Yesterday was Father’s Day. One of the things dads (and moms) do is take photographs of their children. Many parents, however, want to be able to do this better.

One of our church leaders asked me if I’d give a talk to some folks at our church on how to take better photographs, so yesterday I did just that. This is a VERY non-technical introduction; here’s a summary of my 9-point lesson.

30 Minutes to Better Photos: Tips for Dads (and Moms)

1. Read the manual– Your camera is a very complex electronic device. The manual won’t teach you about photography, but it will help you figure out how to use the camera. It’s worth the time to get to know your camera’s manual.

2. Every picture needs a subject – Don’t simply point your camera at a scene and press the shutter. Be intentional: your picture needs a subject. When you raise the camera to your eye, ask yourself what you’re shooting and why you’re shooting it. Otherwise, you end up with a snapshot. What’s interesting about the scene? Why are you choosing to make this picture?

3. Shoot light, color, and gestureJay Maisel says this is the holy trinity of photography. Light, of course, is light–you might see some interesting shadows or some flattering soft light that inspires an image. Color: what a nifty red door–let’s shoot that! Gesture is about what’s happening in the scene. Here are a few examples:

Light - © Michael Gowin


Color - © Michael Gowin


Gesture - © Michael Gowin


4. Tell a story – Your image will have more impact if it tells a story. When you make pictures at family events (parties, holidays), take a series of images to tell the story. Get the people, of course, but also get the details.

Hotel boy - © Michael Gowin

Hotel boy

Buy my basket - © Michael Gowin

Buy my basket!

5. Find your composition – Here are three ways to compose better pictures:

Thirds – Divide the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically, then align your subject on the lines or the intersection points.

Eva thirds - Michael Gowin


Center – Center content and use the frame within a frame technique or leading lines.

Liam on porch - © Michael Gowin

Frame within a frame, centered

Liam reading - © Michael Gowin

Leading lines, centered

Fill the frame – Get close to your subject. Zoom with your lens or zoom with your feet. When photographing children, it’s important to get down on their level.

Liam vs Zombies - © Michael Gowin

Fill the frame

6. Watch your light – Photography is “writing with light” and it’s worthy of a lifetime of study. To get the best light on your subject, watch your background and choose softer light for people. The two photos below were made at the same time of day (about 11:00 AM). The first was made in very bright, harsh light–not good for a portrait. For the second image, we found a shady tree about 30 yards away. Much nicer.

Bad light - © Michael Gowin

Bad light–full sun, harsh shadows

Good light - © Michael Gowin

Good light–open shade under a tree, very flattering

7. Compose and wait – This is a lesson I learned from National Geographic photographer Sam Abell. Be patient and wait for your pictures. Take your time, take several frames. Try different lenses (focal lengths), move around. This image of Eva came at the end of almost 45 minutes of photographing over 100 frames.

Eva in her high chair - © Michael Gowin

Compose and wait

8. Take your camera with you – You’ll miss 100% of the images you don’t take. Take your camera with you everywhere. Get something small that’s easily carried and leave the big DSLR at home. I like the Olympus PEN E-P3 and three prime lenses (Panasonic 14mm and 20mm; Olympus 45mm).

9. Make prints – Sure, sharing images on facebook is great. But make prints, too. Put them on your desk, hang them on your walls, make a photo book. You’ll be glad you did.

Are you or your group interested in learning more about photography? Let me know and we’ll see about making something happen.