Five tips to improve your photography overnight

St Mary's Lighthouse, Whitley Bay.

St Mary's Lighthouse, Whitley Bay.

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So you’ve splashed out on a fancy DSLR camera and that means you’ll be able to take spectacular photos straight away, right?

Well no, it doesn’t quite work like that. You’re going to have to put in a bit of work first. The most expensive camera in the world won’t help you if you don’t know how to use it or how to take a photograph.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam.

Here are five tips that will help beginners improve their photography overnight.

1: Learn how to use your camera

Your camera has arrived from Amazon and you’re eager to get out there and start snapping, but before you step out of the door take some time to read the user manual. This might seem obvious, but so many people don’t bother then blame the camera when they get disappointing results.

You might get some nice photos with the automatic settings but if you want to unleash the full power of your camera you’re going to need to know what all the different buttons do (they’re there for a reason). One day the automatic settings aren’t going to give you what you want and you’ll need to know how to do it yourself. If the user manual that came with your camera looks a bit daunting there are books specifically written for most camera models which are a bit easier to understand (look on Amazon when you’re buying your camera).

If you’re going away on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, don’t buy a new camera the day before you fly. Buy one well in advance so you can get to know it inside out before you find yourself in an exotic location with nobody to help you. If Kim and Kanye come galloping down the beach on a unicorn you don’t want to miss the shot because you’re messing about with the settings. If you’re not willing to spend a bit of time learning how to use a DSLR, you’ll be better off buying a basic point-and-shoot camera.

2: Learn some photography basics

At its most basic a photo is made by letting light into the camera, so you need to know how to control that light - too much and it’ll be too bright (overexposed), not enough and it’ll be too dark (underexposed). The three main ways to do this are: how long the shutter stays open (shutter speed), how wide the aperture is (F number) and how sensitive the sensor in the camera is (ISO). Depending on the type of photo you want to end up with, you must take into account these three settings as changing any of them will affect the way your image will look.

For example, if you want to capture Kim and Kanye galloping down the beach on a unicorn, the unicorn will be going pretty quickly so you’ll need a fast shutter speed (if not, the photo will be blurred). That will mean less light hits the sensor so you could make the aperture bigger or the sensor more sensitive to get the right exposure. These settings also alter things like depth of field and how grainy the photo will look, so you need to keep that in mind as well.

All of this might sound a bit complicated, but once you understand it, it’ll be become second nature. Thankfully, there are plenty of cheat sheets out there on the internet to help (search for “photography cheat sheet”). Print one of these out and put it in your camera bag when you go out. Experiment with different settings and see what happens. If your photo is blurred or overexposed, think about how you will make it right and adjust the settings accordingly.

3: Learn about composition

You should always give some thought to your composition before you press the shutter button. Are you in the best position for taking a photo of your subject? Would it look more interesting from another angle? You might have to get down on the ground or find a higher vantage point to get the best results. If you’re photographing something in the distance, try to find something interesting in the foreground to make a more aesthetically pleasing image, or look for leading lines that will draw the viewer’s eye to the subject.

When you’re taking a photo of something it might seem natural to put the subject right in the middle of the frame, but this can make for a boring image. This is where the rule of thirds comes in. The rule of thirds is a composition principle that results in a more interesting, balanced image.

The basic idea behind the rule is to imagine your image divided into thirds, horizontally and vertically, so that you have a grid of 9 squares. The theory suggests that you should place the most important part of your image at one of the intersections of the grid. The human eye is usually drawn to these parts of the grid, which makes for a more natural way of viewing an image. Search for “rule of thirds” on the internet to see some examples. It’s really simple to understand once you’ve seen it and you’ll start to notice it being used in photographs, films and paintings all the time. (This tip works just as well on an iPhone camera - use it!)

4: When to take a photo

If you’re going to be taking photos outdoors with natural light, you need to know the best time of day for optimal results. The time shortly after sunrise and shortly before sunset is known as the golden hour and it often produces the best light for aesthetically pleasing photos. This is because the low sun gives a softer, warmer light which produces less harsh shadows and better exposure compared to the bright overhead sun in the middle of the day (Having said that, if Kim and Kanye come galloping down the beach on a unicorn in the blazing noon-day sun, get your camera out, because a once-in-a-lifetime shot is more important than perfect lighting).

Of course, here in the North East we get more than our share of grim, miserable days so we have to take what we can get as far as beautiful sunlight is concerned, but don’t let that put you off. With a little bit of thought and know-how you can produce great photos in most types of weather. Another important aspect of light is knowing about your camera’s white balance setting. Different lighting conditions can dramatically alter how your photo will look, especially different types of electric lights. Most cameras will automatically take care of white balance very well, but you need to know about it in case the camera ever gets it wrong.

5. Keep learning

If you follow the above tips you should see an improvement in your photography quite quickly, but there’s still so much to learn. The good thing is, there’s never been an easier time to do just that. There’s a world of wisdom out there in books, magazines and on the internet and there are even photography apps so you can take the knowledge with you on your phone. If you’re having a problem understanding an aspect of photography, somebody out there will have made a YouTube video or website that answers your questions.

Study the work of the great photographers and consider joining an image sharing website like Flickr where you can share your photos and see the work of others. You can often see the camera settings the photographer used on sites like these, so if you like a photograph, you can usually see exactly how it was achieved. The main thing is to just keep taking photos - the more you do it, the better you’ll become!

Note: These tips are intended for those who want to enjoy photography as a hobby or pastime. Being able to take nice photos doesn’t mean you’re ready to start shooting weddings for money. If you want to be photographer for a living, sign up for some professional training, otherwise you could be exposed as a fauxtographer (www.youarenotaphotographer.com)