Top Ten Photography Tips

In no particular order, here’s a handful of classic hints that will help improve anyone’s photos. I’m sure I’ve posted some (if not all) of these before, but they’re well worth repeating!

All of the shots below were taking in a single trip to Chesterfield by myself or Christa (depending on who had hold of the camera at the time!), and all with the standard 18-55mm kit lens. See, I told you it was under-rated :)

Know your camera

Like any other tool, every camera is different. Knowing how it works is one thing, but knowing how it works is another. This only comes from taking photos; lots and lots. You’ll learn what kind of shots the camera loves, and which ones it’s going to struggle with.

For example, my little (now sadly deceased) Nikon was outstanding at macro photography, but couldn’t handle bright scenes at all because of it’s limited dynamic range. So, I took lots of macro shots and looked like a pro :)

My Canon tends to over-expose shots to my liking, so I almost always shoot with -1/3 of a stop dialed in. That’s just a personal preference, and I’m sure other Canon users will have different opinions.

If you’re using an SLR, the body is only a part of the equation. Every lens behaves differently too, and it takes a while to know when you’re going to suffer lens flare and whether it’ll focus correctly.

It might seem like hard work, but the payoff is well worth it.

For the shot above, the light was high and bright, about 60 degrees to the left. If it had been more overhead, this pic would be full of hexagonal flare, and (IMHO) spoiled. The standard lens likes bright sunny days like this, so turns out skies with a very deep blue. Even though this is the ugliest building in Chesterfield, it still turned into a decent shot.

A camera you know is worth more than a $10,000 camera you don’t.

f/8 and be there

Back in the days when photo journalists used film cameras and had to focus manually, the phrase “f/8 and be there” was their mantra, and it still holds true today.

The photographer would set the aperture to f/8, pre-focus to a guesstimated distance and shoot away without worrying about the settings when the action began. It was a good plan, and just as useful now, for several reasons.

Firstly, most lenses are manufactured to perform at their best around f/8. Try this out; take a shot at f/8, then at the extremes. I’ll lay big odds that the pic looks sharpest at f/8, every time.

f/8 provides a good compromise between shutter speed and Depth of Field (see below). In situations where shutter-speed doesn’t matter (for example, shooting static subjects) or when DOF isn’t critical f/8 gives enough of both 99% of the time.

If you want proof, every single shot in this post was taken at f/8. Every darned one of them.

“f/8 and be there” means spending less time thinking about the camera, and more time thinking about the shot.

Your legs are your best zoom and your eyes are your best lens

The building above cracks me up each time I see it. “To Die For” is the name of the fashion outlet at the end of the road beside The Crooked Spire (see below) in Chesterfield.

It’s also got gravestones leaning against the side wall. Oh, the irony.

Being a good photographer is all about having an eye for a good photograph. It’s about being able to pre-visualize what the final result will be, a being willing to capture that image. I know this isn’t the shot I want of this place; I’ll keep working at it.

In the same vein, your legs are better at zooming than any micro-mechanical miracles built into your lens. While it’s not always possible to physically get closer to your subject, it’s worth making the effort if it is.

Consider this: the rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed faster than your focal length to keep the shot sharp. So, if you’re shooting at 50mm, anything faster than 1/60th of a second should be good. If you’re shooting at 300mm, you’ll need at least 1/300th of a second to stay sharp. Of course, YMMV, and technologies such as Image Stabilization help a lot, but the truism still holds.

This means that walking to the subject and taking the shot at 50mm means you can use a much slower shutter speed than if you’d needed to zoom. Which means wider Depth of Field (see below), and more control to you.

Use your eyes and your legs. They’re the best piece of photography equipment you own.

Use black & white to emphasize form

Watch a black and white movie and you’ll see some things lacking in any colour film; shadows, lines and light.

Shooting in monochrome is all about form and structure. It’s about contrasts, and bringing out the detail of objects. It’s about stripping down to the barest elements.

Sometimes, it’s all about colour, and That Is Good. Colour is great when it’s a necessary part of the scene. Other times, it’s just not needed, so get rid.

The wall in the above photo is bright orange brick, and the sky (thanks to the lens) deep blue. That’s a bad colour combination in anyone’s book, and detracted from the shape of the girders in the (sadly burned) roof. Losing the colours makes it clear what the subject is of the shot.

Colour. Use it, or lose it.

Know what PASM means

Program. Aperture. Shutter. Manual.

Any camera beyond the auto-everything models has the above options, though the wording and abbreviations might differ. What the settings actually do though remains largely the same, and are central to how your camera behaves.

Program mode is the default setting. The camera’s brain decides the shutter speed and aperture based on the subject, your focal length, ISO, lighting, etc. It’s a good mode if you’re handing the camera to someone less experienced, though I recommend making yourself avoid this “training wheel” setting and get used to the other modes instead.

Aperture mode (sometimes called Av) puts you in control of the aperture. No surprises there. The Aperture is the hole through which light shines into the camera, and by controlling that, you’re controlling the Depth of Field. As a rough guide, the larger the number, the larger the DOF. So, your Depth of Field at f/1.8 is less (a lot less) than you’ll get at f/22.

