These days, photos are everything. If we haven’t take a picture of something and posted it somewhere, how can we say that thing actually occurred? But not everyone is a natural photographer. A series of photo classes across the US are aimed at helping all of us become better photographers. Here are some easy photography tips and tricks one budding photographer learned in a picturesque setting: riding the water taxi on the Chicago River.

Playing with light makes a better photo. Photo by Cindy Richards / Empty Nest TravelingMom

Playing with light makes a better photo, and reflections are fun. Photo by Cindy Richards / Empty Nest TravelingMom

Photography Tips and Tricks

As a journalist of a certain age, I came up during the glory days of this business. No, I didn’t have three martini lunches with sources. I had something better: a professional photographer who accompanied me on stories. I did the reporting, he did the photographing. Those days are long gone—a point that was driven home in 2013 when my old paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, laid off its entire photography staff, including the incomparable John White, a Pulitzer Prize winner. Why? Because the reporters could take photos and video with their iPhones.

Here at TravelingMom, we have never had that luxury of a photographer traveling with us. But I have had the luxury of learning photography tips and tricks from some of the best, including Photo TravelingMom Kymri Wilt and Rick Gerrity, a Panasonic Luminary. Still, one of my goals for 2016 is to become a better photographer. (You can check out my Instagram feed and tell me whether you think I’m improving.)

Photography tips and tricks - Getting the angle wrong makes for a not-so-great shot.

Getting the angle wrong makes for a not-so-great shot. Photo by Cindy Richards / Empty Nest TravelingMom

Photography tips and tricks - Get close and shot at an angle.

Same bridge from close-up and from a better angle improves the shot. Photo by Cindy Richards / Empty Nest TravelingMom

Learning from a Pro

One step on that journey included taking a photo class on better photo composition. I signed up with Digital Photo Academy. The academy offers hundreds of classes, both online and in person. I chose a class in Chicago, one of 23 cities that offers in-person classes. The session included a tour of the Chicago River, one of my city’s most underappreciated assets. The instructor, Don Peters, is a lawyer by day and a photographer by choice. He’s a warm and easy going guy who made it easy to ask questions and seek advice. In fact, it’s been nearly a month since the class and he’s still answering emails from students.

We students were an eclectic mix. Some came in pairs, some came alone. Several carried big, intimidating cameras and bags full of equipment. A couple, including a bright teen with a big camera, asked lots of questions about F-stops and exposure settings. Most of it meant little to me as I sat there, clutching my point and shoot Panasonic ZS60. It’s a nifty little camera that does many things I have yet to explore. It also, thankfully, has an automatic setting.

Overall, it was a great class and I picked up some great photography tips and tricks (more on that in a minute). But the one big issue is that the first 30 minutes of the class were spent talking about F-stops and exposure settings. With everyone in the class holding a different kind of camera, I found it impossible to keep up. The Digital Photo Academy offers a pre-session “Master Your Camera Controls” segment for an additional charge that would have been helpful to me. (I did get there early, but Don and I spent the time talking about taking photos on our travels, and I completely neglected to ask him to talk me through the camera.)

Photography tips and trikcs - Photos need context.

A before shot–taken inside the railing. Photo by Cindy Richards / Empty Nest TravelingMom

Photography tips and tricks - Use angles to pull the viewer's eye through a photo.

The improved after-shot shows how the railing adds a diagonal element that pulls the viewer’s eye through this photo. Photo by Cindy Richards/ Empty Nest TravelingMom

Photography Tips for Better Composition

Some of the basics:

Use the rule of thirds. This photography standard is about making your photo more interesting. Rather than center your subject in the middle of the photo, move the camera slightly to the right or left, or up or down, to put the subject off-center. Think of the photo field as a tic-tac-toe board and move the focus of your photo to someplace other than the center square.

Angles are interesting. Rather than shoot a photo straight-on, turn the camera a bit or move so the line becomes an angle across the photo, drawing the viewer’s eye through the picture.

Take lots of photos. Digital “film” is cheap, and the instant viewer makes it easy to delete the duds and reclaim that precious space on your memory card. I found it both humorous and humbling to have taken more than 120 photos that day and have only two I’m really proud of. Sigh.

Zoom with your feet. Move around. Try different angles and views. Don’t be satisfied with the view you happen to encounter as you walk up to the scene. There may be other, more compelling views if you just move around a bit.

Get close. No, even closer. This is something I have long watched the masters like Kymri, Rick and John White do, but I still rarely get it right. Moving in for the close-up is a game changer. I’m working on it.

Photography tips and tricks - Take lots of photos so you can delete the bad ones, like this.

A not-great photo. Too far away, too little going on. Photo by Cindy Richards / Empty Nest TravelingMom

Photography tips and tricks - Look for interesting reflections.

Capturing the reflections of buildings on a sunny day on the Chicago River. Photo by Cindy Richards / Empty Nest TravelingMom

Bottom Line on Digital Photo Academy

Did I become an expert photographer after a three-hour class on a perfect Saturday afternoon riding the water taxi on the Chicago River? No. But I did get incrementally better (again, you can be the judge of that). Even more important, I got one more photography mentor in Don Peters.

If I were to take another course (two of my classmates in June have taken other Digital Academy classes), I would opt for a different setting. While the Chicago River tour offers lots of opportunities for unique shots, they passed us by quickly. If I wanted a minute to think about how to photograph my subject differently, I lost—the water taxi had moved on by the time I figured it out.

Another class, like the one that tours Millennium Park, might be a better choice for a novice like me. Staying put and walking around one spot would offer more opportunities to study the subject and find the right angle or, heaven forbid, get really close.

Disclosure: My class participation was comped in return for this honest review. If you would like to join a class, it’s $99 for the three hours. If you don’t know your camera well, spring for the “Master Your Camera Controls” pre-session. The combined price is $120.

What are your best photography tips and tricks? Share with us in the comment section below.

Learn some photography tips and tricks while seeing Chicago from a unique vantage point -- riding the Chicago River Taxi.