A camera is just a tool. Photographers are the ones that take the photos.
We've all taken photos when we've spotted a great scene and yet the pictures themselves are terrible. How can we avoid this? How can we improve our basic photography skills?
We want to focus on the fundamentals of photography because there is a belief that by having the best equipment, you have the best photographs. Its so easy to get addicted to buying the newest camera, lenses, tripods, lighting etc. You'll be amazed with what you can do, with what you already have.
Photography literally means 'light writing' and a photograph is a capture of the light reflected by whatever is in your viewfinder/screen. There are several ways to control how much light hits your camera's sensor.
No matter what type of camera you are using, there are some basic controls you can use to help improve your photography. Even on a phone camera. The first thing you should do is learn what these are and how best to use them. This will involve some time and practice but is something worthwhile learning. It may be a bore, but read the instruction manual for your device and learn what these controls do. Then take lots of photos to get used to them.
For those of you with a DSLR or modern smartphones, there are more functions to learn, but the main thing about this is the amount of control you will gain. Learn to use your f-numbers to adjust the depth of field (how much can be in focus). If you are in a darker environment, learn to adjust your ISO to increase light sensitivity, remembering that even the best cameras will give you grainy images if the ISO is too high. Learn to read the light meter on your DSLR, and adjust your shutter speed accordingly.
This might all sound like hard work, but it will pay off with instantly better results if you put in the time and effort.
If you are photographing people, then you have much more control over the available light for your shots than when shooting static objects. When using a smartphone, or a very basic compact, then simply ask your subject(s) to move nearer to a source of available light to avoid the graininess often seen with these cameras. If indoors, increase the artificial lighting, always remembering to adjust your white balance to cope with this. Alternatively, move your subject closer to a window. These very simple, but effective, remedies will improve the quality of your images.
Learning the proper use of your DSLR will overcome many of these problems, but remember the limitations even these cameras have. Any lighting problems can be overcome, but studio lighting is a whole subject in itself and not something we will be going into here.
When shooting outdoors we are reliant on the ambient conditions – weather, time of day, cloud cover and so on. There is, however, a number of things we can do to mitigate such problems. Many websites and apps will give you accurate weather predictions. This way, you can be prepared for adverse weather conditions if necessary. You can, for example, move a planned portrait shoot indoors.
The best time of day for many landscape and nature images is around sunrise and sunset. Early morning, or near sunset, you will get lovely soft light when the sun is low in the sky, and the golden hues which can dramatically improve any portrait or landscape. Just before and after dawn and sunset, we have 'blue hour' when your whole scene will be bathed in a bluish light giving you some fantastic effects. Remember, though, that using your camera's controls may be more important at this time.
One area where beginners often run into difficulties is composition. Properly composing your image will lead to far better results. It may seem obvious, but people generally do not have trees growing out of their heads, nor does water flow uphill!
The fundamental mistake made by most beginners is not actually looking at what they are photographing. Often we only pay attention to the main subject of our photo whilst ignoring the other elements. The solution is to actively survey the whole scene we have in the viewfinder or screen and this applies to all types of cameras. Actively look from corner to corner, covering every part of your image. Pay attention to the horizon, check the background, foreground, everything. Doing this, you will rapidly get into the habit of avoiding that lampstand growing out of your subjects shoulder or the hideous industrial building in your landscape.
Rule of Thirds
You often hear photographers talking about the 'rule of thirds.' This means that the focal points of your image should be placed at the intersection of the imaginary lines which divide your image into nine equal segments (two horizontal, two vertical). This is not a hard and fast rule and many photographers regularly break it but, as a general guide to image composition, it is a good place to start. One common image you see is that of a lone tree in a field with the tree set off towards the top left or right of the image. This is a much more attractive composition than having the tree directly in the middle. It can be even more effective when there are lines, such as shadows, pulling your eye towards the subject.
Let your ideas and imagination take the photo
When we take photos on our travels, we often like to record ourselves being there. Don't be afraid to include people, but pay close attention to placement. Take your time to ensure people don't 'photo bomb' your photos. Place people away from the background subject matter so we can see where you've been. It's also a good idea to show people interacting with the world around them, not grinning inanely at the camera. Have the people in your shots looking off-camera towards the landscape. Even with their backs to the camera, people can add something to an image, as they are seen to be actively engaging with the world.
One of the joys of photography is that you never stop learning and improving. There are always new skills to be mastered. For those of you starting out on the journey, or those who wish to see some rapid improvement in your pictures, the advice above is a great way to start. It is, though, only the beginning of a fascinating journey.