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20 Essential Photography Tips for Beginners

2nd March 2016

Whether you’ve just purchased your first DSLR and want to learn the basics or are looking for simple ways to update your existing photography skills, the following tips should help you build a strong foundation. Keep in mind, however, that photography is an art you’ll never really be ‘done’ learning.

The best way to keep improving is to practice often, make mistakes and be open to learning from others, whether they’re well-established photographers or newcomers to the craft.

1. Learn to hold your camera properly

This may sound obvious, but many new photographers don’t hold their camera correctly, which causes camera shake and blurry images. Tripods are of course the best way to prevent camera shake, but since you won’t be using a tripod unless you’re shooting in low light situations, it’s important to hold your camera properly to avoid unnecessary movement.

While you’ll eventually develop your own way of holding the camera, you should always hold it with both hands. Grip the right side of the camera with your right hand and place your left hand beneath the lens to support the weight of the camera.

The closer you keep the camera to your body, the stiller you’ll be able to hold it. If you need extra stability you can lean up against a wall or crouch down on your knees, but if there’s nothing to lean on, adopting a wider stance can also help.

2. Start shooting in RAW

RAW is a file format like jpeg, but unlike jpeg, it captures all the image data recorded by your camera’s sensor rather than compressing it. When you shoot in RAW you’ll not only get higher quality images but you’ll also have far more control in post processing. For instance, you’ll be able to correct problems such as over or underexposure and adjust things like colour temperature, white balance and contrast.

One downside to shooting in RAW is that the files take up more space. Additionally, RAW photos always need some post processing so you’ll need to invest in photo editing software.

Ultimately, however, shooting in RAW can transform the quality of your images, so if you have the time and space, it’s definitely worth it. If you’re not sure how to switch from jpeg to RAW, check your camera’s manual for detailed instructions.

3. Understand the exposure triangle

Although it can seem a bit daunting at first, the exposure triangle simply refers to the three most important elements of exposure; ISO, aperture and shutter speed. When you’re shooting in manual mode, you’ll need to be able to balance all three of these things in order to get sharp, well-lit photos.

ISO:

ISO controls the camera’s sensitivity to light. A low ISO setting means the camera will be less sensitive to light, while a higher ISO means it will be more sensitive to light. However, the quality of the image will decrease as the ISO increases and you may see 'noise' on the image with a higher ISO. An ISO setting of 100 to 200 is usually ideal when shooting outdoors during the day, but when shooting in low light situations, such as indoors or at night, a higher ISO of 400 to 800 or higher might be necessary.

Aperture:

Aperture is the opening in your lens and controls how much light gets through to the camera’s sensor as well as the depth of field. Depth of field refers to the area surrounding the focal point of the image which remains sharp. A wider aperture (indicated by a lower f-number) lets more light through, but has a narrow depth of field. While a narrow aperture (indicated by a higher f-number) lets less light through, but has a wider depth of field. A wide aperture is great when you want to isolate your subject, but when you want the whole scene to be in focus, such as with group shots, you’ll need to use a narrow aperture.

Shutter speed:

Shutter speed controls how long the shutter stays open when you take a picture. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light gets through to the camera’s sensor. A fast shutter speed is good for freezing action, while a longer shutter speed will blur motion. Long shutter speeds can give interesting effects, but usually require a tripod.

4. Wide aperture is best for portraits

When shooting portraits, whether of people or animals, your subject should be the main focus of the picture and the best way to achieve this is to use a wider aperture. This will keep your subject sharp, while blurring out any distractions in the background.

Keep in mind that a smaller f/ number means a wider aperture and the wider the aperture, the more dramatic this effect will be. Some lenses can go as low as f/1.2, but even apertures of f/5.6 can do the trick. To better understand how the aperture affects your images, switch to Aperture Priority Mode (Av or A) and try taking some shots with different apertures.

5. Narrow aperture is best for landscapes

Landscape photographs require a different approach, because everything from the rocks in the foreground to the mountains in the background should be sharply in focus. So any time you’re shooting a scene where you want everything to be fully in focus, you should select a narrow aperture rather than a wide one.

A larger f/ number means a narrower aperture, so go towards f/22 or higher, depending on what your lens allows. Again, using Aperture Priority Mode (Av or A) will allow you to experiment with different apertures without having to worry about adjusting the shutter speed each time.

6. Learn to use Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes

If you want to venture out of automatic mode but don’t feel confident enough to switch to manual yet, Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av) and Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv) are two very useful options that are available on most cameras and will give you more control without being overly complicated.  

