Finding Your Inner Photographer: Making the Most of Your Camera
A natural part of being a photographer is a desire for self improvement. Additionally, people are looking for ways to make their photos stand out from the crowd, as technological innovations in digital photography, including powerful advances in smartphone cameras and increasingly advanced compact and DSLR cameras have made the artform more accessible than ever.
Accessibility, however, might not be the only reason you’re drawn to taking pictures. Photographs have been proven to interact with our brains and memories in powerful ways that cause mood-based and emotional associations.
Some individuals eschew taking photographs of their experiences because they fear that the photograph will replace their memory of places, people, and events. Research, however, shows that choosing to take photographs of events can help us to remember visual details more clearly. For many of us, these visual associations help to add dimension to the way we see our world.
Photographs can also convey emotions that help us to connect to our own pasts as well as the experiences of others. Emotional content is what can make one photograph shine while others feel flat or uninteresting. There is inspiration all around for creating beautiful photographs, and once you start taking pictures regularly, it will be difficult to stop seeing gorgeous photo opportunities everywhere.
Taking Your Photography Skills to the Next Level
Compose a Tighter Shot: Often when we’re in awe of a place or situation, we’ll try to capture as much of it as possible with a wide view. However, overly busy photos will feel flat and confusing. Purposeful and specific frames better capture tone and feel. For instance, rather than trying to capture a whole herd of animals, aim for the action by zeroing in on a distinctive family or group.
Take Candid (taking photos when the subject does not know) Photos: We react to emotional photography with the regions of the brain that underlie empathy and imitation. The photos that we are the most likely to react to are ones with complex emotions that our minds take time to process. Photographs of faces will always evoke an empathetic response in us, but when it comes to conveying emotion and complexity, the more candid the better. For the best candid shots, try to anticipate the action in front of you so that you are ready and in the right place with your camera when something good happens.
Shoot from Different Angles: Since the camera is most likely fixed to your hand, you will need to move your body to find different angles for taking a photo. Don’t settle for shooting things straight on with a distant background, since this often flattens your subject and robs them of dimension.
Instead, treat your subjects as three-dimensional objects that you can walk around and view from different angles. This will open up perspective and allow you to capture your subject with different nuances.
Try shooting your subject from below to make it look grand and imposing. Or shoot from above to make objects seem smaller, allowing for more vulnerable portraits and compositions.
Tell a Story: Strong images tell us stories about their subjects. The story is in the composition, and it is determined by the relationship between the objects in the frame. Viewers will interpret the relationship between these objects based on:
- Whether the objects are close together or far apart.
- Whether they are in the background or foreground.
- What light they’re in, where it’s illuminating them, and whether it’s harsh or soft.
- What the color composition of the image is.
As a photographer, your job is to frame the story by controlling light, composition, and perspective.
You can begin practicing photographic storytelling with still-lifes and flat-lays. To do this, assemble and arrange objects from around your house on a clean surface. Play with what these objects can suggest. Can you make it look like someone was using them and left in a hurry? Can you create a cozy vibe with them? Or can you make them seem fun and bright?
When you do this you are already thinking about the relationship that objects have with each other, and the things that these relationships suggest. You can use this awareness in photographing portraits, group shots, and street scenes.
Slow Down: Learning to linger behind the lens and wait for the ideal shot where all your components come together can take time, but it’s worth it to slow down and give yourself a moment to compose your shot.
Get Closer: If you are finding yourself underwhelmed by the photographs that you are getting the problem might be that you aren’t getting close enough to your subject. In most cases, your subject should fill the field of view. Most professional photographers recommend learning to work with no zoom so that you need to physically move in to view the subjects that you intend to capture.
Whether you’re taking photos for documentation or for the pure artistry of it, there are a few aesthetic guidelines that all photographers should at least know of.
Here’s the thing, though. Although these are known rules, many believe that they can be a crutch or even halt creativity in those trying to learn. This section gives you the terminology for photography aesthetics so that it’s easier to talk about why a photograph works visually.
Our best advice to you on aesthetics, however, is to shoot what looks good to you without too many hang-ups. You don’t have to use your work if you’re not pleased with it. Additionally, many teachers of photography teach the rules so that students will later be able to intentionally break them. These are steps toward developing an aesthetic sense that thinks in terms of composition without referencing these rules. The intention of the vision and storytelling go a long way.
