General Photography Tips & Tricks

The Fall Quarter is upon us here at YWAM Orlando, and students have just started their Discipleship Training School and Media Elective.  As we begin a season with a fresh focus on creativity and visual media, we thought it would be fun to put together a list of some practical photography tips and tricks to help you take better photos at home and on mission. Let’s dive in.

DO'S

1. DO Practice

It probably goes without saying: photography is an art.  And every good artist takes time to hone his craft. It’s easy to look at the work of many photographers on Instagram and chalk up all of their beautiful images to “natural talent,” but the truth is that all of those photographers were once beginners.  As a new photographer, you can expect to take hundreds of exposures to produce just a few that you like.  This makes sense, after all when you consider that other artists - let’s say, painters or dancers - must spend many, many hours developing technique before they’re ready to perform.

Here are two exercises that I have found helpful in developing my own abilities.

1) Identify one aspect of photography that you want to improve, and practice that specific skill on a few shoots.  Do you want to better understand the effects of shutter speed? Practice using different shutter speeds. What about becoming a master of lighting?  Be intentional about shooting in different lighting conditions, and observe how those conditions make your subjects look.

2) Find a photographer whose work you like, and emulate them for a few shoots.  To clarify, this isn’t the same as copying a photographer. Try instead to identify what it is about the photographer’s work that you admire, and incorporate that into your images.  Does the photographer create moody and dramatic landscapes? Practice shooting landscapes. You may need to go out different times of day and in different kinds of weather. Are they publishing breathtaking portraits?  Grab a few friends and practice your portrait and posing skills.

Remember, the purpose of these exercises isn’t necessarily to take photos you love, but to spend time practicing the skills that will help you create the images you imagine.

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"There are plenty of resources available that make learning to shoot in manual more accessible than ever, including the Media Elective here at Youth with a Mission Orlando."

2. DO Learn to shoot in manual

One of the most appealing things about digital photography is how accessible and instant it is.  Anyone can pick up a camera, point, and press the shutter. However, shooting in full auto leaves a lot on the table in terms of creativity and quality. Your camera and lens are powerful tools that allow you to paint many different kinds of strokes - why miss out on this variety by letting the camera decide what to do for you?  Full auto is designed to take a well-exposed photo under normal conditions and, more often than not, your camera will not choose the settings that will create the pictures you’re imagining.

Shooting in manual, however, gives us full creative power over our shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, and these three tools are the foundation of every photograph. If your main camera is a cell phone or a point and shoot, take courage: most cell phones come with a manual or “professional mode” now.  While these modes don’t give you the exact freedom of a DSLR, they still allow you to control many of the details.

There are plenty of resources available that make learning to shoot in manual more accessible than ever, including the Media Elective here at Youth with a Mission Orlando.  Learning to shoot in manual will take work and plenty of practice, but it’s well worth the effort.

3. DO Pay attention to the Light

Photography has everything to do with light.  Without light, after all, we wouldn’t have any color, shape, or form to photograph in the first place.  And in terms of photography, not all light is created equal. Light has the ability to make your images look soft and moody, or vibrant and energetic; it can smooth rough edges and create harsh lines.  Generally speaking, intense light from tiny sources tends to create dramatic shadows, and soft light from large sources creates soft and smooth shadows. Have you ever noticed that photos taken on sunny days look very different than on overcast days?  You may have even noticed that people generally look better in photos taken on days when the sun is hidden behind some clouds. Photographers are very well aware of how light impacts their photos, and they use light to their advantage. Some may shy away from photography on rainy days, but portrait photographers know that an overcast sky produces some of the most flattering light for photos of people.  Others enjoy the challenge of photography on bright, sunny days, and are able to produce unique and dramatic results. The best start to your journey of light mastery is to begin observing how light affects the appearance of things throughout your day, and to keep shooting in a variety of lighting conditions. Pay attention, take good notes, and really study your results. When it comes to light, practice really does make perfect.

4. DO Learn how to edit your photos properly

Generally, a good photographer aims to do as much work in the camera as possible.  It’s usually much faster to fix mistakes while you’re shooting than it is to fix them in post.  But even the best images usually benefit from a bit of post-production, and learning to edit your photos well will help you to produce more consistent results, while expanding your creative toolset.   Digital cameras tend to produce images that appear flat - that is, lacking contrast -  and often feel a bit lifeless. Because of this, a good place to begin is with some gentle exposure and contrast adjustments, followed by a little bit of sharpening. The tone curve is a powerful tool that is supported by all professional editing software and is featured in many apps. By manipulating the tone curve into an “S” shape, you can fine-tune the look of the contrast you’re adding to your images.  This is an easy way to add a pop to many images that would otherwise appear dull and lifeless.

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Most photos will benefit from at least a little editing.  Images on the left are out-of-camera. On the right are those images after post-processing. ]

5. DO Zoom with your feet

Did you know that the zoom ring on your lens often isn’t the best way to “fill the frame” with your subject?  It’s true! You can zoom with your feet.  I’ve witnessed many amateur photographers use their zoom lenses to get closer to their subjects when a good deal of space is left untraversed by their feet.  Generally, we want to make sure our photograph is filled with only content that matters, and moving closer to your subject often makes this easier. It also creates much more intimacy and a feeling of closeness in the final image.  That’s not to say that your zoom lens should be left at home; it is an important tool that allows the photographer to change his or her perspective through field of view, and a way to add compression to an image. This is a helpful tool when used properly, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to never move your feet.

