Easy Tips to Improve Your Photography Skills – The Ultimate Guide
If you have some experience in photography already but you’re struggling to get those epic shots that the pros seem to take with ease, then you’re probably wondering what the secret is that they’re all keeping from you. But the good and bad news is there aren’t any secrets and instead it takes a lot of experience, skill and knowledge, and with a bit of hard work you’ll be there in no time. So hopefully I can give you a head start to get you on your way to that professional level status.
Choose Your Subjects Carefully
When you’re choosing a subject, I’d recommend you choose something that interests and inspires you, because this will really help keep you motivated to shoot more often and so improve.
Here’s a few tips to help you with choosing a subject:
-To make the process easier try shooting something you have experience with, for example you could shoot behind the scenes at your workplace and get unique photos of areas that most photographers don’t have access to.
-Perhaps you play or watch a sport, have an interesting hobby or have a friend that could model for you.
-Another idea to try is documenting something that’s rarely seen in day to day life, for example a war or someone with an interesting story to depict.
Less is More
Cluttering your photo with everything you can fit in is a common mistake made by beginners. You might think the more subjects in your photo, the more interesting it will be, but this will only distract the viewer and leave them confused and unable to focus on anything in particular.
One way to fix this is by picking only subjects that are essential and then zooming in to fill the frame with only these, cropping out subjects that don’t add any value to your photo. Another couple of ways to de-clutter your photo is by moving around and shooting from different angles to include different subjects, but if all else fails you could pick a new location.
Once you’ve mastered the basics of photography the next skill to work on is composing your photo, but if you’re not sure where to start with this then I would recommend looking up some composition techniques such as “the rule of thirds”, “leading lines” and “balance”.
Here’s a few things to play around with for more creative shots:
-The angles you shoot from, for example you could try setting your camera on the ground or finding a higher viewpoint.
-Include different subjects in your foreground and background.
-Play around with your camera settings such as using wider apertures or changing your focus points to blur out different subjects.
-Try some artistic techniques such as shooting the whole photo out of focus, use long exposures to add some blur, or give HDR photography a try.
Lighting is Key
Lighting is probably the most important element for a dramatic photo and is often overlooked by beginners. If you’ve noticed some of your photos look boring, dull and lack color and contrast then more often than not this is a result of bad lighting. Light has many positive effects including bringing out color, contrast, shadows, texture, shape and form.
If you’re shooting outdoors then you’ll come to learn that sunlight is incredibly important. If you’re shooting on an overcast day with no sun in sight then your photo will likely lack any impact and drama and this applies especially to landscape photography. But on the other hand cloudy days can work well with gaps in the clouds and visible sunrays, or with dark storm clouds. And another exception to this rule is with portraits because the clouds act as a giant, natural softbox which will give your model softer and more even skin tones.
If you’re shooting indoors then studio lighting is probably the best option for professionals, but as a beginner this isn’t necessary and probably not feasible. But an alternative to studio lighting is using a flashgun with diffuser, and this can give similar results. One thing you don’t want to do though is use your on camera flash, because it’s pretty much useless for any type of photography and will give a harsh light focused into one area, resulting in an overexposed subject surrounded with dark shadows. Another option that doesn’t require buying any gear and which can create some very dramatic light and shadows is by using natural sunlight from your windows.
Analyze Your Photos
Often you’ll find you’ve taken what you think is the perfect shot and then you get home and realize it’s out of focus, blurred, too bright or too dark. Some reasons for this is you’re not checking your photos on the camera screen after you’ve shot them, or you haven’t checked them properly. But this is also a problem with viewing them on such a small screen and often they just don’t look the same when blown up on a larger screen. One way to combat this problem is by using the zoom feature on your camera so you can analyze the smaller details such as sharpness, focus, blur etc.
Start a Project
If you’re struggling for motivation or new ideas then starting a project can be a real help. There’s loads of project ideas online for example you could try out shooting Bokeh, choosing a theme or shooting with an old camera.
Browsing other photographer’s photos is a good way to learn new techniques and give you some ideas. Some of the best places for this are photography social networks, for example Flickr, 500px or Instagram. These aren’t just useful for browsing other peoples photos though, they’re also a good way to get your own photos out there and get some critique.
