So you have this expensive camera, it got great reviews, and your photos are “ok” but not like the brochure shows.
Taking an “ok” photo is easy. Pointing your camera at something and pressing a button is about as easy as it gets. But to get those truly stunning photos like the brochure takes some experience.
With a little knowledge and some practice, you can capture tack-sharp sports action, take photographs of beautiful flowing waterfalls and learn to post-process your photos in software like Lightroom, Photoshop or even free software such as GIMP. (Find additional choices in this blog post)
Learning photographic theory gives you the ability to push your tools to their limits and develop a style all your own. In addition, knowing your tools lets you take great photos in challenging situations where others will fail.
With this in mind, I decided to put together 7 tips to help you take better pictures and maybe win a contest or two.
You may think you can hold your camera still, but I bet you can’t. Take a flash-less photo of any low-light scene with a slow shutter speed, and you’ll find your photos are blurry no matter how hard you try. The body shakes; there’s nothing we can do about that. If you put a camera at the end of a shaking stick (your arms), then it’s hard to imagine how you can take anything BUT a blurry photo.
However, there are things you can do to minimize the transference of body shake into your photo. Standing correctly will help reduce the effect of the body’s natural tendency to move.
You can stand correctly by spacing your feet apart, approximately a shoulder’s width and anchoring your elbows into your abdomen. Hold your camera at the front and back to minimize shake—one hand supporting the lens, the other supporting the camera body with your finger on the shutter. Lean against a wall if one is available, take a seat and set your elbows on your thighs like a tripod. I usually rest my elbows just behind my knees.
Take Your Camera Off Auto
Use Aperture or Shutter priority modes for their creative effects. Use a LARGE aperture to minimize the depth of field, DOF. Use a long shutter time to show movement or a short shutter time to freeze time. If you’re using a longer exposure, make sure you bring a tripod. But, opening up your aperture may free you of your tripod and give you a great-looking, creamy background while your model is tack sharp.
Using long shutter times shows the movement of animals, water, people, cars and more. This squirrel was captured in my driveway using a long shutter time and a tripod.
Get The Action Shot
Your camera takes time to complete a shot. There is quite a lot going on, so it makes sense. From the moment you press the shutter button, the camera has to focus, take an exposure reading, set aperture and ISO, raise the mirror, raise the shutter then, finally, read the photo data from the sensor. Remember, each photo in RAW mode can be 5MB, 10MB, 40MB and higher. Reading that much data from the sensor and writing it to a memory card takes time.
And, once the photo has been taken, the shutter closes, the mirror drops, and you’re ready for the next shot.
You can imagine why it’s so difficult to get a great action shot – by the time your camera has the sensor exposed to light, several milliseconds have passed, and the action has moved on.
It would help if you considered using Shutter Priority mode for action shots, which lets you set the shutter speed while the camera chooses an aperture and ISO.
There are three easy solutions to catching action shots:
- Spray method. Hold your shutter down just before you anticipate the action, and hold it down until the action is done. Then, wait while all those photos are written to your memory card.
- Pray method. Click the shutter just before you anticipate the action shot, and pray.
- Obey method. You can cut delay time WAY down by pre-focusing. Your shutter button probably has a feature called “half-press.” A full-press is when you press hard enough to take a picture. A half-press is hard enough to feel resistance to your finger but not hard enough to take a picture. By half-pressing and holding your finger there, your camera will pre-focus and calculate exposure. And, when your action is in place, press the shutter fully to take the picture. The camera skips focusing, saving precious milliseconds. This method requires you to know where the action will be so that you can prefocus and wait. I usually prefocus on my son’s football helmet and track him across the field until something good happens. As long as I’m careful choosing my aperture setting, I can get a deep enough DOF so that he’ll be in focus when he moves. Or, sit as close to the middle of his play as possible so that panning doesn’t change his distance to the camera, meaning you can use a narrower depth of field, giving you higher shutter speeds at lower ISOs.
