With the prices on DSLRs and mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILCs) having fallen to something just above the cost of a box of cereal (I do admit to eating mostly premium cereals), more of us than ever are now toting serious photographic hardware around on our vacations, when we go hiking, or to our kids’ soccer games. Nonetheless, despite our massive technological superiority, most of us still take a staggering proportion of truly bad photos, with precious few keepers. A quick look at your friends’ unviewable travel albums on Facebook is no doubt sufficient evidence of this trend.
The problem, of course, for the most part isn’t in your camera. It’s in how you’re using it. Want to suck less at photography? Here’s a couple of really basic steps that should yield quick results.
(1) Stop shooting in auto.
Your humble digital camera has a marvelous technological brain in it, more powerful than the computers that first landed humans on the moon, but if you want to harness this massive technological power, you’re gonna have to give it a little direction.
First off, what do you want to do? Are you shooting sports and need to freeze motion with a high shutter speed? Do you want a portrait with a nice soft background, or a landscape where everything from the leaves at your fingertips to the mountains in the distance are nice and sharp?
My father, photographer Steve Crompton, came up in the days when cameras didn’t even have light meters, to say nothing of auto modes, and so considers it a luxury to shoot in full manual, but as a child of digital, I’m generally happiest to shoot in Aperture Priority (AE) Mode.
You know what the aperture is, right? It’s the hole in your lens that lets the light in. A smaller number (for example F3.5) = a bigger hole; a bigger number (for example F8 or F11) = a smaller hole. It’s counterintuitive, I know, but you can do this, I promise. Bigger holes (smaller F-numbers) will let in more light, and will make things other than what you’re focusing on blurrier (because of a phenomenon known as the collimation of light rays). Smaller holes (bigger numbers) will make things sharper from front to back (collimation again), but will also mean you let in less light. Less light means your shutter has to stay open for longer to get your camera’s sensor enough light to make an image.
Generally, what you’re going to want to control most of the time is depth of field (how sharp things are in the foreground/background), so stick your camera in AE Mode and pick a small number for soft, blurry backgrounds in for example portraits (generally as low as your lens will go) or a bigger number (F8 and F11 are always good standbys) for landscapes and other subjects that you want to be sharp from front to back. An old, oft-quoted photography adage is “F8 and be there” — a reference to middle-of-the-road F8 being a decent walkaround setting to use, which will give a reasonable amount of depth of field without making the shutter speed overly slow.
Oh, and a little more about shutter speed: If you notice that your shutter speed is getting low (1/50th, 1/20th, 1/8th of a second or lower), either make your aperture bigger (a smaller number), or up your ISO. Keep in mind that the longer your lens is (focal length), the higher your shutter speed needs to be to prevent blurring — at 18mm you might be able to get away with a tenth of a second; try that at 200mm however, and you’re in for some very bad results. Sometimes, when you want to either freeze (shooting sports or wildlife) or blur motion (shooting a waterfall from a tripod to get a nice soft appearance to the water), Shutter-Speed Priority mode is what you’ll want to use. It’s less useful on a general basis than AE mode, but it does have its place.
Finally, a little bit about ISO (the jargon seems impenetrable at first, doesn’t it?). ISO is just a measure of how sensitive your camera’s sensor is. In most DSLRs and ILCs it will look fine up to and including ISO 1600 — beyond that (depending on your camera) the image will start to look grainy and pixelated. This is often referred to as sensor ‘noise’.
It may seem a bit daunting at first, but if you can get past the jargon and get your head around the basic tripartite concept of Aperture-Shutter Speed-ISO that governs proper exposure, you can stop shooting in Auto tomorrow (and get better results for it!).
(2) Your eye is your camera.
Most people only think about taking photographs when they have their camera in their hands. This is a mistake. Your camera is just a tool for the creation of a particular effect, like an artist using a paintbrush to render a likeness on canvas. The image, and the strength of the image, come from the faculty of SEEING, not from the the tool used to record what you see. Say you’re good at playing the piano, or at martial arts, or at cooking — you typically devote thought to those even when the tools for practicing them aren’t directly in your hands; and though photography should be the same, it often isn’t.
A good exercise is to practice being a photographer when you’ve left the camera at home — have a walk around your neighborhood, just being receptive, and try to notice what catches your eye. Be aware when something jumps out at you, whether it’s a particular quality of light, an interesting series of visual lines, or a bold splash of color; and then, since you don’t have the worry of the camera to distract you, try and see just what it is that’s drawn your eye to that spot. Move around; get closer; crouch down on the ground; hold your fingers up to make a frame and see if you can make what’s interesting MORE interesting by blocking some things out of the frame. “Composition is just the strongest way of seeing,” as the legendary photography Edward Weston said, and if you want to compose strong, interesting, memorable photographs, you need to think about seeing first and photographing second.
Like anything other skill or practice, good photography is all about being in the right headspace, and in photography, that headspace is all about receptivity. Get good at noticing what’s actually visually interesting BEFORE you put your eye to the viewfinder, and you’re sure to walk away with more engaging images.
(3) Use your histogram.
See this graph-type thing? This is a histogram. Your camera is virtually guaranteed to have one, both as an option when you’re framing the photograph before you take it, and as a readout of what was actually captured after you take it. Like the technical stuff around aperture – shutter speed – ISO, this seems very technical, but was actually designed to provide basic, easy-to-interpret information on if your photograph is properly exposed or not.
So, here’s the thing: the left side of the histogram is your dark tones, to the point of pure black at the far left edge. The middle is your mid-tones (not that bright, not that dark), and on the right of the histogram are your light tones, to the point of pure white at the far right edge. While there are exceptions to this rule (scenes composed mostly of the color green will throw off your camera’s reading, for example), the important thing to remember is basically this: you want the hump of your graph to fall somewhere in the middle. If you’ve got a big wall all the way off the left side, you have things that are underexposed (too dark), and if you have a big wall off the right side, you have things that are overexposed (too light).
Want to understand what this means, practically? Have a look at the photograph below.
You see how the centre of the sky is just a burned-out mass of white with no detail or texture in it? Well, my friend, that’s overexposure, and you’ll notice that it don’t look so good! I can play around with that sky in a photo editing program all day, and no matter how good I am, the sky is always going to have a big, ugly, burnt-out patch in the centre. Now, had I looked at the histogram on this photo while I was taking it, or directly after, I could have easily seen the big wall going off the right side of the graph, and realized that the photo was badly overexposed. It would then have been easy to adjust my exposure, or snap another (better exposed) photograph.
While having a well-exposed photograph, of course, won’t turn an otherwise boring image into a keeper, paying a bit of attention to the histogram can help you keep the opposite from happening: having a great photo that’s spoiled by over- or under-exposure. Keep the foothills on the mountain of your histogram nice and low, and you’ll have done a lot towards getting it right.
(4) Study the images of excellent photographers and artists.
This goes along with point #2, in that I’ve generally found that — almost by osmosis! — looking at excellent visual art will sharpen your eye for seeing and creating it yourself. Whether it’s the virtuoso eye that impressionists like Monet had for color and landscape, or Ansel Adams‘ mastery of light and composition, getting great images into your head is an excellent way of driving your own photographic development, and helping you to see more creatively. So get out there and get shooting, and happy hunting!