As most of us, I guess you’ve come home, uploading your pictures to your computer, browsing through your pictures eager to share them online and thinking…. “hmm, I don’t want to share any of these online, not even those I was sure would be great when I pressed the shutter button”. What happened? The camera does a very good job determining the white balance, exposure and focus, but the rest of it is controlled by the person who took the picture. So don’t blame the camera in the first place.
Here are some tips that will improve your personal skills to take better pictures.
1 Buy a model specific book
This one is obvious for some, and not so much for others. The user manual that comes in the box in most cases doesn’t describe the features or settings very well. Personally I like the books from Nikonians Press written by Darrell Young and Mike Hagen. Others may have other preferences.
2 Learn your camera settings, dials and menus
By this I mean you should know all of the buttons and (mostly) all of the settings. This way you know in the back of your head that there is actually is a setting that can help you somewhere when you come across a situation you need it. If you don’t know about it, you can’t use it.
3 Exercise how to hold your camera and lens
Sooner rather than later you would like to take a picture in low light and need to know how to handhold your camera as best you can. What is regarded as best way is to position your camera and lens in your left palm. If it’s a zoom lens your hand need to be in the right spot to adjust the zoom ring with your thumb and fingertips without the lens itself moving in your palm. Your right hand should hold the right side of the camera with the finger ready on the shutter button and the thumb ready to adjust focus point if necessary. Both arms tucked closely into your body for support. Control your breathing and hold your breath while squeezing the shutter button gently. This is not a substitute for stabilization in camera or lens, its an addition to.
4 Understand your lenses and what they can do
Even if you just have one, but especially if you have several lenses, you should learn their strengths and weaknesses (sharpness, vignetting, contrast, bokeh and so on for the different apertures and focal lengths). If they have stabilization, learn the different modes if they have more than one.
5 Learn metering and focus modes
A modern DSLR is more like a supercomputer, and has several different ways of meter the light and how to focus. As mentioned in Tip 1, study your camera model specific book and try to understand what they do and their differences. Then practice to see if you and the camera have the same understanding, and then master it.
6 Learn how shutter, aperture and ISO works together
This is the holy trinity of photography. All three are equally dependent on each other, and if you adjust one of them up 1 EV (Exposure Value) one of the other has to be adjusted down the same value to get the same exposure. 1 EV is the same as doubling or halving shutter speed, aperture or ISO.
7 Learn manual mode and/or exposure compensation
In manual mode you are in full control of your exposure and it won’t change by the camera. With just a little practice you can predict quite accurate how to set the camera in manual by looking at the scene in front of you. This way you can deliberately over- or underexpose, or have a series of photos with the same exposure. If you on the other hand prefer to shoot in P, A or S you can use exposure compensation to deliberate over-steer the camera’s metering-system to your liking. You won’t be able to get a series of shots with same exposure this way though.
8 Learn flash compensation and/or manual flash
Don’t fear your flash! It can really save your day in tricky lighting conditions. Like the previous tip, you can control your flash either by full manual or by compensation. In most situations you will come a long way by just using compensation, like 1 to 2 EV down from what the camera wants, to add a touch of light. With an external flash mounted in the hot shoe, you have even more options like bouncing the light off of something behind you or from the side, making the light more pleasant (be aware the bounced light will pick up the surface color of the bounced surface). For full control, use manual exposure mode and manual flash mode.
9 Read more books about photography and watch videos on YouTube
Always be open to learn more, be it a book, magazine, online, persons in your community or people you meet on your travels. (Just be aware there is a lot of crap online, so be careful about what you read and watch), I feel books in most cases are a more reliable source of information although there are some great YouTube channels and websites, too.
10 Understand light
This might come as a surprise to some, but to put in extreme, no light – no photography, capturing the light is the essence of photography. Broad light, back light, front light, side light, soft light, hard light, diffused light, bounced light, colored light, light fall off and shadow. In portraiture we even have more terms, but this should cover the basics and should be learned and understood.
11 Composition, perspective, foreground – subject – background
Related to Tip 9, learn and think composition and perspective before you take a photo. If you are able to, control your foreground and background to make your subject stand out either by moving yourself, removing distracting objects or by depth of field (foreground/background blur).
12 Understand depth of field
Depth of field (DoF) is the area that is in acceptable focus. It’s a gradient and not a sharp line, so the farther away from the focus point you get, the more out of focus it gets. Large aperture (small F-number) gives short depth of field and smaller aperture gives larger depth of field. This can be used very creatively and the quality of the background blur is often called “bokeh”. Means, how pleasant is the blur.
13 Pay attention to the frames edges
If there are some unwanted clutter at the edge of your frame, distracting the composition in the picture, move slightly or change your focal length slightly, if possible. If there are people, wait until they move away. This goes for the rest of the frame too of course, but it’s easier to miss around the edges of the frame.
14 Think first, then shoot (don’t think you can fix everything in post)
If you think you can fix it in “photoshop”, stop that thought immediately! Whatever you can do better in camera, it makes you a better photographer and saves you valuable time in front of the computer. And also, don’t machine-gun your camera and hope that you get some keepers (for fast action and sports, this may be the way though).
15 Learn your photo-editing software
This does not contradict the previous tip, but enhances it. Even if you set up your camera quite well, you will in most cases do some quick global adjustments like contrast, color, shadow- and/or highlight protection and so on.
16 Shoot regularly
For us happy hobbyists, this is an important one. In many cases we bring out the camera only when we need it, even if its months since last time. We get rusty and take bad photos. Break out your camera at least once a week and use lenses that you don’t use so often.
17 Take a deep breath and slow down
It’s too easy to be stressed and in a hurry to go further to the next exciting thing to photograph. Have enough self-insight and self-control to slow yourself down and take an extra look at the scenes around you. As Henry David Thoreau said: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see”. Let this quote sink in.
18 Set short and long term goals
Businesses do this all of the time, why can’t we hobbyist photographers do it too? It can be anything really, but try to make a long-term goal and break it down to a couple of short-terms that will lead to the long-term, so that the long-term goal won’t look too intimidating. Doesn’t need to be just one goal, it can be several different, like places you would like to go to, buildings or places you would like to photograph, lenses you would like to have, other type of gear you would like to buy, knowledge you would like to acquire by reading books or checking video/websites online and so on. This way you will more easily stay focused on what you want to achieve and maybe also spot things that will distract you in the process. And don’t be afraid of adjusting or revisiting your goals along the way if you see they won’t bring you the way you like as new things that matter may come into play.
19 Have fun
Maybe not as important for us hobbyists as we do it because we like it, but none the less, keep it in mind. Maybe something we should try to capture in our photographs more often, too?
20 Break the rules
Yes, after all this I ask you to break the rules. But I will also ask you to learn the rules of photography first before you break them, so it won’t be because of your ignorance. Obviously you shouldn’t brake the rules all of the time, but you shouldn’t let the rules stand in your way of taking a great picture.
Several of the points are deliberately not explained in details, that’s because some of the subjects are huge and would need much more space than this blog post to be thoroughly made clear. That’s why I recommend reading books, browse websites, watching videos and interact with other people with the same interests.
Did you get any good ideas? More tips that you think I should have added? Please let me know int he comments below.