Photography has always been a large part of my life. My first camera (when I was about seven years old) was a Kodak Brownie 127, a plastic box camera for eight 4x6 cm pictures on 127 film, a paper-backed roll film format. Then, I only shot black and white film. Through the years my cameras became more complex and expensive. But it was not until I signed up to a local photography course that I really appreciated the additional advantages of processing one’s own film and quickly built a darkroom and purchased the equipment required.
This opened a whole new world of darkroom highlighting, shading, Solarization (the process of re-exposing photographic paper during the development process), and playing with chemicals to get certain effects. Nowadays, this can be done using digital software, but the experience is not the same as experimenting yourself.
Whether you use a conventional film camera or have just purchased your first DSLR and want to learn the basics or are looking for simple ways to update your existing photography skills, the following tips might help build a strong foundation. However, photography is an art, so the learning never stops.
So, what is Photography?
Photography is the art, application, and practice of creating durable images by recording light electronically using a digital sensor, or chemically using light-sensitive materials and chemicals, like photographic film. It is used in numerous fields of science, manufacturing, and business, and has more direct uses for art, film and video production, recreational purposes, hobby, and mass communication. Some cameras can also capture wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye, including UV, infrared, and radio.
Having been a senior Shotokan karate instructor I quickly learned that to keep improving the best way is to practice often using varied techniques, make mistakes and be open to learning from others.
Essential photography tips
1. Hold your camera correctly - Sounds obvious, doesn’t it, but many photographers do not hold their camera correctly, which can cause camera shake that produces blurry images. Tripods are the best way to reduce camera shake, but in truth, how many people carry a tripod, unless they are shooting in low light situations or have learned the hard way? If not using a tripod it is important to hold the camera correctly to help to reduce unnecessary movement.
Most people will sooner or later develop their own way of holding the camera, but it should always be held with both hands. Grip the right side of the camera with your right hand and place your left hand beneath the lens to support the weight of the camera.
Also, the closer you keep the camera to your body, the more stable it will become, so keep it close to the body mass. Additional stability can be achieved by leaning up against a wall or crouch down on your knees, but if there is nothing to lean on, try adopting a wider stance.
2. Composition - understand the rule of thirds, fifths, or sixes
Old artists deeply understood the composition rules. Most older photography books discuss the thirds, which is based on the idea that pictures are generally more interesting and well balanced when they are not centred. Imagining a grid placed over your images with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines that divide the picture into nine equal sections.
Rule of thirds is a photography guideline, dissecting the image into 9 parts, with two evenly spaced horizontal lines.
So, following the rule of thirds, rather than positioning your subject or the important elements of a scene at the centre of the photo, place them along one of the four lines, or at the points where the lines intersect. Many cameras even have a grid option you can turn on, which can be useful when composing images.
However, rules are made to be broken. Photography is about creativity and personal expression, so sometimes choose to break this rule and place the points of interest elsewhere in the photo. This is fine, but before breaking these rules, it is important to understand them and are in the habit of consciously thinking about composition, the points of interest, and where to place them.
These days, professionals, artists, illustrators, or photographers often use the rule of fifths or sixes for composition. Looking at the Dutch and Flemish painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who used fifths or sixes rules for grand naturalistic landscape and seascapes composition, to empathise dramatic a sky or ocean.
3. Eyes must always be in focus
When shooting portraits, the focusing area is small, so it is more important to get the image sharp. The eyes are an important facial feature, and they are often the first thing people look at, especially when it comes to close-ups photography and headshots.
So, the subject’s eyes should be the main point of focus. To get both eyes sharp, choose a single focus point and aim it at one of the eyes. Once the first eye is in focus, keep the shutter button pressed halfway down and move the camera to recompose the photo and include the second eye.
4. Consider the background
Normally, the background ought to be simple and as clutter-free as possible, so it does not pull the viewer’s attention from the main subject of the photograph. Muted colours and plain patterns often work well, no one wants viewers in being more interested in the colourful building or church tower in the background than your main subject unless a photographer wants to make a statement.
Fixing a distracting background can be as simple as moving the subject matter or changing an angle, but if that does not work, try to obscure it by using a wider aperture and getting in as close to the subject as possible. Whenever possible, keep the background neutral, especially if placing the subject off to one side of the photograph making the background more visible.
5. Play with perspective
The best way to up creativity levels is to experiment with perspective. Any scene will look remarkably changed when approached from a different angle, while, capturing your subject from above or below can change the feel of a photograph.