Roads and paths make natural leading lines as they direct the eye down the road.
Lines and geometrical figures automatically lead the viewer’s eye toward the subject of the image. The ideal is for the eye to naturally follow these lines to the subject of the image. Subjects that are outside of the flow of the leading lines make for a more difficult and confusing composition.
Breaking Symmetry: Leading lines are useful for breaking up symmetry in a photograph because they help to lead the eye to a subject located outside of the image’s center. Most photographers prefer not to compose symmetrical images because they are very easy for the mind to comprehend, and therefore are less interesting than something that is composed in thirds.
In this case, the leading line of the guard-rail breaks the symmetry and causes the viewer to follow it around the curve.
If you choose to form a symmetrical shot, make sure that you nail it. Guidelines on your camera can help you center images. Images that are off center, even slightly, will have the look of intentionally aiming for symmetry and failing.
Rule of Thirds
Photo by Alex Blajan
This photo is centered enough that we aren’t confused about who the subject is, while the main action takes place at the upper-right grid intersection, making it more pleasing than if it were in the very center.
The rule of thirds divides the field of a photograph into three areas. It is actually most pleasing to have the subject slightly off-center, not only horizontally but also lengthwise.
Many cameras have a grid option to guide you while shooting. This grid will display nine boxes and help you compose your image by thirds. The four intersections which are between the outer corners of the photograph and the inner center box are where you want to place your subject.
However, if your camera does not have this option, attempt to visualize the field as being marked in three from top to bottom. This will help you decide the position of your camera. Then think about your thirds from left to right and make small adjustments as necessary.
The hands and camera in this image create a triangle that’s pleasing to look at.
The subjects of your photography can often form triangles and other geometrical shapes in their relation to each other. Shapes in your composition, whether it’s how people are arranged, the composition of objects sitting on a table, or the shapes of buildings from a street view, lead the viewer’s attention and create the sense of movement and energy in the image.
The Rule of Odds: When composing in shapes or when you have multiple subjects, it’s best to have an odd number of subjects. Our minds find odd numbers in compositions to be more interesting than even numbers. This might be because they take more work for our brains to organize.
Smartphone Camera Photography
Smartphone photography offers you a convenient and pared down experience as opposed to shooting with an independent camera. Since you have fewer settings to worry about, taking photos with your smartphone is a great way to learn one of the most important aspects of photography: composition.
Composition is that aspect of an image that makes many of the best photos on sites like Instagram so intriguing. Even when they’re pictures of ordinary objects on a surface, composition helps us to process them aesthetically and appreciate their shapes and designs.
Smartphone photography also offers easy photo-sharing so that you can share your images with others and view images taken by pros to keep learning and growing in your hobby.
Choosing a Camera App for your Smartphone
In some cases, the built-in apps that come with your camera won’t be enough for taking the kinds of photos that you want to take. Additional camera apps are being developed all the time and are widely available depending on your needs for both Android and iPhone. Some features to consider include:
- Gridlines for composition and framing
- Flash options
- Timer options
- Exposure adjustments
- Focus lock, so that you can lock onto an object and then continue to shift your composition
- Video shooting
You can also find apps that allow you to shoot in RAW, and use similar manual settings that you would experience with a DSLR. However, without additional lens capabilities, many of these settings will not yield the same results.
If you intend to shoot a lot of sports or action shots, you’ll want an app with a fast burst capability. A fast burst option takes continuous photographs as long as you hold down the trigger to help you get the perfect shot of objects in motion.
Avoid features such as low shooting resolutions, as this will limit your ability to expand, print, and repurpose your photos. You might also avoid apps that are difficult to manipulate or have a convoluted interface that makes it difficult to set up your shot.
Using Smartphone Limitations to Your Advantage
Smartphones have trouble in low-light and indoor settings. So, to compensate, they will automatically select lower shutter speeds to gather as much light as possible into the shot. This means that any movement that happens within the frame will be blurry. You can use this to capture motion and set a vibe for the scene.
The autofocus on smartphone cameras generally tends to be accurate, and you can often manipulate the focus by tapping on the screen. However, there will be some cases when your camera just doesn’t understand what you want from it. Strange focusing can lead to surprising and sometimes interesting photos, so it’s good to keep an open mind about the shots that you take.
