Everyone who starts out in photography begins at square one, snapping off photos. But how do I get better at it? What are some things I can begin to look for in order to become better at this art-form? What makes a good photo? What should I take photos of? In the next few pages I will try and narrow down everything I know about photography into 10 ways you can improve your photography. These are some tips and tricks that I have picked up over the years and have used in different ways to develop my own photography and photographic style.
1. Rule of Thirds
Well, this one is said time and time again, and it is a little cliche. But none the less, using the rule of thirds will improve your photography no end. In saying this, you can begin to break the trend if your photos are looking too prescribed, but as a starting point, use the thirds guidelines available on most cameras to begin with. This will give you a starting point, and if you want to off set subject matters, or push the boundaries a little bit more, then you can. The rule of thirds is actually all about composition, and learning to compose your shot is the number one way to improve your photography.
2. Change Your Perspective
One way to make your photographs a little different, a little less standard is to change your perspective. Rather than taking your photos from eye height all the time, try going down on your haunches and making the shot. Try lying down on the ground, or moving off to the left or right of the subject. You’ll be amazed at how being below your subject matter can change the photo entirely. Even with landscape photography, I’ve found that many of my best shots have not been taken from up hight, but actually been taken by lowering my tripod right down below my knees.
3. Go Manual
Going Manual is possibly the best thing I did. For a very long time I shot in Aperture priority mode. I found aperture a lot easier to understand and control than shutter speed and ISO. But, once I worked out that switching to M mode, I can control all three simultaniously, and I worked out how to use the light meter correctly to get the right exposure, it has really put me in a place where I feel like I am in complete control of the camera. It’s a bit like driving an automatic car which does the gear changes, looks after the clutch and all of that, compared to driving a manual car where you get to control all of that yourself. I know I prefer manuals because I feel more comfortable being able to control all of those things myself. The same applies for photography.
To understand more about using aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, I recommend reading The Exposure Triangle blog post.
4. Look in Black and White
Possibly one of the most difficult things to do is to begin to see scenes in Black and White. This can help you, not necessarily just for Black and White photography, but will help you to see things like tone and contrast in a shot. There has been many a time where I’ve come to a scene and been able to say “This will make a great monochrome shot”. How? Just by looking at the tones and the contrast. So even if it doesn’t work in colour, I can always try it in Black and White and it could be that you get that magic shot you’ve been looking for.
5. Find Lines
One way to get people to look into your photos is to try and draw them in. Use some perspective lines to pull them out to the horizon or the middle of your frame. That way they’ll have a look around at what else is in your photo.
Below is a couple of examples that I have taken that use lines to draw in the viewer in different ways.
6. Use a Tripod
I maintain that a great photo can be taken on any camera. So gear does not always play a big factor into improving your photography at all. Certain cameras will let you do certain things better, and achieve certain results easier, but the foundations of photography will be able to be captured with any camera.
In saying this however, there is one piece of gear that will dramatically improve your photography, and that is a tripod.
There is only so much shudder a camera can take. When you take into account your breathing, your unsteady hand, the mirror locking in the up position, the wind blowing, and a less then impressive shutter speed due to low light, you can start to see how a good photo can become a blurry one.
The key to getting a sharp shot, one that the eye can appreciate, is using a tripod.
Any tripod will do, but obviously, the more stable and sturdy your tripod is, the less shake you will get and the cleaner your images will be. There are other things that can also help with this, such as a remote shutter, or use the 2 second delay instead of pressing (and moving the camera ever so slightly) with your finger.
7. Try Different Things
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. There are heaps of things you can try in photography without buying expensive gear or anything. For instance, use your body cap, a pin, a piece of tape, and a piece of aluminium foil to transform your DSLR into a pinhole camera. Or maybe try holding a magnifying glass between your lens and your subject for a macro effect. Try using a Pringles can as an extension tube to get even more macro. Or you could try “painting” a subject in light in a dark room whilst your camera shutter is open, and see what you can achieve. Get out and try it. You never know, it could become what makes your photos stand out among the crowd, and you may begin to develop your own style.
8. Learn Your Histogram
I recently read a great article in a free e-book by Craft and Vision about how to use a histogram to collect the most “data” on your digital sensor. I had previously not given much thought towards the histogram, and thought it was just a computer gimmick that Adobe Photoshop Lightroom had implemented, and some cameras used the same technology. However, learning how to use it to the photographers advantage, by making sure you don’t over or under expose has already helped my photography, especially since after you’ve captured the photo, you can edit it with the data as long as it’s not over or under exposed.
