I hadn’t planned on this post, but a few days ago I had a request from a fellow blogger for some help improving their photography. I’ve taken photography up pretty enthusiastically as a hobby over the last few years, and while it’s not my intention to present myself as an expert, I thought it would be nice to try and share some of what I’ve learnt in case others do find it useful.
So, before I get stuck in, my big caveat is that I am, exactly as I said above, just an amateur photographer. I’ve never done any formal course or training in photography and everything I’ve learnt has come from doing my own research, trial and error and a lot of practice.
Ok, now that’s over with, here we go with the hints and tips!
I know we all love our smart phones and love to use Instagram. I’m a big fan of the fact that phones now have cameras, and with smartphones, cameras often have a pretty impressive range of settings to manipulate for what is after all, still just a phone. However, as much as we do all love smart phones and their cameras, I have to say that it’s been my personal experience that using a proper, dedicated camera rather than a smart phone will bring better results almost every time.
My understanding is that this is basically to with with size of the sensor which forms part of the workings of a digital camera. The sensor is the part that functions to detect light when shooting. Smart phone cameras will likely have a much smaller sensor even than a fairly basic compact camera. If you want to find out more about technical details of why a bigger sensor is better, have a read of this, or try a little online research into sensor sizes in digital cameras.
This does not mean that I am advising you to go out and buy a really expensive digital camera. I’ve personally had very good results from a relatively inexpensive compact camera that I’ve had for about 10 years now.
For the record there are several different types of digital camera on the market, which have different features, advantages and disadvantages. I have three cameras now (I know, it’s getting a bit ridiculous!).
One is a compact camera which I bought in 2007 and only used to take holiday snaps up until I started blogging. I still use this from time to time and it can give very good results if used correctly. Since learning more about photography I have found I am able to get much better results with this camera from knowing a few things about it’s settings. It’s advantage is that it’s small and light, so I can slip it in my handbag easily.
My second camera is a second hand digital single lens reflex (DSLR) which I was given a couple of years ago. This was the camera with which I really started to learn and experiment with photography and learnt about all of the settings I’ll explain below. However these cameras are more expensive and tend to be quite heavy and bulky – not something I want to carry around with me all the time!
My third and most recently bought camera is a compact system camera. Compact system cameras (CSC) are much smaller and lighter than DSLRs, but give you more flexibility in manually controlling settings than a compact. They combine some of the advantages of both types of camera. I’ve not have much change to road test my new camera yet, but so far I am very happy with the results! Unfortunately new CSCs do tend to be fairly pricey.
If you’re thinking about buying a camera my advice is not to rush into anything. Think about what you need, and want to do and remember you don’t need a super-dooper camera with all bells and whistles to achieve good results. Before buying do some online research – there will be reviews of camera makes models and types out them from reputable sources such as Which? that can help you in your decision.
2. Get to know your camera settings to get the best from your camera.
I’ve found that one of the most important things to get right in order to take a photograph that I am happy with is the lighting. I think there are 2 things to bear in mind in relation to this – taking pictures in good light will generally give you a better picture, and taking pictures in natural daylight is better than artificial or flash lighting.
If you live in the UK, you’re already aware that with our often overcast and cloudy skies, good natural light is not always available, especially in winter. I am also going to assume that a lot of people reading this are going to be crafters who are taking pictures of their makes for their own blogs, and possibly also for listing in their online stores. In which case, I suspect a lost of those pictures might be taken in doors in homes or studios – again if you’re in doors you have to be prepared to deal with there being less natural light than there would be if you’re taking pictures outside. The results of taking pictures in less than ideal light will usually mean that your shots are way too dark for anyone to be able to pick out the details of your lovingly crafted wares! What are your alternatives? Use the flash on your camera? Switch the light on? I find that both options usually result in rather luridly coloured images, where the true colours in the scene are obscured with the yellowish glow of flash or artificial light.
Fortunately, if you can learn to manipulate a few key settings on your camera you can get around the worst of these effects without having to be an expert. The main things I do to improve my results when taking pictures indoors are:
Increase the ISO value before you take your picture
Don’t ask me what ISO means, I can’t explain the technicalities of it! What I do know is that in bright settings (e.g. outside on a sunny day) a low ISO value of 100 is usually ok. Indoors, or in more overcast weather or shaded areas outside, you may need to increase your ISO value. Different cameras have a different range of values for ISO. I have one camera where the highest ISO value is 800, and another which goes up to 32,000.
