A picking field in Kashmir

Photo: © Steve McCurry/National Geographic

Action Photos
If you routinely don't get the image you want—and instead get what happened just afterward—it's because the camera has to autofocus and take an exposure measurement at the same time.
If you can push the shutter button partway, the camera can take these measurements ahead of time. Then you can the picture right when you want to.

About the photo: From September 1999, this photo by Steve McCurry is of workers in a field in Kashmir.
A baseball game in Havana, Cuba

Photo: © David Alan Harvey/National Geographic

Ambient Light vs. Flash
In dark situations, your camera will want to use a flash—which shines a bright light and ruins the mood. Try turning off the flash to allow the warm glow of natural light to shine.

About the photo: This June 1999 photo by David Alan Harvey is of Cubans playing baseball in Havana.
A Huli wigman in Papua New Guinea

Photo: © Jodi Cobb/National Geographic

Megapixels and Resolution
What is resolution, and how does it affect digital photography? The first concept to master is the pixel—the building block of the image. Zooming into the photo's actual size, you can see the pixels. At this level, everything is jagged and squared.

Resolution is often described in terms of megapixels. Most digital cameras have 4 or more megapixels—which take pictures that are roughly 2,200 pixels by 1,700 pixels. (To find out your camera's megapixels, multiply the height and width and round to the nearest million.) The more megapixels you have, the more details and sharpness your pictures will have.

You will run into trouble with resolution if you begin manipulating the image with computer software—especially if you want to crop in close on one element in the photo. The basic mantra is: the bigger the better. To ensure you will be happy with the results, make sure you camera is on the highest resolution settings possible and be conservative with cropping.

About the photo: This November 2003 close-up photo by Jodi Cobb is of a Huli wigman in Garoka, Papua New Guinea.
Applying lipstick underwater in the 1940s.

Photo: © J. Baylor Roberts/National Geographic

Camera Symbols
Point-and-shoot photography is supposed to be simple, and knowing what the symbols on your digital camera mean will make it simpler.
  • The icon of a flower signals the macro mode. It allows your camera to focus very closely.
  • The lightning bolt icon controls the flash—either on, off or automatic when it senses limited light.
  • The icon that looks like a clock is the self-timer mode.
  • The "+/-" button allows you to override your camera's automatic exposure settings, to correct photos that are too light or too dark.
  • The icon that looks like stacked photos allows you to take rapid-fire photos.
About the photo: Taken in January 1944 by photographer J. Baylor Roberts, this photo captures performing swimmers applying lipstick on a set—located in Wakulla Springs, in northern Florida—used for underwater films.
An African elephant in Kenya

Photo: © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Automatic Settings
Your camera also likely has several automatic scene options, with settings for various specific locations.
  • "Sports" has higher shutter speeds for fast-moving action shots.
  • "Night" allows long exposures for limited lighting.
  • The icon that looks like a mountain is for landscapes. This gives you the most in focus from foreground to background.
  • "Portrait" throws background out of focus.
About the photo: This October 2008 photo by Michael Nichols is of an African elephant in Kenya's Samburu National Reserve.
Sport fishing in 1971

Photo: © Emory Kristof/National Geographic

Taking Candid Shots
Avoid taking too many staged photos. They lack excitement. Instead, take photos from different angles—get high, get low and point your camera to the spot where you anticipate action is going to be. The secret to getting great candids is taking lots of pictures. Shoot like crazy and keep the ones you want.

About the photo: Emory Kristof's July 1971 photo catches sport fishing vacationer and her blackfin tuna catch of the day.
Parrots that survived Hurricane Andrew

Photo: © Joel Sartore/National Geographic

Composition Tips
Was your trip spectacular, but your pictures aren't so great? A common amateur mistake is to take a wide shot of everything. Instead, try looking at it in a way you haven't tried before. The details can make great pictures in and of themselves. Zoom in, look for patterns and try different compositions.

