Beginner Photography Tips

I’m still an amateur when it comes to photography, but I’ve been asked several times to come up with some beginner tips. I recently wrote a lengthy email to a friend that I decided to adapt to a blog post.

It’s by no means comprehensive or complete, but it contains a lot of the more important things I’ve had to consciously focus on over the past year of shooting. I hope you find it helpful.


The first thing I’d suggest to any new photographers is to check out photography sites.

Flickr is great for seeing other photos and getting inspiration. I really like Photo Tuts+ for tutorials and articles about photography. The “Basix” section especially is full of helpful hints. You can learn about the mechanics of your camera, different lenses, everything.

You can find it here.

My main advice would be about the same things every amateur photographer has to work on. It’s the stuff I’m always trying to improve too.

Composition

A lot of beginner’s shots have the subject at the center, or center-bottom of the frame. Try experimenting with the “rule of thirds” and golden ratio proportions for more interesting shots. It’s harder to nail down the whole 1:1.6 of the golden ratio, so try rule of thirds at first.

That means put the focus of the shot at one of the intersections of an imaginary “thirds” grid.

Like this:

Using the “rule of thirds” helps create more interesting compositions. It’s not a real rule, obviously it doesn’t work in all situations. Sometimes putting the focus of the shot in the dead center, or at an extreme edge, is more powerful. But it’s useful to experiment with these different approaches to composing. Eventually you’ll end up with a good instinct for where to put the focus.

Here is an example of shot that is divided up into sections that conform to the golden ratio:

None of these rules or guides will make a picture “right.” But a lot of times they can increase the beauty of an already good shot. Human brains pick up on symmetry and proportion; we find it beautiful.

You’re already doing this to some degree unconsciously, the idea is to practice it with intention. Take a look at this one, you totally nailed rule of thirds here:

Practicing “conscious composition” will also improve your shots being level. A lot of times a shot can be made better just by having more horizontal or vertical lines. Slightly “off” lines look weird. It’ll also help you know when you don’t want level lines. Then you can twist your camera to make an intentionally “off” shot. These shots can be fascinating, but a lot of photographers use them as a crutch. So don’t abuse it, haha.

Here is an example of a pretty “level” shot. And below it, is the “twisted” look. Sorry, I don’t know the technical names for these two things.

Alright, enough about composition.

Contrast

This is a huge topic. You can create contrast with lighting, colors, action, expression, texture, theme, and just about everything. The point, like the above section, is to consciously create and highlight contrast when you can. The best way to improve this is to look at other photographer’s work and see how they do it.

Here are a couple examples:

This one is obvious. There is a perfect line of lighting contrast down Stephen’s face. It’s great, I got really lucky when I snapped this.

The above one has some good contrast between dark and light, but it also has a great texture contrast. You might need to see the full version to really get it, but the super smooth shininess of the windows perfectly contrasts the rough and ragged frames.

Anyway, there are far better examples of this from professional photographers. Check out how they play with contrast and practice identifying all the contrasting factors that you can work into a shot.

Focus

I’m going to focus on the more practical side of this. Focus can play into composing and creating contrast, but the technical side of getting good, crisp images can be frustrating.

Here are my major tips:

  • Use the center focus point on the camera. Your camera probably has a bunch of different focus points that it’ll automatically use or you can manually pick. Manually set the center focus point to be used. The camera is better at using the center point than the others, so you’ll be less likely to have mysteriously out-of-focus shots. Use it even if the “focal point” isn’t going to be in the center of the shot. Practice focusing with the center point, then recomposing so the focal point is where you want it to be. Be careful, if you move or rotate too much, you’ll have to re-focus, then re-compose over and over.

  • Focus on lines of contrast. The camera is better at getting the image crisply in focus if you put the point on a line of horizontal or vertical contrast. If, for example, you’re focusing on someone’s face, put the focal point on the line of contrast between the white of their eye and their skin. Not out in no-mans-land on their cheek.

  • Play with your F-stop setting so you know how much of the subject is going to be in focus. F-stop will adjust the depth of field, so it’ll determine if the background is blurred out while the subject is in focus, or if the entire scene will be in focus. Higher F-stop means more of the shot will be in focus which means a longer shutter speed. You’ll have to be mindful of factors like shutter speed and lighting or you’ll end up with blurry shots for other reasons.

Shoot All The Time

This, combined with being conscious about how you want to improve, will make you an awesome photographer. It’s the one thing I always kick myself for, I just don’t shoot enough. If you keep going out and taking 800 shots a weekend, you’ll be amazing in no time.

Be mindful of specific techniques, like the ones above, be mindful of other photographers’ work, and just shoot, shoot, shoot.

Somewhat related: Don’t delete your shots unless you have to. If you can afford an external hard drive, buy one, and just load it up with all of your images you take. Even the ones you never edit or post online. Save everything.

Photoshop

I can talk about this forever. I’ve always said I’m a better Photoshopper than photographer. And it’s probably true. Photoshop will help you crop and re-compose your shots. It’ll help you adjust color and lighting to change the contrast. It’s a great tool that you should learn to use. I’m planning on writing a post about my photo development process, so I won’t go into specifics here.

Just get Photoshop and play with it a lot. It can’t do everything. It won’t make a blurry shot clear. And it won’t make a bad shot good. It’s no substitute for being able to compose and frame and create contrast while you’re shooting, but it’s an essential tool to have in your belt.

Conclusion

I think that’s it for now. I know this is long. I hope it was helpful. It is by no means a “complete guide.” Almost everything I said can be expanded on in far more depth. Articles online will help a lot.

Here’s two off the top of my head that are great.

A general one on design and what the human mind finds beautiful:

http://designinformer.com/2010/designing-mind/

A very photography-specific one on focus:

http://photo.tutsplus.com/tutorials/shooting/achieving-better-focus-and-sharpness-in-your-images/

Anyway, good luck. I look forward to seeing more of your shots. And if anyone has any feedback on this, I’d be happy to hear it.