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My Top 30 Beginners' Photography Tips
Who are the below photography tips for beginners aimed at? Well, me. But 'me' about 5 years ago, just when I was starting to explore photography properly. I’d purchased my first DSLR and was absorbing all the info that I could. ‘Camera controls’ no longer meant just the on/off and shutter release buttons! For one reason or another, some lessons took a bit longer to sink in, so those are the things I’ve focused on here...
Shoot In Aperture Priority Mode
Yes, learn to use Manual mode, you’ll need it. Likewise for Shutter Priority. But save yourself time and effort in most situations by shooting in Aperture Priority. Depth of field is the usually the key creative feature that needs to be controlled, and shutter speed just needs to be sufficiently fast to prevent camera shake.
Combining Aperture Priority with exposure compensation and ISO controls gives you the ability to shoot accurately, quickly and creatively. So don’t assume Manual is mode is what ‘proper’ photographers use, or that anything other than fully automatic is challenging.
2. Spend Your Money On Lenses
Depending on your age, your camera owning trajectory may roughly echo my own: disposable cameras for holiday snaps (bought at the airport, along with other duty free items aggressively marketed to kids!), compact camera, bridge camera, begginer/prosumer DSLR.
The temptation from then is to keep looking ahead at the next ‘best’ camera body. Stop! You’ve basically arrived at the destination. It’s time to wake up to the fact that lenses make the big difference from now on. The quality of the glass, the focal length, maximum aperture size, the auto-focus, the Image Stabilization feature – these are the things that will affect your photography more than anything. Here's a quick look at 4 important criteria for choosing a lens.
3. Prime Lenses Rock
Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, with no ability to zoom. I didn’t understand them 5 years ago. I wanted my set of lenses to cover as wide a range of focal lengths as possible. That way I could be equipped for all situations, right? Well, no, not really. What about when I want to shoot portraits with some really lush, soft bokeh in the background? That f.5.6 18-70mm didn’t used to give me anything like the results my f.1.8 50mm prime does now (with a 1.5x crop factor).
Prime lenses have none of the moving parts that zoom lenses do, increasing image quality. It’s also much, much cheaper to get a fast prime (big maximum aperture, like f.1.8) than it is to get a fast zoom lens. This is an advantage for low light photography and for capturing great bokeh (bokeh tips). I also think that being forced to move your body rather than just zoom in and out causes you to shoot more thoughtfully.
4. Know What ‘Crop Factor’ Is Before Buying A Lens
Most digital camera sensors are still smaller than standard 35mm film used to be. Certainly most cameras used by beginners are. Professional cameras with sensors equivalent to film are know as ‘full-frame’. When a lens that could be used on any camera is fitted to a model with a non full-frame sensor, crop factor comes into play.
All this means is that the lens takes in a sufficient angle to fill a full-frame sensor, but a smaller sensor can only capture part of that image. So the edges of the scene are cropped out. This is effectively the same as working with a greater level of magnification than the lens states. Depending on the size of the sensor relative to a full-frame version, this can result in a crop factor of 1.3x, 1.5x, 1.6x or 2x.
My camera has a crop factor of 1.5x, which means a 50mm lens actually gives me an effective focal length of 75mm (1.5 x 50). For obvious reasons it’s worth knowing about your camera’s sensor size before buying any lenses. I used to look at people totally bemused when they would talk about 75mm focal length with a 50mm lens. But it’s actually really simple. Here’s a nice and clear explanation if mine hasn’t helped.
5. Your Lens Collection Is Going To Grow, So Don’t Get A Tiny Bag
You might think it’s wise not to splash out on a large camera bag with more space than you currently need. But if you’re starting to really enjoy photography, and have half an eye on another lens or two, get something that will accommodate future kit.
In photography, always choosing the cheapest possible option (whatever that might be) is often false economy, as you end up paying for something more suitable in the near future.