Of course, changing angles may not work for every photograph, but unless considered or tried how do you know what works. Experimentation is the key factor to help improve your photography. Make mistakes, try new things, and think out-of-the-box. When shooting small objects, animals, or children, get down to their level and view the world through their eyes. If shooting a portrait, consider standing on a bench and shoot your subject from above, or, have them stand on a bench and shoot up.
6. Shoot in RAW
RAW is a file format like jpeg, but unlike jpeg, it captures all the image data recorded by the camera’s sensor rather than compressing it. Shooting in RAW provides higher quality images but also allows for more control in post-processing. For instance, correcting underexposure problems or adjusting aspects like colour temperature, white balance, or contrast.
However, one negative aspect of shooting in RAW is that the files take up more space, so I advise using larger SD or Micro SD Cards. Furthermore, RAW photos need some sort of post-processing, so photo editing software is essential.
7. Understand the exposure triangle
While it can seem intimidating at first, the exposure triangle simply refers to the three most important elements of exposure, ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. When shooting in manual mode all three of these things need to be balanced to get sharp, well-lit photos.
ISO - controls the camera’s sensitivity to light. A low ISO setting means the camera will be less sensitive to light, while a higher ISO means it will be more sensitive to light. Conversely, the quality of the image will decrease as the ISO increases and you may see 'noise (grain)' on the image with a higher ISO. So, an ISO setting of 100 to 200 is usually ideal when shooting outdoors during the day, but when shooting in low light situations, such as indoors or at night, using a higher ISO of 400 to 800 or higher may be necessary.
Aperture - is the opening in your lens, it controls how much light gets through to the camera’s sensor as well as the depth of field. Depth of field refers to the area surrounding the focal point of the image which remains sharp. A wider aperture (indicated by a lower f-number) lets more light through, but it has a narrow depth of field. While a narrow aperture (indicated by a higher f-number) lets less light through but has a wider depth of field. A wide aperture is terrific when you want to isolate your subject, but when you want the whole scene to be in focus, such as with group shots, a narrow aperture is required.
Shutter speed - controls how long the shutter stays open when you take a picture. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light gets through to the camera’s sensor. A fast shutter speed is great for freezing action like a horse jumping a fence, while a longer shutter speed will blur motion. Long shutter speeds can give interesting effects, like flowing river water over rocks but require a tripod.
8. Use a narrow aperture for landscapes
Landscape photographs entail an atypical approach because everything in the foreground to the mountains in the background should be sharply in focus. So, when shooting a scene where everything needs to be fully in focus, select a narrow aperture rather than a wide one.
A larger f/ number means a narrower aperture, so aim towards f/22 or higher, depending on what the lens allows. Using Aperture Priority Mode (Av or A) will allow experimentation with different apertures without having to worry about adjusting the shutter speed each time.
9. Experiment using Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority Mode
Only using automatic mode will limit anyone’s photographic potential, so, experiment using Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av) and Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv), as they are two valuable options that are available on most cameras.
Aperture Priority Mode allows the selection of the aperture and then the camera adjusts the shutter speed accordingly. So, when shooting an object and want to blur the background, select a wide aperture, and let the camera decide the shutter speed.
While, Shutter Priority Mode, allows the selection of the shutter speed, and the camera will select the correct aperture. So, for a crisp shot of a racing car speeding past, select a fast shutter speed (a high number, 2000 or higher) and let the camera choose the aperture.
10. Raise the ISO
Many photographers try to elude shooting in high ISO as it will lead to grainy-looking photos or ‘noise’. But, while using a higher ISO can lead to lower image quality, grain in some photographs can be beneficial.
If the shutter speed cannot be lowered due to motion blur, and a tripod is not an option, it is better to obtain a sharp photo with some noise than no photo at all, anyway, much of the noise can be removed during the post-processing.
Furthermore, camera technology has improved so much in recent years, so it is possible to produce great photographs with ISOs of 1600, 3200, 6400, or higher.
Either way, using a wider aperture can help to minimise noise when shooting at higher ISOs, and slightly overexposing your image can also help, as making light areas darker in post-processing will not increase noise, whereas making dark areas lighter will.
Bearing that in mind, always check the camera's settings before going on a shoot. Discovering that the whole shoot was shot at an ISO 1000 on a bright sunny day can be exasperating, especially if the photos were taken to document a special occasion or other events that cannot be recreated.