Somewhere confusingly, the smaller the number, the larger the hole actually is. f/64 is tiny, whereas f/1 is huge (and expensive). Don’t think about it too much, just think bigger Number, bigger Depth of Field and you’ll be fine.

All of the shots in this post were taken in Aperture mode, locked to f/8.

I’ll talk more about Depth of Field below, so moving on…..

Shutter mode (sometimes called Tv) is the flip-side. You control the Shutter speed, and the camera decides the corresponding Aperture size. This is most useful when you want to control the speed of the shot; if you’ve plenty of time, shutter speed can run into several seconds, wh
ereas there are times when you want to freeze the action by setting the shutter speed as quickly as possible.

Compared to Aperture mode, Shutter mode is a more creative option. You’re able to freeze or blur movement to any degree required. If you’re taking sports photographs, a working knowledge of Shutter mode is a must.

Lastly, Manual mode turns off the safety catch. You set the Shutter and Aperture. While the camera might warn if the shot is (in it’s opinion) under- or over-exposed, it won’t step in. This is the most creative mode of all, and open for much use and abuse :)

Manual mode is also the perfect choice when consistency is important. Most professional wedding photographs are taken by checking the light settings using a light meter or the in-camera reading and locking the values in place in Manual mode. This keeps all of the shots at the same exposure, depth of field and speed – even when a huge expanse of white wedding dress enters the frame.

PASM. Make it your mantra.

Shoot high, shoot low

Shots at eye level are boring. We all see them, all the time. It is, after all, where are eyes are.

So look up, or down. Climb if you can, or lay on the ground. I seem to spend most of my photography time on the floor :)

The world can look a very different place when you look at it from a different angle. Give it a try.

Think about the Depth of Field

The aperture controls how much is in focus, and how much isn’t. Whether you want a shallow Depth of Field or everything sharp from the front-to-back is a part of the creative process; it’s entirely up to you.

It’s well worth remembering one thing though, as it’s a twist in the tail: the closer you are to the subject, the less the Depth of Field is, even at the same Aperture.

Take a look at the shot above for proof, and compare it to this one of The Crooked Spire. Yes, it really is crooked. I know.

Both were taken at f/8, yet in the shot of the Coke bottles the DOF is only a couple of inches. Meanwhile at the church the Spire is only slightly blurred, even though it’s about a hundred feet away from the in-focus bush. Damn, I’m good.

Depth of Field becomes critical when you’re taking macro or extreme close-up photographs, where Depth of Field can be measured in millimetres.

Flash is a tool. Only use if it’s the right tool for the job

Doors are hell for a photographer. So are windows, glasses and any other reflective surface. More amateur shots are spoiled because of a great-big flash bloom reflecting off some unexpected surface in the background. Ick.

When it comes to flash, there’s only one right answer: don’t use it, unless you really, really, really have to.

Flash can be a great creative tool. It’s good for filling in a back-lit subject, for controlling shadows, and a host of other tasks. It’s not good for photographing friends, loved ones or anything else where you think more light is needed. If that’s the case, find a window, use a higher ISO or get a tripod. The on camera flash is not, repeat not the answer. Avoid where possible!

Seriously, given a choice between using the flash or ramping up the ISO setting, choose the latter. If you get a noisy image, convert it to monochrome and….. Oh wait. That’s the next tip.

Shoot in black & white when using high ISO

(Note to self: Damn! I didn’t shoot anything appropriate! Bugger.)

Like anything else, there’s a trade-off between ISO and noise levels. While low-noise ISO 100 is all well and good, sometimes you need to hitch up the ISO setting because of low light levels.

Heck, sometimes you just want to. That’s cool too. Very cool in fact.

The thing is that there comes a point with any camera when the noise level starts to get too….. noisy. On my (wonderful, frankly) Canon, it’s right up there at the top-end. ISO 1600 is still pretty good, though ISO 3200 can be very noisy indeed. YMMV. All-in-one digicams tends to get noisy are lower levels than DSLRs, and noisy ISO 400 and ISO 800 settings are the norm. Not to worry though…….

That’s when it’s time to think in monochrome.

Y’see, while noisy colour shots are ugly as hell, whereas noise actually adds something to a monochrome shot. Shooting at ISO 3200 in mono is like using Ilford Delta 3200 mono film again. It’s retro camera heaven in a modern techno-body. Terrific!

Go on. Give it a try.

It sure beats using the flash! :)

Post-work is a part of the process. Use it

Lastly (Phew!), remember that your computer is a part of the process.

If your camera has a 5 Megapixel sensor or higher, you’ve got pixels to spare, so use them. A 3 Megapixel image is all that’s needed to get a reasonable A4 print (though more pixels is, of course, better), so Shoot to Crop.

The shot above started life in the usual 2:1 format, but in my eye it was exactly as appeared here: letterbox format, emphasizing the distance between the sitters. One crop later and the image on screen is as I saw it.

Similarly, the images below are about 1/3rd crops of the starting shots; there’s no need to use a long zoom if you’re willing to crop.

All of the images in this post have been post-processed, even if it was only to resize them to blogsize. None of them have been sharpened (using f/8 means they’re sharp enough), though some have been adjusted for colour balance.

Sometimes though, no post-work is better than too much. The final pic below, while not great, is better for not being over-worked in Picasa.

I’m done!


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