I call it “beginner’s rut” - that mode that so many new photographers get into when they’ve become pretty comfortable with their new camera, they’ve set it up to be just about as automatic as it gets, and they are more or less happy with their results. But when you are in a beginner’s rut, there’s always that little nagging voice telling you that you could do better. And the good news is, there are some very simple ways you can do that today, without the need to buy new equipment or take a six week course at the local community college.
1. Pretend like there’s no such thing as auto mode
I know, you’ve been hearing lectures about this since the day you first bought your camera. Take it out of auto mode, and you’ll get better pictures. But it’s just so easy to put it in auto mode, isn’t it? The pictures are still pretty awesome, and you don’t have to bother yourself about little things like aperture and shutter speed.
But if you usually shoot in auto mode, I will bet that if you get your photo album out and look at all of your images after a while they will all start to look a little bit the same. They are good, but they’re not awesome. That’s because your camera isn’t capable of creativity. It only knows how to adjust the settings to cope with the available light. It needs input from you in order to go beyond that basic analysis of the shooting conditions.
Fortunately, camera manufacturers have given us a way to get out of auto mode using it baby steps. If the words aperture and shutter priority still strike terror into your heart, that’s OK. The chances are that your camera has scene modes, which are semi-automatic settings that still give you some creative control over your results. Some cameras have a dial right on the camera body that lets you select scene modes. Other cameras have you do this through the menu. Depending on your model, you may get a handful of basic scene modes such as landscape, portrait, and macro, or you may get a whole smorgasbord of scene modes, from “night portrait” to “fireworks” to “pets” to “underwater.” It is a very good idea to acquaint yourself with the scene modes that your camera offers, and then every time you change locations, ask yourself which one of those modes would be best suited to the shooting conditions that you’re in. This is a very easy decision to make, and once you get used to finding scene modes in your camera’s menu, it is also a very easy process to put into place.
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with scene modes, I want you to make friends with your camera’s EXIF data. Often, you can view this information right on your LCD screen, as soon as you take a photo. You can also view it in your post processing software after you copy the files onto your hard drive. However you choose to do it, it's a very good idea to pick out some of your favorite shots and then look at the EXIF data to see what your camera did to achieve those results. You may notice, for example, that your favorite landscape photos were always shot with a large f-number. You may also notice that your favorite portraits were shot with a smaller f-number. Try to internalize this information, because it you will need it when you take the next baby step—switching to a priority mode.
Not every compact camera offers priority modes, but most DSLRs do, even entry-level DSLRs. There are two priority modes: aperture priority and shutter priority. In aperture priority mode, you control the depth of field in your photographs. When you choose a large f-number, that corresponds to a small aperture. Photos shot with a small aperture will have broad depth of field, meaning that pretty much everything in the photo from foreground background will be in focus. By contrast, photos with a large aperture (or small f-number) will have shallower depth of field. Your subject will be in focus, but the elements behind her will not be. When you use very large apertures, you may even find that you’ll have a subject with sharp eyes, but the tip of her nose and her ears will be out of focus.
Aperture can be used creatively, depending on what your goals for the photograph are. If you want to isolate your subject from a busy background, for example, you choose a large aperture. If you want everything in the scene to remain in focus, on the other hand, you choose a small aperture. So you can see why having control over this setting is a good idea.
Shutter priority also gives you some creative control, though you may find yourself using it more often as a way to ensure that a fast-moving subject remains in tack-sharp focus. Fast shutter speeds in the neighborhood of 1/500 are generally sufficient to capture people in motion, while fast-moving vehicles may need to be shot at 1/1000 or higher. You can also use motion blur creatively—if you want to capture motion trails in your subjects, for example, you would use a slower shutter speed.
Once you switch over to one of the priority modes, you probably won’t find yourself going back to scene modes or auto mode any time soon. Having creative control over your photos is a powerful feeling, and it can help you move from a pretty good but ultimately samey portfolio to a really impressive one.
2. Take back your focus
If you ask me, autofocus is one of the single-most greatest innovations in photography in the past 50 years. Digital is up there too, of course, but autofocus is really what changed the way that photographers take pictures. Imagine the old days when the only mechanism you had for focusing on your subject was the focus ring. Add to that the fact that you were shooting on the film, and every time you got it wrong it cost you money. Yes, you probably learned how to be a more careful photographer. But of equal note is the fact that you were probably missing a lot of really great shots. Focusing manually takes time, even for someone who is very good at focusing manually. It’s extremely difficult to track a moving subject with manual focus, which means that when you rely on your focus ring you’ll probably end up with more out of focus shots than in-focus shots, particularly if your subject is moving in any way but parallel to your lens.
OK, so now you know that I love autofocus, but even I understand that the things we love can’t always be perfect. Out of the box, a basic compact camera will often default to using the central focus point. What that means for you, of course, is that any time you try to follow that famous compositional rule—the rule of thirds—you’re going to have focusing problems. Because according to the rule of thirds, you should never place your subject directly in the center of the frame.
Sophisticated autofocus systems work a bit differently—many modern cameras have built-in algorithms, which are supposed to figure out what and where the subject is, and make a focusing decision based on the answer. This often means locking focus on whatever is closest to the camera. The trouble is that no matter how smart those algorithms are, they aren’t always going to guess right. The best person to figure out where the focus point should be is you, the photographer.
To fully understand how to control your focus, you need to understand a little bit about how your camera’s autofocus system works. Your camera’s autofocus system actually works on pretty simple principles. It looks for areas of contrast, and that’s how it knows where the edges are. When finds those areas of contrast it locks on and your subject comes into focus. Now you may have noticed that in low light and low-contrast situations such as white-on-white (have you ever tried to photograph a swan in a snowdrift?) your camera spends a lot of time “hunting” for a place to lock focus. That’s because when there aren’t any clear differences in tone between both sides of an edge, your camera can’t lock on to anything. In these cases you may need to use that focusing ring after all, because even more photographer-centric versions of autofocus can’t overcome those low contrast, low light situations.
