Photography allows you see the world in a new way: As you experiment with how you frame your shots, you’ll find yourself noticing all sorts of details, patterns, and quirks about the world around you. This guide introduces you to this popular hobby, getting you acquainted with both the practical and the creative side of things.
Focus of the guide
This guide primarily concentrates on digital (rather than film) cameras with an emphasis on DSLRs.
First, I discuss choosing which type of camera is best for your needs. I address the pros and cons of DSLRs, compact digital models, smartphone cameras, film cameras, and even instant (or Polaroid) cameras, which have made a comeback in recent years.
Within this section, I include some tips on making the most of your smartphone camera. Camera phones are used by millions of people across the world and have introduced countless people to the hobby of photography. So, if you do opt to stick with your smartphone, I want to help you take advantage of its full capabilities.
Next, I turn to DSLR cameras, offering specific advice on using a DSLR and understanding all of its settings and capabilities. This guide (most of which also applies to mirrorless/MILC camera models) defines common terminology, explains the major factors that go into creating your image (aperture, shutter speed, ISO), describes the modes available on most cameras, and goes through different types of lenses.
At the end of this guide, I cover the artistic and creative side of photography, such as photo composition and tips for specialties such as landscape photography. And finally, I’ll briefly talk about post-processing. These final sections are useful no matter what kind of camera you have.
Choosing a camera
With endless options on the market today, choosing a camera is perhaps the most daunting part of getting started with photography.
First, I’ll provide some general advice, and then I’ll discuss the different types of cameras and why you might prefer one kind over another.
- Think about your personal goals. Different cameras are right for different people. Consider which features and qualities are most important to you. Do you want something portable and lightweight? Is top-of-the-line quality your highest priority? Are you hoping to stay within a low or moderate budget?
- Try before buying, if possible. If your friends are into photography, for example, ask if they can show you the ropes and let you take a few pictures. There’s no better way to evaluate how you like a camera.
- Don’t second-guess yourself. Once you’ve bought your camera, don’t waste time wondering if you’ve made the “right” choice. Every camera comes with pros and cons, and once you’ve committed to a certain model, focus on getting the best out of it.
- Consider buying an older model. “Last year’s” camera is probably nearly as good as this year’s. If you’re on a tight budget, you might want to expand your search to slightly older models that have been around long enough for prices to drop.
DSLRs (digital single-lens reflex cameras)
Over time, prices have come down and made DSLR cameras a viable option for more people. So why are they so popular? It boils down to two main reasons:
- Excellent image quality, thanks in part to larger image sensors.
- Versatility and adaptability. DSLRs give you a high degree of manual control over settings and come with a wide ISO range. In addition, you can change lenses so that your camera is ideally suited to the circumstances.
Even once you’ve decided that you definitely want a DSLR, the choices don’t stop there. When selecting exactly which model to buy, you’ll want to consider:
- Price. Decide on a range that you can afford and then look within that range.
- Size and portability. Do you want a relatively light DSLR (still heavier than a compact digital camera), or are you willing to get a heavier model?
- Intended use. Where will you take your camera? What kinds of photos do you plan to take?
- Specs. This includes things like sensor size and megapixel ratings.
- Features. Cameras might offer various features, from “anti-shake” technology to burst mode (useful in action shots) to built-in flash.
Since this isn’t a product-oriented buying guide, I’ll leave it at that. I recommend some research on different models within your price range and seeing how they compare with regard to the factors listed above.
MILCs (mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras)
Another excellent option, mirrorless models produce images that are comparable in quality to DSLR-produced images (assuming that other variables such as sensor size and lens quality remain equivalent). As the name suggests, one of the defining characteristics of a MILC is its lack of mirror, which allows for more compact designs.
MILCs tend to be a bit smaller and more compact than DSLRs, and many people prefer them for shooting video. Their portability, combined with superb image quality, makes them a good alternative to a DSLR.
However, battery life tends to be longer for DSLRs. Plus, since DSLRs are an older, more established type of camera, there is tons of equipment out there that will be compatible with them, while the same is not necessarily true for a MILC.
If you’re stuck on choosing between a DSLR or a MILC, take a look at this in-depth comparison.
Compact digital (point-and-shoot) models
Compact digital cameras are a fantastic way to explore your interest in photography. These cameras are available at reasonable price points and offer great portability.
