Why should you take a photography course, read an instructional book, or figure out how to use your camera beyond pointing and shooting? Cameras are so smart these days. You can get great photos with a basic DSLR in auto mode, right? You don’t even have to know anything about photography.
My beginners’ classes are full of people who want to learn more about their cameras, who want to improve their photos, and who are frustrated with the results from shooting in auto. It doesn’t take much time to learn how to dramatically improve your photos by taking back control from the camera’s automatic settings. Beyond that, it’s all about practice.
Have you ever experienced any of the following situations?
The Accidental Silhouette
What’s the problem? When your subjects are in front of a bright background, like the sky or ocean, the camera tends to underexpose the image (i.e. make it too dark) and your subjects become silhouettes. The camera tries to make the entire frame average out to a medium gray. You need to expose for your subjects and not the entire scene.
You can fix this with: manual exposure or exposure compensation; spot metering
Weird Colour Casts (aka incorrect white balance)
What’s the problem? The camera, using auto white balance settings, is misreading the colours in the scene and chose an incorrect colour temperature. White balance is used to remove colour casts from your images and try to present them as the eye sees them.
You can fix this with: learning how to change your white balance in camera and/or shooting in RAW and correcting later
Too Much or Too Little Motion Blur
What’s the problem? You wanted to show motion, as above, but the camera froze the subject. Or more commonly, you wanted to freeze the motion, but the subject was blurry instead. This is a problem with shutter speed. The image on the left has a shutter speed of 1/640 and the one on the right is 1/100.
You can fix this with: learning how shutter speed works (basically, a slower shutter speed shows more motion blur)
Focus on the Wrong Subject
What’s the problem? You want to focus on a subject other than what the camera wants to focus on. Cameras with face detection might focus on the wrong person and cameras without might focus on something else entirely.
You can fix thiswith: using a single focal point and moving it onto your subject
Too Much is in Focus
What’s the problem? You wanted the background to be blurry, but your camera got everything in focus instead. For the above images, I used a 35mm lens at f4 for the image on the left and f1.6 for the image on the right.
I learned photography very slowly. I hope this post will contain some lessons to help you learn faster, and also some inspiration (and laughter) when you see how far I’ve come over the years. These are personal photos ranging from 1993 to 2016. I’ll be making a separate post about portraits/weddings later on.
I was always into art, taking as many classes as I could through grade school and high school, including some private lessons/camps. On family vacations, I would take rolls and rolls of film photos. Below are just a few of hundreds of photos I took during a trip to Disney World when I was 12. Some of them aren’t so bad for a film point and shoot.
I took my camera everywhere when I was 12-13 and I still have several photos of friends looking annoyed at me for taking so many photos. Here are a few shots that I still like.
And in high school, I got a bit lazier, still dragging my camera around, but taking shots with no regard to composition or whether my hair/finger was in front of the lens. There are a lot of photos that other people took with my camera during these years too. I was more interested in the memories than the art at this point.
In first year university, I lived in the dorm and took lots of photos of my floormates. At least, I’m pretty sure I took these. It makes me feel old to say that I was shooting film in first year university.
There was a bit of a gap from 2000 to 2002 where I didn’t take many photos while things transitioned from film to digital. Once I got a decent digital point and shoot, the photo taking resumed. Below are some shots from 2002.
And like many college girls, I started getting into selfies. Below-left is one taken with my webcam, of all things, though the lighting is kind of cool. Below-right was taken with a point and shoot and edited by a friend.
In 2003, the selfie-making continued. Inspired by online friends and photographers, I played around with dressing up and tried a couple of months of taking one photo a day. This is a bit embarrassing now, but it’s better than phone selfies, right?
I also took a lot of photos in 2003 on road trips and while wandering about, and got a bit crazy with the editing.
In 2004, I mostly took photos of friends at outings and events. Good practice for documentary photography and weddings.
And I tried to get a bit arty from time to time.
In 2005 and 2006, I didn’t take as many photos and mostly took photos on road trips, like my move from Ontario to Victoria.
At the end of 2006, once I’d settled into Victoria for a bit, I finally broke out the Minolta X-570 film camera that once belonged to my godmother. Below are some photos from the first time I ever used it, on a solo trip to Botanical Beach. Actually, I think the top middle one is digital point-and-shoot. I still love how the bottom left looks like an alien landscape.
