Want to be a Better Photographer? Do These Four Things

  • By Naomi Harreman
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Let’s face it – becoming an improved photographer is hard work! But boy, is all that work worth it when you start to realize your dreams of taking really good photos. There are many ways to improve the photos you take, but the best one is to simply practice and practice a lot. Sometimes it’s confusing to know what to practice, or it’s at least hard to decide between all the things you can practice. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of four things to do each and every day with your camera that will help you see better results.

Shoot With a Prime Lens

There are a ton of advantages of shooting with a prime, among them greater low-light shooting capability and sharper images than what is usually achievable with a zoom lens. But when it comes to improving the quality of your photos from a compositional standpoint, a prime lens is an excellent tool because of its fixed focal length. That means that unlike shooting with your camera’s kit zoom lens with which you can change the focal length with a simple turn of the zoom ring, a prime lens forces you to “zoom with your feet.” Think of a prime lens as a tool that makes you slow down, take a little more time with each shot, and focus more purposefully on composition and framing. In other words, you will interact with the subject more with a prime lens because you’re constantly moving nearer and further away, and moving left and right and up and down to find the best shot. That, in turn, will help you develop a better creative eye that will help you compose much-improved photos.

Learn How to Meter

As sophisticated as today’s cameras are, they will never match the sophistication of our own eyes to judge light values. Given that, it’s important to learn how to take control of metering for situations in which the lighting is difficult and gives your camera fits. Usually, cameras default to an all-purpose mode that assesses the light throughout the entire shot and comes up with an average for getting a solid exposure. In many cases, this works fine.

However, when the scene is very bright or very dark, this type of metering, which is usually called matrix or evaluative metering, can easily be fooled into underexposing or overexposing the shot. In a nutshell, spot metering takes a light reading from a very small and specific area of the scene that’s determined by you. That means that if you’re taking a portrait that’s backlit, you can meter off your subject so they are well-exposed rather than relying on matrix metering, which would likely render the subject nearly or completely dark due to the bright background.

What’s more, the more control you take away from the camera, the more you control the outcome of your photos, and that’s a good thing! You’ll also develop a better understanding of light and dynamic range and how to get around difficulties that light presents to your camera.

Learn How to Use the Histogram

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You take a photo, and to check to see the quality of the light in the shot, you look at it on your camera’s LCD. It looks fine, so you pack up, go home, and download the images to your computer, where, to your dismay, the very photos that looked fine on your camera’s LCD are now too bright or too dark. It happens all too often, and that’s because some photographers don’t use the best tool at their disposal for determining the quality of the exposure – the histogram.

Though the LCD is convenient, it isn’t an accurate representation of the actual brightness or darkness of the image. That’s due in part to the fact that you can adjust the brightness of the LCD, which will give you a false impression of the exposure of the image. A much better way to evaluate the exposure of your images is to use the camera’s histogram, which you can learn how to do in the video above from PHLEARN. Basically, a histogram is a graph that shows all the light values in the image, from pure black on the left to pure white on the right, with midtone grays represented in the middle.

The higher the peaks of the histogram, the more pixels there are with that particular light level. That means that if an image has a lot of very bright areas, the histogram will skew to the right; if there’s a lot of dark areas, it will skew to the left. But this isn’t ideal from an exposure standpoint. Instead, you want a display that adheres to a normal curve, with a peak in the middle of the graph. So, not only does the histogram give you much more accurate information about the light and dark values in your photos, but it also helps you understand exposure. With one look at the histogram, you can immediately see if the shot is overexposed or underexposed.

That, in turn, informs you of how to rectify the problem, like choosing a faster shutter speed to correct overexposure or choosing a larger aperture to correct underexposure.

Shoot Every Single Day

The simplest trick you can use to become a better photographer is to take photos every single day. Now, this doesn’t mean you need to do a full-on portrait shoot with models and light stands and umbrellas and so forth (although, how fun would that be?). Instead, just challenge yourself to take 5, 10, or 20 photos – whatever you can muster – of scenes and people that you encounter over the course of the day. This will help you in two distinct ways.

First, shooting every day helps you develop your creative eye. Try to shoot something different each day. Or, try shooting the same subject in a different way each day. Find ways to be more unique. Search for ways to create unexpected results. Expand your horizons by trying different types of photography – macro, panoramas, black and white, and so on. Second, shooting each day gives you a chance to consistently work with your gear, which will only help you learn how to use it for the best photos. Being an everyday shooter means that you’ll become adept at metering on your own, using the histogram, and becoming a pro with your prime lens, too.

But go beyond just shooting every day and find ways to get feedback on the images you create as well. Whether that’s tweeting your photos, posting them to Facebook or Instagram, or starting a Flickr account, putting your images on social media gives you a virtually endless audience to give you feedback on your photos. If you want more thorough feedback, try uploading your images to places like the PhotographyTalk galleries or forums where other photographers can give you more technical feedback than a casual social media user can do. The point is that as tired as the adage that “practice makes perfect” might be, it’s still very true!

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