We all make mistakes and it can be disappointing to take a picture that looks overexposed, blurry, or badly composed, but rather than deleting it right away, spend some time studying the picture to see what went wrong and whether you could have improved it by following our top 10 tips for beginners.
1. Hold your camera correctly
Many new photographers struggle to hold their camera correctly, leading to blurry photos caused by camera shake. Using a tripod is the best way to prevent camera shake, but since you won’t be using one unless you’re shooting long exposures or shooting in low-light situations, holding your camera properly is critical to avoiding unnecessary movement.
As cameras are all designed for “right handed people” these instructions apply to both right handed and left handed people.
- Always hold your camera with both hands.
- Hold the right side of the camera with your right hand and place your left hand beneath the lens to support the camera’s weight.
- Keeping the camera close to your body will help your balance.
2. Shoot in RAW
Shooting in RAW can dramatically improve the quality of your photography. RAW files give you the highest quality your camera can provide because, when you shoot in RAW, you get all of the image data recorded by your camera’s sensor rather than compressing it, unlike JPEGs.
RAW files therefore give you more control in post-processing and you can correct problems such as overexposure and underexposure and recover shadows and highlights without introducing the kind of noise you can get with high ISO settings which we discuss below.
You’ll need some software to edit your RAW images and for this we highly recommend Adobe Lightroom.
3. Understand how Exposure works
Before you make the step into shooting in “manual mode” you must understand how exposure works. To understand exposure you need to know about the relationship between ISO, aperture and shutter speed. This is commonly known as the “Exposure Triangle”.
A camera’s ISO setting determines how sensitive the camera’s sensor becomes to light. ISO is measured in numbers and typically range from 50 to 50,000.
Low ISO numbers will result in a dark picture – high ISOs produce a light picture.
Increasing the ISO can be immensely useful in low light situations but it comes at a cost – high ISO pictures often have a high degree of noise/ grain so it’s important to test each situation first and zoom into your view screen to determine whether you are happy with the quality of the picture.
It’s important that you experiment with you camera’s ISO setting to fully understand its optimal levels and the impacts of a high ISO on your pictures. Remember, all digital cameras are different and the same ISO level on your camera is likely to produce a different exposure to that of your friend’s.
The Aperture is the circular opening (pupil) that allows light to reach the camera’s sensor and it controls your picture’s exposure and depth of field. A large aperture results in a brighter picture and will bring objects in the foreground into sharp focus and blur the background.
The aperture size is controlled by the camera’s f-number.
Let’s get the confusing thing out of the way: the lower the f-number – the larger the aperture; the higher the f-number – the smaller the aperture. For example f2 is a much larger aperture then f16.
You can use a wide aperture (such as f2) to capture your subject in detail and it’s ideal for portraits or floral photography where you may want to blur the background with a shallow depth of field.
Alternatively, if you are shooting a landscape you can use a narrow aperture to capture the whole scene in focus.
Aperture size is extremely important in adding depth and character to your photography so it’s important that you experiment with narrow and wide apertures – and everything in between!
The shutter speed determines how long your camera spends on taking a picture and it does this by controlling the length of time the “shutter” is open. Shutter speed is measure in seconds and can range as follows:
- Fast – 1/8000th of a second to 1/100th of a second
- Slow – 1/100th of a second to 1 second.
- Long – over 1 second.
A fast shutter speed is ideal for action pictures such a motor racing or taking pictures of flying birds as a fast shutter speed will “freeze” motion. The disadvantage of a fast shutter speed is that it lets less light into the camera so your images could be too dark.
A slow shutter speed results in more light getting to the sensor but it will also blur motion which means you will need a very steady hand or have to use a tripod. A great example of using a slow shutter speed is when you want to add a slight blur to running water to give the appearance of motion.
A long shutter speed requires a tripod to ensure that the camera is perfectly stable through the shot. Long Shutter speeds are perfect for night photography.
4. Mastering Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes
If the previous point seems a little daunting then we have some good news for you. Most digital cameras have two very useful modes:
- Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av)
- Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv)
These will give you more control without being overly complicated and act as a first step towards full manual mode.
