Some of this is going to seem obvious. Some not. Mostly in this third installment of my “week of lists” I’m just going to be handing off a few of the tips that have helped me improve my photography in the last year or so. Consider it an abreviated ‘how to use your camera’ course in blog-list form.
Digital cameras have spoiled us in the past few years. It’s easy to get into a bad habit, though, when you’ve got that little LCD screen on the back of your camera. It’s the instant gratification habit, and you need to stop it. First, turn your automatic preview off. No: OFF! Right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait. … all done? Ok. Looking at the back of the camera is good when you are trying to make sure your lighting is good, but once you’ve got that sorted, just shoot. Stop looking every picture. Stop doing this: snap-look, snap-look, snap-look. And if you really need some sort of feedback, learn to use your histogram.
2 : Switching to Full Manual Mode
I’ve grown to love full manual mode in the last few months. Of course, this means learning how to use important factors like aperture (the size of the hole) and shutter speed (the duration the hole is open) properly. Learn. Figure it out. There are hundreds of great resources out there to help you. If not, ask me. I’ll try and explain. Or take a course. But however you do it getting into the habit right now, switching to manual mode and sacrificing a few thousand photos to adjusted settings and trying to outsmart the light — hey, it’s light for crying out loud, you’re smarter than light aren’t you? — will be worth it in the end.
3 : Using Center-Weighted Metering
And while you’re at the manual mode thing, do yourself a favour and switch over to center-weighted metering. There are a couple things happening in your camera when you do that. First, you’re turning your camera into a light meter that YOU CAN TARGET. In other words, whatever is in the centre of your shot is what you are metering. See how simple metering a subject is. Second, you’re making the little -2..-1..0..+1..+2 gauge on the camera work for you: that is your meter, and suddenly, wherever you point the centre of the camera is being properly metered using that little gauge. The rule of thumb then becomes: Narrow in on zero on your subject, then back up, compose your shot, and ignore changing the settings for a few dozen shots of that subject. Easy-peasy.
What should you meter? Well, if you’re photographing people or animals then meter the eyes. And get them in focus. Get in the habit of looking for well-lit and in-focus eyes. If you’re not shooting people, look for something eye-like: the center of a flower, the whorls on a piece of wood, the face of a scene (whatever that means to you). Start thinking of the world in anthropomorphic terms and then focus on eyes: shoot for the eyes. Light for the eyes. It will make your pictures pop. Why? We humans like eyes: they are the soul of our relationship interactions and we are drawn to eyes and eye-shaped things in pictures.
5 : Using Primes
Once you’ve go this all figured out, start forgetting about something called zoom. I get new lenses occasionally and invariably the first question non-photographers ask is “what kind of zoom does it have?” My last three lenses I’ve replied: “None. It’s a prime.” To which the response is typically a disappointed “oh.” Zoom is over-rated. If you want zoom, move closer to your subject. The next lens you buy — in my humble opinion — should be a prime. (ie. A zoom-less lens.) Why, you ask? It goes back to the same type of arguements I gave for full manual mode: it’s about learning your camera and understanding the way the tools work. That, and prime lenses are typically really good (in terms of optical quality) at shooting whatever they were made to shoot, have really awesome specs (even the cheap primes) and you’re not mussing about with what you think is a feature (zoom) when you don’t need to have something else to worry about.
And then once you have your prime, you’re all set to play with depth of field. Of course, you can do this on any lens, but primes usually have better specs for DOF. What’s depth of field, you ask? Well, think of it like the slice of the scene parallel to the sensor of your camera that is in focus. A low F (F1.8 to F4.5, say for example) is going to give you a relatively narrow slice, while a high F (F9.0 to F22, for example) is going to put most everything you see into focus. But, you protest, I want everything in focus, don’t I? Nope. You want your subject in focus, and unless the wall, those people walking around back there, or that tree in the scene really is part of your subject you’re going to want to soften them up so they are not distracting. That’s where depth of field comes in.
7 : Giving Attention to the Background
Which brings me back to the background, the too often ignored yet make-it-or-break-it part of your photo. Depth of field can blur it out for you, but so many people are unwilling to pay close enough attention to the background of a photo before clicking the shutter. I can’t really summarize all the components of good and bad backgrounds here other than to say you need to get into a critical habit of paying more attention to them. Really. Look at all the great photos you love and then look at the background. Did you notice the backgrounds until I just said so? Probably not… and that’s a good thing. Now quit reading and go get your camera out.