Your smartphone’s decreased dynamic range means that colors and lighting in your photos will be more uniform than when you use a more complex camera. This also means that the contrast in the photos will be higher due to this uniformity. High contrast and blown-out lighting, however, can create some interesting and visually striking effects.
Smartphone cameras are particularly excellent for getting into street photography. Phones are nearly ubiquitous in most urban settings and fairly well-known even in places where they are less common. This means that you can practice street photography and travel photography without standing out too much as a photographer, making it more likely that you get candid shots.
Digital zoom is out of the question when using your smartphone camera. Don’t use it. Digital zoom just blows up the image so that you lose quality while also losing the surrounding area. This is something that you can do while editing with less loss depending on your editing application.
Instead, if you find yourself taking a lot of photos with your smartphone, it might be worth it to invest in some phone camera lenses. Added lenses will make it possible to use optical zoom (the good zoom that actually gets you closer to the image) so that you don’t lose quality while trying to get closer.
Shooting in RAW vs JPEG
RAW versus JPEG determines the filetype that your camera will use to process your images. This sets each photo’s overall quality and the possibilities it offers for customization and enlargement.
While JPEG files are image files that can be read by almost any image viewer, RAW files are not actually images at all. Instead, RAW files are data files that certain programs can interpret as images.
JPEG files cannot convert to RAW files, nor would such a conversion be advantageous, since JPEG’s quality loss is irreversible. On the other hand, when you are done editing a RAW file, you will need to export it as an image file for your use. At this point, you can export/save the image as a JPEG if you want, or another kind of image file.
Shooting RAW will give you the best performance that your camera, lens, and sensor can offer. However, RAW is not recognized by all programs as an image file, meaning it requires special (though widely available) software to view.
RAW files are uncompressed. This means that if you’re shooting with an 8-megapixel camera you will produce file sizes that are 8 megabytes. If you are shooting with a 24-megapixel camera, as many starter DSLRs are these days, you will produce 24-megabyte files. That’s about forty photos to a gigabyte of storage.
When you shoot RAW, you are also getting all the data (lossless) from the camera’s sensor. This allows for a better display of highlights and shadows. Your image won’t be as sharp and will have lower contrast than a compressed image, both of which you’re expected to adjust during editing. It also requires processing for printing and is read-only, meaning that all your edits are made into a cloned image version of the file.
Pros to Shooting RAW
- If you’re interested in improving your skills toward more professional shooting, RAW is the only way to get all possible performance out of your DSLR.
- Shooting in RAW gives you more control over how your image looks and allows you to correct details like color, white balance, and exposure in the editing stage.
- You never know what photo you might want to blow up to print on a canvas for hanging on the wall.
- Shooting in RAW is not always practical because RAW photos take up a lot of space on your memory card and backup storage.
- RAW is not always offered on every camera. This class of shooting is most used by DSLR photographers. However, there are smartphone apps that will allow you to use your smartphone camera for RAW shooting.
Any image program can read JPEG files. They are, however, always compressed. Because of this compression, the file sizes tend to be small, often between 1 and 3 megabytes for an 8-megapixel image, or 3 to 9 megabytes for a 24-megapixel camera. This means that you can take over a hundred photos per gigabyte of storage. You are also likely to lose some color and resolution, and the compression process may create noise in your photos, which you might recognize as graininess.
JPEGs have a lower dynamic range making for less vivid highlights and shadows. JPEG files produce sharper images that are higher in contrast. These images are suitable for immediate printing, sharing or online posting.
You can directly edit a JPEG, but each time you do, you will lose data. This is the case even if you’re just transforming the image, for instance flipping it, cropping it, or rotating it.
Most photographers will recommend that if you decide to shoot in JPEG, you should use the highest resolution available to you. This will make it easier to enlarge your photos and do some high-quality editing.
- No post-processing and editing required and your images are immediately shareable.
- Smaller file sizes make it easier to take and store a lot of photos.
- Faster burst shooting to capture things in motion.
- Forces you to learn to work with your camera to make the picture you want so that you rely less on editing and post-processing.
- No control over compression.
