What’s the difference between a great photo and a great photographer?
(Other than “grapher”, you cheeky monkey.)
We’ve all fluked a great shot. You’re not totally sure how you managed it, but everything just magically fell into place and you snagged an image that makes you feel like you’re a total all-star.
But the trick is being able to repeat that awesomeness…
Time and time again.
That’s what great photographers can do.
So what’s the secret sauce? Buckets of luck? Shooting a bazillion shots so they can get enough of those flukes?
Nope. It all boils down to a short list of fundamentals. These are the things that great photographers know inside and out, so that when the time comes, they can call this information into action to help them produce those winning images.
So you want to take great photos? You want to up your game as a photographer? This is where to start.
1. Know Your Camera
Would you believe there are professional photographers out there that don’t fully know how to control their camera? It’s true. How do I know?
I used to be one of them.
Yep, it’s a big ugly confession, but it’s true. We started off shooting in Aperture Priority mode, and let the camera do the thinking for us.
We thought it was faster and easier than learning all that scary technical stuff.
And you can fake it here for a while. Cameras are smarter than ever, and they can get pretty close for you. But not knowing this stuff will truly hold you back, and keep you firmly in the “fluking it” category.
What I’m talking about here is needing to understand the essential features of your camera and your lens, and knowing how that affects the look of your images.
You need to know how changing your aperture changes the look of your photo.
You need to understand how to set your shutter speed to get the results you want.
You need to be able to make decisions with your ISO that fit your situation.
And then, based on what features your camera has, you’ll need to know about drive modes, white balance, focusing, stabilization modes and so on.
Luckily this stuff isn’t as hard as it sounds. In fact you can learn it all in just a few hours. Once you do, you’ll be ready to move on to the next level.
2. Understand Exposure
Once you have a solid grasp on aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and how they affect the look of your photos, you need to put them all together and learn how they balance to create a good exposure.
One of the trickiest things is first figuring out just what people mean by a “good exposure”. Some folks make it seem like there’s a right exposure and a wrong exposure and if you get it wrong you’re pretty much a doofus.
And if you go online and try to get a clear definition? Ha, good luck! They are all super confusing, and don’t really get to the heart of how to actually create a good exposure.
(My personal favorite is “The intensity of light falling on a photographic film multiplied by the time for which it is exposed”….Uh…so do I need a calculator for this?)
So we made up our own definition of exposure:
A good exposure is how bright you want the image to be.
If it’s brighter than you want, it’s overexposed. If it’s darker than you want, it’s underexposed.
In the end it’s your own creative decision. You’re the photographer after all. But you need to know how to adjust all your settings to get that exposure you’re looking for, and how to use your camera to help you figure it out.
3. Master Light
Let me start off by saying that I don’t think anyone can truly be the master of light (except maybe the Greek God Apollo). We photographers are the glad and willing slaves to light. Without it we can’t do our work. And it can be a fickle master (especially if you use natural light).
But to learn about light. To understand it’s many facets and subtleties. To know how to work with it in any circumstance. To create it. To seek it. Well, this is really the photographer’s lifelong pursuit. We won’t ever really be the master, but we may come close, with a lot of respect and decades of practice.
Where to begin? Simple. Outside. The are endless lighting opportunities waiting for you when you step outdoors. Can you shoot in harsh midday sun? Golden hour light? After the sun goes down? When the stars come out?
Then hop back inside. Use the light of windows. There is unlimited variety there, and you can really start to get the finer points down in such a simple (but complex) scenario.
Keep seeking light, keep learning about it, and keep pushing yourself into new lighting situations. It will bring you a lifetime of photographic adventures, and more than a few great images.
4. Explore Depth of Field
Now enough romance about light. Let’s get practical.
Depth of field is a huge part of your photography that you probably greatly underestimate.
I know, because I underestimate it. And I know that I do, and I still do. You know?
Depth of field is one of those things that seems simple at the outset, and gets progressively more complex the more you learn. But learning about it, even at the basic level, will make a huge transformation in your work.
For instance, without first learning about depth of field, you might think that to get some background blur in your image, you just need to decrease your aperture value.
But you didn’t take the focal length, subject to background distance, and camera to subject distance into account. And with a certain combination of factors. your aperture might actually have very little to no affect on your depth of field. It’s true. Sometimes there’s no discernible depth of field difference between f/1.4 and f/11.
Once you start to understand how all of these interact, you can start to get impressive background blur, even with a point and shoot camera at a high aperture, just by knowing exactly how to control all the variables.
Another misconception about depth of field is the idea that “shallow is always better”. When you’re just getting started, shallow depth of field is a new and exciting technique. But it can be overused. Ever seen what a headshot taken at 85mm f/1.2 looks like? It’s easy to get distracted by the beautiful bokeh, and forget to notice that not even an entire eyeball is in focus. Um, not quite right.
Don’t be afraid of high apertures. Or low apertures. In fact, don’t be afraid of your aperture at all. Learn how depth of field works, and then use it as a creative decision to make each and every image just right. That’s what a great photographer does. They know their options, and use them all.