Experiment with how you can capture your surroundings by changing shutters speeds, looking for details and pulling out interesting patterns. Unique views will help capture wonder and excitement of any special place.

About the photo: Joel Sartore's photo from April 1993 is of Lex Beatrous' red-lored Amazon parrots. These parrots, which survived Hurricane Andrew, were worth $600 each. Beatrous reportedly lost only two parrots in the devastating storm.
Alabaster chests from King Tut's tomb

Photo: © Kenneth Garrett/National Geographic

JPEG or Raw?
The JPEG format works well with all computers, but some data is thrown out when it is compressed from the original file. The advantage of this is the file is smaller; the disadvantage is less color detail.

Many new point-and-shoot cameras offer another image setting, called raw. This format captures data without any processing—almost like a digital negative—which then can be manipulated on a home computer. The drawback to raw files is that they are at least twice as big as JPEGs. However, if you're serious about your images and want to make exposure changes after the fact or large detailed prints, then raw is the way to go.

About the photo: Kenneth Garrett's September 1998 photo from Egypt captures the intricate alabaster chests that housed the internal organs of King Tutankamen.
A woman holds the hand of a lowland gorilla baby in Congo.

Photo: © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Use the Macro Setting
The macro setting transforms ordinary objects into the extraordinary. This feature allows you to get extra close to the subjects of your photos—sometimes revealing even more than you can see with the naked eye. Look for the button on your digital camera with the flower next to it, and try it out.

About the photo: At Congo's Lefini Faunal Reserve in February 2000, photographer Michael Nichols took this shot of a woman holding the hand of a baby lowland gorilla.
A Nunamiut boy holds a mask made of caribou hide

Photo: © Thomas J. Abercrombie/National Geographic

Telling a Story with Photos
If you usually think about capturing a moment with a single photo, try using multiple shots to tell a story. A good starting shot is one that will introduce the viewer to the situation. Like any good storytelling, photo storytelling needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Don't be shy—take a lot of pictures including plenty of close-ups, wide shots, reaction shots and candid moments.

About the photo:This December 1959 photo by Thomas J. Abercrombie, taken in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, captures a Nunamiut boy holding a mask made of caribou hide.
A man dusts a display at a Cabela's store in Nebraska.

Photo: © Joel Sartore/National Geographic

Use Available Light
You've probably never noticed, but light is changing around you all the time. Learning to see that change is the secret to taking outstanding photographs.

If you are outside at midday, the sun is at its peak and won't make for particularly interesting photos. If you can come back to the same spot later in the day, the sun will be closer to the horizon and you'll get warmer light from the sky. If you come back after sunset, you might find beautiful artificial light.

Looking for a quick tip? Take polarized sunglasses and hold them over your camera's lens. This will act as a filter, making the sky appear darker and creating greater contrast with the object you are shooting—and a more dramatic photo.

About the photo: Your eyes are not deceiving you. In this November 1998 photo, Joel Sartore capture an employee of a Cabela's store in Sidney, Nebraska, dusting off a display.
A boab tree in Western Australia

Photo: © Sam Abell/National Geographic

White Balance
Make your pictures more vivid by switching from the "auto white balance" (AWB) setting to the "daylight" setting. It will pick up the natural blue, purple and orange hues that AWB will miss.

About the photo: In the bush of Western Australia in January 1991, Sam Abell photographed this solitary boab tree.
A crocodile in Chad, captured by a remote camera

Photo: © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Zoom In
If you feel that your photos lack emotional impact, more often than not it's the distance between you and subject that is getting in the way of results.

When you view the picture on your camera's display, try zooming in on the subject. You might find that a tighter picture is better. Then go back to the camera mode, zoom in and take another one. Or, another way to get better photos is to use your body as the zoom: Move your body closer to your subject.

Either way, you'll find yourself with more intimate pictures.

About the photo: A remote camera operated by photographer Michael Nichols captured the tail of a crocodile entering its den at Chad's Zakouma National Park in March 2007.