In 2007, I took the Introduction to Photography course at Camosun College. I was one of two people with a film camera. I think digital is easier for learning, but it was a good experience and taught me to be careful with my exposures.
And I kept taking photos with my point and shoot, because I loved those instant results.
In 2008, I started developing my own black and white film. I took a bunch of photos at a company party at a horse ranch, which was fitting with the grainy film look.
At the end of 2008, I finally caved and bought a DSLR. I had wanted to wait until I could afford a really good DSLR, but a friend convinced me that the best camera is the one you will use, so I picked up a Canon Rebel XSi. Once I got this camera, I started shooting a lot more and experimenting with different techniques. I spent a lot of time on photo outings with people from the Victoria Photography Meetup group.
And I started a 52 weeks self-portrait project. Some weeks, I was super lazy and just took a snapshot, while some weeks I shot some film or experimented with shooting or editing techniques. Most of these photos were taken with my trusty point and shoot.
In 2009, the frequent shooting continued and I learned a lot about using my DSLR. I also played around with a bunch of older film cameras, but didn’t end up developing a lot of the film.
I went on more outings with my photography group friends. Going out shooting with people who are also obsessed with photography is the best way to learn. We even played around with a friend’s off camera flashes.
In early 2009, I took Camosun’s portrait and wedding photography class taught by the amazing Eunice Montenegro, who has since moved far away. I took this class with my DSLR and learned that I had no idea how to focus my camera, since my film camera was manual focus only. Eunice quickly set me straight.
In April 2009, I took a solo month-long trip to Ireland. I didn’t take as many photos as I should have, because I was shy about being a single girl with a camera in a strange place. On this trip, I started up a website for my photography and started offering portrait sessions. I had no idea what I was getting into.
In 2010, I started shooting weddings while also working a day job. My personal photography became much more infrequent and I only ended up with photos from the film festival (as a volunteer) and a few outings with friends.
In 2011, I started shooting more client work and more personal work too. I went to a photography conference and workshop and they inspired me to learn more and work harder.
2012 was a really busy year for my business and I barely took any personal photos. I managed to get out for an outing with a former client and photography enthusiast to the butterfly gardens and tried getting back into self portraits (and failed).
2013 to 2015 were focused totally on my business, after quitting my day job, and I mostly took iPhone photos those years. I’m still not very good at them, but getting better.
This year, I’m trying to get out more to take photos for the fun of it. I’m working through the book “Picture Perfect Practice” and teaching a lot of beginners’ workshops. The below photos are from about a month ago, when I met up with some past students for a fun shoot at Beacon Hill Park.
I hope you can see a progression in my personal photos over the years. I can definitely see an improvement and it’s been a long journey.
Here are some tips for improving your photography and hopefully learning faster than I did:
Practice practice practice. Yes, the old standard advice about learning any skill. The more you shoot, the better you’ll get. The more you look at photos, the better your eye will get. I wish I’d done more personal work over the years, because it always takes my professional work to another level.
Think about what you’re shooting and looking at. Critique your own work. Critique others’ work. Think about the technical aspects (focus, exposure, white balance), but also the composition and how your eye travels around the image.
Find some photography friends. Taking photos of unwilling friends gets tiring. Find someone who can help foster your love of photography. I have a Facebook group for people who’ve taken my workshop and try to get them out for shoots once in a while, but there are lots of other groups on Facebook and meetup.com.
Take some courses and read some books. I’ve taken a couple of in person professional photography workshops over the years, attended a couple of conventions, constantly watch workshops online on CreativeLive, and read books/blogs about photography as much as I can stand to. You can sign up to get my free ebook “How to Take Better Photos of Your Family” and get notified when my online course is ready.
Be playful and curious. Experiment with lighting and different techniques. Try to duplicate cool photos you find. Take photos with all different shutter speeds and apertures to see how they affect the photo.
Get the crazy editing out of your system. When learning Lightroom and Photoshop, you’ll probably be tempted to make your photos look funky like Instagram filters. Go for it. Over the years, my editing has gotten more and more natural and I obsess over making things look as realistic as possible these days.