Another advantage to point-and-shoot cameras is their simplicity and ease of use. They typically come with an “auto” or “intelligent auto” mode that adjusts all camera settings based on the situation, as well as various preset “scene” modes (for example: sunset, landscape, portrait).
Most of today’s compact digital cameras should also have a macro setting allowing for extreme close-ups of small subjects such as insects or flowers. Their zoom capabilities are generally fine for many people’s purposes, though nowhere near as powerful as the zoom you can get on a DSLR.
Overall, your average point-and-shoot model may struggle with low-light photography or with zooming in on faraway objects.
Nevertheless, there are tons of compact digital cameras out there, so naturally they range greatly in terms of quality. Plus, manufacturers have been improving their products steadily, and point-and-shoots are becoming better than ever.
Should I get a compact digital camera or a DSLR?
This is an extremely common question among hobbyist photographers. Ultimately, here’s what it comes down to: If you want convenience, get a point-and-shoot. If you want optimal photo quality, get a DSLR. Ideally? Get both. Each type of camera is well-suited to different situations. Ask yourself:
- How important is image quality to you? Will you be printing off enormous poster-sized prints that require extremely high quality? Or will you mostly be emailing photos, printing off smaller (say, 4×6” or 5×7”) prints, or posting to social media? If this second scenario describes your goals, then you don’t necessarily need a DSLR. A good point-and-shoot model will perform admirably.
- How much manual control do you want to have? Do you like fiddling with settings and experimenting? If so, a DSLR will be a lot of fun! But if you’d prefer to shoot in auto mode, the a point-and-shoot makes more sense.
- What is your budget? Although DSLR prices have decreased, they still tend to be higher than compact cameras. If your budget is super tight, then you’ll need to weigh that against your photography goals, deciding how much you are willing and able to invest.
- How serious are you about photography? If you already have photography experience or you hope to become a dedicated photographer, then a DSLR is probably right for you. On the other hand, if you see photography as a casual hobby, then a point-and-shoot is perfect.
Now for a few points of comparison:
Due to their larger image sensors, DSLRs are simply able to produce higher quality images than point-and-shoot digital models.
Plus, they are very adaptable and produce these great images in a wide variety of situations. For instance, you can swap out the lenses on a DSLR, use accessories like filters, and benefit from a wider ISO range. All these things add up to greater versatility.
Generally speaking, DSLR lenses are likely to be higher quality than point-and-shoot lenses. However, keep in mind that there is a large amount of variation in lens quality, so it’s hard to generalize on this point. Better lenses create better photos, so I suggest choosing the best quality lens you can within your budget.
Now for the advantages of a compact digital model. Point-and-shoot cameras are smaller and more portable. To be honest, I prefer taking them on vacation since I usually can’t be bothered with packing something that is both bulky and valuable.
Point-and-shoots are typically much less expensive. They’re pretty low-maintenance and don’t require much in the way of upkeep. Finally, their user-friendliness appeals to many people. If you don’t have the time to invest in learning about your DSLR camera, then you may be better off with a simpler camera.
I would bet that most of the photos taken today are taken by smartphones. The introduction of smartphone cameras has made casual photography more accessible to millions of people.
Smartphone cameras are of course incredibly convenient; since people tend to have their phones on them throughout the day, they never miss a serendipitous photo opportunity.
Moreover, camera phone technology has advanced considerably over the past few years. Some of the newer smartphone cameras even surpass some of the lower-end compact digital cameras, and there’s no telling how powerful the smartphone cameras of the future will be.
Why should I buy a camera when my smartphone takes decent pictures?
If you’re a casual photographer who simply likes snapping a few shots of your dog or your latest vacation, then no worries. Your smartphone might be perfectly suitable for your purposes.
However, some smartphone cameras just aren’t that good, and even the good ones have their limitations.
“Real” dedicated cameras have many advantages. They typically offer you more control and adjustability so they can adapt to a wider range of situations.
Camera phones are not as powerful as DSLRs. While they may be comparable to lower-end compact digital cameras, they fall short of a good point-and-shoot model.
For instance, my smartphone isn’t very good at nighttime photography, nor can it capture quick-moving subjects (for example, a sprinting soccer player or a rambunctious dog). In these situations, I definitely prefer a true camera, either my point-and-shoot or a DSLR.
