Learning to take great photographs doesn't require a college degree. It also doesn't require a intense understanding of the inner workings of a camera. Taking better photographs is a learned skill that requires practice, lots of trail and error and a little know how. I've compiled 16 easy ways to improve photography skills to get you started on your way to taking better photographs.
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My Photography Journey
I'm by no means a professional photographer. I'm strictly a hobbyist which is to say that photography is my hobby. So, if you're looking for an expert I'd advise you to look at a few of the websites I link to below. These are the places I turn to when I need information from industry experts. Taking photos is simply my escape from the ordinary. I'll never forget the feeling I had when I picked up my first DSLR with an intention to create a beautiful photograph. It was challenging, creative, and, most of all, fun. I was in complete control of the finished product… Or at least I thought so.
After nearly 7 years of shooting I've learned that photography is so much more than composing an image and pressing the shutter release. Having a great DSLR is only part of the equation. Taking a good photograph requires a basic understanding of how your camera works, how light works, and what you want to accomplish with your photograph. A great photograph, to me, is a time capsule, the perfect way to preserve your memories. With life rushing by at lightening speed, I can understand why anyone would want to improve photography skills in order to best capture your memories.
I take a great pride in my photographs, even the ones that don't turn out great. And trust me, my friend, there have been thousands. I've been frustrated, disappointed, and even discouraged at times. I've felt like giving up after realizing what I saw on the screen didn't come close to matching what I saw in my mind.
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But I kept shooting, and I'll keep on shooting until I get it right. I've included a series of shots throughout this post to give you an idea of how my photography has progressed over the years. I'm hoping these shots show you that I, too, had to work to improve photography skills.
Listed below are my 16 easy ways to improve photography skills for new photographers. Work through these tips at your own pace and don't feel pressured to buy new gear until you're ready. I've placed these tips in order of importance, the way I wish I'd learned when I first starting shooting. I hope you're able to use these photography tips to begin your path to better photographs.
1. Practice, Practice, Practice
Harnessing the power of your camera requires practice. By practice I don't mean taking a few shots while on vacation and not picking up your camera again for months. I'm talking frequent practice sessions, the kind of practice that requires effort, attention, and energy.
Start by finding a specific topic or subject to focus on, whether that's your children, pets, flowers, sunsets, architecture. No matter what subject you choose, photograph it often. I started by shooting food for my former food blog. I soon learned that making food look appetizing in photos is hard, so my learning curve was steep. But I kept practicing, kept trying, and kept learning.
Over time you begin to better understand how your camera works and how to capture the shot you want. By focusing on one subject you can more easily compare your progress and begin to notice what's working and what's not working.
2. Invest in good editing software.
Editing is essential until you become a pro. End of story. What good is taking a bunch of photographs when you have no way to truly understand how light, color, shadow, and sharpness affect your photograph. Free editing programs like Pic Monkey are great, but they cannot teach you to interpret your photograph the way that proper software can.
I use Adobe Lightroom and absolutely love it. By far it has taught me more about photography than any other book, tutorial or training. With Lightroom's develop module I can see my photographs in a way that I never could before, meaning I can truly see how the different elements of a photograph work together to create the finished product.
It's taught me that what appears to be a great photograph on on your LCD screen can look completely different on your computer screen. I use Lightroom to analyze what elements I want to change in the camera next time I'm shooting, saving me time in post-production and teaching me how to better use my camera.
By assessing and understanding your images, your photography will naturally improve. Do yourself a favor and spend a little cash on proper editing software. There's no need for Photoshop. Lightroom has all the necessary tricks, bells, and whistle's without the complicated interface.
3. Shoot in RAW
In order to get the most out of your new editing software, you need to be able to manipulate your photographs without losing image quality. You've probably heard other photographers talk about the benefits of shooting in RAW file format rather than JPEG. Trust me, if you're like me, you may be resistant to the switch.
I was resistant for many years, chiefly because of the size of RAW file formats and the fear of running out of memory space while shooting. But once I understood that shooting in RAW give me complete control of the image I made the switch and never looked back.
RAW files are extremely rich in data. They capture all of the information collected by the sensor at the time of the shutter release: shadows, light, colors, highlights, white balance, tone, and temperature. The larger your sensor the more data it collects, resulting in a more detailed image. The information can be manipulated as desired in your new editing software without the risk of losing precious detail you want to preserve.