Aperture Priority Mode lets you select the aperture you wish to use and then the camera adjusts the shutter speed accordingly. So for instance, if you’re shooting a portrait and want to blur the background, you could simply select a wide aperture and let the camera figure out what shutter speed is appropriate.

In Shutter Priority Mode, you select the shutter speed you want to use and the camera will select the aperture for you. So for example, if you want to get a clear shot of your dog racing towards you, you can select a fast shutter speed and let the camera choose the aperture for you.

7. Don’t be afraid to raise the ISO

Many photographers try to avoid ever shooting in high ISO as they’re afraid it will lead to grainy-looking photos or ‘noise.’ But while it’s true that using higher ISO can lead to lower image quality, there’s a time and place for everything.

If you can’t lower your shutter speed due to motion blur and a tripod isn’t an option, it’s better to get a sharp photo with a bit of noise than no photo at all, and you’ll be able to remove a lot of noise in post processing anyway. Moreover, camera technology has improved so much in recent years that it’s now quite possible to produce amazing photographs even at ISO 1600, 3200, 6400 or higher.

One way to minimise noise when shooting at higher ISOs is to use a wider aperture whenever possible. Slightly overexposing your image can also help, because making light areas darker in post processing won’t increase noise, whereas making dark areas lighter definitely will.

8. Make a habit of checking the ISO before you start shooting

Discovering that you’ve accidentally shot a whole series of images in ISO 800 on a bright sunny day can be extremely frustrating, especially if the photos were taken to document a special occasion such as a birthday, anniversary or other event that can’t be recreated.

It’s an easy enough mistake to make, though, so to avoid this unpleasant surprise, make a habit of checking and resetting your ISO settings before you start shooting anything. Alternatively, make a habit of resetting this every time you’re ready to put your camera back in its bag.

9. Be careful with your on-camera flash

If you’re not careful, using your camera’s built-in flash at night or in low light can lead to some unpleasant effects like red eyes and harsh shadows. In general, it’s better to crank up the ISO and get noisier photos than to use the on-camera flash and risk ruining the shot altogether.

Sometimes, however, there may simply not be enough light, and if you don’t have off-camera lighting, you’ll be left with no choice but to use the built in flash. If you find yourself in this situation and don’t want to miss the shot, there are a couple of things you can do. First of all, find the flash settings in your camera’s menu and reduce brightness as much as you can.

Second, you can try diffusing the light from the flash by putting something over it. Securing a piece of paper or opaque scotch tape over the flash, for instance, can help diffuse the light and soften it. Or you could bounce the light off the ceiling by holding a bit of white cardboard in front of it at an angle.

10.Learn to adjust white balance

White balance can help you capture colours more accurately. Different types of light have different characteristics, so if you don’t adjust the white balance, the colours in your photography may take on a slightly blue, orange or green hue or ‘temperature.’

White balance can be fixed in post processing, of course, but it can become a bit tedious if you have hundreds of photos that need slight adjustments made, so it’s better to get this right in the camera. Some of the standard white balance settings you’ll find on your camera include Automatic White Balance, Daylight, Cloudy, Flash, Shade, Fluorescent and Tungsten.

Each of these is symbolised by a different icon, so if you’re not sure which is which, check your camera’s manual. Automatic white balance works alright in some situations, but it’s generally best to change the setting according to the type of light you’re shooting in.

11. Learn to read the histogram

Although you probably glance at your camera’s LCD screen to see if you’ve correctly exposed an image, this isn’t a reliable way to assess exposure as images may appear brighter or darker on the screen than they really are. The best way to accurately check exposure at the time of shooting is to use your camera’s histogram, which is the little graph that shows up next to your images.

Learning to interpret the histogram will take some time and practice, but the brief explanation of it is that it gives you information about the tonal range present in your image. The left side of the graph represents the blacks or shadows and the right side represents the whites or highlights.

If the graph is skewed to the right, your image may be overexposed and you’ll have lost a lot of detail in the lighter areas of the photo. If it’s skewed to the left, it’s likely underexposed and will be too dark. For a more in-depth explanation of the histogram, check out Digital Camera World’s histogram cheat sheets.

12. Play with perspective

The best way to get a bit more creative with your photography is to experiment with perspective. The exact same scene can often look very different when approached from a different angle, and capturing your subject from above or below may change the whole feel of a photograph.

