Hi there, if you’ve just bought a new digital camera, good for you! I’m sure you’re excited to try out all the nifty features on that point-and-shoot, mirrorless camera or digital SLR of yours.
One thing I always advocate, however, is that photography technique is more important than the latest camera technology. Without an eye for good photos and how to shoot them, even the most amazing digital SLR won’t give you good results.
In this article, I want to share with you 12 tips for shooting stunning photos, culled from my years of experience in photography and interaction with professionals.
Of course, these won’t be the only tips on photography – there are tons of guide books out there detailing shooting techniques greater detail. However, I believe these 12 tips here summarize the MOST essential things you need to take note of.
Tip 1: Understand Your Camera
Understanding what your camera does is the first step towards taking good photos. When you buy a new camera, don’t just let it sit there! Pick it up, touch it and get a “feel” for the device.
Most importantly, I suggest you go into the camera manual, read and try out every function in the camera. Digital SLRs have super THICK manuals but I guarantee that after you go through the manual, you’ll at least have a much better appreciation of what your camera can and cannot do.
Tip 2: Set Your Resolution As High As Possible
For me, one of the biggest lessons I learnt was to set my camera resolution as high as possible. This is particularly true if you’re taking photos of an extremely important moment, e.g. exchange of wedding vows between a couple. If using high-resolution takes up space on my memory card, I either buy one with more storage space or buy more memory cards.
There was once I went on an adventure camp with my son – a fun and memorable one. I brought along my camera and took many, many photos of us together. When I returned, I imported the pictures into my computer to do some post-processing. Guess what? All the photos were at low resolution! I forgot to set the camera to high-res mode – ending up with thousands of low resolution pictures.
That’s NOT something you want, especially if you are shooting something memorable. I’ve since learnt to go as high-res as possible.
Tip 3: Use The Auto Mode
Many intermediate level photographers tend to shun the auto mode on their cameras, thinking it’s for “amateurs”. That’s not really true. The reality is that many digital camera models, including SLRs, have advanced to such a point that their auto modes take some REALLY good photos.
What I see many photographers do instead is to go all manual and try to adjust every shutter and apertures setting they can to try to learn manual control. This often results in poor pictures.
You should instead take advantage of the auto modes, e.g. macro mode, landscape modes, portrait mode in the camera and see what results you get first. If those results are not good, THEN you can try out manual exposure settings. Many professional photographers I know do this – they don’t solely rely on manual control.
Tip 4: Get Outside
Sometimes, to shoot good looking photos, you should just get outside. Get out of the house. Go into the field, the park or the beach, where the lighting is so much better.
Learn to just snap some photos when you’re out – when you’re walking on the street, resting on the park bench, etc. after all, digital photos cost almost nothing to store these days. Try to view and record the exposure settings of good photos you take. Over time, you’ll understand what settings you used to get good results in different conditions.
The other good thing about getting out to shoot photos is that you tend to see people. People make photos interesting. Shooting objects in your house doesn’t make for very creative or compelling photography.
Tip 5: Understand White Balance
For photographers who are just starting out, one thing I find is that they lack an understanding of white balance. For example, when you shoot a photo under a tungsten light, the photo can appear incandescent and “wrongly colored”. That’s where you need to adjust the white balance in your camera to compensate for the tungsten lighting.
The white balance setting is one of the most underused settings in digital cameras – I’d encourage you to learn more about it to improve your photography. Usually, camera manuals may document how to use the setting, but don’t explain in what circumstance the setting should be changed.
Tip 6: Set A High ISO
The ISO setting on a camera is your friend. It helps to increase the light sensitivity of the image sensor in your camera. If you set ISO high, you’re basically able to capture more light without adjusting your shutter speed or the aperture. This is actually a very powerful setting – I use it very often in my point-and-shoot cameras to capture great pictures of my kids running around and also shoot better details in low light.
The only downside with a high ISO setting is that you introduce more noise into your photo. However, I find that you can “compensate” for this two ways – one is to shoot in bright sunlight. If you’re in bright sunlight, you’ve no worries about setting a high ISO – crank it all the way up and get those action shots! The other way to reduce noise from a high ISO is to do noise reduction in post-processing. There are some great tools for doing this, one of which is Neat Image which I highly recommend.
Tip 7: Apply The Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds is an important concept in photo composition. It basically says that you should divide up each and every photo you shoot into nine parts., Imagine a grid layered on top of your photo – and there being two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines – this cuts up your photo into nine equal sections.
The rule says that important compositional elements in your photo should lie on one of these lines or their intersections. The theory here is that placing the elements in these positions creates a certain kind of “tension” between object sin your photo – making for a more interesting overall look.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you shoot a sunset and you position the horizon line right in the middle of the photo (i.e. the halfway line, cutting the photo in two – which breaks the Rule of Thirds). The result will not be as “interesting” as a shot where you place along one on the horizontal lines in the “photo grid” I described previously.
Try applying the Rule of Thirds more consciously in your photos – you’ll find that your composition technique will really improve over time.
