I hope that this will be the first of several tutorials. This one is for non-gearheads. It's not too technical, and it doesn't require great camera gear. Later, I'll post a follow-up tutorial for people who have or want to buy better camera gear.
The Internet is filled with tutorials like "THESE 10 TIPS WILL TEACH YOU HOW TO TAKE PRO-QUALITY PHOTOS IN 4 HOURS OR LESS!!!" This is not one of those tutorials. Photography is like sewing. There's no royal road; there's no substitute for practice, critiques, and learning from one's mistakes. This tutorial discusses some of the fundamental issues-- what to think about, how to recognize problems, and how to fix them in a relatively straightforward way. These tips won't make you a great photographer, but they will keep you away from some of the worst technical and artistic problems.
In order to do all the things I discuss here, you will need:
-- A camera that has some kind of remote trigger. This could be a self-timer with a 10 or 12 second delay (press the shutter button, then run into position), a wireless remote (trigger your camera's shutter using a remote), or an intervalometer (set the camera to take pictures every X seconds).
-- A tripod or some other means to hold the camera in position. You can totally buy a cheap, crummy tripod for this. You just need the tripod to hold the camera so you don't have to. You do NOT need a multi-hundred-dollar tripod which is capable of holding a heavy camera with a giant, heavy lens very, very steady for long periods of time in freezing temperatures while still weighing less than five pounds. Will it not drop the camera? Will it not fall over? If so, you're good. On the other hand, if you don't have a tripod, you can work around it. Tape the camera to a floor lamp. Rubber-band your cell phone to a vacuum cleaner and set it on a chair. Get creative!
I had originally planned to recommend a companion of infinite patience in place of the tripod and the remote trigger. Having thought it over, though, I don't think it's a good idea. First, unless your companion is a photographer, they don't have that much patience. Second, repeatability is key. Take some pictures, see what happened, make adjustments, repeat. Having the camera in the exact same spot, not just the same general area, can be crucial when it comes to troubleshooting.
Anyway. Let's say you are ready for your photoshoot! You're wearing your outfit and you have your equipment. What do you do first? What do you think about first?
Find a background that isn't distracting.
No matter how expensive your gear and how much effort you've put into lighting and styling, a lousy background is guaranteed to make your photo look awful. First and foremost, you want a background which will not distract from you and the outfit. There is nothing wrong with a plain wall. Ever. Eventually, if you're ambitious, you can start looking for more creative backgrounds, but they require much, much more attention to detail.
Let's look at some examples of my photos and dissect what exactly makes them good or bad. Man, I feel so self-conscious posting the bad ones...
By this point, it should be apparent that it's best to start simple. A plain wall will never let you down. Once you've nailed taking photos in front of a plain wall, then you can branch out into something more artistic.
Pay attention to the lighting.
Honestly, lighting is to photography as pressing is to sewing. If you don't do sewing/photography, you probably never think about it. If you are into sewing/photography, you understand how fundamental it is to getting a good result. Poorly lit photos will drive you just as nuts as a poorly pressed dress.
First, it's important to think about the lighting situation in the foreground and background of the photo. Generally speaking, your body should be lit as bright or brighter than the background.
Next, it's important to understand the difference between hard light and soft light.
Generally, hard light comes from midday sun and small, harsh light sources, like a bare bulb. You can find soft light indoors, at dawn and in the evenings, and in shadow.
It's possible to get good photos with both hard light and soft light, but soft light is way harder to screw up. If you want to use hard light, be prepared to spend a lot of time figuring out how to point your head so that you don't get weird shadows on your face.
It's also important to pay attention to your expression, because sometimes the lighting can interact with it to produce a weird effect. For instance, me smiling in harsh sunlight generally looks really bad. I usually have to use a more neutral expression.
If you had a photographer, they would generally tell you how to tilt your face so that the lighting looks good. You won't have that, so it's just a matter with experimenting with a lot of different expressions and orientations for your face until you hit on something that looks OK.
Don't stand like an awkward person.
I'm not great at this one myself. It tends to look better if you don't stand perfectly symmetrically. Put one foot forward. Put more weight on one leg than another. Do different things with your arms. Tilt your head up or down or away from the camera. Lean up against something. You will have to spend a lot of time experimenting with what looks good and natural and what doesn't.
Check for major technical problems.
Make sure that the photo is not over- or underexposed. You don't want your body to look too light or too dark, and you don't want to blow highlights or have large parts of the image be completely black. Try zooming in or out, or moving to a different part of the frame, so the camera meters differently. If this fails, your best bet is probably to move to a different location.
Nope, this photo does not capture my transformation into some kind of etherial energy being. It's just overexposed. Sorry, folks!
Make sure that you are in focus. If the background is out of focus, that's fine, and an out-of-focus background can even be used for artistic effect. But, generally, the whole of your body should be in focus. If you're not in focus, try moving yourself or your camera a bit so that one of the camera's focus points catches on you. You can also try moving yourself towards the center of the frame, since that's generally where the most focus points are.
Make sure the photo does not show motion blur. This generally indicates that you're trying to take the photo in low light-- the camera tries to compensate with a longer exposure, which gives more time for either the camera or the subject to move and blur the photo. The best solution is usually to try taking the photo again in better light.
My skirt clearly shows motion blur, which could be artistic, but at higher resolutions, it's clear that the rest of my body does, too.
Make sure the photo is not too grainy. This problem is also caused by trying to take a picture in low light. The camera tries to compensate by increasing the sensitivity of the sensor, which results in a granier image. This problem tends to be particularly bad in cameras with small sensors, like cell phones and point-and-shoots. Again, the best solution is usually to try taking the photo again in better light. I'm sorry I don't have an example, but you probably know what I'm referring to-- my current camera is badass enough that it doesn't take photos that look grainy at web resolutions unless it's pitch black or I specifically order it to.
Don't zoom out to a wide angle, and don't use a wide-angle lens. Wide-angle lenses tend to distort proportions. With landscapes, it's generally not a problem. With people, it looks...well, I'll let you see for yourself...
Take lots of pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Then take some more pictures.
With this setup-- camera on a tripod, triggering the shutter remotely-- you have no feedback about how you look through the lens of the camera. The only way to combat this handicap is to try out a ton of different poses and expressions and hope that something turns out right. I usually run through 100-200 shots for 4-6 keepers. This is not a mark of shame! It is a mark of PRAGMATISM! Good thing SD cards are so cheap.
Look through your work and think about what went well, what didn't go well, and what you could change to get better results next time. Look through other peoples' work, both good and bad, and repeat the same process. Find some photographers you like and think about their work. Honestly, I wouldn't bother with modern fashion photography. I'm not a photographer with mad Photoshop skills and a kazillion flashes and strobes, and I'm not a model with an army of stylists and makeup artists. The sorts of results they achieve are simply not attainable for me. Heck, they're not even desirable to me. Instead, check out street photography. These photographers shoot people out in the real world under less-than-ideal conditions. They take people from all walks of life and make them look interesting, even beautiful.