Because JPEGs are compressed images already, making edits to these files can result in loss of detail, sharpness and color density. With a RAW file you can manipulate any element of the photograph without fear of losing data provided that the image is in focus. I use my Lightroom software to add more drama, contrast, and dimension to my shots.
If you're worried about making the switch, then try shooting a few times using the setting RAW plus JPEG. This requires a fair amount of memory, but essentially it will tell your camera to create both a raw and JPEG image of each shot you take. You can then upload these to your new software and compare the difference. I promise you'll be a believer after giving it a shot.
4. Invest in a decent SD card
Buy one or two good quality SD cards and use those exclusively for your DSLR. You'll want a card that's reliable and fast, one that can write information to the memory super quickly. The quicker your file transfer, the quicker you can shoot, meaning you run less risk of missing that epic shot because your camera was still writing the previous file.
You'll also want to invest in an SD card with a large enough memory to hold all those RAW files you're shooting now. Having enough memory gives you the greatest flexibility when shooting (especially while traveling), because you can take hundreds of photos without worrying about running out of memory.
I currently use a SanDisk 32GB card with a back up 16GB card. I've never once run out of space in between file dumps since buying my 32GB card. Funny story: I bought my 32GB memory card while traveling after running out of memory mid-day while walking the streets of New Orleans. Luckily, I stumbled on a camera shop where I bought my new card, allowing me to get back to my photography without having to rush back to the hotel to dump files.
My current DSLR camera has two SD card slots, meaning I can store (and even use) both cards in the camera simultaneously. If your camera does not have dual SD slots, I recommend buying an SD card holder, a small plastic container that protects your card when not in use.
You also want to be consistent with your SD card use. Many people, myself included, switch their SD cards from camera to camera without considering the effect on the card. Using a card in multiple devices can result in card errors and misreads. There's nothing worse than losing important images due to an SD card malfunction. By switching the the cards you run the risk of corruption.
5. Shoot in Aperture Priority
Controlling your depth of field allows you to choose what is in (or out of) focus in the frame. You achieve this by adjusting the aperture. Aperture refers to the opening in the lens that allows light through to the sensor. The wider the aperture, the more light you allow into the camera. You can adjust the depth of field by opening or closing the aperture.
We've all seen those beautiful photographs with the blurry background and the super sharp face in the foreground. That beautifully blurred background is called bokeh. Understanding aperture is essential for creating bokeh in the camera.
You control aperture by setting your f-stop. It's essential to understand that f-stop numbers are inversely proportional, meaning the lower the f-stop number the wider the aperture, and vice versa. Lower f-stop numbers such as 2.8 allow a greater amount of light to hit the sensor, meaning you can more easily shoot in lower light settings. But lower f-stop numbers (wider aperture) will narrow the depth of field. In other words, you sacrifice the amount of information that's in focus in your frame. In order to achieve those blurred backgrounds, you need to shoot with a decreased depth of field, which you achieve through a wider aperture.
Ultimately aperture isn't the only thing that makes great Bokeh. Aperture is part of a three-way relationship along with shutter speed and ISO. These settings work together to achieve certain sharp, well-lit photos. But learning to understand all of these simultaneously can be difficult. It's why many professionals and hobbiests suggest shooting in Aperture mode, or the A setting. This setting allows you to control the aperture (depth of field) without having to worry about setting the corresponding shutter speed or ISO. The camera will automatically adjust to the best shutter speed and ISO settings according to the depth of field you've selected.
6. Learn to Use Light
Once you understand how depth of field works, two other very important settings, ISO & Shutter Speed, will be easier to understand. These settings help you control your use of light, an essential element of photography. ISO and Shutter Speed are a little more straightforward than Aperture.
Shutter Speed is a great example of this. The speed at which your shutter closes is a real value, meaning the time you select is the exact time the camera will allow the shutter to open, no more and no less. The faster your shutter speed, the less light you allow to hit the sensor. Fast shutter speeds allow you to capture action and to shoot brilliant colorful photos in brightly lit settings like the beach.