5. Get to Know Perspective
This is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated topics in photography. Put very simply, perspective has to do with the spatial relationships between objects in your frame – their sizes, their placements, and the space between them. All of this positioning works to change the way your viewer interprets the scene. It might make things look more 3D, giving the photo a sense of depth, or it might flatten everything out.
So why is this obviously important topic not widely discussed? Because it’s complicated! Or at least it can be at first glance.
Let’s start simply. Where you position yourself when you take a photo is a hugely important decision. It is what determines your perspective. And changing your perspective can take your photo from bland to totally engaging.
Getting to know perspective requires a lot of practice and experimentation. And moving those little feet of yours! Crouch, lie down, stand on a ladder, stand on a building, take a step forward, take a step to the left. These things change your perspective and make major impacts on the look and feel of your photos. Experiment. Take shots each time you change your perspective, and then compare them afterward. How does it change the image?
Now what about focal length? Does that change perspective? Technically no. That’s changing the angle of view (that is, the angle of the scene that your camera captures). Wide angle lenses capture a wider amount of the scene. Telephoto lenses capture a narrower amount of scene. Alone changing your lens doesn’t change perspective (though it may appear to). It’s when you combine a lens change with a position change that your perspective changes.
Perspective gets a lot more complex, and there are different ways to use it to achieve your goals with your shot.
6. Conquer Composition
Going broader now, we dive into composition. This is a huge topic that is all about how the various visual bits and pieces in a scene have been organized. It’s broader than perspective, and encompasses things like light, lines, shapes, forms, colors, frames, textures, patterns, movement, reflections and more.
You may have heard of the “rules” of composition: The Rule of Thirds, Negative Space, Balance or Visual Paths. Rules sound scary, and boring, and the idea that you have to sit down and memorize them before you’re allowed to be a photographer likely prevents many shooters from really diving into the wonderful world of composition.
But I’m here to tell you that the “rules” aren’t actually rules. They’re more like guidelines. These are ways to arrange elements in your frame that help tell a story, convey an emotion, or catch your viewers’ attention. All fun things, and all very essential things if you want to be a great photographer.
For instance, that “Rule of Thirds” you always hear about it. Well, it suggests that by placing your subject along one of these magical thirds lines, or at an intersection of the lines (what I like to call an Awesome Spot), you will automatically give that element a boost of importance in your frame. And that’s a great thing to know, because it can help you direct your viewer to look where you want them to!
But, if you’re feeling feisty, you could intentionally break that rule (gasp!), and put your subject absolutely dead centre. Perhaps you want to highlight the symmetry of your subject. Perhaps it’s a very serious looking object, and putting it dead centre enhances that feeling. Or perhaps it’s something totally goofy, and a boring centred composition creates some tension between the two.
It’s up to you, master photographer. When you know about composition, you get to make all sorts of fun choices like this with each and every image you take.
7. Perfect Your Post-Processing
Let’s end it off on a topic that is a little bit controversial.
See there are two camps in the photography world. There are those that believe that post-processing (using software to edit your images after they’ve been taken) is at best a waste of time, and at worst a perversion of reality.
The other camp believes that post-processing is a tool that a photographer can use help their images more closely resemble what their eyes witnessed as they took the photos, or go further to enhance the mood or tell a story. It’s a creative technique that has been around for as long as photography itself.
Any guesses which camp we belong to? 😉
Post-processing is an essential skill for a digital photographer. (Gasp! Even film photographers do post-processing!)
It’s a simple fact that straight out of your digital camera, your images don’t look anything like the original scene they captured. They’re dull, flat and lifeless.
Post-processing helps bring back that beauty by adjusting things like contrast, brightness, sharpness, and saturation.
Then you can go even further.
With programs like Adobe Lightroom you can do things like dodging and burning, which means to selectively lighten or darken parts of an image in order to direct your viewers’ attention where you want it to go.
These aren’t new techniques. Dodging and burning goes back to the beginnings of photography, but originally they were done by painstakingly exposing different parts of the print for different amounts of time.
Nowadays, with Lightroom, you can do it in seconds, and fine tune as much as you’d like until you get things perfect. Don’t you feel kind of lucky? I know I do!
So those are 7 absolutely core aspects of photography that every shooter should be studying and developing. Some of them can be understood in a short period of time, and others will take a lifetime to master. But that’s good news. You’ve got a lot of exciting learning ahead of you!
But are there other things to learn? Are there other topics to dive into to help your photography? Of course there are! These are just a starting point. They get you proficient with a camera and the language of visual art. From there it’s a whole world of things to explore.
Maybe you want to do portraits, and then there’s a ton of subject interaction and psychology you could learn. Or perhaps you want to dive into travel photography. There you have a huge variety of genres, from photojournalism to landscape, and then an anthropologist’s curiosity for culture and a historian’s interest in the past will serve you well in telling the stories of the places you visit.
There’s no end to what you can learn as a photographer, but these 7 topics are a very good place to start. So what are you waiting for? Pick one and get going!