How to improve your photos

Here are some tips for budding photographers or those just needing a nudge to get them going again. This isn't an exhaustive list but it should get you started.

1. Take lots of images

It's obvious. If you want to get better you need to practice. Digital cameras have helped in this regard. It costs a lot less to take lots of digital images than it does to shoot lots of frames on film. Regardless of whether you're a digital buff or prefer working with the analogue stuff you should still aim to shoot a large amount. However, just shooting a lot of images is not enough. You need to sit yourself down and take a close look at them, show your friends, post to an online forum, or ALL THREE.
What makes the image work and what could you have done better? Ask yourself why you like the image. Now ask someone else, or a number of people.
Remember, when you ask for an opinion on a image you have created, always ask for an explanation of the opinion. A response of "That's nice" is not enough for you to progress as a photographer. Why is it nice? Why don't you like it? Honest answers are what you're looking for.

2. Fill the frame

By filling the frame I mean, exclude all those distracting elements the detract from an image. That rubbish bin in the background. The couple of leaves hanging down at the top of the photo. Fill the frame with your photographic subject. If you're photographing a person try a head and shoulders shot and fill the frame with them. If it's a nature subject, get in close or zoom in. Don't let your subject get lost. A good rule of thumb is this. When you've taken your image, resize it down to a suitable size for email or the internet. Something along the lines of 750 pixels along the longest edge. If, after you've resized, you subject looks too small... you didn't fill the frame enough.

3. The Rule of 3rds

This is a very well known rule in the photography world. To use this rule, imagine the image you're about to take is divided up like a naughts-and-crosses grid. Two horizontal lines intersecting two vertical lines. The object of this rule is to place your key subjects on intersections of these lines. This is one of the most widely used rules for photography. There are others, but this is one you should practice with often. If your camera has auto-focus points displayed in the view finder you can use these to align your subject vertically.

4. Compositional placement

Let your feet do the walking, or zoom if you have it. Move around and find the most interesting placement for the subject or subjects of your image. Use leading lines to guide your viewer through the image to your subject. Railway track, roads, fences etc are fantastic for leading lines. Use story telling as a method for designing your image. Story telling is like a book, it involves a beginning, a middle and an end to your image. Place interesting subjects in the foreground, middle ground and background to have your images tell a story.

5. Time of Day

The time of day you decide to shoot can have a great effect on the quality of your photographs. Landscape photographers prefer the warm light of early morning (before 10 am) and afternoon (after 4 pm). Between these times, daylight takes on a bluer harsher quality. This can be countered by using warming filters like the 81A or 81B and colours can be boosted by using a polarizing filter. But what if it's overcast? So what! An overcast sky is perfect for photographing forest scenes under the canopy where the contrast is too great to capture if the sun is out. Inclement weather gives you a perfect opportunity to create some very moody images so if it's raining don't put your camera away, put your rain coat on, wrap your camera in a plastic bag and keep shooting.

6. Use a polarizing filter

A polarizing filter is a fantastic addition to your photographic kit. A polarizing filter helps by cutting down glare and reflections and boosting colour saturation. Do you wear polarized sun glasses? See the difference when you move them back and forth over your eyes? Well that's the effect you'll give to your images if you place one over the front of your lens. If your camera has auto focus, you'll need a circular polarizer. Without getting too technical, unpolarized light is traveling in all directions as it's reflected off many surfaces around us. This causes glare, and a polarizer absorbs a lot of this glare.

7. RTFM

Read The Flipping Manual!

You need to know how your camera works to get the most out of it. Find out how the light meter works at different exposure modes. How does the Flash function work? What ISO modes are available if you're using digital. Where and how do you change the ASA/ISO settings of your film camera. What do all those shooting modes do and how do you select the best one for your needs. (Hint: Don't always shoot in P or A modes. All your photos will look the same)
Don't just read the manual for your camera, go to my recommended reading section and get some inspiration.