You Don’t Need Gimmicks, You Need These 4 Tips To Take Better Pictures


Like many of you, I always want to take better pictures. But, if you love photography as I do, you might notice that your timeline on Facebook is frequently infested with adverts for photographic devices or software that promises to make you a better photographer. I tend to ignore them.  

Beware Of The Gimmick

One advert that has been popping up on my timeline with freakish frequency lately is for something called a Lens Ball. A Lens Ball is a kind of crystal ball that the photographer places a meter or so in front of the camera. The ball reflects and upside down rendition of the scene behind it. 

In the advertising, the companies producing lens balls (for there are more than one) show incredibly beautiful scenes inside this magical ball. Here’s the paradox though. To make a lens ball look good, you need a really nice scene behind and good composition. If you have good composition and a beautiful scene, why on Earth do you need a Lens Ball? It is, for all intents and purposes, a gimmick, a gimmick to make inexperienced photographers spend money in the mistaken belief it will make their photos better. Like most gimmicks, in a short time, it will become a cliche before descending into the dustbin of obscurity. 

It did, however, get me thinking about some of the gimmicks we employ in photography, often to cover up poor composition or technique. So today we will look at some of those gimmicks and also some ways to take better pictures than using those gimmicks. 

BTW if you are interested in doing something cool without purchasing a lens ball – take a look at a photo in a lens filter trick. This post-production exercise was explained by John Thompson on our forums!

Lensball. Photography's latest gimmick. By Elijah Hiett

1. Too Much Vignetting 

Vignetting is a compositional tool that has been around for a very long time. It is used to draw the viewers eye towards the subject and isolate them from the background. It has also become terribly overused and often overdone. There is a temptation to add dramatic vignetting in post-production, pushing it way off centre and turning the edges of the frame virtually black. It looks bad and is a gross exaggeration of how vignetting should be used. 

As we said though, vignetting is a powerful compositional tool if used well. For the most natural-looking vignette, use a telephoto with a lens hood and stop down to f8 or f11. Nearly all lenses will display some mild vignetting but if you have some older vintage lenses these will probably give a better effect. 

Too much vignetting ruins a picture. By John Hernandez

You can also use post-production software such as Lightroom to add a vignette. To do it subtly, make sure your monitor is calibrated and that you make very small adjustments. If the outer edges of your frame become visibly too dark, you have gone too far. A vignette should be a subconscious effect, one that the viewer does not realise is part of the composition. 

Further Learning:

Although still visible the vignette is more subtle here. By dorota dylka

2. Excessive Shallow Depth of Field 

So Bokehering is a made-up word but one that, I think describes the phenomenon of shooting everything with an ultra-shallow depth of field. You know the shots, ones that became viral a few years ago and is now so overused it is certainly a cliche. 

It’s achieved by using a fast telephoto at it’s widest aperture. You then place your subjects a long way from the camera, on a pretty path sometime during the golden hour. Add in a little out of focus foreground and you have nailed the cliche. Some people even add in more blur during post-production as if there was not already enough.

This depth of field looks very unnatural. By Jose Escobar

Like vignetting, Bokeh is a powerful compositional tool and like vignetting, it’s overuse leads to generic-looking images. For more natural-looking portraits, move in closer, half body shots, some specular highlights in the background and nail focus to the eyes. Oh, add don’t touch the blur icon in Photoshop.

Further Learning:

3. HDR – The Original Cliche

While we are probably well past “peak HDR” there is still a lot of bad HDR around. HDR is a tool designed to allow photographers to expand the dynamic range of their sensors to something close to the ability of the human eye. However, from the very early days of use, some photographers took the range well beyond the human eye. In well composed and considered shots this was artistic, however for a lot, it was a way to cover up a bland composition or poor lighting conditions.

HDR done badly looks obvious. By Scott Webb

However, HDR done well can give us some beautiful images. The key is using HDR to capture natural-looking shots, ones that the eye saw but the sensor could not cope with in a single shot. Use it to add definition to a bright sky or to put detail into dark shadow areas but make sure your composition is good. A bad shot will look bad with or without HDR.

Further Learning:

HDR done well, can look natural. By Nitish Kadam

4. Gimmick Lenses.

Now I should state from the start that lenses such as the Lensbaby range have come a long way and now have some genuinely useful and creative tools. However, their earliest products have been copied and used so much that the original Lensbaby effect, much like excessive bokeh has become a cliche. Like many of the effects listed above, if done well, with nice light and good composition the shots can still work. However, like the effects listed above, it is often used as a visual gimmick to attract likes and shares from non-photographers rather than praise from your peers.

If you are looking for creamy soft-focus images, Lensbaby and others now produce sterling lenses to achieve very natural looking shots. You could, however, go back to basics by using wide aperture vintages lenses, cheap UV filters and a tub of Vaseline. Now before you get too mucky minded, you simply spread the Vaseline lightly over the UV filter, with a clear section as the centre. Put the filter on the lens and shoot some nice wide aperture portraits. The effect can be superb and for a whole lot less than the price of a new soft-focus speciality lens.

Further Learning:

Soft focus does not have mean expensive lenses. By Christopher Campbell

The photographic world is and has always been full of photographic cliches and gimmicks. Each has its place at the right time and with the right composition. However by using some of our counter-tips above, you can get great shots, but ones that do not look like everyone else's.

Learning And Applying Advanced Composition Will Elevate Your Photographs

Many of these overused techniques are really hiding bad composition. Conversely, use any of these techniques with great composition and your images will shine. Advanced Composition – will ensure you create images that pop. You'll get more out of your photography and start taking images that will truly capture your creative vision. If you’d like to improve your composition skills and learn concepts that go beyond the ‘rule of thirds’, do take a look at Kent DuFault’s guide Advanced Composition

 Get it here today

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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