1. Create strong compositions
The first and perhaps most important thing is knowing how to compose a great picture. For centuries artists have understood and used so-called compositional "rules" in their work, and these foundations are being expanded constantly by modern media. Trevor Waldron of aspect2i says he can think of well over twenty guidelines that will help to make an image "sing". Often they're common sense, however many are not so obvious yet they're still extremely effective. Combined they articulate a set of visual tools that can hugely improve the aesthetics and impact of an image.
Some of the best known include: use leading lines, to draw the viewer's eye into the picture and towards the main subject; apply the 'rule of thirds', to bring a pleasing balance and harmony to a picture; make conscious use of foreground interest to provide a reference point and sense of position and perspective to the viewer, again to help them walk into the scene.
It doesn't matter what camera equipment you use, from a camera phone upwards, creating strong compositions will bring immediate improvements to your images.
2. Know how to use your camera
It's ok to leave the camera on 'auto' and point and shoot, especially when you need to act fast. However, what you do need to know are the limitations of your equipment and how to use it to it's best effect. Knowing how to use your camera provides you the means to capture different effects. For example, you may want to capture a sense of movement or have a background that is out of focus. You may also want to shoot in low light, or into bright light, both of which often give poor results when using auto. To achieve these things you need to know the settings on your camera are will bring about the desired effects.
In terms of limitations, the camera is not as versatile or selective as the human eye. They human eye can rapidly adjust to changing and different light levels and it is sensitive to a much broader range of light levels than a digital sensor or film. People are also selective in what they see and 'record' in the mind's eye Modern cameras are very sophisticated, they will help you expose correctly. However, the camera can only be set to one exposure at a time. You need to consider what is the most important part of the image to expose for and whether you may lose shadow or highlight detail. Maybe you could control the light with filters or take several exposures and 'blend' them together in photo editing software later. The choices are almost endless, but you must consider them at the time you're making your exposure.
Another feature that can sometimes work against you is 'auto-focus'. Is the camera really focusing on what you think should be the point of interest in the picture. Have you set the camera focus so that the eyes in a portrait will be selected to ensure that you get them pin sharp?
And so it continues; Choice of lens, shutter speed, aperture, flash, ISO settings, use of tripod, all determine the final image you capture. Ultimately you need to be able to use your camera with hardly a thought so your attention can be given fully to the image you are pursuing.
3. Be able to post process your photos
As already mentioned, the human eye is different to a camera in the way in which it responds to different light levels.
When you look at a scene your eye adjusts automatically for light and dark - it gives you the correct exposure for what you are focusing on.As you survey a scene it the eye's 'exposure' continually changes. However, the camera records the same exposure for every part of an of the image, however dark or bright that part might be. You may need to adjust this. For example, make selected areas darker, others lighter. It may also be necessary to improve contrast or saturation.
You may need to adjust the white balance or any colour cast. More often than not you will probably want to sharpen your image or remove dust and dirt spots.
Lastly, and certainly not least, cropping an image can dramatically alter the final impact of your photo.
There are very few basic adjustments that can or need to be made, and they're all simple to learn and do. Knowing and applying them as required will result in a photo that you can sit back and look at and say to yourself "great, that works".
© Michael Pilkington