In today’s digital world, we have unprecedented access to high-quality photographic equipment. Just ten years ago, most photographers had a basic camera, sent their film off for processing, and got back a set of slides or 4×6″ prints to enjoy. Early digital cameras were either too expensive or too limited in quality to really be adopted by the average consumer. Now, you can get a 24 megapixel camera like the Nikon D3200 with a zoom lens for under $700!
Think about that for a second. Today’s digital cameras have enough resolution to rival medium format film cameras of the past. Back then, the only people I ever met who used medium format were studio portrait photographers. A medium format system was completely unrealistic for most photographers; they were harder to use and cost a fortune.
With so many people having access to amazing digital photo technology, there’s a feeling that anyone can be a great photographer because they have a great camera. I see it when I talk to wedding photographers about how their clients don’t want to pay for prints or albums because “uncle Joe” has a DSLR and will shoot their wedding for free. I see it when I browse Google+ or Facebook and see mediocre images posted as “works of art.” Friends, a mediocre 24 megapixel snapshot is still mediocre. You just have more resolution to display your mediocrity. With that, here are five fundamental tips for anyone who has recently picked up a new DSLR (or even an older one) and wants to improve their photography.
- Learn the relationships between shutter speed, aperture and ISO.
There is no “right” aperture. There is no “right” shutter speed. There are, however, better choices for aperture and shutter speed depending on your subject. If you want shallow depth of field, you need to use a wide aperture. If you want to freeze motion, you need a fast shutter speed. The fundamentals of exposure haven’t changed, even for modern digital cameras. Each parameter of exposure comes with certain trade-offs (you can’t shoot noiseless images at ISO 100,000– yet). Understanding them will let you make educated choices for your particular shooting situation.
- Find the image histogram on your camera and use it.
It’s so easy with digital photography to re-take a shot if needed, so why not use the fundamental tool for checking your image exposure? The image histogram displays the range of tones captured by your camera. If your image is grossly over or under-exposed, it will show up on the histogram. As a general rule, try to preserve bright tones (highlights) in your images.
- Forget about the obsessive-compulsive tech specs when choosing gear.
You may have read on some photography forum or review site that lens “x” is the “best” because of its optical performance, sharpness, etc. So what? Cameras and lenses are tools that capture images. Each tool has strengths and weaknesses. I’ve read about how sharp Zeiss lenses are on Nikon DSLRs. That’s great… but they won’t autofocus. If you are taking photos of static subjects with a tripod, you might do just fine, but if you’re taking photographs of sports or children, you might choose a different option. Size and weight are very important, too. Just ask Bob Krist why he’s been reluctant to move to Nikon FX format bodies for his travel photography. The Nikon 200mm f/2 AFS G VRII lens may be an optical all-star, but it also weighs 6.5 lbs (3kg)!
- Megapixels magnify your images… and your mistakes.
The Nikon D3200 is 24 megapixels. The D800 is 36 megapixels! We can all go into the jumbo print business, right? Not to be contrarian, but you ought to ask yourself just how big you actually print your photos. Do you even make prints anymore? Most images I see are on photo sharing websites and may never be printed. Moreover, if your technique isn’t impeccable, you’ll be throwing away a lot of those pixels. Even slight softness (focus or camera shake) in your image will compromise your ability to make enlargements or crop.
- Shoot RAW for today… and for tomorrow
Many new photographers are reluctant to shoot RAW format because it adds a level of complexity to their workflow. However, if you shoot RAW, you not only can get the most out of your photos in terms of color, contrast, and sharpness, but you also have the freedom to re-process your images in the future using new tools that aren’t even on the market yet! Every time a software company adds a new feature, you have the chance to take your best shots and run them through the new tools in ways that you might not have dreamed of today.
- Post-processing and effects make strong shots stronger, but won’t cover up weak ones.
I love processing my images. Heck, I’ve written a whole library of eBooks to help photographers work on their digital photos. No matter if it’s traditional processing, monochrome, or HDR, these techniques really only stand out when used on a good image in the first place. I’ve seen plenty of examples of HDR images with impeccable tone-mapping, but the subject was so boring that the shot didn’t inspire. You can throw down cool filters in Color Efex Pro 4, but they won’t save the sloppy, out of focus image that was poorly composed. As the old saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” To really get stronger images, study composition. Learn to recognize good light. Get out on a photo safari to immerse yourself in photography away from the distractions of daily life.
- Post-process your finest images, and use generic, “good enough” settings for the rest.If you take the approach of shooting everything in RAW, the last thing you want to do is force yourself to sit down and methodically process every image. If you use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Aperture, you’ll want to create a default “develop” setting that can be applied to every image on import to produce a reasonable result. Think of these settings as the “digital drugstore;” good enough for 4×6″ snapshots to share with friends and family. Then, once you’ve gone through and selected your very best images (usually 10% or less), you can spend the time to process those winners individually.
- Your online gallery is for your very best shots.
Between our ability to easily capture hundreds of images and quickly post them to image sharing sites, it’s easy to get carried away posting gobs of images. Of course, you then run the risk of posting images that are sub-par. Unless you’re creating a gallery for a client to select the best shots/poses from, share only your best work. We all have images that fall under the “missed it by that much” category. People don’t need to see those images in your gallery, especially if those people are potential clients. Push back on that temptation to share everything, and get selective.
- Keep shooting.
Even though I don’t recommend sharing your mistakes outside of critique forums, you can’t grow as a photographer if you aren’t out there taking photos. Digital photography has blessed us with tools that make on-site image review easy. We can take our images further than ever before with processing software and plug-in effects. Not every shot will win an award, but you can learn a lot from the misses.
- Use EXIF data as a learning tool.
Before you delete those bad shots, take a look at what went wrong. Was it composition, focus, or some other aspect of the shot that didn’t work? Don’t forget that you camera EXIF data has a nice record of every setting used on every shot. Use that information to see if you had your camera set up improperly for the conditions at hand (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, etc.). A lot of times when I’m leading workshops, we’ll be able to quickly diagnose simple problems before they become major headaches. That focus problem might actually just be camera shake or subject motion. Your EXIF data will tell you what your settings were at the time so you can quickly correct them for next time.
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