Robert Keeley, James Ostinga and Andrew Fildes outline five quick tips to help you improve your photography.
Don’t be fooled! Becoming a top photographer takes time and lots of practice, and there’s no quick way to become an expert. Every great shooter has devoted themselves in a dedicated fashion over many years to developing their skills. But having said that, when you’re starting out there are also a lot of tips which can make a significant difference to how consistently you can produce better pictures. They can allow you to make a rapid step up in standard. Here are five diverse, but really useful, things you can do that will make a big difference to your pictures if you employ them all the time.
01 KEEP IT STEADY
This is the most basic step of all, and surprisingly many beginners forget about it. If you are hand-holding a camera make sure your grip keeps your fingers clear of the lens, and you press the shutter release button smoothly. If necessary hold your breath as you squeeze the shutter button, and brace your elbows in to your sides. Generally speaking, the steadier you hold the camera, the sharper your pictures will be. And the better you make a picture at the time of ‘capture’, the less time you’ll have to spend adjusting it on a computer! Many cameras and lenses offer built-in image stabilisation these days and it can be really useful in preventing camera shake when you are hand holding the camera, particularly at slower shutter speeds and at long focal lengths where the effects of camera shake are more pronounced. If you need to use a really slow shutter speed though (below 1/30s), nothing beats a tripod and a remote shutter release. Be aware though, that if you are using a tripod, you'll often get better results with image stabilisation switched off.
Nothing beats a tripod for keeping the camera steady.
02 THE RIGHT SHUTTER SPEED?
With longer focal lengths the effects of camera shake are magnified. Consequently, if you are hand holding the camera, you need to set a faster shutter speeds as the focal length increases to prevent blur appearing in your images. Without image stabilisation, the basic 'rule of thumb' is to set the shutter speed on your camera to the inverse of the effective focal length of your lens. This is actually easier than it sounds! Here’s an example: if you're using a lens with an effective focal length of 50mm, you should use a minimum shutter speed of 1/50s. If you’re using a 200mm focal length, use a 1/200s shutter speed (or the nearest you can set above that figure, maybe 1/250s). Many modern SLR cameras somewhat misleadingly simplify shutter speeds on their screens to just one figure. For example, 1/200s will show up as '200'. In that example don't use a focal length longer than 200mm if you want a sharp photo. If your camera or lens has image stabilisation (also known as vibration reduction, OIS, SteadyShot, etc) you should be able to use shutter speeds a few stops slower than this rule suggests, though it really depends on the effectiveness of the stabilisation system and how steady your hands are. Experiment with your camera to find the settings that work best for you.
Use the shutter speed control to minimise camera shake and blur. For an unstabilised camera, the rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed no slower than the inverse of the effective focal length of your lens. For example, if you are using a lens with an effective focal length of 60mm, use a shutter speed of 1/60s or faster.
03 POP-UP FLASH? NO THANKS
Mention flash to most people and they invariably think of those tiny pop-up gizmos that spring up out of most cameras when the light fades. There’s nothing really wrong with the pop-up flash on your camera except for the fact that it’s underpowered and, thanks to its proximity to your camera’s lens, perfectly positioned to create awful-looking portraits! Because the flash is pretty much collocated with the lens, it provides minimal modelling and generally highlights any flaws in the skin. Further, because it is a small, direct point of light it tends to create harsh shadows behind the subject. Flash works better when you bounce it off a wall or a ceiling, or use a diffuser to spread the light. Or get it off the camera altogether, so its angle to the subject (compared to the camera) creates areas of shade and light.
You can get much better results with a portable hot-shoe flash. Good flash units feature a swivel-and-tilt head that will enable you to bounce its light from a wall or ceiling. Angling the flash will produce soft, bounced light and help avoid blown-out highlights and red eye. Some flashes also zoom to adjust their beam spread from wide to narrow, useful for a variety of lenses as well as interior and exterior spaces. Many flash units these days can also be triggered remotely so you can place one, two, or more units around the subject to get the results you want. You can also attach third-party diffusers to get more control of the quality of the light emitted by the flash.
Of course, if you don't want to invest in all that gear try using natural light to add some modelling to your portraits – you can do amazing things with a window for sidelight and a reflector (a white piece of cardboard or foam core will do the job) to fill in any pesky shadows.
Good flash units feature a swivel-and-tilt head so you can bounce light from a wall or ceiling to produce soft, bounced light and help avoid blown-out highlights and red eye.
04 TAKE CONTROL OF ISO
One setting you need to take control of when you're starting out in photography is ISO. This is the setting that controls the light sensitivity of your camera's imaging sensor. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the sensor becomes and the less light you need to make an exposure. A high ISO obviously comes in handy in low-light conditions. It can also be useful when you need need to access faster shutter speeds (say, in sports and action shots) or narrower apertures (when you want more depth of field). However, there is a trade off. As you increase ISO, you also increase image noise – those spots of colour that appear to varying degrees in all images. At some ISO settings noise can be so bad it’s a struggle to make out important details. Some cameras produce visible noise at settings as low as 200 or 400 ISO. Other cameras, typically more expensive DSLRs, may not start to produce obvious noise effects until 800 or 1600 ISO. Take some test shots with your camera to see how it handles noise at different settings. Keep an eye on shadow areas, where noise tends to be more noticeable. Either way, a good rule of thumb is to use the lowest ISO setting possible given the conditions.
Sometimes there's no alternative but to push the ISO to get the shot. Generally, though, the best option is to keep the ISO as low as possible to minimise noise. (Photo by James Ostinga.)
05 USE THE HISTOGRAM
Digital SLR cameras can display a histogram, which is essentially a ‘bar chart’ of all the tones in your image. It’s a graphical representation of the exposure of your image. It tells you how much of each tone is present in your scene, and can tell you if your image is overexposed or underexposed. Many pro photographers will check the histogram at least a couple of times in a shoot to make sure there is plenty of detail in the shadow and highlights of the image. Dark tones are recorded on the left end of your histogram, light tones are recorded on the right end, and some histograms will display a range of tones for each colour channel or each type of light (usually red, green, and blue). There are various ideas about how a histogram should look, and it can be useful to set a mode on your camera where you can check your histogram.
Digital cameras don’t respond well to overexposure (which is indicated by too many indicators 'piling up' to the right of your histogram), so avoid tone bars running off the right end of the histogram. However, there is a theory that you should ‘expose to the right” (ETTR). In practice this means avoiding heavy under exposure. If most of your histogram is within the bounds of the horizontal axis of the bar graph, your image will be well exposed.
Histograms can also be used if you’re making adjustments in imaging software to your image after shooting – in so-called 'post production'. If you make adjustments to levels and curves they will be reflected in your histogram. Don’t obsess about the histogram, simply use it as a tool to assist in your assessment of an image.
Use the histogram to check the exposure of the image. If the graph is squashed up against the left side of the histogram, it is likely underexposed. Conversely, if it is squashed up on the right it is likely overexposed. (Photo by James Ostinga.)