ISO is another important element of photography. It determines the sensitivity of your sensor at the time of the shutter release. The lower your ISO setting the sharper your image should be. However, low ISO requires a lot of light in order to achieve the optimal exposure. You can use a higher ISO in low light settings but will sacrifice sharpness and end up with a lot of "noise" in your photograph. All three of these elements (aperture, ISO, and shutter speed) work together to achieve certain effects, but I highly recommend starting your study with aperture.
7. Learn to control Exposure
Exposure is another important element you should learn to improve photography skills. A properly exposed photo will be well lit, have good contrast and few shadows. Overly exposed photographs can look washed out, while under exposed photos can be too dark or full of shadows. While many people shoot with their exposure (EV) setting at zero, you may wish to play around with the EV settings depending on the amount of light available.
I first choose my Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO before adjusting my EV setting. I use my histogram to help me determine whether my shot is over or under exposed. If I'm in a darker area with limited light I'll usually override my exposure by increasing my EV settings. If I'm in a brightly lit environment I may decrease my EV settings to darken the exposure slightly.
One way to learn about exposure is to set your camera to bracket shots, meaning it will take three photos at three different exposure settings leaving all other settings unchanged. You'll be able to see the slight differences that one small EV step can make in your finished product. You can also combine the three photos in Photoshop to create HDR (high dynamic range) images, but that's a little advanced for me.
Another easy way to learn the role of exposure is to play around with the EV settings while shooting a plain white background (maybe a sheet of paper). You'll soon see how the exposure settings play a role in creating a great photo.
8. Get comfortable with your gear
No, I don't mean get a better understanding of your gear (which I also advise). I mean buy things that can make using your heavy DSLR more comfortable. Getting a comfortable strap made all the difference in the world in my ability to tolerate long days of travel while toting around my very heavy DSLR.
I also highly suggest investing in a durable camera bag with a comfortable strap and Velcro inserts. The adjustable inserts give you flexibility, allowing you to retro-fit your bag for the gear you want to use that day. For those of you who travel this can make a major difference. Your neck, upper back and shoulder(s) will thank you.
9. Steady your shot
Using a tripod or a mono pod is essential if you're trying to shoot in low light. These two devices have gone a long way to improve photography skills for photographers of all levels. To achieve the greatest sharpness in a low light setting you need to shoot with a moderately low ISO and longer shutter speed. Yes, using a lower ISO does decrease the amount of light allowed into your camera, but it helps you avoid "noise" or distortion in the photograph.
In order to get a properly exposed shot, you'll have to increase the shutter speed, allowing the shutter to remain open longer.Achieving a sharp, well-focused photo using a longer shutter speed requires absolute stillness. You can achieve this by using a tripod and a shutter release remote.
For shots taken at sunset or dusk I use my Benro mono pod, as there's usually enough light to shoot with a relatively fast shutter speed. These tools are essential if you plan to shoot in low light on a regular basis.
Benro MMA38C MACH3 Series 3 Carbon Fiber Monopod
10. Keep your gear clean
Start routinely cleaning your gear using a cleaning kit that includes a small brush, lint-free cleaning cloths, and other essentials. You may also need a can of compressed air and some TLC. You may also want to have your sensor cleaned from time to time as dust and dirt can get trapped in the chamber and will affect your images. Trust me folks, I learned this the hard way. I recently took a whole series of photographs in New Orleans with the dirty sensor and didn't even know it. The sad part is they were some of my best photographs ever. Thankfully I am able to edit the shots and restore the quality lost due to the dirty sensor, but this could have easily been avoided. Do yourself a favor and take care of your gear including the occasional cleaning.
11. Interact with your subject
Learning to interact with your subject to get the effect you desire is game-changing. No matter if you're shooting humans, pets, architecture, or landscapes, the way you move, stand, and angle your camera makes a difference. To achieve some of the cool perspectives that you see on Instagram you have to be willing to get dirty or go out on a limb sometimes. You can have the best gear possible and still not achieve the shot you want if you're not interacting with your subject.
For example, if you're really wanting to give a cool dimension or perspective to a basic landscape shot you may want to squat down low or maybe even lay on the floor to achieve the effect you want. One of our buddies stands on the roof of his car to create the height necessary to take breathtaking landscape shots. I'm not suggesting you damage your car trying to get a shot. I'm just giving you an example of what I mean by interacting with your subject.