Plus, although my smartphone can zoom in a little, it’s nowhere near as good as my single-purpose cameras, which produce sharp images even of small or distant objects. I took a compact digital camera on a safari a few months ago, and it outperformed my smartphone by a huge margin. And a DSLR would be yet another step up.
So, it really comes down to your priorities, budget, and circumstances. What do you hope to photograph? Do you expect your camera to handle difficult conditions (low light, distant or fast-moving objects, etc.)? How much time do you have to invest in learning how to make the most of your camera?
Tips for getting the most out of your smartphone camera
If you’ve decided to take up photography with your smartphone, there are techniques you can use to optimize your phone’s camera. Here are some tips to help you take the best photos possible:
- Experiment! Enjoy using your camera on a regular basis for all kinds of photos, from close-ups of your dog to sweeping landscape panoramas. You’ll soon get a sense of how your camera works, how it responds to bright vs. low light, how its different modes operate, how well it handles quick movements by photo subjects.
- Learn about photo composition and the other elements of good photography. Whether you’re shooting with a professional DSLR or a smartphone, you still have to make decisions about what you want in your image. What are you photographing, and how are the different elements arranged within the photo frame? For more on the creative and artistic side of photography, skip down to the section below (“Taking good photos”).
- Embrace your smartphone’s “limitations.” My (relatively old) phone’s camera can’t handle movement very well, for instance, and it also struggles in dim lighting. Anything moving faster than a glacier appears blurred, especially in low-light conditions (that’s because my phone adjusts to the low light by setting a slower shutter speed). There’s not much I can do about it, so it must be accepted! Some of those photos with blurred subjects end up looking funny, and some are pretty neat—they capture the activity and dynamism of the moment.
- Choose a good camera app. Phones typically come with a camera app installed as default. This app may be great or not-so-great. If you don’t like your phone’s default camera app, you can always download another one. What to look for? I tend to prefer camera apps that give me a good amount of control over settings. Can I enable or disable the flash? Can I shoot in HDR? Can I set a timer? Can I do basic in-app editing quickly and easily? Can I enable gridlines to help me get the horizon line straight?
- Use the wealth of online resources and tutorials geared toward smartphone cameras. Whether you want to learn about smartphone food photography, improve your phone’s performance in low light conditions, or just want general tips for using your Android, there’s sure to be ample information out there.
Smartphones have become ubiquitous in the 21st century. Although generally less powerful than single-purpose cameras, they certainly have their place in photography, from casual snapshots of your daily life to photos from a camping trip where you didn’t feel like lugging a heavy DSLR.
Polaroid or instant cameras
Unlike smartphones, film cameras are not ubiquitous in this day and age. Some would say that’s a shame! One type of film camera is the instant camera, perhaps better known by the brand-name Polaroid camera.
These models are famously old-school. They use self-developing film to create image prints fast—and who doesn’t like the instant gratification of seeing their photos immediately?!
Polaroid cameras make an incredibly fun addition to parties and events like weddings. They also offer an offbeat, vintage-inspired way for you to pursue photography. If you want to shoot on film rather than digitally, or if you take an interest in history, then these cameras may appeal to you.
Instant cameras also tend to produce a unique aesthetic, and many people enjoy being photographed in the relatively soft and flattering focus of a Polaroid.
Speaking of film…Classic film cameras are still available today. Many photographers eventually find themselves captivated by the art of film photography.
Digital cameras of course give you the option of shooting a scene countless times until you get it just right. Film cameras aren’t so forgiving—and that’s part of the appeal! A film camera will force you to slow down and consider each image you take more carefully.
So, if you’re curious about shooting in film, go ahead and give it a try!
Understanding your DSLR camera better
Numerous owners of brand-new DSLRs find their cameras very intimidating at first. There are so many buttons and settings, and using them all is not exactly intuitive. You should receive an included manual with your camera, which will provide essential guidance—but reading it all in one go can be overwhelming.
Luckily, your camera isn’t going anywhere. You can take all the time you need to get familiar with your DSLR. Also, remember that you can always set it to auto mode and start snapping away!
In this section of the guide, I aim to demystify using your DSLR. I explain some common terminology, what it means, and how it all works together to produce an image. I also cover the various kinds of lenses you may encounter. The majority of this advice applies also to mirrorless (MILC) cameras too.
Let’s get started.
Aperture is an opening for light; it allows light to reach a camera’s image sensor. Aperture can be adjusted to allow more or less light in. You’ll see aperture referred to by an f-number (for example, f/1.4, f/2, or f/8).
