by David Ngiam
Updated 13 June 2012
Since there are already a lot of good information out there on photography and there are tons of books written on this subject, I figured I'd write some tips without getting into too much of the technical bits. Hopefully, this will be a good, concise starting point for you. If you are really interested in Photography, its always good to read up more about it, especially when trying to understand how the camera works and why it works in a certain way. This will help you easily make adjustments on your camera to get the shot you want. Another good introductory site that I would recommend is the Enjoy DSLR by Canon. Although it uses Canon cameras for its examples, the principle is the same for all cameras.
Anyway, here are some of my tips, at least what works for me. I don't expect all photographers to agree with my techniques, but I hope it works for you too. Remember though, photography is more art than science, but knowing how to use the right tools (in this case, the camera) will help you achieve the desired end result. Much like a painter has the right brushes and palette.
I've divided the Tips into 4 sections:
DSLR or Compact camera?
When comparing pixel to pixel, a DSLR will always give better quality images compared to a compact simply because the image sensor is bigger. However, if all you have is just a basic point or shoot or even camera phone, that doesn't mean you can't take great pics. Image quality is half the story, good composition is the other half. But if you are serious into going into photography, its a good idea to invest in a DSLR. Not only is the image quality better, it gives you the flexibility of switching between different lens to get the look you want. The possibilities are almost limitless, if you have enough cash that is.
Image at about 100% zoom from a Compact camera (left) & DSLR camera (right), both at ISO 400
What lens should I get?
Generally, you want to have a range of lens that covers from 18mm - 200mm. You can get a single lens that covers that range or several lenses. The advantage of a single lens with that range is that you don't have to switch between different lenses, however, sometimes, quality is sacrificed (but usually minimally) or the aperture doesn't go as wide as you like. You also don't have to fumble with switching lenses to get the shot, which can be for just a brief moment.
Apart from getting a lens (or 2) that covers between 18mm - 200mm, I would also recommend getting a 50mm f/1.8 lens. It's the cheapest fixed lens available (at least for Canon & Nikon I believe), and because it has a wide aperture (f/1.8) it allows you to take photos in low light without flash and it's great for portraits if want that 'blurry' background (or Bokeh) look.
The lens specification is typically printed on the body. For the above lens, zoom range is 18-200mm,
Largest aperture is 3.5 (at 18mm) to 5.6 (at 200mm). IS means it has built-in image stabilizer.
Do I need an external flash?
For most people, no. Your built-in flash should be sufficient. Don't expect an external flash to light up the night sky, or a building a mile away - it's not that powerful. External flash are great if you take a lot of photos of people indoors and when you can manipulate the flash head to bounce the light off walls and ceilings instead of straight on. It also creates very interesting shots if you can fire the flash remotely off the camera by placing it at an angle to your subject instead of firing it when it's mounted on your camera. It's a great tool to have if you can afford a good one, but it really depends on your photography needs.
Both images are taken from a camera mounted flash. Flash is pointed directly (left) & Flash is bounced off the back wall & ceiling (right)
Do I need a tripod?
Generally, a tripod is needed if you are shooting at a slow shutter speed. As a rule of thumb, you can hand hold your camera, shoot a picture and not get visible 'camera shake' if your shutter speed is 1/X , X being the zoom range of your lens. So for example, if you are shooting at 200mm, then your shutter speed to hand hold your camera should be at least 1/200. Likewise, if you are shooting at 30mm, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/30. This is just a rough gauge and its effectiveness varies from person to person. If you are not able to achieve that and get a good exposure, then try increasing your ISO. If that doesn't work or if you don't like the image quality at higher ISOs, then you should consider a tripod (especially if you take a lot of landscapes whenever it gets dark)
What is Exposure?
Exposure is the amount of light received by the image sensor. An image has good exposure is generally when the darkness / brightness of the image matches that of what you are actually see with your own eyes. An image is over-exposed when the image is too bright and under-exposed when it is too dark. There are 3 factors that affect Exposure : Aperture (how much light is let in by the aperture ring), Shutter Speed (how long the lens stays open for the light to enter) and ISO (how sensitive is the image sensor).
What is the difference between Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority & Manual modes?
Before I explain the different modes are, you need to understand that your camera is always trying to achieve what it thinks is the right exposure of the scene you are shooting. With that, it makes automatic adjustments for you in all modes except in Manual mode. Here is a brief description of the different modes, assuming the ISO value is FIXED :
What is ISO?
