If you’re new to your camera, or to photography in general, it can be really easy to get discouraged. After all, most modern cameras have a seemingly infinite number of
different buttons and menu options (confession: there are probably one or two menu options my own camera has that I still don’t know how to use), and that manual is approaching the size of War & Peace. If you spent some time bumbling around your menu system and then just put everything in auto mode in order to end the pain, I can’t say I blame you. But I’d also like to reassure you that being a beginner does not mean that you have to let your inexperience dampen your creativity. Even as a beginner, you can take some awesome, pro-quality images just by following a few basic tips. Here’s how.
- Shoot in priority mode
- Pay attention to the light
- Watch your backgrounds
- Change perspective
- Fill the frame
1. Shoot in a priority mode
Auto mode is for newbies, and if you take enough photos in auto mode you’re going to eventually start to notice that they all look alike. Auto mode can take some gorgeous pictures, but what it can’t do is make creative decisions—only you can do that. Switching to one of your camera’s two priority modes is one way that you can instantly transform your work from samey to stunning, and it requires very little in the way of actual technical knowledge. Here’s a quick rundown on when to use either of the two priority modes:
Use aperture priority to control depth of field, or in other words, to control how much of your scene is in focus. If you’re shooting a landscape, you generally want to have good focus from foreground to background, so select a small aperture—which corresponds to a large f-number, like f/22 or f/32. If you want your image to have limited depth of field, that means you want an in-focus subject with a blurry background. To achieve this, you need to select a large aperture, which corresponds to a small f-number, like f/4 or f/5.6.
Use shutter priority when you’re shooting scenes with a lot of motion in them, or when you’re in a low light situation and you need to make sure that you’re freezing the action. To stop fast moving people, set your shutter speed to 1/500—for slow moving people choose 1/125 to 1/250. If you want to capture some motion blur, choose a slower shutter speed: 1/15 or less, but remember that you need to stabilize your camera on a tripod whenever you go slower than 1/60th or so.
2. Pay attention to the light
Keep these two basic rules about light in mind: soft light is good, hard light is bad. Now, there are always exceptions to any rule but while you are on this learning curve it’s going to serve you well to remember and repeat those words as at least a temporary mantra. To find soft light, shoot during the first hour of the morning or the last hour of the day. Or, go out on an overcast day (some photographers call this “nature’s soft-box”). You can also find soft light indoors, filtering through a window (but not necessarily under artificial lights). Hard light is the quality you’ll find in mid-day photos—hard light creates very black shadows and burned out highlights. As a general rule, you should avoid taking photos under direct, overhead light such as what you’ll find at noon on a sunny day. Instead, move your subjects into the shade or wait until the light softens up, closer to sunset.
3. Banish tunnel vision
One of the biggest mistakes that new photographers make is a failure to pay attention to the background. No matter how compelling your subject is, it’s your background that can really make or break your photo. Imagine this: your toddler daughter is about to perform at her first dance recital. She is, of course, wearing the most adorable pink tutu that any toddler has ever worn, anywhere, and you really feel like you must get a photo of her backstage.
Most beginners will just raise the camera at that point and take the photo, without ever thinking about how many crazy things are going on backstage at a kids’ dance recital. There are all those girls in the sparkly purple outfits, and there are the break dancers in their bright red hats and there are the makeup artists with their cases full of various geometrically shaped objects. If you put all that colorful stuff in the background of your photo, you’re going to end up with an image of a toddler in an adorable pink tutu that has been almost completely overwhelmed by background clutter. Instead, you need to do one of three things:
First, you can move your child in front of a plain background, such as a wall, thus eliminating all of that background clutter. Or you can use a large aperture to blur all that background clutter out, but remember that when the clutter is very colorful blurring it out might not be enough. Color alone can be a distraction—it doesn’t have to be identifiable objects. Finally, you can just choose a different camera angle. Sometimes just shooting from slightly above or below can be enough to angle out the distractions. If the pink tutu isn’t important, you can also zoom in and eliminate the background distractions in that way.
4. Bend your knees
We live in a five to six foot tall world. That, of course, is the height range for the average adult. Wherever you fall in that range (or above or below) is the height at which you view the world as you move through it. And because it’s the everyday, ordinary height for you, it’s really not very inspiring. If you plan to photograph things that aren’t awe inspiring all by themselves, you need to find a unique way to frame them, a way that’s different from the way that most people see that object every day. One very simple way to do this is to bend your knees.
Let’s say for example that you’re taking a photo of your dog. Pretty much everyone views dogs from an elevated position, so when you bend your knees you are now eye to eye with your dog, as if you are his equal instead of his superior. That’s not the usual way we view our furry friends, so the perspective is immediately compelling. The same is true for photos of children, and you can use the bent-knee philosophy for inanimate objects, too. Shoot a car across its hubcap, for example, and you get a much more unique perspective than you would if you shot it across the passenger side window.
5. Fill the frame
Too many beginners default to anthill composition. If you’ve never heard that expression before, that’s because I just made it up, so let me explain what I mean. When I say “anthill composition,” I’m referring to beginners who attempt to capture a single ant as focal point and subject without getting any closer than the anthill.
When you photograph an anthill from a wide perspective, your viewer has no idea which ant he’s supposed to be looking at, and it’s equally likely that he may not even realize that the ants are supposed to be the subject at all. The same is true for when you shoot your child’s soccer game from the grandstands—which one of those “ants” on the field is the focal point? Because you didn’t fill the frame with your subject, your viewer isn’t going to be able to answer that question.
The cure for anthill composition is almost always to just get closer to the action. Come down from the grandstands and stand closer to the field (you might have to get permission first). Or use a telephoto lens and zoom in on the action. And of course this doesn’t just work for soccer games—with the possible exception of landscapes, filling the frame with a single subject will almost always result in an improved photo.
There are all kinds of clichés and wise words about the power of simplification, so I won’t spend a lot of time repeating them here—I will, however, try to impress upon you the truth behind them. Simple is better, and photography is no exception. I know that the beautiful rose bushes behind your subject are lovely and colorful and that little gazebo to the left is quaint and pretty and the cat sitting inside the gazebo is about as cute as cats get, but all those different elements, regardless of how visually appealing each one of them might be in isolation, are only going to serve as distractions from your main subject. In fact, the more lovely, colorful, quaint and cute those distractions are, the more distracting they’ll be. And I don’t have to tell you that it works in reverse as well—the uglier the background is, the more time your viewer will spend staring at it and the less time he’ll spend actually looking at your subject.
The answer to this problem is simple (haha), just simplify. Angle out the cat and the gazebo and use a large aperture to blur out the rose bushes. When you remove everything in the frame that doesn’t support your subject, you’ve created a photo with an unmistakable focal point. Simplifying the image makes it more compelling, because now the viewer isn’t confused about what he’s supposed to be looking at.
Untitled by Flickr user viveee
Now, feel free to take a shot of the cat, the gazebo and the roses individually—and make sure you simplify those subjects as well. An easy way to know for sure that you’re excluding the right things is to ask yourself whether each individual element contributes to the composition or distracts from it. That cat may be cute, but unless your subject is an animal doctor or a cat hoarder, the cat itself probably doesn’t say anything about her, so can be safely excluded.
For now, don’t worry too much about reading your camera’s manual from cover to cover. You don’t need to understand every little feature and function, at least not right away. Instead, focus on this short list of things you can do to improve your photography today—these are easy things to implement and they will go a very long way towards making you feel like a pro, even if you are still a beginner.
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