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11 Hacks to Help You Win Sunmark's Photo Contest

“Wow, that’s a great picture!”

We all know a great picture when we see one. It may be the beauty of nature in the Adirondacks, a panorama of colorful flowers at Tulip Fest, perfectly timed action at an Albany Empire game, or a portrait from Saratoga’s Hall of Springs that evokes the perfect mood.

But here’s the secret the professionals may not want you to know. It’s easier than you think to make great photos, and the most important ingredient isn’t an expensive camera. It’s your own knowledge and creativity. You can make great images with your smart phone as easily as with that expensive DSLR.

All you must do is keep a few basic rules in mind when you’re shooting pictures and you will greatly increase your chances of getting an image you can be proud to show off to your friends or on social media.

1. Use the “law of thirds” to your advantage. When you see a “wow” picture, very often the image will have major elements that line up along this imaginary grid that divides the frame into nine equal parts. Studies have shown that viewer’s eyes naturally go to one of the four intersection points of the grid, rather than the center of the photo. Some cameras even let you have the grids appear on the viewscreen as you shoot. Do you always have to use this grid? Of course not, but it’s a great place to start in understanding how to make more balanced compositions.

2. Know how to use foreground and background. Often the most interesting images have a strong contrast between foreground and background elements. Wider angle lenses can emphasize this contrast, but you can do it with any camera. Just be aware of the possibilities.

3. Keep a clean background. How many times have you seen an otherwise great photo with a tree growing out of someone’s head? Yikes! Slow down, take a deep breath, and take a close look at your composition before you press that button. It’s usually only a matter of taking a few steps to correct the problem.

4. Learn how light works at “the golden hours.” These are the two hours just after sunrise and just before sunset, when sidelight or backlight can create brilliant color and contrast. For example, go to Google Image Search and look for “fall foliage.” The most brilliant colors will often feature side or back lighting.

5. Don’t be afraid to use fill flash. Most cameras with built-in flash will have this option to brighten the shadows even when you’re shooting during the day. It can be a photographer’s lifesaver when your subject is backlit or has dark eye sockets from overhead sunshine.

6. Carry extra batteries. Whether you use fill flash or not, carry an extra battery because sooner or later, your camera battery will run out at the worst possible time and you WILL need it. With modern, often proprietary batteries, that means you will have to buy an extra battery. It’s worth it. Spend the money.

7. Think ahead about what will happen instead of what’s happening now. See that lady in the park with the new puppy? Sooner or later they will encounter a child and a great moment will happen. Survey your situation, anticipate, and be ready for that moment when it happens.

8. Slow down, work the situation, and shoot “Entire to detail.” Every good photojournalist learns to shoot a variety of images from every situation that can be used in a variety of ways to tell the story in one photo or many. Shoot up close, far away, wide-angle, telephoto, tightly cropped and loose in every situation if you can. As long as it’s safe, don’t be afraid to lay down on the ground or climb up on top of that table to get a different viewpoint. The resulting interesting shot will usually make you glad you did.

9. Shoot in landscape orientation. Photos shot in portrait mode are hard to format for calendar sizes and leave little room for cropping. Make sure your shots are horizontal and that you're not too far zoomed in.

10. Use “manual” and learn the relationship between shutter speed, lens aperture, and ISO. There are many websites that will explain this at length. But in general, slow shutter speeds blur action, high speeds freeze it. A wider aperture (f2.8) will mean less of your image in focus and isolate your subject. A higher aperture (f8, f11, f16, etc.) means more in focus. A low ISO (100) gives better image quality but requires more light. A higher ISO (400, 800, 1600, etc.) lets you shoot photos with less light, but image quality goes down.

11. Don’t be afraid to think different! Break any of these rules any time you think it might result in a more interesting image. Experiment and enjoy!

Now that you’ve got that great shot, share it with the community by entering it in our annual Sunmark Calendar Contest to find the 13 images that will grace our next Sunmark Calendar. Just CLICK HERE to get all the details on how to enter.