Get the Exposure Right
You’ll quickly come across the issue of an overexposed or underexposed image, but sometimes it’s hard to judge when this is happening and you might not even be aware of it. A wrong exposure is basically when areas in your photo or the whole of it are either too dark (underexposure), resulting in loss of details in the shadows, or too bright (overexposure), resulting in loss of details in the highlights. In landscape photography this is common when the sky is brighter than the ground and the camera has trouble exposing both areas correctly, so it will try to expose one area correctly and leave for example the sky a bright white.
Correcting a photo in which the whole of it is at the wrong exposure is easy and all you need to do is change the exposure compensation setting to increase or decrease the brightness, but if only parts of your photo are exposed wrong then this won’t do the job. There’s a few ways to correct this, but it’s not quite as simple and requires a bit more work.
-One way of doing this is by using an ND grad filter to darken part of the photo, which works well to correct an overexposed sky.
-Another option that many modern DSLR’s have is using HDR mode which will capture a larger range of light.
-But probably the best option which requires a bit more work is creating your own HDR photo, which basically involves combining a few photos at different exposures into one photo to capture the whole range of light into one image.
Camera Modes for the Pros
If you’re relatively new to photography then you might not be familiar with all the camera modes and how they work. A lot of beginners use auto mode and scene modes because they’re easy and require little effort, and even more seasoned photographers get lazy and use them occasionally. But if you’re serious about capturing professional level photos then it’s important to learn what all the other modes do and how to use them.
The modes used by most photographers are aperture priority, shutter priority and manual mode, and here’s a brief explanation of them all:
-Aperture priority allows you to set the aperture and the camera will choose all the other settings automatically for you.
-Shutter priority allows you to set the shutter speed manually and the camera will choose the other most appropriate settings.
-In manual mode you have complete control over all the settings to tweak as you please.
The Best File Format
Unless you’re a professional photographer you probably wouldn’t think of shooting anything other than JPEG, and this is a good file format that is still the most commonly used by photographers, but if you want to get the most out of your photos then there’s a better alternative.
RAW is the best format of you’re serious about photography, and the reason why is because it stores more image data including a higher dynamic range, and the camera leaves this mostly unprocessed, hence the name RAW. This format is only really used if you want to edit the photos yourself, and take complete control over your final photo. But you’ll need to open them in photo editing software to convert them to JPEG because most computers can’t open RAW files without using special software.
Gear Doesn’t Matter
Having to have the best and most up to date gear is a trap every photographer falls into. Some decent gear is well worth buying, but if you have a fairly good DSLR then there’s no need for constantly upgrading it. If your images aren’t coming out great then you might think your gear is the cause of this, but more than likely you just aren’t using your camera properly or to its full potential. A skilful photographer can get an awesome image from almost any half decent DSLR, so really until you feel you’ve mastered using your camera and need more features then a basic DSLR is all you need.
Camera filters aren’t used as much nowadays as they were in the past before photo editing software appeared on the scene. The reason for this is apps like Photoshop and Lightroom can achieve some of the same effects that a filter can, but there are exceptions to this that editing just can’t achieve, so here’s a run-down of some useful ones.
UV and skylight filters are the most common filters used, while they won’t really have a noticeable effect on your photos they do filter some ultraviolet rays out which reduces haze. Most photographers attach one of these to their lens and don’t ever remove it, mainly for their benefit of keeping their lens scratch and dirt free, because if you scratch your filter you can simply buy a new one, whereas scratching your lens can cost a lot of money to replace.
Another good filter is the polarizer for increasing saturation and contrast but also for removing reflections in non metallic subjects.
One other option is the ND (Neutral Density) filter which will simply darken your image. This is useful if you need to reduce the amount of light going into your camera so you can use longer shutter speeds. Another similar filter is the ND Grad which only darkens part of the image, and this is often used to darken the sky to reduce overexposure.
