Want to up your photography game? It's time to go beyond basic photo taking. Here’s how to improve your photography by marrying technique and art.
The exposure triangle, made up of shutter speed, aperture and ISO, form the foundations for mastering a camera. Taken together, however, they can be a lot to juggle. Here’s one way to learn: shoot exclusively in one mode (Shutter or Aperture) and leave the camera to handle the other settings so you can see exactly how changing one setting affects your images.
When you’re comfortable shooting in both Shutter and Aperture Priority modes, then move over to Manual mode and see how you do. The experience will help you learn how to see exposure the way the camera sees.
Tip: If shooting a scene in one mode is just not giving you the results you want, flip over to Program mode and shoot the image. If the result is closer to what you want, take note of what settings the camera chose, then analyze why the different settings gave what you were looking for. Was it a wider aperture to give you more depth or field? Or perhaps a faster shutter speed to freeze the moment? Learning how the camera sees will help you decide what settings to take next time.
Photography is half technology, half art. To nourish your artistic side, study images by master photographers. Looking beyond what’s online (i.e. Instagram) will show you more visual styles than what’s currently trending, it’ll enrich your visual vocabulary, and it’ll also help you find your own aesthetic by revealing whom you’re personally drawn to.
Need some names to start with? Try Ansel Adams for black and white landscapes, Joe McNally and David Hobby for lighting magic, Vivian Maier for street photography, and any anthology with ‘National Geographic’ in the name.
Tip: Go beyond photography and study classical painters. Renaissance painters, for example, were gifted at using perspective and lighting to illustrate meaning through visual composition. Leonard da Vinci’s The Last Supper is a master class in using leading lines to tell a story.
If you already know the ins and outs of your camera but you’re still shooting JPEG, it’s time to dive into the world of RAW. Think of a RAW file as an unprocessed digital negative from the camera, when you open it up it looks flat and dull, because it’s just data pulled right from the sensor.
Learning how to process raw gives you several advantages. For one, a raw file contains more data than a compressed JPEG, giving you more dynamic range to work with. It also teaches you how to tune your own images according to your own preferences, without relying on the manufacturer’s image processing engine to do it for you.
Tip: One of the best raw convertors is Adobe Lightroom, which comes bundled with Adobe Photoshop in the US$9.99 monthly Creative Cloud Photography plan. The latest versions of Lightroom, however, apply automatic adjustments in the background; so to see your raw images in their full naked flatness, apply the ‘Zeroed’ preset during import.
Better gear won’t upgrade your skills. But gear that helps you learn will.
An interchangeable lens camera with a dedicated PSAM (Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual) Mode and command dial will help you dive deep into the nuts and bolts of making pictures. The ability to swap lenses will open up new ways of seeing, and as mentioned above, the Mode dial will help you learn how to juggle the exposure triangle (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO).
Tip: Given today's technology, any interchangeable lens camera (mirrorless or not) will be more than capable of giving you impressive results to start. If you want a starter recommendation that's below S$1,000 though, we’d suggest the Canon EOS 1500D as an affordable yet feature-packed first camera that has a Canon Feature Guide which takes you through the features of the camera.
Get a 35mm or 50mm prime lens to go with that new interchangeable lens camera. A prime lens is a fixed focal length lens with a fast aperture, normally an f/1.8.
If you’re used to zooming your lens, using a prime lens sounds like a limitation. But it’s a limitation that will help you improve your photography by teaching you to see the way a lens sees. Consider that legendary photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson were known for shooting exclusively with prime lenses.
We suggest going with a 35mm or 50mm as these are focal lengths that more closely approximate what the human eye sees.
There’s no getting around how awful on-camera flash is. But flash is downright necessary when there’s not enough light. The biggest difference you can make when shooting with flash is to use an external flash that lets you direct the light away from the main axis of your lens. Just by learning how to bounce your flash off the ceiling or a sidewall will make a big difference to the quality of your images.
Tip: We recommend getting an external flash from the same brand as your camera, just because it will be made to sync perfectly. If you’re feeling adventurous (or have a tight budget), you can also get started with any of the third-party manual flashes on the market. Strobist has a great guide on how to get started with off-camera flash.
The best investment you can make is in your mind – your gear won’t shoot better photographs automatically, you’ll need to learn how to do it. Whether it’s through live workshops, online video courses, or books, there are more resources today than ever for photography lovers.
Tip: https://www.creativelive.com has a wealth of photography courses to choose from. The Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman is a classic text for beginners, and David duChemin’s Within the Frame is an intermediate book for photographers who want to tell stronger stories with their images.
Bonus: We've also covered the basics of photography, camera tech, camera techniques and lenses extensively in our very own book - the HWM Megaguide to Digital Photography - now available easily digitally.