9. Look First, Shoot Later
One exercise I have used in the past is the 15 minute task. Take 5 minutes to walk into a spot, environment, or place that you want to shoot. Get to know it. Walk around it. Sit down. Look at it in different angles. See the little things. See the big things. Eventually, once you have looked with your own eyes, you will be able to see your subject, and be able to make the photo. I often do this before I shoot – even with familiar places that I have photographed before. Then spend 5 minutes setting up your angles, positioning your camera in different spots and getting the angles that you found work best. The last 5 minutes, of course, is to take the photo.
10. Take Photos
Okay, so now you have read all about how to improve your photos. Now you need to get out there. Take photos. And when you feel like stopping. Take ten more. The reality is, you can read all the books you like on swimming, but the only way to become a good swimmer is to jump in the pool. Likewise with photography. You can sit here and read my entire website and tips and tricks on photography, you can look at countless photos on 500px for inspiration. But the only way you’re actually going to get better at taking photos, is to get out there and snap away. If you’ve joined us in the digital age of photography, consider yourself lucky that you’re not limited to 25 frames and a 2 day wait to see the results. These days you can see results of your shot and whether you got it right in fractions of seconds. Use that to your advantage and just get out there and snap away!
11. Embrase the Digital Darkroom
What’s this!? A bonus tip! All for free. Actually, it will be three bonus tips! Even better.
I want to encourage you to sort yourself out some digital darkroom software. To improve your photography you have to be able to make adjustments to it to create the feel and develop your own style. It’s also terribly important to make corrections, such as cropping, straightening etc, which can make or break a photo. I generally will take a range of photos, and then go through and select the ones I will take to the next stage. I can spend a good 30 minutes on one photo, pushing levels, checking the crop sizes, straightening, sliding adjustment sliders, adding vignetting, fixing dust spots, and trying Black and White with some split toning options. All of this is the same as what you would do in a dark room, except that this time, it’s all digital.
To be honest, I don’t actually use Photoshop for much other than HDR on the odd occasion I try that out. For the most part, I use Adobe Lightroom, which is a by-product of Photoshop, but specifically for photography. And considerably cheaper.
12. Showing Off Your Work
The other aspect to the digital nature of photography is about showing off your work. There are many websites out there now where you can show off your photography. Initially I published a lot of my photos on Flickr. This was because it was/is very mainstream and has a lot of people on it who can then view your work. It also allowed you to integrate your Flickr photos with websites, especially those running WordPress like my site does. This made it very easy to publish once, and have the photos both in Flickr and on my website.
Another website I now use religiously is 500px.com. I was suspicious at first to begin using this, but ever since switching to using this instead of Flickr, I have found it to be much, much better. Firstly, 500px is mostly filled with photographers. Flickr widened it’s range to far too many people and every man and his dog was using it to put pictures that they had merely taken of their holiday to the beach straight from their cameras. That’s where 500px storms ahead, as, for the most part, the users are there to promote their work and use the site for their personal portfolio. It also integrates with other websites, thus making Flickr somewhat redundant for me. I now tend to use Flickr for some rubbish photos that are reasonably okay as a way of backing them up somewhere, rather than showing off my work.
One thing that Scott Kelby (see below) mentions in his box set is to make sure to only publish your best work. This is something that I have taken to heart, and I rarely will publish every photo that I take into post process, and instead will only publish photos that really mean something to me, or ones that I find invigorating and beautiful. This is about quality, and the fact that your portfolio will look much more accomplished in the long run. But at the same time, it helps you to be much more critical of your own work. It makes you work hard to get a photo up to your own standard. It helps to improve your photography as you begin to compare, rate, and take into account improvements to your skills.
I publish the ones that I think make the grade to 500px as part of my portfolio, and then link to them both in my website, and also on my other social media pages to spread the word.
13. Find Inspiration
This tip is essentially what you’re trying to do now. Get schooled! Read different photography websites, magazines, books. Visit galleries, meet other photographers, watch you tube clips. All of this will give you some know how to inform your photography, and who knows what ideas you will pick up along the way.
One thing I like to do is each Saturday morning when I wake up is to watch DigitalRev TV on Youtube, and catch up on the latest reviews of camera gear, as well as some interesting tips and tricks on other ideas of photography. Another good one is AdoramaTV. Both of these also have very good websites.
Two authors I’d recommend are Scott Kelby (especially his Digital Photography box set) and Joe McNally, both who have a lot of experience with cameras, and Photoshop. They have both helped me to get up to speed with my camera, the technicalities of photography, and with the digital darkroom.
And that is it. With that, stop reading up on how to get better at photography, and go and do it. At the end of the day, telling you these things will only get you so far. Now you have to take it, and run with it. Let me know how you get on!