You finally take the plunge and upgrade from a point and shoot camera or camera phone (gasp!) and now you are wondering how to look like you know what you’re doing and how the heck do you create some professional looking photos that will wow your family and friends. The secret is easy; you don’t want to LOOK like you know what you are doing, you want to KNOW what you are doing.
I often see people with shiny new cameras that have no clue in using them properly. The bookstores are filled with expensive books on photography, some of which are pretty good, yet nobody has the time or inclination to read them. So, to make it easy on everyone I have compiled a list of 5 simple steps that can take you from being a novice to shooting like a professional. Below are the 5 steps that will help you become a better photographer:
Step 1: Read the Owner’s Manual
Sounds easy, right? When was the last time you actually read the owner’s manual that came with something you purchased? Never? The problem today is nobody reads the owner’s manual anymore as everyone thinks they can figure it out on their own. For most items, that’s correct. I mean, how hard is it to setup a DVD or Bluray player? Unfortunately, the only way you will learn to use your camera is to read the manual. And I mean read it from cover to cover! Sure it’s boring, but it will be the best thing you can ever do to learn the ins and outs of your camera.
Step 2: Buy a New Camera Strap
Nothing screams “newbie” more than somebody walking around with a camera strap that says “NIKON” in big yellow letters. Those straps are created by the camera manufacturers to be nothing but a billboard to advertise their brand. Plus, they are really uncomfortable! There are a lot of very nice comfortable camera straps available and I highly recommend switching your factory strap out as soon as possible. My wife and I both use the Crumpler Industry Disgrace straps and find them to be the most comfortable straps on the market! When you are walking around all day with a camera around your neck, you will thank me! If your camera is not very comfortable to carry around, how will you be using it when it is being left at home or in your camera bag?
Step 3: Learn the Rules of Composition
When you look at two photos of the same thing and one photo is really great and the other is boring, the difference is most likely composition. Composition is one of the most important things that will make a photo great. Using the rule of thirds, leading lines, framing, and many other techniques make for good composition. Volumes could be written on the subject and the best way to really understand composition is to read a book on it. The best book I have found that covers composition in an easy to understand format is Digital Photography Composition for Dummies, by Thomas Clark. I am usually not a big fan of the Dummies books, but this one is excellent and it really is the best I have found on the subject.
Step 4: Get Out of Auto Mode
Today’s cameras are amazing. The engineer’s have designed these modern cameras so well that all you need to do is point and shoot to take a great photo. That is if the composition is good. This makes placing the camera in Auto mode tempting, but don’t do it! A lazy photographer is a bad photographer. A good photographer must know their camera gear well enough that you can look at a scene and know what would be the best settings to use, or close enough. But you will never know what those settings are if you never experiment and get out of Auto mode. This is also where reading the manual really helps to understand what all those little letters mean on your camera’s dial.
Step 5: Learn to Use Your Histogram
When you take a photo your camera will usually show you a preview of your shot on the LCD screen. The preview is fine for checking your composition and to make sure nobody had their eyes closed. But there is something even better than the preview for checking your photo called the histogram. The histogram is that graph looking thing that you can use as the ultimate light meter. Once you have your preview on the screen you can usually get to the photo’s histogram by pushing the up or down button to scroll through the different options. Once again, read your owner’s manual. The far left side of the histogram graph represents black, and the far white side is white. Most photos that are properly exposed will fall in the center and taper off to each side. Exceptions to this would be if you are shooting a low-key shot where you want a lot of black in the photo or a high-key shot where you want a lot of white. In these cases, the histogram will be bunched up to one side or the other. When trying to properly expose a photo you will use the histogram to make sure you are not over or under exposed. If the histogram is showing the graph bunched up to the left side of the graph, then your shot is underexposed and you should make adjustments to correct this, such as using a flash, raising your ISO, slower shutter speed (might need a tripod), or opening up your aperture to allow more light in. If the histogram is showing the graph bunched up to the right, then your shot is overexposed and to correct this you should use a faster shutter speed, set your aperture to a higher f-stop number to allow less light in, use a lower ISO setting, or use a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light coming into the lens.
The histogram is also useful for showing clipped areas, that is, areas in the photo where detail has been lost. If you have lost detail in the blacks, the graph will run off the left side. If you lost detail in the whites, it will run off the right side. If you lose detail in the colors, then it will run off the top.
The histogram looks difficult to understand at first, but after using it for a little while you will never want to be without it.