6. Don’t Be Afraid Of Shooting In Raw
The Raw file format is a really powerful, and really fun, asset for all photographers. My first photography tutor gave me the idea that it was something best left to experienced pro’s, whilst the rest of us make do with JPEG! That was complete nonsense, as shooting in Raw mode is incredibly simple.
Raw files are often described as digital negatives, the equivalent of film negatives. Whereas JPEG’s have had lots of minor adjustments applied (e.g. sharpness, colour saturation and contrast) in-camera, to make them immediately presentable, Raw files contain only the ‘raw’ information that was recorded.
You get to fine-tune the image using conversion software like Photoshop Elements (Photoshop tutorials) or Lightroom (Lightroom tutorials), to create the perfect image. This ‘fine-tuning’ includes altering the exposure, white balance, noise level and more. If you’re familiar with Photoshop already, you’ll probably find it easier to shoot in Raw than JPEG!
7. Don’t Spend Silly Amounts Of Money On Post-Processing Software
I always remember when I was first looking to get hold of some post-processing software. I asked all my photographer friends and tutors for advice, and seemed to get more or less the same answer every time, “Photoshop is great, but it’s seriously expensive. I do know someone who makes cheap copies but I promise them never to tell anyone about it”.
As advice goes, this was squarely in the bloody unhelpful category. The world seemed to be full of pirate versions of Photoshop, being produced by dodgy characters, none of whom I knew. In any case, the full version of Photoshop is totally unnecessary for most amateur photographers (and many pro’s for that matter).
In the end, I purchased the comparatively cheap Photoshop Elements, which was awesome and served me well for 4 years, before finally upgrading to the full version (legally produced, obviously!). To be honest, much as I love Photoshop, I’m not even sure that it was worth upgrading. The simple, streamlined and effective workflow of Lightroom would probably be my tip for keen amateur photographers these days.
8. Yes, Post-Processing Is Fun, But Take It Easy
When you discover something new that’s fun, you want to do lots of it. That’s natural. What’s not natural is the effects that this leads many Photoshop beginners to apply to their photos! Somehow the desire to spend lots of time using Photoshop slips into a desire to ‘do’ as much as possible to every photo.
I was as guilty of this as anyone, and it took me an embarrassingly long to time to realize it. Good photos are made in-camera. Photoshop helps to make them even better. Unless you’re God’s gift to graphic design, you will always struggle to add dramatic light or colour to an image where it’s lacking in the original. So take it easy in Photoshop. Remember that photography is about capturing the real world – that’s what makes it so cool. If you wanted to create a cartoon you’d have drawn one!
Oh dear God no! Did I really turn this lovely pastoral scene into some kind of plastic nightmare?
9. Use Layer Masks And Erase With The Brush Tool – Not The Eraser
Layer masks in Photoshop (or the equivalent in Elements) enable you to remove parts of an adjustment layer using the brush tool (with black selected as the foreground colour), and then paint the same parts back in later if you wish (with white selected as the foreground layer).
This gives you the freedom to tweak things subtly, without permanently removing adjustments using the eraser. As a Photoshop noob I always just lazily used the eraser tool, whether it was to remove sharpening from certain areas or get rid of a Levels adjustment in a certain spot. But this is destructive and mistakes cannot be undone, so get into the habit of using masks and the brush tool as early as possible.
10. Don’t Get Hung Up On ‘Sharpness’
One of the first things we learn how to do in photography is take sharp pictures. We learn about the reciprocal shutter speed/focal length rule, the importance of tripods, remote release devices, ISO speed settings, the role of depth of field and so on.
Sometimes you can end up treating technical quality and clarity as the ultimate goal of every shot. That’s unfortunate, because photos are basically all about the subject. National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson summed it up pretty well, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff”. I think that’s the best ‘photography tip’ going.
Plus, bear in mind that when images are printed at large sizes, imperfections in sharpness are less likely to be visible from the greater viewing distance these images are seen at.