Now, it’s true I shoot sports in Aperture Priority mode. There are a couple of reasons for this, but briefly, it allows me to choose DOF, control the sharpness of my lens and indirectly control shutter speed. With my Pentax body, I can set an automatic ISO range. So, in Aperture Priority mode, I have control of the Aperture and the ISO. The camera calculates the shutter speed. But, since I control Aperture and ISO, two parts of the exposure triangle, I’m also in control of the shutter speed, despite what my camera thinks.
Each time you change a lens, your camera experiences a rush of new air, along with its dust particles. Those particles can and do land on your sensor, showing up in your photos as round transparent globs. Removing spots from photos is easy in Lightroom and others, but why spend all that time cleaning up after a dirty sensor? There are several things you can do to clean up the situation.
- Use your camera’s built-in sensor cleaning tool. Some manufacturers call this Ultrasonic cleaning; some use a Sensor Shake method. Check your users’ manual for instructions.
- Blow your sensor clean using a Rocket Blower or equivalent.
- Wet cleaning is reserved for those stubborn stains that will not come off your sensor with regular cleaning methods. I haven’t tried wet cleaning personally, but you may want to look into a wet cleaning if you have resistant dirt.
In the quest for a perfect single shot, your camera may expose most of the photo correctly, sacrificing details in the brightest areas. You see blown highlights as a white area with little detail. Think about white puffy clouds that have lost their shape and become overcast.
To avoid blown highlights, you can use your camera’s Exposure Compensation to subtract a stop or two from the camera’s calculated exposure. Once the shot has been taken, it will be a little darker and will need to be processed. In your post-processing software, raise the exposure to compensate for the darker photo and pull back on the highlights to preserve their detail. You now have a properly exposed image with lots of fluffy white clouds.
Both of these photos are from the same night. The first photo demonstrates how easy it is to blow highlights even while the camera exposes properly for the full scene. We see the moon is void of any detail due to blown highlights, but there’s plenty of detail in the trees. I used a much shorter shutter time for the next photo, which was exposed correctly.
Shooting a bright moon against a dark sky is nearly impossible. The camera can capture details in the bright areas or details in the dark areas but not in the same shot. This particular photo is a composite of two pictures. One photo was exposed for the moon, while the other photo was exposed for the darkened landscape.
Post-Process Your Photos – Period.
Most pictures will come out of the camera, fine. They will be sharp, in focus and nicely saturated. However, you can improve nearly any photo through a few simple adjustments in your favourite photo editor. Perhaps you need to straighten the horizon. Maybe a vignette would help your model to stand out in the photo. Would you like your colours to POP more? Isolate a model with selective sharpening? You can do it all in Post-Processing. Your pictures will be “fine” straight out of the camera, but they’ll be excellent straight out of your computer.
Personally, I use Adobe Lightroom. It’s an amazing piece of software that lets photographers enhance and correct their photos with ease. Another option, this time free, is GIMP.
BONUS TIP – Shoot in RAW
JPEGs are great for sharing photos – they’re small and ubiquitous across the internet. However, JPEGs are meant for end-user consumers and do not represent the full capabilities of your camera’s sensor. Your camera likely has the ability to save your photos in RAW format rather than JPEG (or both). The RAW format represents ALL of the data your sensor produced during a photo. JPEGs throw away most of this data. The RAW format has more dynamic range than JPEGs do, so they contain more detail over the whole photo and in the shadows and highlights. This lets you edit your RAW photos in ways that would tear JPEGs to shreds. Bumping shadows in a RAW photo will produce details in those shadows, whereas a JPEG would show noise since most of the shadow detail has been thrown away.
Photography is a life-long learning experience, which you never really finish. There are many tips and tricks you will pick up along the way to give your photos your very own style. Don’t forget to TRY these tips, play with them and most importantly, break all the rules. This is how you REALLY discover your camera and your very own unique style.
If you’ve found any of my tips useful, or you would like further help, please leave me a message below.