I remember the day I got my DSLR camera in the mail– I had saved up for months to buy my little Nikon D40 and I watched the postal tracking code like my dog waits for her food in the mornings. (So. Excited.) When my brown Amazon box finally came, my heart was beating so fast that I could barely cut open the tape. I took out the Nikon and held it in my hands– that weight and feel is so familiar to me today. I started taking pictures right away, the same photos that everyone takes with a new camera: everything that is in direct sight. My hands, the countertop, the microwave, my feet, the cat, a pile of newspapers.
Back then, I didn’t have a clue as to what in the heck I was doing. I had video experience and I’ve always been that person who carries a camera with them… I just never had a nice, non-point-and-shoot camera. It’s been over 2.5 years since I first bought my little Nikon D40 and I still use and adore it today. Even though my Nikon isn’t, and was never, a top-of-the-line gadget, I have come leaps and gigantic bounds in my photography knowledge because of that camera and the photo-curiosity it fueled in me. I’ve written 9 of my favorite photography tips and tricks to help all the other heart-racing-excitable new SLR photographers out there. 😉
I think that composition is the first, easiest, most fun, and most important lesson to learn in photography. Composing a great photo gets easier with time and repetition, but reading up on how to frame an image is also helpful. The most popular way to compose a rectangular photo is with the “Rule of Thirds”. The Digital Photography School has a great article on the “Rule of Thirds” and why it works. Of course, there are always times to break the rules as well, especially when you don’t want your image to look cliche.
I am also a huge fan of the square photograph. After looking at rectangular 4” by 6” pictures all the time, there is something so refreshing and powerful about a square. Perhaps that is one reason Instagram pics feel and look so wonderful to us? I love this article on square photo composition by Andrew Gibson.
One of my favorite things to play around with these days is the aperture. I recently bought a 50mm f/1.4 aperture prime lens and I am in heaven. The control that you have over the foreground and background is so rewarding.
(The deer in the photo is this little DIY photo holder I made. :))
Aperture is the opening in the camera that adjusts how much light you want to let in for your photo. The lower the aperture number, (ie: 1.8, 2, 3.5) the more blurred your background will be. (Or foreground if you want to focus on the background.) The higher the aperture number, (ie: 16, 22) the more everything will be in focus. It is good to remember that there is not just one way to take a well-lit photograph– photography has equivalents. This means that you can have a dark room with an aperture of 16 and you can still get a photo to turn out… You’d have to have the shutter open for a few seconds… but it would still work. This chart is good at explaining photography equivalents. PS: I love this blog post on exposure.
3. Shutter Speed
To freeze all movement like this confetti image I took of my friend Sarah, you need to have your shutter speed above 1/125.
To illustrate motion you need to have a tripod (or a rock like I used for this photo ;)) and you need to have your shutter speed slow enough to blur the moving things in the photograph. For sunny days, this can be hard. This is why my aperture was all the way up at 32. (Crazy!)
With a higher shutter speed, you can take ninja-jumping shots. 😉
When it comes to ISO, the higher your ISO, the less light you need to take a well-lit photo, but your photo will be a lot grainier like the bottles above.
With a lower ISO, (usually reserved for sunny days) your photo will be noise-free like the magnolia tree above. (Noise-free=less grainy.)
When it comes to lighting, clouds are the best. The photo above is a perfect example. This photo of my friend Sarah was taken on a cloudy day– the lack of sharp shadows and harsh light flares makes this photo well-lit. I love clouds because they act like a gigantic light diffuser– like the umbrellas that you see professional photographers use.
This photo: ISO: 200, f/5, Shutter: 1/1250 How to make Maggie’s printed scarf.
This isn’t to say that you can’t take a great photo with bright sunlight. If the sun is glaring on your subject, you need to keep more things in mind for those photos. Is the subject squinting? are there any weird shadows on their face? Is your subject backlit? When it is cloudy, you can take great photos any time of the day. When it is sunny, you should probably stick to the “golden hours” of sunlight– after dawn and before dusk. Noon photos are just not as good.
Usually backlit photos turn out terribly, but sometimes you can use the light to create a halo around your subjects. This photo is an engagement photo I took.
And sometimes a harsh sun can be really fun.
Whether you use a rock, a park bench, a mini travel tripod, a water bottle tripod, or the ground, a tripod can help you get an amazing shot. I took this photo in the High Line Park in New York City. I wanted a long shutter so that I could get a lot of light streaks in the photo. Whenever I took versions of this photo with shorter shutter speeds, there weren’t as many headlights in the picture to make it visually appealing. My tripod in this photo? A bench.
Tip: If you want to take photos of people with long exposures, just get them to stand really still. Easier said than done, I know. 😉
What about them? Just think about them when you shoot. It’s a good idea to break out that color wheel and give yourself a little refresher course on complementary colors, tertiary colors, hues, tones, and tints.
And sometimes avoiding colors all together and taking the monochromatic route is the best way to go.
8. Try a Film Camera
While I use my digital camera all the time, I took a film photography class last year and it probably taught me the most about using my digital camera. Shooting with film teaches you to make a mental checklist of things to do to get a good photo because you don’t have the option of guessing and checking like you do with digital photography. If you’re interested in photography and you’re still in college, TAKE A CLASS. (Not to be bossy or anything. ;)) But seriously, film photography classes are SUPER expensive outside of school. Take it while you can.
(All of my film photos were actually taken with the Pentax K1000 pictured in the first image of this post. If you are looking for a great film camera, that camera’s your guy. It is an incredible student camera.)
9. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.
Some of my Polaroid photography collection.
I know this is one of those annoying pieces of advice like “practice makes perfect”, but unfortunately it is true. The only way to get better at any art form is to do it. (So annoying, I know!) 😉 Shoot photos with vintage cameras. Shoot photos with your cell phone. Play around. Have fun.
Also, read books on photography. (This is one of my favorite photography books by far.
) Look at photos, too. Go to museums. Throw yourself into it. Then you can start breaking the rules and getting some rewarding shots.
(One of my favorite photos I’ve taken. I stalked birds on a wire for a year to get a shot like this.)
Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!
With a bunch of practice and a love for cameras, you can evolve from opening your new camera box and taking photos of the microwave to this: