Susan Tuttle’s Top Tips for Making Awesome Photos Right Now

Art of Everyday Photography - cover(This tutorial was previously published in Art of Everyday Photography: Move Toward Manual & Make Creative Photos by Susan Tuttle, copyright 2014; it is republished here courtesy of North Light Books and

Tip 1: Shoot From the Gut
There is a lot of information to absorb in this book. For now I want you to not think, grab your camera and head out for a photowalk! Follow your instincts, let go, enjoy, get out of your head that tends to over-think if given the chance, and allow yourself to really start to see. Trust yourself and rely on your creative voice. I believe that a truly good photo has something precious about it that touches the viewer, something he knows and feels but may have a hard time putting into words. It emanates from the subject matter and the way in which the photographer sees the subject, and often has very little to do with the photographer’s technical skill. While you are shooting pictures, at some point you feel this something special in your gut—it happens quickly—when you recognize beauty in an instant moment, and very swiftly, without much thought or planning, you click the shutter button as a feeling rises in your chest. And you know you have experienced and captured magic!

Tip 2: Use Natural Light If Possible
Your camera’s built-in flash tends to give a harsh, unnatural-looking spotlight cast to photos. This is also true for the cellphone flash. Avoid using it and look for natural light instead.

Overcast light is soft and even and well suited for photographing things like close-ups of flowers and portraits. If it is bright and sunny and your subjects are squinting in the sun, consider heading to the edge of a shade tree to look for less harsh, more even light, but be sure to avoid the dappled sunlight look, unless it’s for creative purposes.

The golden hours of early morning and late afternoon/early evening give a nice warm light to work with and can create a heavenly backlight for your subjects.

Not that I wish to give you the impression that flash is always bad. I myself have a dedicated external flash unit that can give very natural results, especially when it’s powered down, diffused and used in conjunction with the available light in the scene. I often use it to fill in unpleasant shadows on faces and add pleasing catchlights to eyes. More on flash soon.


24–70mm f/2.8 lens at 24mm, ISO 100, f/10 for 1/640 sec.


Tip 3: Keep Still
Be sure to hold still when taking a photograph, to ensure the best possible focus. I recommend holding your arms in close to your body, breathing out slowly while snapping the photo.

Many DSLR lenses have an image stabilization feature that will help you get sharp photos in lower-light situations where your shutter speed is slower. (Do not use this feature when your DSLR is on a tripod, as it can actually damage your camera.)

Of course your DSLR does have handheld limits (which we’ll discuss in Chapter Two), so you might have to use a tripod or monopod, especially in low-light situations where the shutter speed is slow.

To make sure you got a clear shot, view the photo in Playback mode and zoom in to see your subject. If it looks blurry, retake the photo.

For mobile devices, apps like Camera+, Top Camera and ProCamera have an image stabilization feature. Did you know you can turn an iPhone on its side and use the volume control button to take the picture? I find that this method promotes camera stability. Setting your phone on a tripod/monopod is another possibility. I own a Ped3 mount for my iPhone, which I attach to my regular DSLR tripod.

Tip 4: Change Your Vantage Point
Shoot up, down, sideways, look behind you. Try capturing the world from a vantage point other than your normal, everyday standing height; get down on the ground, lie on your back and aim your camera up at the tops of the trees. Get close to things and then get closer still, as long as you can find focus. Try tilting your camera and shooting at an angle. Instead of shooting a subject straight on, capture a side view, as this will add dimension to your photo. Shoot vertically and horizontally and leave some room for cropping. If you want to emphasize height, shoot vertically. If you want to emphasize width, shoot horizontally. Explore the possibilities and take your time.


15–85mm f/3.5–5.6 lens at 15mm, ISO 200, f/9 for 1/200 sec.


Tip 5: Look for Clean Backgrounds
It’s easier than you may think to become so enamored with your subject, you forget all about the background. Be sure to look for simple, clean backgrounds devoid of distracting elements. This does not mean your background needs to be sparse—just no intruders (those random elements that have nothing to with the shot).
Darker objects and shadows in the background that you see in your camera’s viewfinder look worse in actual photos, so try to avoid including them in the shot. If you are experienced with Photoshop (CS or Elements), it is possible to use the Clone Stamp tool or Spot Healing Brush tool to get rid of some unwanted pixels, but it is much easier to get a clean shot in the first place.