Beware there is a bit of a trade off with increasing the ISO value. The higher the ISO, the grainier your picture will become, and you will loose the crisp sharpness which you probably want to achieve. However, as long as your not in really really poor light, you may not have to increase the ISO too far. In the middle of the day indoors I have in the past been able to take pictures with an ISO of 400, which don’t look too grainy. Check your camera manual to find out if and how you are able to change the ISO setting.
Increase the aperture value on your camera
Again, I can’t explain the working behind this, but the aperture of your camera is the opening which allows light in through the lens. Some more technical information is available here. On some cameras, you can adjust the size of this opening – the bigger the opening, the more light will be coming in, and the better your photograph should be. Check your camera manual to find out if and how you are able to change the aperture size and how to do this.
Alter the shutter speed you are using
Again, I’m not going to try and explain the technicalities of a camera shutter when someone somewhere else can do it far better than me (see here for a good introduction to shutter speed, and the function of the camera shutter). Basically the shutter speed controls how long your camera’s shutter stays open whilst taking a picture. The longer the shutter is open (a slower shutter speed and smaller shutter speed value), the more light will enter the camera and the better lit your photo will be. However, longer shutter speeds also have their downsides – your picture can become blurred if you move even slightly during the time in which the shutter is open. This is why photographers will sometimes use a tripod when photographing in poor light.
If you can master these three settings, you can use them together to get more control over how well lit your photos are using natural light. I have a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera which I often use to take pictures indoors at home. In poor light I typically use a combination of a larger aperture setting, slightly higher ISO and slower shutter speed to ensure I get good light in my pictures. Beware you can also have over-exposed pictures if you take it too far with changing these settings – this means there will be waaay too much light in your shot to the point where you have a white-out! It’s all about getting the balance right. If you’re using a digital camera (which I assume most people will be) you should have a preview screen with which you can check your photos as you take them. Make use of this – if the picture you’ve just taken looks too dark or too light, change the settings and have another try – keep going until you think you’ve got it right.
Have a look at the two pictures below – both were taken on the same day in the same lighting conditions, but you can see the one on left has much more light in the shot, compared to the one on the right. This change in light was achieved through altering values of the above three settings. I don’t think I quite got it right in either case, but you can’t win them all! Learning is about trial and error as much as anything else, so don’t expect perfect results every time.
Please note that not every camera will give you the ability to make changes to all of these settings. Some compact cameras may not allow you to have control over all of these settings. However, they may instead have pre-programmed automatic modes for taking photos in low light conditions, such as cloudy weather. Check your camera manual to see what you can do.
4. Composition and focus
So this is where things start to get a little less technical and a little more about using your eyes and thinking about what appeals to you. Composition is about what you actually feature in your photographs and what is included and positioned within the frame of your photography. There are a some broad general principles which you can apply. One particularly well known one is the ‘rule of thirds’.
To understand this, next time you look through your viewfinder, or at the display screen on the back of your camera, imagine that the the image you see is divided into a grid using horizontal and vertical lines which split the image into equal thirds. The aim of the rule of thirds is to have points of interest in your picture positioned at points where the lines fall or where the verticals and horizontal lines intersect. You can find out some more about this here. Your points of interest depend on what you’re taking a picture of – this could be a person, buildings, rocks, you name it. Below is an example of where I have tried to use this rule in a recent photo:
I’ve tried to position the vertical struts on the bridge and the ferris wheel roughly at one third intervals across the screen.
You can also get a different look and feel to your photographs by experimenting with what you focus on in an image. This may be easier if you have a camera where you have more manual control over the focus, for example in a single lens reflex or compact system model, but again if you have a compact camera check the manual to see what your focusing options are. Below are two examples of recent photographs taken when I have focused first on an object in the foreground (left), and then on something further away (right):
One handy tip for taking close up pictures of things in detail is to see if your camera has a macro setting on it. Compact cameras sometimes have this, and I often used this setting on my compact to take pictures of things like flowers.
Lastly, remember you don’t have to follow these rules! My advice would be to use your eyes too – when you’re taking pictures out and about or at home, think about and look for images that you find visually appealing and then try and frame them within a photograph. There is plenty of other material online about improving your photography with composition – try a little online research and see what you can find.
4. Practice, practice, practice
This kind of goes without saying, but the more you practice the more confident you will become behind the camera. Your skills should gradually improve. Get used to taking your camera out and about with you at weekends and on holiday, or at home if you see something that you think looks nice, take a quick snap! Practice really does make perfect.
So that’s it! Phew, this was a long post! Well done if you’ve made it to the end and I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you with information and too much detail. Most of all remember to have fun when taking photographs. I’d love to know if you find this at all useful, so if so (or even if not!) please leave a comment and let me know.