DON'TS

1. DON'T be afraid to try new things

Photography is an an art and a learned skill and the best photographers never stop learning.  To keep growing as an artist, and to keep your photography from growing stale, don’t be afraid to try new things.  If you normally photograph landscapes, try some portrait or street photography. If you’re normally glued to your telephoto lens when you do portraits, practice using a wide angle.  Try shooting from new positions - get up high and photograph your subject from above; get closer to your subject or try shooting from farther away. Try adding new kinds of poses to your portrait photography.  As you become comfortable trying new things you’ll discover a lot of things that don’t work for you, but you’ll also find things that do.  You’ll begin to develop new ideas, creating on the fly will become second-nature, and you’ll become a much more well-rounded photographer.

"Remember, traveling to new locations can be inspiring and effective at stirring up our creativity, but if we limit ourselves by believing that our creativity is bound to our geography, then we can no longer expect to improve or advance our abilities."

2. DON'T suffer from location envy

Location Envy: feeling discouraged and unmotivated because the places we live and shoot aren’t as beautiful as what we see on the Internet.  
Social media is a powerful tool that connects us with artists that inspire us.  However, if we fall into the trap of comparing our own work to that of what we see online, we can quickly become discouraged.  Millions of beautiful travel photos are uploaded to Instagram every day - photos taken in beautiful and exotic locations. Some of our favorite photos are portraits of fashionable people hiking lonely trails along misty, emerald mountains, and sunset-selfies on the sandy shores of remote islands.  We can begin to think that, if I only we were there, then we too could produce beautiful photographs.

The fact is, this couldn’t be further from the truth; and the longer we sit around wishing we were someplace beautiful, the less time we spend discovering and photographing the beauty in our own backyards.  The places most familiar to us can sometimes leave us feeling bored or unmotivated - like we’ve seen it all, and there’s nothing new to shoot. What’s the cure for this kind of creative slump? Try to look for some fresh perspective.  Identify what you love most about where you live and try to capture that in your photography.  Have eyes for the changing seasons. Look closely for details you may have never noticed. In addition to the international artists you follow online, look to the work of local artists for inspiration.  Explore! Find areas local to you that you’ve never been. I can almost guarantee that you haven’t exhausted all the resources within even a mile of your home.

Remember, traveling to new locations can be inspiring and effective at stirring up our creativity, but if we limit ourselves by believing that our creativity is bound to our geography, then we can no longer expect to improve or advance our abilities.

3. DON'T rush to upgrade your equipment

Here’s an old saying: The best camera in the world is the one you have with you.  I would add to that, the one you have with you and KNOW how to use.  

There is a temptation to think that in order to improve our photography, all we need is something better: a better camera, a better lens, or maybe a better computer for editing.  But the truth is, most of us can improve our photography dramatically just using the equipment we have. You may be eager to upgrade the hand-me-down entry-level DSLR that your Uncle Bill gave you when he got a new camera, but if you don’t know how to shoot in manual mode then your photography probably has a lot of room for improvement before you shell out cash for new gear.  In fact, you may not even know enough yet to decide exactly what new equipment to purchase. If you’re thinking about upgrading, consider whether you still have a lot to learn from what you already own. When you can identify exactly how your equipment is holding you back from creating the kind of work that you’re imagining, then you’re probably ready for an upgrade.

The best camera is the one you have with you.  Here are a few pictures from a series I took at a concert using my cell phone. ]

4. DON'T stand still

Here’s a super simple and effective hack for adding variety to your photography.  Move around!   Photographers should always be looking for new perspective, and the best perspective is almost never at eye-level.  Try changing your height to dramatically alter the feel of your photos. Get low to emphasize the height and drama of your subject.  Photograph from above to make your subjects appear smaller or more approachable. Try photographing your subject from different angles, and look for the best foreground to incorporate into your images.  This is super helpful at developing your ability to visualize your subject from different angles, and it will certainly help to unlock more of your creative potential.

5. DON'T hide behind the camera

Let’s face it.  If you’re a photographer, you love to be behind the camera - as you should - but it’s important to not let your camera become a barrier from participation.   It can be super easy to miss out on incredible opportunities and interactions because we are so focused on capturing the moment.

As Christians and missionaries, we are called to make disciples, and while we certainly can use our art as a vehicle for discipleship, sometimes God will call us to get in there and engage the lost with a more hands-on approach.  How does this benefit my photography, you may ask?  Simple. As you engage personally with those around you, you’ll gather fresh perspective and inspiration for when you get back behind the camera, and you’ll often find that these personal interactions lead to more shooting opportunities.  It can also be valuable to allow others to photograph you.  As you observe other photographers in action, and you assess how they communicate with and position you, it can inform and influence your own photography.

That’s all for now!  Stay tuned for more tips and tricks.  We will soon be releasing Portrait Photography Dos and Don’ts and Travel Photography Dos and Don’ts.  

Questions?

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Written By:

Thomas Rutt | YWAM Orlando Staff