It is an easy mistake to make (Yes, I learned the hard way), so, to avoid unpleasant surprises, make a habit of checking and resetting your ISO settings before shooting anything.
11. Learn to use the white balance
White balance can help you capture colours more accurately. Different types of light have different characteristics, so not adjust the camera's white balance will result in the colours in your photography taking on a marginally blue, orange, or green hue or ‘temperature’.
Of course, white balance can be fixed in post-processing, but it can become tedious if you have hundreds of photographs that require small adjustments. Some of the standard white balance settings on a camera include Automatic White Balance, Daylight, Cloudy, Flash, Shade, Fluorescent, and Tungsten.
Each is symbolised by a different icon, so check the camera’s manual. Automatic white balance works okay in many situations, but it is best to change the setting according to the type of light shooting in.
When shooting indoors I use daylight bulbs for photography and videos, actually, all the bulbs in the house are daylight rated.
12. Flash can be overused or not adequate
Built-in camera flash at night or in low light can lead to some unpleasant effects, such as red eyes or harsh shadows. Generally, it is more advisable to better to increase the ISO and get noisier photos than to use the on-camera flash and risk ruining the shot altogether.
However, occasionally there may not be enough light, and if you do not have off-camera lighting, there is no other choice but to use the built-in flash. If in this situation there are a couple of things that can be done. First, find the flash settings in the camera’s menu, then reduce the brightness as much as possible.
Secondly, use a diffuser, parchment paper is a good option, secure it with tape. Or bounce the light off the ceiling by holding a reflector or white cardboard in front of it at an angle.
Nearly all hot-shoe flashguns come with diffusers.
13. Invest in a tripod or two
To get sharp photos in low light without raising the ISO, a tripod is an essential accessory. It also allows experimentation with long exposure photography, when the shutter is open for seconds or minutes at a time, this can produce amazing effects when photographing like the sea, rivers, or waterfalls.
However, when purchasing a tripod, there are several things to consider, such as weight, stability, height, and flexibility.
14. Be selective
An important factor to realise is that every photographer, no matter how experienced or talented, will get mediocre shots. However, the reason their portfolios are impressive is that they only display their best work; they do not bore you with the twenty other photos depicting a virtually identical scene.
So, if you want your work to stand out on Facebook, Instagram, website, or photo-sharing sites like Flickr or 500px, narrow it down to a couple of extremely good photos from each shoot. By showing the mediocre shots you obscure the three or four great shots obtained.
15. Learn by mistakes
Getting overexposed, blurry, grainy, or badly composed photos may be frustrating, but use them as a learning tool, analyse them, what did you do wrong, what do you do right. Keep notes of each shot and the associated factors, like lighting, flash or no flash, handheld or tripod, strong winds with an insubstantial tripod.
Most of the time there will be a simple solution such as changing the composition or using a faster shutter speed or changing the aperture.
16. Invest in decent photo editing software
This brings us back to shooting in RAW: When shooting in RAW, post-processing will become essential rather than an afterthought, so invest in some photo editing software that will allow basic editing tasks such as, cropping, adjusting exposure, altering white balance and contrast, and removing blemishes.
Most professional photographers use programs like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, but less pricey options are Photoshop Elements, Picasa, Paint Shop Pro or GIMP (Gimp is a free powerful open-source software).
17. learn to shoot sunrise or sunset
Lighting can make or break a photo, and the early morning and evening are widely thought to be the best times of day for taking photos. In photography, the hour just after the sun rises or before it sets is called the ‘golden hour’, because the sun is lower in the sky and the light is softer and warmer.
Whether shooting landscapes, portraits, or still life, using the early morning or evening light can give photos a serene feel with its warm glow and the long shadows it casts.
One of the most useful techniques in photography is called bracketing, in other words, taking multiple photos of the same subject with different camera settings. Normally, bracketing is about changing your exposure: one photo at the meter’s recommendation, plus one under and one over. But exposure is not the only variable at play here.
Why Bracket Photos?
Bracketing means you capture a sequence of photos while changing your camera settings from shot to shot. This means you end up with two or more photos of the same scene, with only a couple of differences in each shot.
Exposure bracketing is the most common kind of bracketing in photography, will usually ending up with one photo that is too dark, one that is too bright, and one with a correct exposure. But bracketing the focus distance will resulting in one photo that is front-focused, another that is back-focused, and one that is accurate.
Some people consider bracketing takes up memory and wastes time. Especially if one knows what settings needed for an image, so, why bracket shots? There are two important reasons why bracketing is beneficial in photography.