The Benefits of Editing Your Photos
You may think that editing your photos is cheating, but almost all professional photographers tweak their photos to some degree. One reason for this is because the camera doesn’t always give you results true to how the scene actually looks, so some editing may be required to correct this. The most common things photographers tweak are the sharpness, lighting, colour and contrast, and they also use a tool called the crop tool to remove unwanted subjects that might not be possible to hide when you’re shooting.
Top Mistakes Made By Every Photographer
Making mistakes is an essential part of the photography learning process and as a beginner you’ll make a lot of them. But preventing them beforehand is also a good practise, so we’ll go over a few of the most common mistakes and how to prevent them from happening.
Undoubtedly the most common and problematic mistake is your photos turning out blurred, which results in a photo lacking sharpness and clear details.
The most common reason for this is handshake blur, which appears when the shutter speed isn’t fast enough. Handshake blur can’t be avoided unless you’re a robot because everyone naturally shakes (even if it’s only slightly) when holding any kind of object. So to prevent this you need to use faster shutter speeds which can be done by increasing the ISO or using wider apertures (smaller f numbers). A general rule is your shutter speed should be equal to or greater than the focal length number you’re using with your lens. So if you’re using a focal length of 30mm then a shutter speed of 1/30s or more would be needed. An alternative to using faster shutter speeds if you have the time and kit to do this is using a tripod to keep the camera steady and then you can use any shutter speed you want.
Out of Focus
The most common focus problem is choosing the wrong focus point, while another is a completely out of focus photo, which is rare with auto focus turned on, because cameras don’t take the photo until they’ve found a focus point.
In the event that only parts of your scene aren’t in focus, this is usually caused by not choosing the right focus point. An easy way to ensure the part of the scene you want in focus is in focus is to firstly set the mode to spot autofocus and then place the subject you want in focus in the center of the viewfinder. Next, half depress the shutter button until your subject is in focus and then re-compose the photo if you like, then depress it fully to take the shot.
Too Bright or Dark
When your photo is too bright or dark this is called overexposure or underexposure and this is something that even happens to professionals. The problem with an overexposed photo is you lose details in the highlights which means the bright parts of your scene will appear too light and not visible. The opposite is an underexposed photo which means the details in dark areas of your scene are lost in the shadows.
A simple way to remedy this is to use the exposure compensation and increase it in increments such as +2 to brighten the photo or -2 to darken it for example.
If your photo looks grainy and like it has coloured or grey specks then your photo is probably suffering from camera noise. Noise isn’t pretty and can reduce the quality of your photos unless you’re looking for a vintage kind of look.
This is caused by using a high ISO, and basically the higher the ISO, the more grain your camera will produce, although modern cameras are much better at preventing this grain than older cameras. Using higher ISO settings is needed sometimes to enable faster shutter speeds in dark conditions etc. but another option instead of increasing your shutter speed is using wider apertures if this is possible. The key point to take away is to use the minimum ISO required to get the results you want, and not any higher. Remember to change your ISO back down after you’ve finished shooting though, because next time you come to shooting you might not notice it’s still high.
Orange or Blue Colour Cast
This problem isn’t always obvious and you might not notice small differences if you don’t know what to look for. White balance is what governs the colour cast of your photos and it ranges from warm to cold or orange to blue. To make things more confusing this is also called colour temperature. These orange and blue colour casts create a warm or cold looking photo and this will be most obvious in white areas of your photo.
Usually you’ll be aiming for a neutral white balance and for this you need to choose the appropriate white balance setting. There’s a few to choose from and usually auto will do a decent job but not always, so in this instance it’s best to choose a more specific setting for example cloudy in cloudy conditions or tungsten when shooting indoors depending on your lighting.
Not Using Your Camera Properly
You might be tempted to use auto mode because it requires little effort and you can just point and shoot without much thought. But this stops you from progressing as a photographer and restricts how creative you can get with your shots. So it’s important to learn to use the other camera modes such as aperture priority, shutter priority and manual mode if you want to get the most out of your camera.
If your photos just aren’t coming out well despite getting all the camera settings and techniques spot on then there might be something else going on (or not going on).