In Aperture Priority Mode, you can choose the aperture and the camera will determine the proper shutter speed. For example, if you want to blur the background in a portrait photograph, you can simply choose a large aperture and the camera will decide the best shutter speed.
With Shutter Priority Mode, you choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the aperture for you. For example, if you want to get a sharp, well focussed picture of your child running towards you, select a fast shutter speed and let the camera choose the best aperture for the shot.
One point to be aware of! Some cameras are much better than others at getting Av and Tv “correct”. It’s important to experiment with these and get to understand how your camera performs with different kinds of shots.
5 . Keep an eye on the ISO setting
Always check your ISO before shooting!
Earlier in the article we explained how a high ISO produces a brighter/ lighter image. When shooting outdoors, cloud cover often warrants a high ISO to get the exposure you need but when the sun comes out you will need to lower the ISO otherwise you risk a dramatically over exposed picture which cannot be recovered – the last thing you want for your teenager’s graduation pictures!
6. Always look at the histogram
The only way you can accurately check exposure at the time of shooting is by utilising the histogram. This is a small graph that appears next to your photos – so if it’s not visible then you need to go into your camera’s display settings and make it visible.
It’s a graph that shows the distribution of colours in an image and it looks something like this:
The left side of the graph represents the blacks or shadows, and the right side represents the whites or highlights. The above picture shows a well-balanced histogram and if you take your picture at this point you should get a good exposure just like the picture below.
In the next example you will see the histogram clearly shows a strong shift to the left. This means your photograph will be dominated by blacks and dark tones with very little or no bright details.
Whereas in the last example, a strong shift to the right will result in a very bright, over exposed photograph with no blacks and very little mid tone detail.
7. Learn how to the Golden Ratio Grid (Phi Grid)
Pictures are generally more interesting and well balanced when they are not centred, and the Golden Ratio is based on that notion. Imagine a grid over your pictures with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines dividing the picture into nine sections as follows:
You will note that the lines are not equal in size (as in the “rule of thirds”) but closer to the centre of the picture. This is because the dividing lines follow Fibonacci ratios at 0.382 and 0.618 from the four sides of the photo. The good news is that some digital cameras allow you to display a golden ratio grid in the view screen and all editing software we have used displays it.
When following the golden ratio, you position important elements on one of the four lines or at the junctions where they cross – just like in picture below.
As with all rules there will be many instances where your shot will be better by breaking the rule. That’s fine as long as you understand the rule and are aware of the points of interest and where you want to position them in your picture.
8. Shoot from different angles and positions.
Most inexperienced photographers take their shots at their own “eye level”. However, shooting your subject from a variety of angles and heights will result in very different compositions. Let’s look at 3 examples.
In this shot Bobo Hui takes a “birds eye” view to get this wonderful image of some succulents.
In this composition our photographer is lying on the ground to get this wonderful shot of Lindisfarne Castle through an iron ring on the coast below.
And, finally we have this shot of Whitby where Michael Paul Bennett is shooting down the steps towards the rooftops in the town below.
9. Avoid using the built in flash.
We are not a fan of built in flashes. Using your camera’s built-in flash at night or in low light can lead to some unpleasant consequences, including red eyes, over exposed subjects and flash reflections. We suggest you read point (3) again as almost all situations will produce a better picture by correctly setting the ISO, aperture and shutter speed as opposed to using the built in flash. If that doesn’t work then the best solution would be to use an external flash where you can control the power and direction of the flash.
10. Shoot early in the morning and late in the evening.
The best time(s) to shoot outdoors is the “Golden Hour” – the first hour of light after sunrise and the last one before sunset. This is because the sun is low in the sky and it can bring a picture to life with its soft, golden diffused light.
Just take a look at this picture of the Angel of the North by Michael Paul Bennett.
The late afternoon light in this composition results in a warm picture which simply oozes positivity!
Bonus Tip – borrow a tripod.
Before you rush out and buy a tripod we first suggest you “borrow” a tripod. This is because there is a lot to think about including weight, stability and height.
A tripod is an essential accessory if you want to take long (and possibly slow) exposures and get beautiful shots like this one of Borrowdale Mill by Michael Paul Bennett.
We hope you have found this article useful. Even if you just take one thing away with you we know it will improve your photography.