A lower f-number indicates a larger aperture and vice versa. So, a camera aperture of f/2 would be a large aperture, allowing in a generous amount of light, while a camera aperture of f/16 is quite small, allowing for only a small amount of light.
Aperture also has an impact on depth of field, meaning how much of your photo is in focus. Some photos have only the main subject in focus, with a soft, blurred background. Others show more of the scene in focus and have sharper backgrounds. In essence:
- Large aperture à more light à lower f-stop number à shallow depth of field à less of the image is in focus
- Small aperture à less light à higher f-stop number à greater depth of field à more of the image is in focus
Your camera’s shutter remains open only for a certain period of time when it takes a photograph. During this length of time, known as shutter speed, light is allowed in (through the aperture) to its digital sensor.
Aperture and shutter speed are therefore interrelated; together, they determine the amount of light to which the sensor is exposed.
Shutter speed is typically expressed as a fraction of a second. For example, 1/500 or 1/2000. A shutter speed of 1/500 is four times as long as 1/2000 and will allow in four times as much light.
With all other variables held constant, a faster speed leads to a darker image. You’ll use a slower speed to produce a brighter image. When would you want a fast shutter speed? When you want to capture a crisp still image of a moving object, such as when photographing a sporting event.
ISO also has an influence on your image’s brightness. It measures your camera’s light sensitivity. Essentially, a high ISO (such as ISO 6400) produces a brighter image than a low ISO (such as ISO 400). However, a higher ISO also potentially increases “noise,” meaning that it can make your image grainy.
When do you want a low ISO and when do you want a high one?
If you are in a brightly-lit area (e.g. in direct sunlight), then your camera’s image sensor does not need to be super sensitive. There is plenty of light, so even a less sensitive (low ISO) setting will register ample light and produce a bright image. The advantage to this is that you also reduce “noise.”
If you are in a dimly-lit area, however, your camera sensor needs to be more sensitive, so a higher ISO is preferable, even though it increases noise.
The takeaway? A low ISO is desirable, as it results in a higher-quality image. But you have to make adjustments for lighting conditions. Outdoors, you can experiment with setting ISO between around 200 and 800. Inside, or in lower light, you’ll need a higher ISO; try experimenting with a range between 1600 and 3200.
Putting it all together: The exposure triangle
Together, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO constitute something known as the “exposure triangle.”
These three elements, the three sides of the triangle, all have to do with light: aperture and shutter speed determine how much light enters your camera, while ISO determines your camera’s light sensitivity. Understanding the exposure triangle is the key to understanding your DSLR.
Changing one of these elements will alter the image exposure. And if you change one, you may want to adjust the others accordingly.
So, for example, if you’re shooting with a small aperture (less light getting in), you may want a longer shutter speed so there’s more time for light to enter. But what if you want a small aperture and you need a fast shutter speed to capture an action shot? Then you might increase the ISO.
A higher ISO allows you to shoot with a smaller aperture and/or a faster shutter speed and still achieve a good exposure.
But the trade-off is that a high ISO results in more “noise.” So if you want to shoot with low ISO, you’ll need some combination of: 1) good lighting conditions, 2) wider aperture, and 3) slower shutter speed.
As you become acquainted with these three elements—aperture, shutter speed, and ISO—it may help to experiment with some of the modes on your camera, specifically aperture priority mode (A or Av) and shutter priority mode (S or Tv). Read on to learn more about these and other modes.
You can toggle between modes with a dial on most camera models. This dial may look a little different from camera to camera, but the basic modes are the same. I include common abbreviations for each mode in parentheses (for instance, P for Program mode).
When you’re just starting out, auto mode is the simplest to use since the camera determines all the settings based on the visual input it’s receiving. Auto generally is quite reliable in producing good pictures in a variety of situations, though as you gain experience and familiarity with your camera, you may want to take more control.
Manual mode (M)
Manual mode is essentially the opposite of auto. It gives you full control over camera settings such as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Program mode (P)
In program mode, the camera determines aperture and shutter speed. Then, if you manually adjust one of these variables, the camera automatically changes the other as needed.
Aperture priority mode (A or Av)
On aperture priority mode, you control the camera’s aperture, making it larger or smaller as you like. The camera adjusts shutter speed accordingly.
Shutter priority mode (S or Tv)
On this mode, you control shutter speed, while the camera takes over aperture.