The ISO number is basically an indication of how sensitive you want your sensor to be. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the sensor, which means it allows you to take a photo at a higher shutter speed, given a fixed aperture size. This is good in low light situations where you are hand holding your camera, or if you need the higher shutter speed for action shots but the scene is not quite as bright. However, there is a trade off.... at higher ISO, the images tend to be grainier or 'noisy' and you may lose some detail. So as far as possible use a low ISO (eg. 100 or 200) even for action photography, as long as you can achieve the minimum shutter speed to get the shot. Typically, I try not to go beyond ISO1600. I usually shoot between ISO200 - ISO800.
Image at about 100% zoom at f/2.8. Shot with ISO 200, shutter speed 1/320 (left) & ISO 6400, shutter speed 1/8000 (right)
What mode should I shoot in?
If you want to get beyond the AUTO mode, then you want to use one of the modes mentioned above for more control. Here are some ideas of what I use for different type of shots, but you will see in most cases I use the Aperture priority mode :
Why do my photos look too dark / too light even in Auto mode?
When you take a photo, unless you are in Manual mode, the camera will meter the scene and will set the aperture, shutter speed or both (depending on which mode you are in) and try to give you an exposure setting that is about a medium brightness. There are several different ways it does this metering (evaluative, center-weighted, spot, etc) but I won't get into that. But in general, if you are shooting a bright scene (eg. a snowy landscape), it would think the white snow is too bright, so it would result in an under-exposed image. Like wise, if you are shooting a dark scene (eg. a room full of people wearing black coats huddled together), the camera thinks the predominantly black tone is too dark, resulting in an image that is over exposed. The camera, unfortunately, can't tell what objects should be white or black, it just thinks the exposure should be the same as a medium grey.
To compensate for this, you can intentionally over expose or under expose (see your camera manual on Exposure Compensation) before you take the image to fool the camera into taking a shot that is brighter or darker than it normally would. The other way, which few people are actually aware of, is to use the use the Exposure Lock function. Basically, you first point to an object in the scene that is a medium tone (eg. a person's face) and hitting the Exposure Lock button would lock the exposure setting, so you can recompose the picture and fire away. Consult your camera manual on how to use the Exposure Lock function if it has one.
Images are under exposed (left), correctly exposed (middle) & over exposed (right)
Should I shoot in RAW or JPEG?
This is quite subjective. RAW photo does give you a little more detail up close and it does a better job in recovering lost details if you under expose or over expose your image. However, the file size is also about 4-5 times that of a high-quality JPEG, so it would take up a lot more space on your storage card and because it's a larger file, it writes slower to the card. So if you are shooting a lot of action shots in sequence, it might not be ideal. RAW files also need to be first converted into a standard image format (eg. JPG, TIF) before it can be edited directly, so that is an extra step you need to take, although software like Adobe Lightroom makes that process quite seamless now.
So it is really up to you. Storage space is relative inexpensive nowadays, so that has become less of an issue. For me, I shoot 90% of the time in JPG, especially if its casual shots I take for fun. As long as I know my images are not too over or under exposed, the difference between JPG and RAW is minimal. For commercial work though, I generally shoot in RAW, just to ensure I give my clients the highest possible quality.
The original over-exposed image is on the left. The exposure of the RAW image (middle) and JPG image (right) is then dropped by 2 stops.
RAW images are able to retain more accurate detail when correcting exposure.
Which focusing mode should I use?
There are generally 3 focusing modes in most DSLR cameras, Manual Focus (M), Single Focus (Canon : One Shot, Nikon : AF-S) or Continous Focus (Canon : AI Servo, Nikon : AF-C). For Manual focusing, all focusing is done manually by turning the focusing ring on the lens by hand. This is used in some cases where you have a stationary object and shooting with a tripod (like close ups) where you want to have more precise control of what you want in focus. For Single Focus, typically most cameras will focus on the center first, which may not necessarily be your point of focus, so the Single Focus mode allows you to lock you focus point anywhere in the image before you recompose your shot and take the picture. This is probably one of the most common focusing modes to shoot in, whether you are shooting portraits, landscapes, objects, etc. The Continuous Focus mode on the other hand constantly changes focus once you have looked on to a subject. If your subject moves closer or further away from you, the camera automatically changes focus accordingly, tracking the subject. This mode is used when you're shooting a subject that tends to move around a lot.
