Whether photography is a hobby or a full-time job, you’ll get a whole lot more out of it if you know how it works. With a strong grasp of aperture, shutter speed, sensitivity, and focal length, the ratio of really great to merely modest shots you download at the end of an expedition is all but assured to climb.
1. Shoot every day Like any craft, the more you do it, the better you can get. The finest camera you have is the one in your hand, so if you aren’t out with your whole DSLR kit, don’t be afraid to take outstanding photos with your cell phone camera or a point-and-shoot. Photography is photography, taking pictures with a camera. Any camera.
2. Always have your camera near Pull up a chair and I can tell two amazing scenes that have been indelibly embedded in my mind. Unfortunately, for the first, my camera was broken. For the second, it was out of reach. I have considered learning to draw or paint so I can make a “picture” of these two moments. The moral of these stories: have a camera within reach. You never know what will happen or what you will see.
3. Read your manual Camera manuals aren’t interesting reading, but they do tell you a lot about how to use your camera. Spend a night or two with your manual and get close to your camera. This will help you every time you photograph. Most manuals are now available electronically, so know where to find them, or save them on your mobile device for reference in the field.
4. Check your settings / know your gear I have often been lured to put the following note on a sticker and affix it to my LCD screen: “Check your ISO, dummy.” If I had a nickel for each time I went out in the sunlight with my ISO at 800 or higher after shooting the previous evening in a dark restaurant, I would own the latest camera. Know what your settings are and how to change them fast.
5. Change viewpoint/angle We see the world from eye level, and most people’s eyes are, generally, at roughly the same height. Should your photographs constantly record the world from the same altitude as your eyes? You will be amazed at how shooting from your knees, or high ground, will change your image. Watch a documentary film about a documentary photographer and see how they move and silently wonder how many pairs of pants they wear out by constantly kneeling to shoot from low angles.
6. Know your meter Know your camera’s metering modes and use them to your advantage. When you frame an image, see the light and then meter for how you want your scene to be exposed. Is the lighting flat? Is a ray of light illuminating your subject? Do you want the background to melt into darkness? Your camera will help you achieve your goal; you just have to tell it how to do it. Practice metering and setting exposure.
7. Know your shooting/exposure modes Similar to the last tip, your camera is smart, but it needs help from you from time to time. Some will tell you to always shoot manual. I disagree. Know how to shoot manually, but also know when other shooting/exposure modes will be advantageous for your particular photographic goal(s).
8. Know your focus modes If you use autofocus, and you likely do, the camera’s autofocus is either going to make the picture or ruin it. Know what the autofocus modes do and how to adjust focus if the camera suddenly decides it thinks it knows better than you what part of the frame you want in focus.
9. Study photos—but not too much Study the photographs of others. What do you like? What do you dislike? What would you improve? Is it perfect? Why, then, is it perfect? Look. Enjoy. Remember. Soak it in. But, don’t forget to go out and make your own images!
10. Read photo books Books and websites have helpful tips (I hope this counts). But, not all are created equal. Find writers who you connect with through their writing and find writers who give good advice. I am a big fan of “basic photography” books and, to this day, even with a Masters’s degree in the topic, I populate my bookshelf with inspirational books written for beginner photographers.
11. Learn / Workshops The only substitute for learning through reading is to take pictures yourself. Take a class. Take a workshop. Similar to books and websites, these are not all created equal, but, the one thing they should do is immerse you in photography for a night or a weekend, or more. Being immersed in the art and crafts is as important as anything else.
12. Use your histogram In digital photography, the histogram is the best way to evaluate your exposure for accuracy. The LCD screen can be misleading. Knowing how to read your histogram might be the difference between thinking you have a great photo and truly having a great photo.
13. Shoot raw, highest-resolution JPEG, or film Shooting raw gives you the best performance from your sensor. That is a fact. However, raw shooting isn’t practical for every photographer (or camera). So, if you aren’t going to shoot raw, shoot the highest-resolution JPEG that your camera allows. This way, even if you think you are just taking snapshots, you will have the ability to make a large print if you find that you captured an image you really like. Or, forget the digital raw vs. JPEG debate and shoot the film.
14. Compose meticulously There is a nature/nurture debate about composition. However, study the “rules” and observe composition in other images to help you “feel” what works nicely. Then, try to use that knowledge to your benefit. Be intentional about your composition, if time allows.
15. Symmetry Along the same lines, if you are going for symmetry, make sure you perfect it. A few inches in one direction can upset the image’s symmetry, and your audience will know you were going for symmetry and missed it. Photography can be a game of inches.
16. Pay attention to the frame edges The picture is more than the subject. Scrutinize the corners and the sides and the top and bottom of your frame. Is everything working together well, or is something completely out of place? Can you adjust to remove the “noise” of a busy scene? Look at the whole so the whole does not detract from your subject.
17. Pay attention to the background Evaluate your scene, especially in portraiture. Is that a tree rising out of the subject’s head, or just a funky new hat? Isolate your subjects from the background by changing the depth of field, moving the camera, or moving the subject—unless the subject is the background.
18. Get closer Robert Capa said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” He was 100% right. Fill your frame with the subject, if you can. This is one of the most difficult things to do in photography, as we sometimes worry about being invasive to a stranger, or lazily reach for a telephoto lens to “cheat” and pretend we got close. Get closer and see your imagery improve.
19. Slow down Of course, there are moments when you need a fast draw, but there is something to be said for planning and being deliberate. Think about the shot. Visualize the results and compute what you need to do to try to achieve them. Put your plan into action. Wait for elements to come together if needed, and then make a photograph.
20. Use a tripod Nothing slows you down like a tripod. This is a good thing. Did you just breeze over #19? The tripod won’t let you do that. Also, as an added bonus, the tripod will hold your camera steady and help you get a stronger image!