A few tips for learning & practicing photography

(I originally posted this on Google+, but figured it’s blog-worthy.)

• Keep shooting; you’re always practicing to get better, no matter how long you’re doing photography (:

• Bring a camera (of some sort) with you — the best camera is the one you have in your hands (if you leave your SLR at home, then your cell phone is your current “best camera”)

• Learn about the rules of composition… throughout time and experience, you’ll learn when to bend/break the rules (you can always practice with different ways of framing the shot and deciding which is best in review).

• The “rule of thirds” is a good tip, where the subject is located approximately ⅓ of the way in fro the sides (top, bottom, left, right). If it’s a ⅓ from two sides, it’s usually even more interesting. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that every photograph has to abide by this “rule”.

• Fill the frame with your subject. Usually, the most compelling photographs have the subject taking up a lot of space in the picture. Get close, then get closer. (Again, as w/ the “rule of thirds” above, this isn’t always true, but it is often.)

• Nailing the correct exposure is nice; histograms (which show you a chart of dark parts on the left to bright parts on the right) help you out… and the camera’s guess at the “right” exposure is a guess to balance the picture to a medium grey (your camera can help with exposures, but you should override the camera at times)

• Learn how ISO sensitivity, aperture (f/stop), and shutter speed are related… if you adjust one, you’ll have to adjust one or both of the other two if you want to maintain a similar exposure.

• ISO sensitivity is a balance between noise and the ability to record brightness in a scene. The lower the ISO, the less noise (to an extent). High ISOs are used for low light and action shots. You will get a little noise at higher ISOs, but it’s not bad. Noise is okay (to a point). Some of the best pictures in all of history are quite noisy.

• The aperture is also know as the f/stop. It probably works the opposite as what you might assume. Smaller numbers make the aperture (the controllable hole to let in light) wider, so more light floods the camera. Larger numbers make the hole smaller, permitting less light into your camera. Aperture is mainly there to control the “depth of field” (DoF) which basically means “how much of the scene is in focus at one time”. A smaller aperture (bigger hole for the light to pass through) means more light and shallow depth of field… so you’ll have nicer background blurs (“bokeh”). If your lens is fully open (smallest aperture), your images will be a little soft (which is okay, but it’s good to note)… you can bump up the aperture a little to make it less soft. Larger apertures (smaller hole) make more things in focus, but at the cost of shutter speed (the time to take the picture). Larger apertures may also make dust on your sensor more visible, and, due to technical reasons, should probably not be much higher than f/8 – f/11 on most digital SLRs, else you’ll start to lose image quality (although it’s okay).

• Shutter speed is the time it takes to shoot a picture. It’s a fraction, except for long shots. 2 (2/1 seconds) is a long time, 1/20 is short, 1/200 is a lot quicker. You’ll want to have it be quicker than the reciprocal of your len’s length in mm if you’re hand-holding shots. For example, if you have a 50mm lens (or a zoom lens at approximately 50mm), make your shutter speed at least 1/50 or faster, else your hands & arms may introduce a camera shake blur. You can adjust the ISO and aperture to balance this out, if there isn’t enough light where you are. The longer your shot, the more light you let into the camera.

Quick recap of balancing ISO, aperture, shutter speed:
Dark ←→ Light
• ISO: small number ←→ large number
• Aperture (f/stop): large number ←→ small number
• Shutter speed (time): large number ←→ small number (remember: it’s fractional, so it’s 1/_X_, so X should be larger here when you want a smaller number)

Also, quick recap of what each does:
• ISO: sensitivity boosting (but adds noise)
• Aperture: amount of light to let in (more light = shallower focus, less light = more of the scene in focus at one time)
• Shutter speed: how quickly your camera shoots (faster lets in less light, but you can get action shots, slower means more prone to blurs from camera shake or action)

Quick recipes using the above info:
• Portraits: small-numbered aperture, lens length between 85 – 105mm typically (both to maximize a shallow depth of field to make the person or object stand out from the background). Also use nice lighting, but that’s a HUGELY different, detailed topic.
• Sports & action shots: Maximize your shutter speed, to make it as quick as possible. You can do this by cranking up the ISO and you can also reduce your aperture setting (making it a large hole) to let in more light, to counter-balance the shutter setting.
• Nature scene: High apertures are key here, as you probably want everything in focus. Sometimes this means sacrificing time, so it might be so slow that you cannot hand-hold it with a nice ISO (like 100 or 200, whichever your camera’s “native” ISO is), so people often use tripods… especially on cloudy days and during sunrise, sunset, and nighttime. You’ll probably also want to use a circular polarizer filter, which reduces scattered light (and cancels out reflections, makes color “pop”, etc.). Polarizers also reduce the amount of light coming into your camera, so adjust accordingly.

• You can experiment with shots and not worry about anything above that you might not understand yet. Just pointing and pushing the button is enough, but understanding how things work can really help you get the shot you want.

• Shooting in raw means you can adjust more things after taking the picture. It’s a lot more flexible and even allows you to correct mistakes. It also has a lot more data than JPEG, and does not use lossy compression, so your images won’t have JPEG artifacts. You’ll want to use Apple’s Aperture or Adobe’s Lightroom (I use and prefer Lightroom).

Again: Get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot! Feel free to experiment, especially with digital photography, where extra shots don’t cost you money for film and processing.

(However, despite this, I suggest not shooting the same thing in the same way more than once if you can help it. Think about each shot. There is a cost of your time afterward, on the computer.)

Also, you don’t have to upload everything you take a picture of. Even the best photographers in the world sometime take crappy photographs. You don’t see their awful shots, however. They just take a lot and show you the best. (:

One thought on “A few tips for learning & practicing photography

  1. Thanks for your posting. That was an interesting read. Totally agree with keep shooting to get better. If there’s anything I have learned from shooting with my D700 is: know your camera. You will only be able to shoot that opportunity that lasts only a few seconds if you know how to properly set your camera in an instance.

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