When you first decide to step outside of the auto-mode comfort zone, you're going to immediately have some questions about how to use your camera’s advanced features. And for most beginners, the questions are going to be pretty much the same.
You've seen other photos that look amazing, and yet somehow you can't get similarly amazing photos of similar subjects with the equipment you have. And while it can be tempting to blame your camera, I'd like to reassure you that you only need to find the answers to a few of these basic questions in order to improve your photos almost immediately—no new equipment purchases necessary. Here's my list of some of the most common beginner questions that I hear (with answers, of course!)
"Why aren't my backgrounds blurry?"
If you're a raw beginner, you may have no idea how the pros achieve those wonderfully soft backgrounds full of beautiful bokeh orbs. And even if you have spent some time learning about your camera’s settings, the reasons why your backgrounds aren't blurry may still be eluding you. The short answer to this question is: aperture. But it's actually more complicated than that.
To achieve a blurry background, you need to use a large aperture. A large aperture corresponds to a small f-number, for example an aperture of f/32 is actually a very small aperture, while an aperture of f/1.8 is a very large aperture. To achieve that background blur, you need to use an aperture that's on the larger end of the spectrum, but that's not the only part of the equation. For example, you may have heard people say that the ideal aperture to use for a portrait is f/5.6. But you’ve probably been disappointed to discover that not all of your f/5.6 portraits have blurry backgrounds, despite what you’ve been told.
Let’s say you photographed your subject in front of a rosebush, and you’d hoped you would get some nice soft blur on the roses. Instead, you got tack-sharp roses to go with your tack-sharp subject, and the roses have actually become a distraction. But your aperture was f/5.6—so what could have possibly gone wrong?
The answer lies in the distance between your subject and the background. When you place your subject right in front of that background, you’re basically placing him on the same focal plane as the rosebushes. So they’re going to be almost as sharp as he is, even if you use a large aperture. The solution to this problem is to simply move your subject forward, so there is some distance between him and the rosebush.
But the distance between subject and background is not the only factor that comes into play. Try this experiment: zoom out so you’re capturing a head-to-toe shot of your subject, and then zoom in so you’ve only got his head and shoulders in the frame. Now compare the two photos. The zoomed out one will have a much sharper background than the zoomed in one.
The blurry background in the zoomed shot didn’t happen because you used a zoom lens, though - you’d have the same result if you zoomed with your feet (if you walked closer or further away from your subject). The reason why you got the blurred background is because as you increase the distance between camera and subject, whether you do it optically or physically, you’re increasing the depth of field in your image. The result: sharper roses. Alternately, if you decrease the distance between camera and subject, whether optically or physically, you decrease the depth of field in your image and you’ll get that nice blurry background you were going for.
Why do my flash photos look so bad?
The flash that comes with your camera is not designed to help you take great pictures. It’s designed to help you take pictures, period. When the light is low or you are inside, you may feel like you need to pop up that flash, otherwise you won’t be able to take a photo at all—and once upon a time, in the very recent past, that was true. Cameras didn’t have the ability to take good pictures in low light, especially in the early days of digital. Even when film ruled, you still needed to buy a special type of film in order to shoot in low light without a flash. So for the average person, low light meant flash—and that’s a notion that’s continued even into the present day.
rachel flash glare by Flickr user jiggott
Cameras come with built in flashes mostly to feed that notion, because beginning photographers tend to think that they’re needed (even though there are plenty of superior techniques, such as raising the ISO or using a large aperture). The reason why your flash photos look bad is because you’re using that built in flash, which has only one purpose—to increase the amount of light in a scene so you can get a photo. Because it’s built in, it’s direct—which means you can only ever point it right at your subject. Very bright, direct light such as the light produced by your pop-up flash does a few really undesirable things to your subject. First, if she’s looking right at the camera, you’re likely to get red-eye. Second, if she’s pretty close to the camera you may also get blown out highlights. If there’s anything shiny behind her such as a window, you’ll get that awful burst of white light that will show up as a glaring hot spot. And you’ll get some really ugly shadows in the form of a halo shape around her head and body.
It may comfort you to know that this doesn’t have anything to do with you, or how well you’re using your camera. It’s just the nature of direct flash. It’s hard, and it’s ugly.