You’re likely familiar with scene modes if you’ve used even a basic digital camera. Each one is preset for a particular “scene,” such as nighttime, sports, landscape, or portrait. These are convenient and easy to use, though of course they don’t offer as much manual adjustability.
Throughout this guide, I’ve talked a lot about exposure and light. Now I’ll introduce you to yet another related concept: metering.
Your camera has ways of determining what settings to use. How does it make these determinations?
Your DSLR’s light meter measures the amount of light to make the right adjustments for a good exposure, composed of highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. It’s trying to save you from an overexposed or underexposed photo. This process occurs automatically, though you have the option to control it manually as well.
You’ve probably already taken photos that have mixed light in them—say a dark object against a bright sky. It can be challenging to have both the object and sky exposed correctly. If your camera meters off the sky, then the sky itself will look great, but the object will be in total shadow. Whereas if you meter off the object, if may look nice, but the sky will be washed out.
So, it’s worth learning a little about metering. There are several different metering modes.
Evaluative (matrix) metering mode
This is usually the default metering mode. Your camera takes a reading from across the whole scene and makes its adjustments accordingly, seeking for balanced light (shadows, mid-tones, and highlights) in the image as a whole.
Center-weighted metering mode
In this mode, you camera favors the light reading from the center of the image. Essentially, the camera zooms in a little when it takes its reading, so it draws on about 60-80% of the scene.
Partial metering mode
This mode gets a little more specific again, prompting your camera to favor the scene center again, though focusing on a small portion (5-15% or so of the whole image).
Spot metering mode
This one is the most specific and precise of all; your camera gets its light reading from a mere 1-5% of the scene.
Say you’re photographing a bright object (like a sparkler) against a dark nighttime background, and you want the sparkler to shine while the background remains dark. In this case, you can meter specifically off the sparkler to ensure that it appears with the correct exposure.
For more help with metering, check out the guide here, with sample photos.
One of the fun things about DSLRs is the interchangeable lenses, ensuring that you can use the optimal lens on every occasion. Here are some lenses you may encounter or acquire as you pursue your photography hobby:
A kit lens is the entry level, general purpose lens that often included with the camera body. Kit lenses will get the job done, and they’re perfectly fine for starting out. However, they’re typically not super quality, so many photographers decide to upgrade.
Wide angle lens
Wide angle lenses allow photographers to capture a larger part of a scene. They are especially useful in landscape and architectural photography.
Why would you want a prime lens when zoom lenses offer more variety and convenience? Because prime lenses often feature higher-quality optics and a larger maximum aperture. Plus, they’re typically lighter and more compact.
The downsides are a loss of versatility as well as the potential need for multiple prime lenses to cover multiple focal lengths.
Zoom lenses are extremely popular because they provide more flexibility by allowing you to vary the focal length. Simply put, they enable you to zoom in on far-off objects. They come with different ranges and capabilities.
If you’re heading on a safari, for example, a zoom lens will come in handy. You might spot a leopard up a tree several hundred feet away, and without decent zoom, it will only appear as a speck.
A zoom lens will serve you well if you want full flexibility and don’t feel like swapping out lenses as often.
Your camera potentially comes with a macro setting, but a macro lens will take this a step further, allowing you to create even better, more intricate close-up images. If you enjoy photographing the details of plants, insects, or any tiny objects, then you’ll want a macro lens.
Taking good photos
What makes a good photo? A fantastic one? Can you pinpoint it? Think of photographs you’ve seen that you still remember years later, photos that inspired, moved, or delighted you. Can you explain why you like them so much?
It can be difficult to identify precisely why a good photo is good. In this section, I’ll break down some of the elements that go into quality photography. Broadly speaking, these elements include:
- Subject of the photo: You might be photographing a building, a mountain, a person, an animal…the possibilities are endless. If the subject is interesting and compelling, that goes a long way to producing a good photograph.
- Photo composition: This term encapsulates how the items in your photo are arranged. How many items or subjects are included? Where are they located, both in relation to each other and to the frame of the photo? Is the photo “balanced”?
- Light: Light is the difference between an eerie, mysterious image of a landscape and a warm and inviting one. Light gives your photos atmosphere, emotion, and character. Light can be bright and direct or soft and diffused. There is no one “right” form of light; it all depends on what you’re hoping to capture and convey with your image.