When you take back control of your focus from your camera, you can tell it which part of the frame that it should be locking onto. You do this using focus points.
All cameras have a series of focus points. Some cameras have only a handful of focus points; other cameras have a lot more.
Start by setting your camera to its single-point autofocus mode (this mode goes by various names, depending on your camera’s manufacturer). In this mode, you manually select the focus point using the joystick on the back of your camera. When you look through your viewfinder you will be able to see the focus point moving around it in the frame—simply keep moving it until it lands on the part of the image that you want to be the most in focus. If you’re shooting a portrait, for example, this is almost always going to be the person’s eye.
Single point autofocus can be a little clunky, and it takes some getting used to. It is not, however, as fiddly as using the focusing ring is, so bear with me. If you use it enough, it will start to become second nature, and you won’t even think about the fact that you’re doing it.
There are some drawbacks to using single point autofocus, and the biggest one is that those outer focus points it may not be as sensitive as the ones in the center of the frame. If you’re shooting in low light, this can be a problem, because you may find that your camera is doing a lot of hunting to lock focus. Another problem, of course, is that cameras with smaller numbers of focus points may not always have one available at the exact place where you want to lock focus. When this happens, you’ll have to use the focus and recompose method—which means you’ll need to place the focus point over the part of the image you want to be sharpest, push down on the shutter button halfway to lock focus (or use the back button focus), then recompose and take the shot.
Single point AF is most useful when you are shooting a stationary object, or one that is moving very slowly. If you're trying to follow quickly moving subjects, single point AF is just about as useful as the focusing ring. Fortunately, most camera manufacturers have given us some version of focus tracking, which usually does a pretty good job at keeping an active subject in focus. The name of this mode also varies by manufacturer, but it works in pretty much the same way. It keeps the focus locked on to the subject and follows it as it moves throughout the frame.
Now the accuracy of the continuous focusing modes of depends a lot on your camera’s make and model as well as on how old your camera is. The technology gets better and better all the time, but it still isn’t perfect. In fact you may actually find that in certain situations it’s best to just turn your autofocus off all together, pre-focus on the part of the image where you expect your subject to appear, and then wait until it arrives before taking the shot.
3. Use exposure compensation
Just as you can’t trust politicians, strange dogs or most salesmen, you also can’t trust your camera’s meter.
Now like autofocus, camera metering systems get better with each passing year. Most cameras come with huge, hidden databases of image data, which your camera uses to make a determination about the best exposure for any given situation. Even with all of that technology working in its favor, however, your camera still might not get it right. You may notice that photos shot in certain lighting situations, for example, are consistently a little too dark or a little too bright.
The best way that you can figure out when to add exposure compensation is through experience. I know, that’s really not very helpful right now, but it’s true. At some point in every photography career, for example, every photographer learns that you should use positive exposure compensation whenever you shoot a snowy landscape. Why is that? To understand the answer, you have to understand how your camera’s meter thinks.
Most matrix or evaluative metering systems (the default metering system on almost every camera) are designed to assume that everything in any given scene averages out to roughly middle gray in tone. That means that the camera assumes that there will be a certain number of highlights, a certain number of shadows and a certain number of tones in between, that when averaged together, fall in about the middle of the brightness spectrum. When you shoot a snowy scene, however, this is not the case. Most of the tones in a snowy scene, particularly on a sunny day, are going to be in the brighter range. But because your camera is assuming that the average will be middle gray, it ends up underexposing the shot. The same is true, only in an opposite way, with scenes that have a lot of black in them. If you place a black cat in front of a black wall, for example, you’re going to end up with a photo that’s overexposed—that is, if you’re letting your matrix/evaluative metering do all the thinking for you.
Snowshoeprints in the Snow by Flickr user IceNineJon
The solution to this problem is to shoot with exposure compensation (you can also go manual, of course, but we’re going to keep it simpler than that). The trick is in knowing how much exposure compensation to apply.
Most modern cameras have an exposure compensation setting built on to the camera body. It’s usually marked by a +/- symbol, which should make it pretty easy to spot. To master exposure compensation, you first have to master the histogram.
I know, the word “histogram” probably recalls unpleasant afternoons in high school math classes, or other similar horrors. The histogram seems a little too much like that bell curve that no one really likes, but I promise you it is both useful and simple to understand.
Many (if not most) modern digital cameras will allow you to turn your histogram on so it’s viewable in your LCD. Some cameras will actually show you the histogram based on your current settings, before you even take the photograph. You can get a pretty good idea what sort of exposure compensation you need to apply just based on what your histogram looks like—if it’s skewed to the left, you need to add positive exposure compensation. If it’s skewed to the right, you need to add negative exposure compensation. Whether you add negative or positive compensation depends on the subject—that snowy scene we talked about above requires positive compensation to prevent it from underexposing, while the black cat sitting next to a black wall requires negative exposure compensation.
histogram by Flickr user LeighMilwardRMIT
How much compensation to apply depends on how far skewed in either direction the histogram is, so you’ll need to start off with a little trial and error before you start to get a feeling for the right value.
These steps are all very simple, and I promise you if you implement them today you’ll be taking considerably better photos by this time tomorrow. Yes, it does require a certain amount of technical understanding, but you really can’t improve in any hobby unless you are willing to absorb that kind of information.
The bottom line is that snapshots are a great thing, but they’re probably not where you ultimately want to go as a photographer. Take baby steps and I think you’ll be amazed by how quickly those little steps turn into big improvements.
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