When I first started out in photography, I didn’t know much. All I knew was that I wanted to take pictures of our infant son and “get bokeh.” I didn’t even know if that was a real term (it’s not), but all I knew was I wanted it. I guess you could say that’s what started it all. I made many mistakes and took some pretty ugly pictures, but have loved it the whole time. In light of that, I thought I would share some things I wish I knew when I first started out, so that you don’t make the same mistakes (and awful images) that I did.
01 | Photography is an Art of Exclusion
When I first heard this as a beginner, my initial reaction was, “What do you mean? Aren’t I taking pictures in the first place so that I can get everything in? Don’t I want to get the whole scene?” Not really. As I learned more and more, I realized that the idea of photography as an art of exclusion is so true. I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but David duChemin explains it so well in the introduction of his book, Seven.
“Photography is the art of exclusion, made so by the fact that it forces us to place what matters inside a frame, excluding all else. It’s a story-telling device of extraordinary elegance and simplicity. And by that act of exclusion we point more powerfully to the things within the frame, saying without words, because they aren’t needed when the photograph is clear, Look at this!” – David duChemin
Along those same lines, I found that it’s important to have a defined subject or point of focus in your image. It gives the viewer a place to rest and direct their eyes before taking in the image in its entirety. Having a definitive subject and story while excluding the unnecessary results in some of the most powerful and provocative images.
02 | Stop Shooting on Auto
Auto is useful for starting out. 9 times out of 10 you’ll get a decent picture with auto — your image will be in focus, your exposure will probably be pretty good, and your white balance will most likely be true to the situation. But the emotion and creativity behind your image will be rather lackluster. Auto lets the camera decide instead of you deciding and creating the image you initially envisioned.
Okay, so no auto mode. Now what? Many people will tell you to learn to shoot in manual. I think manual is great. You have full control over your camera. However, I personally shoot in aperture priority mode. One of my favourite things about photography is capturing and anticipating the moment, and I find it much harder to do that in manual. Aperture priority works for me so that I can quickly make camera adjustments as well as easily get that creamy bokeh and shallow depth of field that I personally love.
03 | Understand Your Camera and Lenses
For the longest time after I started shooting in Aperture Priority mode, I had no idea what exposure compensation was, let alone that it existed. I could not figure out why some of my images were so bright and some so dark. I really needed to read my camera manual and learn how to use my camera. Maybe I’ll share more about exposure compensation on another tips & tricks post because I’m sure there are many of you who are in the dark about it as much as I was (slight pun intended).
Also, it’s important to understand the limitations of your lenses. A lens with an f-stop of f/4 is not going to give you the same dreamy bokeh you may be hoping for in a lens with f/1.8. And no matter how much you may want your lens to focus on that tiny little flower, its good to know that all lenses have a minimum focusing distance, which is the shortest distance at which a lens can focus. So although you may try, you won’t be able to press down that shutter button — just buy yourself a macro and call it a day. Just kidding.
04 | Know What You Want to Convey When You Take Your Shot
I constantly try to ask myself what made me want to take this image in the first place. Was it the lighting? The color? The texture? The movement? Whatever it was, that thing needs to be conveyed in my image. With digital, it’s so easy to be haphazard about shooting and just shoot anything to hopefully get something. Instead, know what you want to say with your image, the emotion you want to express, and the story you want to tell.
05 | Don’t Shoot at Your Lens’ Lowest Aperature
When I first bought my 50mm f/1.8, I was so excited to get shallow depth of field, albeit a bit too excited and kept taking pictures at f/1.8. I wish I knew then that just because your lens can go down to f/1.8 doesn’t mean you should set it there. I remember always wondering why only a slice of my image was in focus — like only a thin strip of my food shots was in focus or only one sharp eye, leaving me with some pretty creepy results.
And I later learned that all lenses have a “sweet spot”, which is a particular lens’ sharpest aperture. Although this actual “sweet spot” is highly debatable, most lenses tend to be sharpest at about two stops above their maximum aperture. So even though your f/1.8 lens can open up to f/1.8, your sharpest apertures will be reached at f/2.2 or f/2.8.
06 | Move
Get higher. Get lower. Move closer. Move back. Lay on the floor. Stand on a chair. Moving makes for much more dynamic images with different perspectives and angles. This idea also goes along with photography as an art of an exclusion. Move so that the tree in the background is no longer growing out of your subject’s head or that ugly trash can or distracting bright light in the background is no longer in your frame. Also, using prime lenses really helped me learn how to move more and “work” my subject because there is no zoom. I had to zoom with my feet.
07 | Understand Light
Photography is all about light. Yes, there are other things involved, but so much revolves around light. Learn how bright mid-day light looks compared to open shade or golden hour — my favorite! Understand backlighting, side lighting, mixed lighting (not good), and strobe (still learning that one). Lighting is tricky, but with lots of practice, your meh images can soon become whoa images.
08 | Anticipate the Action
Aside from still-life, much of photography involves anticipating the moment — when a person will walk into a frame at just the right moment to have them placed exactly between those two buildings, or the moment a chef sprinkles salt onto his perfectly cooked dish, or a child suddenly laughs. Anticipating and being ready for when these golden moments happen is vital to the life and story of an image.
09 | Learn, Practice, Repeat
There are tons of resources out there for learning photography. And many of them are inexpensive or even free (see my previous post Learn Photography and Design on the Cheap). However, like most things in life, you can read and learn all you want, but if you don’t practice, you still won’t get much better. So learn as much as you can, practice the things you learned, and then learn some more!
10 | Find Yourself Photography Buddies
Photography Buddies are great for learning, especially when shooting together and then seeing how different your resulting images may be. My husband despises hiking, traveling or going anywhere remotely picturesque with me because he knows that I’ll be lagging behind taking photos while he and the kids are way ahead. Photography Buddies, though, understand this syndrome and will happily comply with your multiple “Can we stop a sec?” requests. Plus, photographers are just plain fun people! 😉
11| Shoot in RAW
I know I said 10 things I wish I knew, but here is one more for good measure. Shoot in RAW. When I first started, I only shot in JPEG. It’s all I knew, and it was working fine for me. Files were smaller (I’m constantly running out of space on my laptop), and it was just easier and faster. I think the main reason it took me so long to switch to RAW was I was lazy and didn’t understand the powerful capabilities of RAW. Try shooting with RAW, couple that with a great editing program like Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, move a few of those sliders around, and you’ll never turn back.
So these are my 10 (actually 11) photography tips and tricks that I hope you can learn from. Anybody have anything they’d like to add or share? Please do – I’d love to hear about it!