- Limited editing possibilities in post-processing.
- Blown-up versions will show loss of quality.
Indoor and Low-Light Photography
Indoor photography can be tricky since indoor lighting can create unwelcome shadows and off-looking skin-tones. Off-camera flashes and diffusion setups are the primary tools of portrait and fashion photographers. However, when we’re shooting with a more simple camera, there are a few rules we can follow to brighten our shots.
- Aim for Natural Light: Use the light that comes in from windows and doors to illuminate your subject. Then, if you have good natural lighting, turn off the electric lights, because these can upset your white balance and change the color of skin tones.
- Use a Wide Aperture: When shooting inside you want your camera to be able to gather as much light as it can. If your camera has aperture settings, then opt for shooting with a wide aperture to allow light in.
- Use a Backdrop that Reflects Light: Frame your subject in front of a white cloth or another bright color to catch and reflect light.
- Use a Light Box: When you’re photographing stills, a lightbox is like a backdrop that gives you more control over how you illuminate your subject.
How to Keep Your Photography Hobby Fresh and Exciting
Shoot Every Day
You don’t need a lot of gear to practice composing with your eye. If you have your cell phone camera on you, then give it a whirl, and see what you find. Shooting every day will help you to develop your photography skills, find what you like in an image, and keep your creativity going. Doing a 100-day challenge on Instagram is an excellent way to hold yourself accountable while you practice.
Set Your Camera Aside and Observe
Sitting behind your camera lens all day can start to feel stale. You run the risk that everything starts to feel uniform or monotonous. Put your camera away and immerse yourself in the world that you want to photograph. This will allow you to change your perspective and see things from a new view that engages all your senses. Chances are, a shot that you really want to photograph won’t be far away, and you’ll know it when you see it.
Study and Read Up
Look at the images of others’ photography for inspiration and read photography books. Interacting with others in the photography world can be a source of inspiration to help you keep trying new things, and getting your stride. Don’t forget to go out and shoot on your own after all the study though.
Review and Critique Your Photos
You don’t have to force yourself to throw out a photo that you really like just because it’s not technically good, but you will see plenty of your photos that you aren’t as keen on. Examine them to decide what you should work on. This is the only way to determine your particular weaknesses, as well as what you want to achieve.
For instance, when you look back at your photos, are you finding that you’re not close enough to your subject? Is your focus off? Are your settings ill-suited to your shooting environment? Are you just not finding enough light? All of these critiques will help influence the choices that you make the next time you shoot.
Start a Photography Project
For a certain type, few things are more likely to hamper creativity than a lack of direction. If you’re one of these people, you can focus your photography hobby by designing a photography project.
This often means setting goals and parameters for yourself to work within. Photography projects will help you notice skill growth as well as keep your eye out for great opportunities for shooting.
Some examples include the 365 Photos project, which requires you to take one photo a day for a year. You can spark more of your creativity by choosing a specific theme, location, or emotion.
Photo projects for storytelling are also common, but they require you to have your camera on you all the time, so that you are ready to capture just the right moment. Other photography projects include photo scavenger hunts and thematic pieces for photojournalistic research.
Photography Mistakes to Avoid
Avoiding Your Camera Manual: Your camera’s manual won’t be a riveting read by any means, but it is packed with your cameras features, shortcuts, and specifications, which are all good for you to know when developing your photography skills. For instance, it would be very frustrating to learn down the line that your camera had a way to bypass its autofocus or a RAW shooting mode that you hadn’t been utilizing.
Trying to Be a Universal Expert: Like all other creatives, photographers work in niches. You should always be free to experiment with whatever you want to learn, from landscape and wildlife photography to urban and street photography, or portraiture and event photography. However, it’s unreasonable to expect yourself to be a universal expert. Instead, work to gain skills in the niche that you have the most fun with, then expand from there.
Not Cleaning Your Lens: That microfiber cloth that you use to clean your computer screen is also useful for cleaning your camera lens. Before you carefully plot out and compose a shot, make sure to clean your lens so that dust, oils, or other debris aren’t ruining your photo from the outset. It’s also a good idea to clean your sensor. For most cameras, this can involve compressed air and a microfiber or soft cloth.