One of the key elements that can make or break your photos is the lighting conditions. Basically lighting has many effects including bringing out contrast, colour, texture, shape and form, so pretty much everything you need for a dramatic photo. For most types of photography strong lighting works well especially when shooting outdoors, but on the other hand a cloudy day with no sun in sight will leave you with a dull, colourless photo. For indoor photography such as portraiture the best types of lighting are flashguns, studio lighting or natural sunlight from windows.
The way you compose your photo is another reason why they might be turning out uninteresting. So it’s a good idea to read up on some composition techniques such as leading lines, balance and the rule of thirds for example which will help you shoot more attractive looking photos.
Another common problem not always noticed by beginners is that their photos are sloping to one side. One way to prevent this is to pick a subject for example the top of a building or the horizon and then try to keep these level so they’re not sloping either to the right or left.
Lot’s of photographers don’t have the time or patience to properly set up their shots. If you’re just taking holiday snaps then this doesn’t matter so much, but if you’re after professional level photos then you need to take your time or you just won’t get the results. The reason you need to spend more time shooting is because you’ll probably need to try out different settings in between each shot or change the spot you take it from for the best shot possible.
Taking Too Many Photos
This isn’t always a bad thing unless you’re sacrificing the effort you put into each photo just so you can get a photo of everything possible, because you then risk ending up with a batch of mediocre photos at best.
Planning ahead is key to finding a good location and subject to shoot and avoid turning up and finding there’s nothing interesting in sight. One good website to help you with finding a location is Flickr.com on which you can search through a huge amount of photos and many have the location they were taken from in the description. Another couple of websites to check out are shothotspot.com and mapmyphoto.co.uk. On these you can find photos taken in specific locations and filter by keywords and categories.
Not Picking the Best Day and Time
The first step in choosing the best day and time is deciding what kind of shot you want, for example maybe you want perfect conditions with clear skies for a more colorful photo or perhaps dark rain clouds for a moody atmosphere. But days you probably don’t want to be shooting on are overcast days because the light is flat and colourless, with the exception of portrait photography on which these days give a soft light that works really well.
Most photographers will agree that the best times of day to shoot are in the morning and evening and the reason for this is the shadows are longer, the light is more dramatic and colours are stronger. But there’s a more specific time of day to shoot which gives even better looking shots, and this is a short period of time in the morning and evening also known as the golden hour. This is just as the sun is on the horizon and it casts a soft, golden light.
Bad Camera Grip
How you hold your DSLR camera is the first thing you should learn before anything else and this affects the stability and how much your camera shakes. First you need to place your right hand on the right side of the camera body so your index finger is within reach of the shutter button and then place your left hand underneath the lens so you have easy access to the lens zoom ring.
Using the Wrong Lens
It’s important to research lenses before buying a DSLR because different lenses are more suited to different subjects. Kit lenses that usually come with a DSLR are usually zoom lenses, and these are a good all rounder for most situations. But seasoned photographers tend to invest in a few lenses, and in the long term you’ll probably feel the need to buy more. For example Landscape shots work best with wide angle lenses, while a telephoto lens is best for Wildlife photography.
Running Out of Battery and Memory Card Storage
If you’re planning a long day out and your battery isn’t fully charged then you risk it dying on you. So obviously make sure it’s charged beforehand, but if this still isn’t enough battery life then having a backup battery is beneficial.
Running out of memory card space can be an issue if you don’t have access to a computer to upload your photos to or you don’t have enough memory card storage. So taking some backups and investing in some memory cards with more storage space is a good idea.
Keeping backups is a must, because whatever you store your photos on, whether its your memory card or hard drive, they can all break and then you could potentially lose all the photos you’ve ever taken. So make sure you have another backup, perhaps on an external hard drive or clouds storage for example.
Using Flash When You Don’t Need To
Using flash is often done outside at night when shooting distant objects and there’s no benefit to this. If the subject is too far away and the flash won’t reach your subject then it won’t light up your subject and so it won’t have any effect on how they appear.
Fake Looking Photos
An unrealistic looking photo is usually caused by going over the top in the editing process. A common editing technique is increasing the saturation too much so all the colours appear overly vibrant, but in some photos even reducing the saturation can improve the photo.