Your camera probably has multiple focusing point as well, which may be useful in some cases, but it gets annoying when you are wanting to focus at one point, but the camera focuses instead at a different spot for you. With that, I generally just use one focus point, which is dead center. That way I can focus lock on a precise spot and recompose my shot again.
Which white balance mode should I use?
In most cases, the Auto White Balance works just fine. You can experiment with different WB modes (eg. daylight, tungsten, fluorescent, etc) and it may work better for you, just don't forget to switch it back if you are shooting a different scene. For more precise control, use the Custom White Balance mode for more accurate white balance. Do consult your camera manual on how to use that.
White Balance is set to Auto (left), Flash (middle) & Tungsten (right)
Composition is the art of how your frame your image and what angles to shoot from. You may have the best camera equipment in the world, but if your image composition is poor, you'll still end up with a bad picture. Composition is more of an art than science, but there are several basic principles which you can follow to help you get started. Do note that sometimes these rules can be broken, so its not sealed in stone. Experiment with different framing and angles of a single subject or scene and ask several of your non-photography friend's opinion about it, you'll probably get a good idea then what works and what doesn't. Ok, here are the basics:
The Principle of Thirds
This is by far the most basic principle which would instantly get you good results almost immediately. It's basically dividing your frame into thirds vertically and horizontally, like a tic-tac-toe grid. Take note of the 4 intersection points of the grid. Next, you need to determine what is your focus point in the image (typically there should only be one). By placing your focus point on 1 of the 4 intersection points, you would usually improve on your composition immediately. If that doesn't work too well, for example, a large group of people (hence your focus point is fairly large), try placing the the focus point (in the case, the head level) on 1/3 level of the picture frame down. This can apply to horizons as well. Also, if you shooting a single person looking sideways, it's a good idea that after you place him 1/3 into the picture, he should be looking into the remaining 2/3 of the frame, rather than looking outwards towards the edge of the frame. This principle applies not only to photography but to movies as well. Next time you watch TV or go to the movies, see how they apply this principle to film
Apart from dividing your frame into thirds, you can also cut the frame into half diagonally. Next, draw a line from the other corner and where it cuts the first line perpendicularly is where your focus point should be. This is called dynamic symmetry where your framing is an angle to your subject thus creating more depth, but yet you still have a focus point.
This is a little opposite to Dynamic Symmetry described above. Instead of having your picture drawn out to your viewer at an angle, you are now drawing your viewer into your image by mapping out virtual lines (such as roads, lights, etc) to a vanishing point in your image.
Keep your image simple as far as possible. If your scene is too cluttered, your viewer might get lost on what to focus on. Make sure you keep distracting elements out of the frame as well. If you can't, you can cheat a little by using Photoshop to remove them.
Most people shoot standing up with the camera at eye level, which is the most common perspective. To make your photos look more interesting, present your viewer an alernative point of view by shooting at a low angle or at a high angle. When shooting small animals, getting down low to the same eye level as them usually creates a more personable image.
Shooting low, high & eye level angles.
Wide Angles & Telephoto
Taking a wide angle shot or using a telephoto creates a different look and feel to your image. Wide angles generally work best for landscapes, but sometimes zooming in on a particular part of the scene creates an undistorted view of the landscape as well. Shooting human portraits is best taken from 50mm or higher. Shooting too wide and your subject will look distorted. Shooting too high would also make your subject look short and shooting low would make your subject look larger than life (which is sometimes good), but it would make their bottom look heavy as well. Generally, if you don't want to have any wide angle distortion, shooting at 50mm at least works well as it is quite close to the angle of what our own eyes see.
Shooting the same image at wide angle & zoomed in can give different perspectives.
Frame within a Frame
Another way to draw the attention to your subject is to find a natural or man-made frame within the scene. It could be a doorway, an overhanging branch or even shadows. It's really up to your imagination and creativity.
