: After you've taken your killer photo, doing a little editing or adding a filter can absolutely transform your image from killer to legendary. Keep an eye out for my future blog post on how to edit like a pro!
Be sure to tag me (@motionscape_photography) in your DIY photos! I can't wait to see what you create!