1. Ditch the Phone
They're great for point & shoot. They're great for learning composition. They're convenient. But they're a little too convenient. Most phone cameras are 100% automatic. Manual cameras and decent lenses enable us to make creative decisions that shape the final look of a photograph. Phones attempt to mimic the results with Studio Mode and Portrait Mode, but they're useless 80% of the time. And even when the technology improves, it still won't measure up to real photographic technique. We’ve all heard “it’s not the gear, it’s the photographer.” Half true. For the most part, people just like saying that. Whole truth: good gear won't make shitty photographers better, but good gear enables skilled photographers to create better images. Phones are no replacement for a good entry-level or professional camera. Think of it like this: Olympians are amazing athletes. With the right gear, they can perform at full potential. Put lumberjack boots on everybody, and see how it plays out. Photography isn't any different. Nice gear doesn’t make us better, but crap gear can hold us back. Get a decent camera with a good lens. And don't break the bank to do it. One of my favorite cameras is the Fuji x-t20. It's about $1K and comes with a great lens.
2. Lens, baby!
Image quality is much more about your lens than your camera. Both are important, but the camera is just a box that records the image a lens creates. Some cameras do a better job than others, but the style and quality start with the glass. When people refer to photos with “that professional look”, it's almost always the result of a quality lens. Having a nice one can improve picture clarity, contrast, detail, and even color accuracy.
3. Rule of Thirds
Some people call it the "never center" rule. I call BS on that. Centered photos can be great. But get it right. Don't kind-of center it. Center it or don't. If you don't, Rule of Thirds can help. Imagine a Tic Tac Toe grid on your image. Try placing important things on the lines, especially where the lines intersect. It's called the rule of thirds, but I say it's just one of many ways to compose an image. In this video, National Geographic photographer, Steve McCurry, briefly demonstrates the rule of thirds and several more interesting ways to bring an image to life:
4. Clean up the Background
Excessive detail in the background is distracting. It pulls attention away from the subject. Sometimes the subject and background can even blend together into some stank dumpster fire nobody wants to look at. It's nervous and nasty. Random objects can also trash your photo. Think of common things like power poles, trash cans, loose garbage, traffic signs, etc. Avoid junk. I like to place people in front of blank walls, empty areas and wide open landscapes to get a clean image that puts all the focus on the person.
5. Easy Tiger
Enough with the over-editing! It screams newbie. Just because the saturation slider goes to 100, doesn’t mean it should. Heavy contrast and saturated colors can't make a boring photo interesting. When professional photographers refer to editing photos, they mean choosing keepers, color correction, and basic adjustments. There’s nothing wrong with adding a little style or learning the possibilities of your software. Have fun. Experiment. Just be honest with yourself. If it looks like a pile of neon-laced, cosmic crap, don’t share it. You wouldn’t walk the streets in a clown suit and pants around your ankles. So don’t send your photos out into the world looking like a clown with pants around its ankles. Nobody wants it.
6. University of YouTube
In college, I learned how to use a camera, run a darkroom, and take pictures that don’t suck. I loved every minute of it. But! Literally everything else I know about photography came from YouTube. Use it.
7. Steal It
Get on Pinterest. If you don’t have an account, get one. Create a new board called “Photo Ideas”. You can make the board private if you don’t want people sneaking a peak of the learning process. Fill this board with pictures that make you want to learn photography - photos that inspire you to get out and shoot. Add to it a few time every week. As the board grows, pay attention to everything the photos have in common. What themes or characteristics do they share? What draws you to certain pictures? Figuring out what to shoot can be tough. Steal ideas from the board. Learn what kind of images you like to make. You’ll be coming up with original ideas before you know it. Even I do it:
8. Shoot RAW
In your camera menu, switch your image quality from jpg to RAW. With RAW files, you can edit without demolishing the image quality. The RAW file is like a bucket of information that can be moved and changed. A jpg is a finished product. If you try to adjust a jpg in software, you’ll find that the image quality goes down the toilet with a quickness. It's like food. You can do a lot with a bucket of fresh ingredients. What you can’t do is make an omelet after you scrambled all your eggs. Don’t scramble your photos. Shoot RAW. If you’ve been editing jpg photos this whole time, this blog just changed your life.
9. Whip Up Some Old Fashion Brutal Honesty
As an up & comer, one of the most important things you can possibly do is have your work critiqued. Not by your friends, family, or anyone else who wants you to feel good about yourself. Remember the best part of American Idol when the overly passionate, tone deaf, dream chasers would vomit a bucket of sour notes all over the audition room and yell at Simon for laughing? That's where BFF and mommy critiques get you. We have to learn our weaknesses before we can beat them. Real critique comes from someone who is completely unbiased and knows what their talking about. If you don’t know anyone, just ask. There are plenty of professional photographers who would be more than willing to look at your photos online and give you feedback. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there. It will probably be disappointing at first, but you will become a better photographer as a result. These guys tell it like it is, and keep it anonymous:
10. See The Light
Light is everything. Without it, we couldn’t see at all. The way it falls on your subject ultimately determines how your photo will appear. You need to imagine what the light is going to look like in a photo. Is it casting a shadow across your subjects face? Are there dark rings under his or her eyes? Is it harsh? Is is soft? Gear companies like Westcott and Elinchrom have worked for decades to create soft, smooth lighting capabilities. Soft light is best in most cases. Harsh light makes terrible photos. Noon on a sunny day is where photos go to die. Shoot in the shade. Soft light will completely change the way you think about photography. After a while, you’ll start to better understand how the light affects the image. You’ll begin to see the difference between hard light and harsh light. When you become more comfortable with reading light in general, you can slowly start to experiment with it. Want to learn more about light? Especially outdoors? YouTube!
BONUS TIP: Amputation is nobody’s friend.
So you’re no good at photographing people? Stop cutting off their body parts. When framing a portraits, never crop below the elbows or below the knees. No chopping off people’s feet and fingers. If you’re shooting a headshot, don’t leave a thousand miles between the person's head and the top of the shot. Head space is lame. Remember the rule of thirds? Keep their eyes near the top third - well away from the center.
-Don’t center every shot.
-Clean up the background.
-Pay attention to the quality of light.
-Shoot in RAW
-Easy on the editing.
-Get ideas from Pinterest.
-Learn more on YouTube.
-Shoot every single day.