If you’re new to photography and want to move beyond taking simple snapshots and start taking beautiful images, you’ll need to learn some basic photography techniques. The problem with learning about the art of photography and taking photos is that there’s a lot of theory. And you probably just want to take photos.
Don’t worry about the photography snobs who say you have to bury your head in books to understand how to take great images. The best way to learn is to get out there and start taking photos.
So below are some techniques you can try today, and at the same time, you’ll be practicing valuable photography techniques that will take your photography to a new level. You can practice each step in a day. Or you can really take your time to learn each technique. There’s no right way to learn about photography, except for taking lots of photos. So get out your camera and remember to have fun and experiment.
Just a quick note about cameras. In writing the article I’m assuming you have a DSLR with manual controls. But you can still follow along with a point-and-shoot camera. The same rules apply. If you don’t have manual controls on your camera some of the tips will be difficult to apply. Here are five essential tricks for new photographers to get you started.
Credit: Paul McDonald
How to compose your frame
Composition refers to where things are located in the frame. Things can be your subject, the background, foreground, and anything else that appears in your photo. Understanding and achieving good composition in your photos is the most important technique in creating great images.
Fortunately, there is a very simple method you can follow when you’re first learning about composition. It’s called the Rule of Thirds. But I don’t want you to think of it as a strict rule, more of a guideline. But understanding composition is a very important step in taking your photos from boring snapshots to beautiful images.
The Rule of Thirds states that your frame is split into thirds, with two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. The most important elements in your photo should be placed along the lines, or where the lines intersect. Here’s what the grid looks like.
The next time you’re out taking photos take the time to think about the composition. The biggest mistake made by new photographers is placing their subject in the center of the frame. Consciously practice using the Rule of Thirds.
Here is a landscape following the Rule of Thirds. The sky is in the top third of the frame and the horizon is on the top line. The rising sun is at the intersecting point of the top horizontal and right vertical line. If the horizon was in the center this would have been a boring image.
And here is a portrait I took of a man in Indonesia. The most important element in a portrait is usually the subject’s eyes. As you can see I have placed his eyes on the top horizontal line, with his face intersecting the top horizontal and left vertical line.
Composition is a huge topic, but the Rule of Thirds is a great starting point. Go and take a bunch of photos and experiment with composition and the Rule of Thirds. Look closely at your photos and get a feel for which compositions are more pleasing to look at.
Watch your exposure
Controlling your exposure is probably the next most important technique when it comes to taking great photos. Most cameras are pretty good at calculating the correct exposure levels, especially when the lighting in a scene is even. But under certain lighting conditions, the camera can be thrown off. That’s when you need to step in and take control.
When a photo is too dark it has been underexposed. And when a photo is too bright it has been overexposed. By looking at your photo on the back of your camera you can see whether it has been underexposed or overexposed and then adjust the exposure compensation accordingly.
An underexposed photo.
An overexposed photo.
Exposure Compensation buttons.
Adjust the exposure using the Exposure Compensation buttons until you’re happy with the final image. If the photo is underexposed press the ‘+’ button. If it’s overexposed press the ‘-‘ button.
Practice using your camera’s Exposure Compensation controls until you feel comfortable with it, and can get a great exposure every time.
Now that the fundamentals have been taken care of, let’s have some fun with a few tricks.
Have fun with motion blur
Blurring motion in photos is a fun effect that looks great. And you’ll learn to have total control over your shutter speed. Let’s have a look at a few examples.
A long exposure I took of a stream in Yosemite.
A long exposure of traffic in the UK.
Credit: Danny Wartnaby
By panning the camera with the action you can blur the background and create a real sense of speed.
Credit: Richard Rhee
You blur motion by slowing your camera’s shutter speed and taking photos of moving subjects. To control your shutter speed you need to get out of auto mode and switch to Shutter Priority mode. Shutter Priority mode is usually abbreviated with an S or TV (short for time value, used on Canons).
Switch to shutter priority mode and experiment with shutter speeds of 1/40 second and slower. You can even try exposures of several minutes. To eliminate camera shake you’ll need to use a tripod or sit your camera on a steady surface.
Try taking photos of moving cars, waterfalls, streams, and sporting events.
Get your bokeh on
Bokeh (pronounced Boh-Kay) is the quality of blurring in out-of-focus areas of an image. Bokeh is obtained by controlling the depth of field of a photo. Depth of field is the distance between the nearest and farthest elements of a scene that are in focus. Deep focus means everything in the photo is sharp. And shallow focus, or shallow depth of field, means only one area of the photo is sharp.
Achieving bokeh usually means you want to shoot with a shallow focus, and this means you need to have control of your Aperture setting. But first, lets look at some examples.
Credit: Carlos Luis Camacho
Credit: Johanne Brunet
The quality of the bokeh will be determined by the lens in combination with the aperture setting.
To create images with great bokeh you will need to switch your camera to Aperture Priority mode, usually abbreviated by an ‘A’, or ‘Av’ on Canons. Set your aperture as low as your lens can go. This could be anywhere between f/1.4 to about f/4.0. The lower you can go the shallower the focus. This will vary from lens to lens. The focal distance of your lens will also have an affect on depth of field. A longer focal length will have a shallower focus for any given aperture.
Practice taking photos with shallow focus and compare the bokeh in your images. Do you like what you see? Can you get that dreamy out-of-focus look?
High dynamic range
High Dynamic Range, or HDR, is a method of capturing greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image. Taking HDR images is a bit of a challenge at first, but is a great way to practice a number of techniques at once. And you’ll need to ‘post-process your images to get the final result. So it’s also a great introduction to Photoshop or other imaging software.
Here are some awesome examples of HDR images.
Credit: Brandon Godfrey
Credit: Paulo Barcellos Jr.
The best way to create HDR images is to take at least three photos of the same scene at different exposure levels. Using your exposure compensation buttons take one photo that is underexposed, one that is overexposed, and one that’s correctly exposed. Take your photos using a tripod so you camera doesn’t move between shots. Don’t change your aperture between shots, this means you’ll need to shoot in Aperture Priority mode or Manual mode.
After you have your three (or more) photos you’ll need to import them into Photoshop and blend them together. It will be a big advantage if your camera can take photos in RAW format. You’ll have a lot more flexibility in creating the final photo.
For an in-depth tutorial on creating HDR images, including all the steps you need to take in Photoshop and other recommended software, check out this step by step guide.
Creating HDR images is challenging to get right, but is a lot of fun.
By practicing each of the ‘tricks’ above you’ll not only be taking more interesting photos, but you’ll also be practicing the fundamental techniques of great photography. Knowing how to create pleasing compositions, and nailing your exposure every time are the first steps you must learn.
Understanding shutter speed and aperture, and the affect they have on your final image is the key to creating beautiful photos that convey your vision. And post-processing is the icing on the cake that can transform your photos from interesting to amazing.
If you take the time to practice and get comfortable with each of these techniqes you will take your photography beyond to the next level, and have a lot of fun doing it.