- Color: Color is related to light, as differences in brightness can affect how colors are perceived. Like light, color influences the mood of your image. Is your photograph peaceful and calm, or is it bold and energetic? Happy or sad? And then of course there’s black and white photography.
- Story or Narrative: Often, an intriguing photo isn’t simply an image of something aesthetically pleasing. Instead, it tells a story, asks a question, or prompts the viewer to reflect more deeply. Much like light and color, the presence of a narrative in your image can evoke emotions and make an impact on viewers.
Now I’ll discuss all five of these elements in greater detail.
The subject of a photo is the main person or thing captured in it. For example, you might take a photo of your friend, a cat, a mountain, a house, a street, and so on.
Nearly any subject can be interesting. A good photo often makes you look at a seemingly boring or mundane subject in a whole new way.
So there are two main considerations here:
- What is your subject?
- How will you choose to portray the subject?
Your creative choices have a huge impact on the final product. These choices about composition, lighting, color, and story make the different between a decent photo and a captivating one.
What elements of composition might you consider when setting up a photograph? There are not hard and fast rules to photo composition, but there are factors to consider. These include things like:
- Point(s) of interest. Is there something in the photo that immediately draws the eye or stands out as the highlight?
- Lines. Whether straight, bent, broken, or curved, lines influence how the viewer’s eyes move across an image.
- Shapes. Triangles, diamonds, and pyramid shapes tend to make visually appealing photos. Once you’ve taken some photos, practice identifying the major shapes within them. Which do you like best?
- Textures and patterns. These elements can add visual interest to your photo.
- Frame. How do you choose to frame your photo? What do you include within the image’s bounds, and what do you exclude?
- Space. A close-up photo that is full of its subject looks very different from a more zoomed-out photo with a lot of negative space, even if the photos are of the same subject. Sometimes you’;; want to “fill your frame,” and sometimes you’ll want to use negative space to your advantage—it all depends!
- Symmetry. Symmetry, or lack thereof, can produce a striking image.
Rule of thirds
When it comes to photo composition, you may have heard of the “rule of thirds,” a common guideline that many photographers find useful when composing their images.
Imagine a grid over your photo, with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. Try to position the major items in your photo on these lines or at the intersections.
Following the rule of thirds leads to asymmetrical photos, since instead of placing major objects directly in the middle, you place them along the gridlines.
This “rule” is not set in stone, however, so apply it as you like and see how your photos turn out!
Lighting is immensely important in photography. Your lighting choices and circumstances often determine the overall mood of the image.
Many people love to take photos during the “golden hour,” the times around sunrise and sunset when the sun offers a soft, warm, golden light. This time of day is popular with portrait photography as it is very flattering.
Shooting in natural light involves leaving some things up to chance, since you can’t control the sun or the weather. However, when everything comes together, the effects are magical. You may come across a dark sky with dramatic cloud, a hazy pink sunrise, or a lake covered in mist that’s just about to be burnt off by the sun—with the right lighting, it’s hard to take a bad picture.
Direct sunlight from the midday sun, however, can be tricky. In portrait photography, it can appear harsh and unflattering, as well as create shadows across the face. But bright, direct sunlight is great for photographing buildings.
Shooting indoors comes with its own challenges. Even inside, you can take advantage of natural light by choosing a room with good windows. If possible, avoid using your camera’s flash, which can be a little harsh. You’ll also want a higher ISO for indoor photography.
Scientific research even suggests that color can shape our moods and emotions. So it’s no surprise that this holds true in photography as well. Color has the power to evoke a particular atmosphere and produce an emotional response.
Take some time to learn about using color effectively in your photography. Warm colors (red, orange, and yellow) typically catch the viewer’s eye and give a sense of energy to photos, while cool colors (green, blue, and purple) are often tranquil, calming, and less attention-grabbing. Interplay between warm and cold colors adds interest to an image.
If you enjoy photojournalism, you’re already very familiar with the power of a photo to tell a story. Even a simple snapshot can suggest a more complicated narrative behind it.
There are many ways to add narrative elements to your photography. For instance, you might focus on an interesting or overlooked detail about a scene, or you might create a series of photos to capture an event as it unfolds.
Now that you know the basics of using your new camera and composing your photographs, it’s time to talk specialties. Here are some tips for improving your photos of landscapes, wildlife, and more.
Everyone loves a good mountain panorama. If you’re an avid hiker or nature lover, you’re sure to enjoy landscape photography.