Deanne by Flickr user jeshurun flores
The best way to solve the ugly flash problem is to just not use flash. Most modern digital cameras can take very good photos in low light, and all you need to do is raise the ISO. Even cameras that produce some noise at high ISOs may still give you a better photo than that demon-eyed, washed out look you’re getting from your popup flash, so don’t be afraid to try shooting sans-flash. And if you’re not getting the photo you want at those higher ISOs, try adding an inexpensive 50mm prime lens to your arsenal. Most 50mm prime lenses have a maximum available aperture of at least f/1.8, which means that you can shoot in low light without having to raise your ISO too high.
But if you do find yourself in a situation where you really need to add light (say you’re photographing a group of people indoors and you can’t get the depth of field you need at those larger apertures), you can still get very good results with flash as long as you can soften the light. For your popup flash, this might mean simply placing a folded up piece of tissue over it to help scatter and diffuse the light. But for the best result, you’ll need an off-camera flash. You don’t have to use it off-camera (just mount it on your hot-shoe), but you need it because the head swivels, which means you can point it anywhere, ideally at a large, white surface such as a ceiling or a wall. The ceiling/wall will scatter and soften the light, so you’ll avoid red-eye, burned out highlights and that ugly black shadow you probably have in all of your popup flash photos.
Why is my subject out of focus?
This is probably one of the more complicated photography questions, because there can be a lot of different answers. The first and most obvious culprit you should look for is shutter speed. When you lower your shutter speed, you increase the risk of motion blur, which is what happens when your subject is moving too fast for the shutter speed you’ve chosen. So how do you know? You make an educated guess, based on what you know about the speed that people or objects move. That requires a little bit of experience, or at least rote memorization of common subjects and their corresponding shutter speeds. For example:
- Shoot standing people at 1/125. That’s because even standing people are likely to move their hands or turn their heads suddenly, and you need a faster shutter speed to freeze that unexpected motion.
- Shoot walking people at 1/250.
- Shoot running people at 1/500.
- Shoot fast-moving vehicles at 1/1000 or more (depending on how fast they’re moving).
Now this is not a complete list, obviously, and it also varies depending on how good your subject is at keeping still (small dogs and toddlers need not apply), how close he is to your position and what direction he’s moving relative to the camera. Subjects moving towards or away from the camera require slower shutter speeds than subjects moving parallel to the camera, so use your best judgment—but as a general rule don’t choose slower speeds unless the light is really low and it’s necessary. If you can, try to use a speed that’s faster than the minimum so you’ll be sure to get a good picture just in case you’ve misjudged your subject’s speed or if he decides to switch unexpectedly from walking to running.
Another reason why your photos might be blurry doesn’t have anything to do with your shutter speed—it’s in fact aperture related. Sometimes when you use a large aperture you may end up with a blurry subject because your subject isn’t your focus point. This can happen if you depend on your autofocus system to choose the focus point—let’s say your subject is standing just to the left of and behind a tree. If you depend on your autofocus to decide where the focus point is, it may actually lock onto the tree instead of your subject, because the tree is the closer element. The result will be a sharp tree and a blurry subject. The reason this happens is because as good as autofocus systems are, they just aren’t a replacement for your eyes (and your brain). Your camera really has no way of knowing which one of those things is your subject, so it might end up guessing wrong. So what’s the solution? Don’t trust your autofocus.
Never alone by Flickr user lanier67
Whenever you’re shooting with a larger aperture, it’s a very good idea to manually tell your autofocus system where the subject is. To do this, you switch to the single-point autofocus mode, which lets you move the focus point around in your viewfinder, usually with the small joystick located on the back of your camera. Place the focus point on your subject (on her eye, if she’s human or animal), press down halfway on your shutter button to lock focus there, and then take the photo. You’ll be guaranteed to have a sharp subject, as long as your shutter speed is also fast enough to freeze the action.
These are three of the big questions you’re likely to have as you move from the realm of casual photographer to beginner—but of course there are a million more questions that are likely to crop up as you grow and learn. Start with these three, though, and as soon as you understand the answers you’re going to start immediately improving your photos. So keep practicing, think through your shots and remember that asking questions is the best way to learn.
[I've continued my "Beginner Photography Questions" series. See part two here.]
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