Using Only On-Camera Flash: On-camera flash comes from the front of the camera, meaning that the light is coming from the same angle that you’re directing your shot. This straight-on lighting can flatten images. This means unflattering portraits and scenes without depth. If you’re serious about your photography hobby, an off-camera flash or alternate lighting options should be one of your first investments.
Trying to Salvage Blurry Photos: It’s easy to tell if your photographs are unintentionally blurry, meaning that they are blurry from a bad focus or a shaky hand, versus those photos marked by intentional blurring. Intentional blurring can add intrigue and dynamic movement. On the other hand, those that are accidentally blurry might just be a wash.
When to Upgrade to a DSLR Camera
DSLR cameras give you the ability to customize your photos so that you are able to capture exactly the shot that you want to. DSLR cameras consist of a camera body and a variety of lenses that are compatible with that camera.
DSLR cameras are an important next step for the photographer who is willing to learn to control exposure light, shutter speed, and aperture settings to get the right shot. In many cases, getting the most out of your DSLR might necessitate taking time with your shot, whether that means setting up a tripod and playing the long game on a landscape or running water shot, or composing a thoughtful portrait with light in all the right places. With that in mind, DSLRs are a good fit for people who like to tinker with things.
Because DSLRs tend to have a more imposing presence, due to their larger bodies and protruding lenses, it’s helpful to prepare yourself to feel a little strange when stepping behind the camera. For some, the camera lens distances them from the events that are unfolding in front of them. If you’re on the fence, we recommend trying one out for a weekend trip to see if you enjoy the experience before committing to the purchase.
Tips for Taking Good Portraits
Posed portraits don’t require your subject to be staring at the camera while wearing a fake smile. There are numerous ways to capture emotion in a posed portrait, from the use of lighting and props to natural expressions.
When in front of a camera, many people have the initial reaction of acting goofy or false. These are often self-conscious defenses that allow people to feel that they have control over how they are represented. To bring out their honest side and possibly some of the vulnerability of their inner life, make them feel as comfortable as possible. Act neutral while being encouraging, and aim to capture natural expressions. If you want to shoot a smile (and who doesn’t?) try to actually make your subject laugh or smile.
Use a Tripod: The tripod will help encourage you to take your time with composition, and it will hold your camera steady to get a sharper image.
Use a Reflector: Reflectors bounce and diffuse natural light onto your subjects so that both sides of their face will be illuminated.
Pay Attention to the Background: Trees and electric poles in the background of a portrait can take away from the subject, and make them look like they’re being impaled. Instead, move around to see if there’s a better way to frame the shot.
Avoid Capturing Your Subject in Front of Walls or Bushes: When taking a portrait, your subject will often try to back themselves up to a wall, bush, or similar structure. While this may help your subject feel at ease, it could also allow them to cast a harsh shadow on these structures. Erasing this shadow would make the portrait look unnatural, but including it wouldn’t be flattering either.
It’s best to avoid it altogether by helping your subject to feel comfortable in a different area or position. If you intend to shoot in front of a background, keep your subject a few feet in front of it. Photos taken out in the open with flattering natural light can also give your subject a more multi-dimensional appearance.
Profile Pics and Self Portraits
Shoot from Above: When it comes to shooting a self-portrait with only your arm and your cell-phone available to you, it’s best to shoot from an angle that’s just a little above you. Make sure that the focus is on catching your eyes.
Use a Mirror: Mirrors can help you to control natural light when taking photos indoors. While you can master the angles with mirrors when doing a self-portrait, it’s much easier to have someone there to hold the camera and take the photo for you. The model will look into the mirror, and then the other person can use a flattering angle to take the picture.
Using a Selfie-Stick: There’s a reason that selfie-sticks are common among travelers. They are lightweight and good at what they do. Selfie sticks allow you to get the right angle to take group shots without leaving a member of your group out of the picture or inconveniencing a passerby.
A selfie stick can also be a solid choice for taking a profile picture because it allows you a greater range of angles than a traditional selfie taken at arm’s length or in front of a mirror.
Be aware that, when traveling, using a selfie-stick can make you a target for theft from runners and other passers-by particularly in crowded areas. Always pay attention to your surroundings, even when capturing the perfect shot.
