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Become a Decent Photographer

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Look at Light

When you start out in photography, it seems obvious to say that learning to use your camera is the logical first step. However, thinking this way can actually confuse you. The camera is just a tool that has the ability to record light.

When you walk out the door to photograph, the first thing you should think about is light, and not the camera. What time of day is it? How strong is the light and what direction is it coming from? Is it sunny or cloudy? Is the light soft or contrasty? Is the sun in front of, or behind you? Where are the artificial light sources and what colors do they give off?

This is the first thing that a seasoned photographer will look for every time they begin to shoot, and constantly be aware of while they are shooting. They do this for a reason. The light will affect how they shoot and the settings that they use. Even a slight change in direction to your light source can completely change how an image will look. You can’t learn how to use your camera correctly if you do not first understand the light.

Learn Your Camera Settings

Once you evaluate the light and environment, and figure out how you want the image to look, that is when you want to think about camera settings. For instance, do you want as much of the image as possible to be sharp, or do you want a lot of bokeh in the background? Do you want to zoom in and have a compressed look to the image or would you rather use a normal or wide angle lens? Do you want it to be a high-key shot, or on the darker side?

That is when you change your settings to achieve the desired effect. It sounds like a lot of work just to take a single photo, and it is. However, if you start out shooting this way, eventually it will become second nature. It is just like learning a basketball shot or a golf swing. Doing it the correct way might feel unnatural and weird at first, but eventually it will come naturally and quickly, and you will be much better off for having spent time at the beginning to focus on it.

Take your camera off Auto and experiment with either shutter priority, aperture priority, or manual mode. Some photographers take pride in shooting manual, and sometimes it makes sense to shoot that way, but manual is no better than shutter or aperture priority modes, and in many situations it can be a worse way to shoot. It all depends on the situation.

Experiment with different zooms on your lens, with different apertures and shutter speeds, and experiment with different ISOs to see how the digital grain (noise) looks. Do not be afraid to raise your ISO when you do not have a tripod. Go back to look at your photos in Lightroom, zoom in to the details, and look at the settings to see how they altered the way your images look.

Composition and Form

Now is the time to think about composition. Some newer photographers tend to have a bad habit – they look up, see something interesting, then they photograph it quickly and move on. Yes, sometimes you’re on the move and this is the only way to shoot, but take some time to compose your image in the best possible way. The difference between a snapshot and a work of art is thought. If you see an interesting scene, you need to think about how to best capture it. Where is the best place to stand? Can I include other elements into the scene to create a more complex composition?

I prefer to think about composition in this way – if I made a larger print, put it on my wall, and a friend came over and saw it for the first time, where would their eyes begin and how would they move through the image? How would it feel to them? Where are the lines in the image? What is the relationship of the main subject to the background? Is rule of thirds better here or is it better to center the main subject? Are there interesting shapes in the image? Do the edges of the image look good and keep the viewers eyes from moving out of the composition? Is there a foreground, middleground, and background in the image and does the image even need that?

The difference between a decent image and a great image could be moving a foot to the left. This is another idea that can seem overwhelming at first, but will come to you more naturally the more you pay attention to it.

Color

Color (or lack there of) is a very important element of photography. Look at a color wheel and study how the colors work together. What do different colors represent? Do the colors add to the image or detract from it? I enjoy creating both black and white, and color images, and this is one of the first questions I think about when I am editing.

What is the color quality of the light? Is it cool or warm, is there a color cast, and does that add or detract from the image?

In addition to thinking about color while shooting, you will find yourself significantly improving your ability with color while you are editing. Play around with color temperature to see if you like an image warmer or cooler. Desaturate it, or add a little saturation, to see how it feels. How does changing the contrast affect the colors?

For doing quality color work, make sure that you have a good monitor that has been recently color corrected. All your work will be for naught if your monitor shows colors that are different from the file and final print.

Learn Lightroom

Editing is vitally important to developing your vision and becoming a good photographer. I suggest using Lightroom, as it is the industry standard and it works well for so many photographers. Photograph in RAW to get the most flexibility and quality in your images and explore all of the RAW development settings. Try to recreate the looks of other photographers to get a feel for how their editing was done.

Be diligent about organizing your archive. A little time spent each time you upload images will save you so much time in the future. Star your good images (Lightroom allows 1 through 5 stars) so they are easy to find, and create collections based on ideas that you grow over time. Viewing your work in this organized fashion will help you develop your skills much faster than if you have a messy archive.