One way that I learned how to do this was by shooting with a prime lens, meaning a lens that does not offer a zoom function. A prime lens is essentially a fixed focal length such as 35mm, 50mm, or 70mm. When you take away the zoom function you lose a lot of ability to manipulate the photo from a static position. This means you have to move if all of your subject isn't in the frame rather than just zoom out or in. My favorite prime lens is my Pentax K-mount 35mm HD DA lens. It's lightweight, has a super-wide aperture (2.8) and is the perfect 50mm equivalent for my crop sensor camera. Give it a try to see what I mean.
12. Keep your firmware updated
It's important to keep your firmware updated. This is your cameras software. Firmware is essentially the hard drive of your camera, and, just like your iPhone, your camera needs updates, too. Firmware updates can fix software bugs or glitches to improve the function of your camera. You don't want to miss out on these important updates. I usually check my firmware 2 to 3 times per year just to make sure my camera is functioning at its full capacity.
13. Get organized
I can't tell you how many folders I have on my computer, all filled with images. I realized after I started blogging again that I needed a better system. I use Lightroom collections and SmugMug to organize and display my photographs seamlessly. I can upload my edited photos directly from Lightroom to SmugMug without even having to download to my computer. I can also share my SmugMug photos to social media and embed the images into my WordPress site with a blink of an eye. Now I know longer have to create compressed images (which impacts the quality of the photos) just to maintain my site speed. By housing my photos outside of WordPress I get the best of both worlds: full sized images and a fast WordPress site.
Another element of being organize means having backups. I use my desktop as my primary storage and work space for editing photographs. My 2TB hard drive allows me to keep a copy of my original files and the edited versions in an easily accessible place. I also use two backup hard drives to keep copies of the RAW, unedited images. SmugMug now functions as my portfolio of edited images, yet another backup if you will. Knowing that my files are safe gives me peace of mind and allows me to focus on taking great photographs.
14. Compose images using the rule of thirds
Now, you've probably heard this before and for good reason. Whether you like to crop your images while editing or compose your image in the camera, you really should be thinking about composition at all times. Using the rule of thirds is one way you can improve your composition. One easy way to do this is to enable the grid function in your LCD screen or your view finder. Learning where to place your subject along the focal planes can help you create interesting images that pop.
15. check your settings every time you shoot
I can't stress this enough. Trust me folks, I've learned this the hard way. I'll never forget getting in my car and going to downtown Los Angeles just to take photographs. It wasn't until I got home later that I discovered my lens was set to manual focus while the body of my camera was set to auto focus. Luckily, some of the shots were salvageable. I can't tell you how frustrated I was for having failed to check that one simple switch.
After that I made it a mission to check each of the following every time I took out my camera to shoot: focus settings (both internally and externally), ISO settings, EV settings, white balance settings, and shooting mode. You may also want to double check that you have an SD card in the camera. If you prefer to be able to grab your camera and quickly shoot, you may want to make a habit of checking these settings at the end of every shoot. That way your camera is good to go at a moments notice the next time you need it. Either way taking this precaution can help you to avoid lost shots.
16. Keep Learning
Last but not least, consider taking a course or buying a book or guide. If you truly love taking photographs and want to improve photography skills, then the investment is worth it. My goal for next year is to take more photography courses, both online and in person. I've listed a few great resources below for online education:
You may also wish to check your local camera store to see if they offer courses or recommend courses in the community. Your local community college may offer affordable courses to the public. Many photographers also provide tutoring or group classes in-situ. Chances are there are lots of learning opportunities in your community that you've never even heard of. Look around to find the class that fits your budget and your schedule.
So, there you have it my friends. All my best tips to improve photography skills. Although photography requires an investment in time and money, the finished product can be oh-so-worth-it! To prove it, I'll share one last shot with you guys. This may be my most favorite image I've ever taken. It embodies all the tips I shared with you today and really captures the essence of who I am as a photographer. I took this shot in August 2016 on the streets of my beloved New Orleans using my beloved Pentax K-3 DSLR and my Benro mono-pod. Enjoy!
Pentax K-3 II Digital SLR Camera Body
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Thanks for all your support. It means the world to me. Until next time my friends!