Taking Travel Photos
Travel photos can be tricky for a beginning photographer. There’s a tension between wanting to capture everything that you see because it’s all so new to you and feeling uncomfortable with cultural divides when taking photos. While there is certainly an etiquette around travel photography, traveling is an amazing opportunity to expand your photography skills, because your perspective is fresh when traveling and everything looks new, strange, and photo-worthy.
Travel Street Photography
Street photography can often get you your most intriguing images. There are many angles available on a crowded street, and in most cases, an overabundance of things to see. Many professional photographers plan sessions to go out and snap street photos, looking around for good frames without worrying about where they are going or what they are doing. However, most travelers have a limited amount of time to get the most out of immersing themselves in a culture while also trying to capture some great images.
For those in a hurry or who are not traveling just for the photos, street photography can be a pattern of quickly snapping photos in different places and from different angles. This approach means that you will have a lot of photos that you don’t care for at the end of the day, but you will probably have a few gems. It also makes your photo hobby less cumbersome or time-consuming if you’re on a tour or walking along a busy street.
Just remember to take some time to thoughtfully compose a few snaps when you do stop somewhere for an extended time.
Travel Landscape Photography
When it’s not street photography, many of the photos that we want to take while traveling are of inanimate objects, scenes, and landscapes. Photographs of inanimate objects can also capture a mood and atmosphere that tells a story. Don’t be afraid to take shots of buildings and architecture, woodland scenes, water, landscapes, and wildlife.
Start with a subject that stimulates your interest. If you’re in a strange place this could be foreign architecture, an unfamiliar flower, or a gorgeous vista. Then, when framing your photograph, think of the feeling you are trying to evoke, is it calm and peaceful? Majestic and large? Slightly frenzied with a lot going on? Or bright and cheerful? This will help you frame your shot and decide on any lighting and editing choices later.
Family Vacation Photos and Memory Keeping
Vacation photography commonly captures a group of people assembled in front of a landmark. You know the photo I’m talking about, eight people crowd around a sign marking the continental divide trying their best to smile in spite of the sun on them. In many cases, the stories these photos tell is a simplified “we were there as a family on this date.”
Group shots make great Christmas cards and framed pics for the mantle, but they can often lack the personal element that many of us want to remember our family by. Instead, more candid photography can depict your family enjoying specific moments. These candid photos (candid photos are those where the subject or subjects do not know they are being photographed) will go a long toward building photographs from your vacation into memories that express stories and personalities.
Rather than taking the photos that say we’ve been there, try to capture the moments of your family spending time together in a new place. A good rule for commemorating a family vacation is to try to get a photo of someone in at least three-quarters of your shots. It also helps to not forget the little things. For instance, big waterfalls are definitely photo-worthy but don’t forget to get a shot of your loved ones exploring a small tidal pool, playing a sport on vacation, exercising their creativity, or just relaxing in whatever way they do it best.
How to Incorporate Instagram and Social Media into Your Photography Hobby
Ming Thein, a commercial photographer and photography instructor, writes that:
“Photography is fundamentally a relationship between the photographer and the viewer. Nothing more, nothing less. At its core, a successful image is about communication: it must tell the viewer the photographers’ intended story, through an entirely and solely visual means of communication.”
Most of us won’t have a gallery space online to showcase our photography, but social media, such as Instagram, Tumbler, and Facebook allow us to use our images for this communication purpose to create conversation around something we felt strongly enough about to capture.
Using social media will also allow you to follow and study the work of photographers that you admire so that you continue to study and stay engaged as you learn to implement styles of photography that you most enjoy.
Because Instagram creates a gallery for your photography hobby, you can use the gallery to create an intriguing effect that allows you to think about the composition of your images as a whole. Are there dominant colors ranging throughout your photos, is there a distinctive style or filter that you’re consistently using? Patterns like this can add some interest and flair to your Instagram photography.
Some Last Advice
Strengthening your photography skills is about learning to capture the kinds of photos that you want to take. However, this development will only come from practice and a sense of fun and enjoyment. Our last advice to you is to be ready with your camera and to not let fear and perfectionism keep you from taking a shot as you see it. Be prepared with the right camera settings, an easy setup, and an empty memory card. Digital photography is very forgiving, so don’t be afraid to take a few shots you aren’t sure about. This kind of experimentation is how we learn.