- Plan out your landscape photography Decide where you’re going and what time of day will offer the best light (often the golden hour). Look up the forecast. A little bit of planning goes a long way in helping you plan and take the best shots.
- Bring a tripod. It’s the best way to hold your camera completely steady. This is especially important if you plan to take long exposure photos (slow shutter speed), for instance, to capture the gentle movement of waves on a beach.
- In general, you’ll want a deeper depth of field for landscape photography so that most or all of the image is in focus.
Wildlife photography is my personal favorite. There’s something incredibly special about getting a glimpse into the life of a cheetah on the Serengeti or a grizzly bear in Denali.
- Be patient. You can’t control what wild animals are going to do at any given moment, so you will have to be willing to wait a long time to capture them doing something cute or interesting.
- Wild animals are often skittish and keep their distance from humans. Therefore, for best results, you may want to invest in a good telephoto lens. The size of the lens will depend on the type of animal you want to photograph—the shyer the animal, the longer a lens you’ll need.
- Consider introducing some variety into the types of shots you take. Long lenses are good for taking close shots and giving a sense of an animal’s personality, but wide-angle shots that show animals in their environment can be just as interesting.
- Make use of burst mode if your camera has it. Burst mode allows you to take a series of photos in quick succession. For example, you might be watching some lion cubs roughhousing. It’s tough to time a shot perfectly to capture their most dramatic movements, but burst mode ensures you don’t miss out on anything.
For more advice check out my guide to the best camera for wildlife photography.
Taking good portraits can be tricky, but it’s such an established form of photography that you can easily find advice and tutorials online. Here’s my advice for adding a new spin to your portraits:
- Doing something different with eye contact can make your image more original. Instead of having your subject always look straight at the lens, try having them look off camera or at something else inside the frame.
- Changes in lighting are another great way to create variations on the traditional portrait. Techniques such as side-lighting or backlighting can make your portrait more interesting than a traditional shot.
- Try taking candid shots in addition to posed portraits. Candids often allow the subject’s personality to shine through more than in a posed environment.
This fascinating form of photography produces images of the night sky, from twinkling stars to the Milky Way to the Moon.
- Set your camera to manual focus. Auto doesn’t really cut it for astrophotography. Set your focus to “infinity,” since you’re photographing far-off things. This guide walks you through the process, which may vary based on your camera model.
- Learn about white balance. You should be able to adjust the white balance settings on your camera. What this does is alter the color of the sky in your image. Your camera will probably default to an auto white balance setting. However, for astrophotography, try switching it to a “daylight” or “sunny day” white balance setting, or manually set a customized white balance. Figure out how this works on your camera before heading out at night.
- Shoot photos in RAW file format, not JPEG. RAW files take up more storage space, but that’s because they include much more information. If you plan to make significant edits in Photoshop or Lightroom, RAW file format is preferable.
Once you’ve taken your photos, there’s still plenty you can do to finetune them to perfection using popular programs like Photoshop or Lightroom.
There’s a lot to say about post-processing, which really deserves an entire article of its own, so I’ll just cover some basics here.
First, what can post-processing do? It can…
- Create cool effects (such as lithography or digital cyanotype).
- Remove extraneous items that distract from your main subject.
- Balance exposure, correct color, adjust contrast, brighten an image, and so on.
- Reduce noise.
- Crop images (to make them appear more balanced, to focus more closely on the subject, to align your photo composition with the rule of thirds, etc.)
As you can see, there is a huge amount of information out there, and a huge number of changes you can make to photos during the post-processing stage. I recommend choosing a photo editing software program and then experimenting with it and getting to know how it works.
Some common alterations I make to my photos include: Cropping them for better balance; increasing brightness or contrast slightly; adjusting shadows and highlights; and ensuring that the horizon line is horizontal.
Photography might seem simple—and it certainly can be! Many people are happy to snap some quick vacation pics or document important moments and events in their lives.
However, if you’re interested in taking your photography skills to the next level, there can be a truly daunting array of decisions to make: What type of camera should you choose? Which specific model? What do you want to photograph? How best to frame it?
I hope this guide has been helpful as you venture into this hobby. In particular, I hope that I’ve cleared up some common confusions about how DSLR cameras function and the uses of different lenses. But most of all, I hope you’re excited to get out there and experiment—the most effective way to hone your technical skills and express your creative vision.