Tip 8: Find An Interesting Angle
One of the best pieces of photography advice I received is to find an interesting angle. You see, most us may just whip out a camera, then snap a photo without thinking if the perspective we’re using is creative or interesting.
I’ll give you a few examples.
Shooting photos of children. If you’re shooting a photo of a child, it’s best to “go low”, down to their level. Lie or kneel on the floor if necessary. It makes for more interesting shots.
Shooting photos of buildings. If you’re snapping a photo of a building, try to “angle up”, i.e. shoot the photo from the bottom of the building upwards to it’s apex. This way, the photo appears to be a triangle point upwards to the sky. I use this trick a lot when taking pictures of buildings.
Shooting pictures of everyday objects. If you’re shooting a picture of a pen, you may want to go all macro on it, i.e. zoom in with macro mode or macro lenses and capture only the pen tip, instead of just shooting the whole pen.
Tip 9: Use Auto Focus
This is a little related to Tip 3: Use The Auto Mode, which I described earlier. Most photographers who are getting more serious in their craft will try to manually focus their shots. They will adjust their lens settings and attempt to be all “professional” about it – refusing to use auto focus.
Let me tell you that is the wrong way to think. Most digital camera’s auto focus mode these days are VERY advanced. You should make use of it.
What I typically do is to compose my photo, then when I’m ready to snap the picture, I depress the shutter release button half way – allowing the camera to get the focus right.
When the picture is well focused, I will then depress the shutter release button all the way down.
This kind of auto focus shot gets it right a very large percentage of the time. There’s no need to manually focus – UNLESS you’re in a very special photography situation (which, in my opinion, are usually confined to “controlled” shots like those done in a photography studio, or macro shots of inanimate objects).
Tip 10: Use A Tripod
Most serious photographers I know use a tripod. In fact, most of them lug a tripod around with them. They never “just bring a camera” – they always have the tripod in tow.
The reason why a tripod is probably the most important photo taking tool (next to your camera itself) is that it lends stability to your shots. That’s obvious enough – but think about it for a moment – there are a HUGE variety of shots where your camera has to be stable:
Shooting in low light. If you’re trying to shoot pictures at night, or in low light, a tripod is essential. In low light, you need to get more light into the camera to take a proper photo – which means longer exposure times.
A longer exposure time can be achieved by setting a slower shutter speed, which also means you your aperture will need to go wider. But with a slow shutter speed, you have the danger of having a blurry photo, due to camera shake. The way around this? Use a tripod to stabilize your shot!
Shooting fast action. The same applies to shooting action. If you want to capture a moving object (e.g. a car) at night – you need longer exposure, slower shutter speed (and wider aperture) – and a tripod to stabilize your shot.
Light trails at night. If you want to shoot some special effects at night, e.g. of light trails of ferris wheels, traffic headlights whizzing by, or star trails, you need to do long exposures.
Typically, you’d set your camera to shutter priority mode and set the speed to say 1 second. Then take a photo and check. If the light trail is too short, you can add 2 seconds to the shutter speed. Then take the photo and check again – keep on adding 2 seconds until you get the light trail effect you want. And of course, with shutter speeds of 1 second and above, you absolutely need a tripod.
Tip 11: Use The Flash Judiciously
To me, overusing the camera flash, especially in low light, is one of the cardinal sins of photography. Don’t do it! Flash helps to provide light to your photo, but more often than not, it lights up your subjects faces too harshly and makes for an extremely poor shot.
You can use the flash, of course, but use it judiciously. For example, if you can, always go for natural light. Open a window, or step out into the sun – that’s the best way to avoid using the flash.
There are other situations where a flash is useful. In bright sunlight, you may sometimes choose to switch on the flash in order to fill out shadows and remove contrast on your subject. This is commonly known as “fill flash” or “synchro sun”.
Tip 12: Understand How Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO
The three elements of exposure in photography – shutter speed, aperture and ISO are critical for your to understand if you want to take good photos. Photographers usually call this the “Exposure Triangle” and knowing how these three setting interplay with one another will go a long way in grounding you in photography fundamentals.
Shutter speed – controls how long your camera’s shutter is open. If you set the shutter speed slower, you can capture more light into the camera, allowing low light photography – BUT the trade-off is camera shake. The longer exposure increases the risk of photo blurring due to your shaky hands.
Aperture – controls the area over which light can enter your camera. If you set if the aperture too large (usually indicated by a smaller f-stop number), you get more light into the camera, BUT the trade-off is a shallower “depth of field” – meaning that more parts of your photo will appear out of focus.
I hope the above 12 tips have given you a solid grounding in how to shoot better photos. Granted, it’s a lot to absorb and these tips are things you need to practice over a long period of time – but they ARE fundamental.
I suggest that you apply these tips the next time you’re out for some serious shooting and also try to pick up dedicated books on these concepts. Over time, as you apply these concepts more and more, you’ll get used to them and the techniques will come more naturally to you.
That’s all I have for now. Until next time, go out, shoot more photos and improve your technique!