Technology has completely changed today's cameras, even compared to cameras from just 15 years ago. Film really isn't used anymore, so instead of going to the shop to collect photo prints, we're more likely to be sharing digital files with family and friends online, showing them off on our mobiles or maybe occasionally printing them at home.

But even though the technology has changed, the rules and techniques for composing a great shot are basically the same today as they were in the 1800s.

Know your camera

The first thing most of us do when we buy a shiny new camera is to start snapping away like crazy. But if you take the time to check out some of the menu options or - now here's an idea - read the manual, you'll find you get better photos because you have more control over the process.

Take the time to familiarise yourself with the various presets available, and take lots of shots to see which results most reflect what you imagine a good photo to be. Look at the flash options available and get comfortable turning the flash off or using it to fill in low-light areas of a scene. Have a play around with modes and scenes 'til you know what you're doing, so when you need to take a great photo quickly you won't be messing around with unfamiliar controls.

Rule of thirds

Nature is rarely nice, neat and balanced, so your photos generally won't look natural if the focal point or subject is exactly in the centre of the frame. For more natural photos, you need to place your subject in an area that naturally draws the eye when scanning the whole scene.

couple leaning on a car by the side of the road

One of the most useful concepts to help you create a compelling photo is the rule of thirds. When you look at a scene through your viewfinder or LCD display, imagine overlaying a nine-square grid, like a game of tic tac toe; some cameras will even have an overlay like this as an optional display feature. If you can place interesting elements of your scene - like a person standing upright or the horizon - along one of these lines or at one of the four intersecting cross-points, you'll find that the final photograph looks much better and more natural than if you'd centred the shot.

Of course as with everything in life there are exceptions, like if you're going for a tight portrait or you want to recreate a more contrived situation. But for the most part, the rule of thirds is a great way to make your photo more pleasing to the eye.

Keep it steady

There are two ways to ensure a photo is nice and sharp: keep the camera steady by using a tripod, and/or select a fast shutter speed for your exposure. Not everybody has steady hands and some smaller cameras can be particularly difficult to brace properly. A tripod solves these problems and can ensure all your shots are level, although it's going to be a bit of a pain to carry if you're just taking happy snaps at a party.

If you find your action photos are blurry then another solution is to choose the action setting on your camera (often shown as a person running on the setting dial) or you can choose your own shutter speed to freeze the action with clarity. Selecting shutter priority on the dial allows you to set the shutter speed, and the corresponding aperture (the two in combination basically determine the exposure) will be set automatically.

A shutter speed of 1/60 of a second should ensure a sharp photo, if everything in the scene is fairly still. If you're taking photos of fast-moving objects or using a long optical zoom lens, then you'll need to select a faster shutter speed to capture the subjects clearly.

A general rule of thumb is to invert the speed and the size of the lens. For example, if you're taking a shot of a building using a 400mm lens, you should use a shutter speed no slower than 1/400 second. If your subject is moving, it should be 1/1000 of a second or faster. These selections affect your aperture choice, and generally this means that the faster the shutter speed you use, the smaller the aperture should be and the tighter the focus of the shot. In such instances, the subject will be sharp but the background will be a bit out of focus, which is an ideal situation for something like a portrait photo.

Don't run out of space

The great thing about digital photography is that, unlike film, you can keep taking shots and it costs nothing to preview the image and decide whether to keep it or delete it. The downside is that high resolution images can quickly take up all the space on your memory card. It wasn't long ago that a 1GB card was considered huge (and expensive), but today, a 16GB card is considered fairly standard and can be bought at most supermarkets for less than $20.

It's worth investing in extra storage so that if you fill up one memory card or storage device, you can easily plug in another. The last thing anyone wants is to run out of storage space on their camera halfway through their child's big birthday bash.

Having a lot of storage space also means you don't have to sort through the photos you've taken immediately, deleting 'bad ones' to free up more space. Just because the photos don't look great on the day doesn't mean you can't fix them up using a photo-editing program later.

The wonders of white balance

Have you ever taken what you thought was a great shot, only to have it looking like it was taken with a blue or orange light shining onto the subject?

Different light sources produce different shades of 'white' light, which is commonly measured in kelvin, a unit of temperature. Candlelight, for instance, has a colour temperature of about 1900 kelvin and is more orange, while many flashes and fluorescent tubes have a colour temperature of 5500 kelvin, producing a more blue-ish tint. It may not be noticeable to the naked eye, but it can ruin the mood of an otherwise great photo.

 

lamp and book with warm lighting lamp and book with neutral lighting 
Tungsten light appears warm in a daylight white balance Colours are more neutral when the white balance and light source are aligned

 

Many of the preset modes on your camera adjust the light intensity that's picked up by your camera's sensor, so that it records a typical scene more accurately. The automatic settings on a digital camera usually do a pretty good job determining the appropriate white balance (whether it's a tungsten, warm, fluorescent or daylight situation). Sometimes though you're better off adjusting the white balance manually, especially in circumstances where there may be multiple light sources of different colour temperatures, like a person standing in shade on a bright sunny day.

It pays to play

Ultimately, the best way to work out how to take great shots with your camera is to play with it. Take it out to different scenes and shoot in bright light, soft shade, indoors and at night to see what settings work best in different situations. Every camera is going to produce different results, so although following these simple steps is a great way to ensure well-composed, good looking photos, the only way to produce the results you really want is to experiment as much as you possibly can. And have fun with it!