Not every angle will work for every photograph, of course, but you’ll never know what works and what doesn’t if you don’t experiment. When shooting animals or children, you can try getting down to their level and viewing the world through their eyes. If you’re shooting a portrait, why not stand on a bench and shoot your subject from above?  

13. Understand the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is based on the idea that pictures are generally more interesting and well balanced when they aren’t centred. Imagine a grid placed over your images with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines that divide the picture into nine equal sections.

If you were following the rule of thirds, rather than positioning your subject or the important elements of a scene at the centre of the photo, you’d place them along one of the four lines, or at the points where the lines intersect. Some cameras even have a grid option you can turn on, which can be useful if you’re still learning to compose your images.

Of course, photography is all about creativity and personal expression, so you may sometimes choose to break this rule and place the points of interest elsewhere in your photo. This is absolutely fine, but before you start breaking this rule, it’s important that you understand it and are in the habit of consciously thinking about the points of interest and where you want to place them.

14. Eyes should always be in focus

When shooting portraits, you’ll be focusing on a very small area so it will be more important than ever that you get a nice sharp image. The eyes in particular are an important facial feature, and they’re often the first thing people look at, especially when it comes to close-ups and headshots.

With this in mind, your subject’s eyes should be your main point of focus. To get both eyes nice and sharp, choose a single focus point and aim it at one of the eyes. Once the first eye is in focus, keep the shutter button pressed halfway down and move the camera slightly to recompose the photo and include the second eye.

15. Pay attention to the background

Generally speaking, the background should be as simple and clutter free as possible so that it doesn’t pull the viewer’s attention away from the main subject of the photo. Muted colours and plain patterns tend to work well, because you don’t want viewers to end up being more interested in the colourful building or church tower in the background than your model.

Fixing a distracting background can be as simple as moving your subject or changing your angle, but if that doesn’t work, it may be possible to obscure it by using a wider aperture and getting in as close to your subject as possible. Whenever you can, though, try to keep the background neutral, especially if you’re placing your subject off to the side of the photograph and the background is very visible.

16. Invest in a tripod

If you want to get sharp photos in low light without raising the ISO too much, a tripod is an essential accessory. It will also allow you to experiment with long exposure photography, where you leave the shutter open for seconds or even minutes at a time, which can make for some amazing effects when photographing things like cityscapes or rivers and waterfalls.

When purchasing your first tripod, there are a few things to consider such as weight, stability and height. Weight is important because you’ll be carrying the tripod around with you and don’t want anything too heavy, but it also needs to be stable enough to support your camera and the lenses you plan to use. If in doubt, check out the Digital Photography School’s guide to buying a tripod.

17. Shoot in the early morning and evening

Lighting can make or break a photo, and the early morning and evening are widely thought to be the best times of day for taking photos. In photography, the hour just after the sun rises or before it sets is called the “golden hour,” because the sun is lower in the sky and the light is softer and warmer.

Whether you’re shooting landscapes, portraits or still life, using the early morning or evening light can give your photos a serene feel with its warm glow and the long shadows it casts. Of course, the golden hour is not the only time you can get good outdoor photos, but it does make it easier.

18. Invest in some good photo editing software

Once you start shooting in RAW, post processing will become a must rather than an afterthought, so you’ll need to invest in some photo editing software that will allow you to perform basic editing tasks such as cropping, adjusting exposure, white balance and contrast, removing blemishes and more.

Most professional photographers use programs like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, but if you want something a little less pricey to start with you can try Photoshop Elements, Picasa or Paint Shop Pro.

19. Be selective

It’s important to realise that every photographer, no matter how experienced or talented, gets some mediocre shots. The reason that their portfolios are so impressive, however, is that they only display their best work; they don’t bore you with ten photos of a nearly identical scene.

So if you want your work to stand out when sharing your photos on Facebook, Instagram or photo sharing sites like Flickr or 500px, try to narrow it down to just a couple of very good photos from each shoot. You may have shot hundreds of photos at your friend’s birthday party or your son’s football match, but by displaying all of them, you’re obscuring the five or ten really great shots that you got.

20. Learn from your mistakes

Getting overexposed, blurry or badly composed photos can be frustrating, but rather than letting such photos discourage you, use them as a learning tool. The next time you get a bad photo; don’t immediately hit the delete button. Instead, spend some time studying the photo to work out what went wrong and how you could improve it.

Most of the time there will be a simple solution such as trying a different composition or using a faster shutter speed, but if you see any recurring problems, you’ll have a chance to study up on specific aspects of photography and strengthen your weaker areas.