Now your have shot your photos and maybe you think they could be a little better. Well, there are plenty of photo editing software you can choose from. The most famous, of course, is Adobe Photoshop. It's a professional level software which can be very expensive. Otherwise, you could consider the entry level version Adobe Photoshop Elements which should be more than sufficient for most people's needs. However, I personally like to use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. It is primarily a photo cataloging software, that can help you organize the thousands and thousands of photos you have taken. However, it also has a power set of photo-editing tools. The best part is that the edits are 'non-destructive', so your originals stay intact - in case you decide to change your mind on how your edit should be later. You can also make multiple 'virtual copies' of each photo so you can try out different edit settings. And you can also save these edit settings and apply them across multiple photos. It also has a whole bunch of other features... too many to mention here. Almost all my photos are edited using only Lightroom... in fact, I personally feel that Lightroom is more useful than Photoshop particularly for Photographers, as it is much more than a photo-editing tool. You can check out www.adobe.com for more details. They usually have Trial Downloads for you to try it out first. However, if you are on a budget, there are also plenty of free software you can try (check out www.download.com).
Nevertheless, as I mentioned in the Composition section, you want to make it a habit to get it right, as far as possible, the moment you press that shutter. Don't rely too much on Photoshop cos it really is a lot more work compared to spending a couple more seconds thinking about getting the shot correct, before snapping away. You will also lose photo quality the more you edit over your photos.
Anyway, Photo editing is almost an essential part of the digital photography workflow nowadays and it can be considered an art in itself. Also, different photo editing software have different sets of tools and they sometimes call these tools by different names, so I can't describe every single one here. You can always Google it for exact instructions (eg. 'how to adjust exposure in photoshop'). YouTube usually has plenty of tips specific to the software you are using, so you can try searching there as well. What I'm describing here are more photo editing 'ideas' rather than specific techniques you can use when you start editing your photos....
It's best to practice your composition skills at the point when you take your picture. However, all is not lost if you realize it could have been better. You can always crop your images in Photoshop to recompose your image once you have put more thought into it. At times I've changed a portrait-oriented image and cropped it down to a landscape-oriented one. It's not a good practice though since you lose a lot of the image resolution by doing so, so like I said, try to get it right the first time when you press that shutter. It will save you a lot of time in post-edit as well. And one more thing, watch out for that horizon... a tilted horizon doesn't look good unless it is intentionally tilted to give a more dramatic look.
Cropping the image on the left and leveling the horizon
Exposure and Tone Curves
Sometimes if you find that your image is under exposed or over exposed, you can still make adjustments in Photoshop. If your photo editing software has an Exposure level to adjust, you can try using that first. However, over exposed photos are usually harder to recover because you've more than likely lost some highlight details (white out). So if you think you can't get the exposure right while taking the shot (perhaps its a sunny day and you can't see your LCD very well to review the image in-camera), it's better to underexpose the shot than to overexpose it.
Another way is to adjust the brightness and contrast (which should be self-explanatory), however, I generally prefer to adjust the Tone Curve instead as it makes the adjustments more evenly across the whole image. You can see the examples below :
Fig. 1 - Here is the unedited image where the Tone Curve is just straight diagonally.
Fig. 2 - By shifting the Curve upwards, you can see the image becomes a little brighter.
Likewise, if you shift it downwards, it gets a little darker.
Fig. 3 - By adding a second adjustment point on the curve and creating an 'S' curve, you'll add a little more contrast to the image.
If your shot didn't turn out as sharp as you would like, you can try sharpening it a little. But don't expect an out of focus shot to get into focus magically with this tool. And don't go all crazy with the Sharpening tools as well, otherwise, your image will look very fake. You can see in the 3rd example below where it has been over sharpened. Not only do you see a lot of unnatural artifacts, but the most common tell-tale sign is the 'halo' effect around the dark edges.
Left : Unsharpened photo, Middle : Sharpened photo. Right : Over Sharpened photo
Black & White Conversion
Some shots just look better in Black & White than in colour. I personally feel that B&W shots capture the essence of the image without the distraction of colour. Although cameras nowadays allow you to capture images in B&W straightaway, I generally shoot everything in colour and decide later if the image would look better in B&W and convert them in post-edit. If you shoot in B&W in the camera, there's no way you can get it back in colour later. The simplest way to convert to B&W is to convert the image to Greyscale. However, there also very complicated ways to convert as well if you really want to control how the image turns out. The are books published just on this topic alone. However, here are some ideas when some images are best converted to B&W from Colour :
Before & After Vignetting
A cable line in the original image (left) was cloned out in the final image (right)
How to make a Sequence Collage
If you are keen on learning how to do one of these collages, check out that dedicated tips page HERE.
Thanks for looking through my tips. I hope you found it useful.
If you did, do leave a note in my Guestbook.