Tip 6: Frame Your Scene
Look for naturally occurring borders with which to frame your scene. Branches of trees make excellent natural borders for your photos. Another technique is to fill the frame with your subject, so that it is front and center and there are no other distracting, unwanted elements to take away from it.


15–85mm f/3.5–5.6 lens at 50mm, ISO 100, f/5.6 for 1/400 sec.


Tip 7: Pick a File Format to Stick With
Let’s talk about shooting in RAW versus using your DSLR’s highest-quality JPG setting. There are pros and cons for each.

If you shoot in RAW, you’ll notice that the photos come out of the camera looking pretty plain. That’s because your DSLR leaves it completely up to you to manipulate things like color saturation, contrast and sharpness in the post-editing stage in a program that supports RAW format, like Adobe Photoshop® Lightroom® or Adobe Camera Raw®, which is accessible through Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements.

Be aware that shooting in RAW takes up a lot of memory. When you shoot in JPG format, files come out of the camera looking much more spiffy than their RAW counterparts because your camera has already enhanced them a bit for you. You can then take these JPG files into editing programs like Photoshop CS/Photoshop Elements or Lightroom to tweak them even further and/or add creative effects.

RAW allows for a bit more control in the editing stage, especially when it comes to things like changing the white balance setting after the fact and removing noise/graininess from your photos. So if you have the time to process the RAW image files, and the room on your computer, go for it! If not, the highest-quality JPGs are more than sufficient.

Note: I access the latest Photoshop CS tools through Adobe Photoshop® Creative Cloud® (referred to as Adobe CC). It has a new Camera Raw filter that will allow you to alter any file type. It doesn’t replace the capability of Adobe Camera Raw but definitely gives you more editing options all in one place.

Tip 8: Don’t Miss the Shot
Use Continuous Shooting mode, also referred to as Burst mode, to take photos of a single short event. That way one of the shots is bound to be just right.

One morning I was on a photowalk and noticed that a pack of pigeons kept alighting from their spot on a building roof, flying around the building, coming to rest on the roof again. I made sure my camera was set to Continuous Shooting mode and snapped away. I chose the best shot from the bunch.

If you are shooting mobile, the iPhone 5s and iOS7 operating systems (which are current as I write this) allow for Burst mode shooting with the native camera, and apps Camera+ and Camera Awesome have a Burst mode setting.


15–85mm f/3.5–5.6 lens at 70mm, ISO 200, f/13 for 1/320 sec.

Tip 9: Capture Symmetry, Pattern and Repetition
These compositional components will create a sense of balance, organization and rhythm in your photographs. Look for them in architecture, as well as in environments where they naturally occur. Symmetry with a focal point draws the eye to the subject and gives the photo a sense of balance.

Tip 10: Avoid Putting Subjects Dead-Center
Photos are usually more interesting when your subject is off to one side in your capture. Using the rule of thirds can help you implement this tip. To apply it, imagine placing a tic-tac-toe board evenly over your scene. Place your subject on one of the four intersections for the greatest visual impact. Most DSLRs, as well as the iPhone native camera and various camera apps, have a grid display feature to help in composing your shot.

Tip 11: Decide Where to Put the Focus
Scenes often have two subjects, one in the foreground and the other in the background. Use your creative instincts to determine which one should get more visual weight and put the focus on that subject, leaving the other one a dreamy blur. Zooming in with a telephoto lens can help you achieve this creative result as will increasing the distance between the two subjects.


15–85mm f/3.5–5.6 lens at 85mm, ISO 200, f/9 for 1/250 sec.


Tip 12: Keep Horizons Straight
This can be a hard task, and one that I never seem to get spot on with my camera alone. You can use your DSLR’s grid feature and align the horizon with one of the horizontal lines. Another possibility is to purchase a special level that attaches to your camera’s hot shoe, located on the top of your camera.

If all else fails, you can rotate your photograph in Photoshop in the post-editing stage. For mobile devices, the iPhone native camera as well as the camera apps Camera+, 645 PRO, Pure and 6×6 have a built-in grid feature. If you need to rotate your mobile photo, you can use an app like PhotoWizard or Perspective Correct.


15–85mm f/3.5–5.6 lens at 85mm, ISO 200, f/7.1 for 1/500 sec.


(This tutorial was previously published in Art of Everyday Photography: Move Toward Manual & Make Creative Photos by Susan Tuttle, copyright 2014; it is republished here courtesy of North Light Books and

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