Learning to Shoot – 13 Lucky Photo Tips

by Peter Zack


It doesn’t matter if you have a new camera, just getting back into photography because the kids finally moved out of the basement or you are fairly experienced. A few reminders to improve your photography can always help.

Here we hope a few tips will improve your shooting. The goal is to have the camera to be an extension of your creative process and not to have to always think about how to use the camera to take the shot. If the camera controls come naturally, you won’t miss that split second opportunity. We won’t detail each point entirely here because each one is an article on it’s own. In the coming sections, each will be described in greater detail.

Silver Fox Kit (puppy)

This shot took split second timing. I got one chance to capture the Fox coming from his burrow. Only one frame was fired and he took off. You need to know your camera to be ready for the right moment.

1. Controls: Learn your camera and it’s controls. Too often we skip the manual and jump right into shooting. I’ve seen countless forums with comments like “my camera under/over exposes the shots. I’m changing brands.” The grass is not greener or better exposed on the other side of the fence. Read forums specific to your brand and model. Learn what other users have learned about their cameras. Read the manual. Understand the metering and settings of your camera. I highly recommend Bryan Peterson’s books on exposure and shutter speeds (I’m not affiliated with him in any way).

2. Features: Don’t try the exotic shooting features first. Your camera can do multi-exposure? Cool. Don’t use it! Not until you’ve mastered good shots with manual or Av settings. Learn the basics first. Learn to shoot in manual mode. Understand why Av (A) is better in some situations than Tv (S) in others. Av for depth of field (DOF) control when shutter speeds are not the primary consideration, like shooting a still life. Sv to control shutter speeds when motion is the primary concern like sports or getting good shots with the kids at play.

3. Exposure: Understand the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO’s. They are completely linked. Changing the ISO increases the sensitivity of the sensor (or switching to higher ISO film) allowing greater DOF if you want a smaller aperture or higher shutter speeds to capture action. Understand the meaning of a 1 stop increase or decrease and how it can allow greater control over the scene you want to capture.

4. The Rules: Understand the “rules” of photography and why you would break them to achieve a better result. The most common is the rule of 3rds. The idea is to avoid having the main subject in the center of all your shots. With the photo above, the rule is broken but the shot works fine that way. With others, a horizon in the center of the image creates a static image that doesn’t invite the viewer to explore the image.

sunset and rule of thirdsThis shot conforms to the rule of thirds. The horizon is in the upper third area and the sun is in the left third. I causes the viewer to explore the grass in the foreground and then look around the scene more.

Golden and Diagonal ruleThe lines represent 3 different rules

1) Rule of thirds. 2) Diagonal rule 3) Golden rule. These are a few composition rules that need to be learned and understood and then you can break them when needed. For the Rule of thirds,  have the subject align with the lines on the grid above. Place the primary subject near one of the spots where 4 cubes intersect (black lines).

5. Auto settings: Don’t use the Auto settings on your P&S or SLR. They make you lazy. They are fine for the family gathering at Thanksgiving for quick family snap shots. But avoid getting used to shooting this way. It takes the creative control out of your hands and the camera engineer back in Japan is choosing how your shots will look.  They will look the same as everyone else’s shots. Learn how to shoot in manual mode first.

6. Depth of Field: Understand how DOF affects your images. If you want to isolate a subject from the foreground or background, opening the aperture can cause those areas to go out of focus and blur. Looking at the sunset shot above, I wanted the tall grass to anchor the bottom of the image but not be the subject. By opening up the lens, the grass is blurred, then the horizon and sun are the sharp focus areas of interest. This understanding is very important in macro photography, portraits and many areas of photography.

7. Metering: Have a good understanding of metering modes. Most cameras will have 3 modes. Spot, Center Weighted and Multi-Matrix. Not one mode will work in all situations. Understand how each will help you for a particular scene. I use spot metering 80% of the time but consider a scene, where the subject is dark in an otherwise bright frame and you meter off that dark area. The subject will be correctly exposed and the rest of the image will be blown out. You might want to either use the zone method of metering, or use one of the other 2 settings to get the best balance.

Learn how to use the Meter lock button on you camera. Most models have a method of locking an exposure. I recommend shooting in manual as much as possible but if you are shooting in another mode (like Av), then you should know how to take a reading of a scene and then lock that exposure. Then you can re-compose the shot the way you need to. This helps avoid having the main subject in the middle of the frame because the meter reading changes when you compose differently. Focus lock is also something you should know how to do as well for the same reasons.

8. Software: Some people seem to have an issue with software because they have seen too many altered images. I don’t like too much of that either. It’s a fact of photography that darkroom or computers have been used since the first photographs have been taken to alter and enhance a shot. Learn the software basics, like how to sharpen properly, how to add just the right amount of contrast, levels, curves and shadow recovery.

Don’t over-saturate, over-sharpen or crop too much. Watch those horizons and learn how to straighten them and don’t forget the clone stamp. Dust spots and power lines may need touch ups, just don’t go overboard, it will show. We’ll have a series on software fundamentals coming soon to walk you through the basics and some free programs to do most of this.  Too many great shots have been passed over by the viewer, because the shot was over cooked in some way, or some little things were missed.

9. Histograms: Understand how a Histogram can help but the histogram is not perfect. It is a guide to aid you with better exposures. Use your judgment and the info to guide you. Most cameras have a histogram feature to show you exposure levels. The rear LCD can lie if you just rely on the preview image. They are getting very good and work much better in bright light but that is not the best tool to check exposures. The histogram shows the black and white pixel levels in a given image. Lighter images will show peaks on the right and dark images will peak on the left.

Each scene will be different and what you are trying to see is whether the image is clipping in one area or another. If your camera has a colour histogram, then you will have even more detailed information to work with. We’ll devote an entire section on histograms sometime soon, as this is often misunderstood and confusing. For now you are looking for balance on the middle without large peaks at either end. Look at some of your well exposed shots and see what the histogram tells you. Use that as a guide. Then take some over and under exposed shots and see what it says. You will clearly see how it corresponds to the results.

Below you can see the same scene shot at different EV settings. Click on the thumbnails for a larger view.

Sail boat sea lighthouse histogram Sail boat sea lighthouse histogram Sail boat sea lighthouse histogram
0 EV +2 EV -2 EV

10. Bracketing: Understand how to bracket. Bracketing will assist you to both get the correct exposure and teach you how to better achieve proper exposures in the future. The provided software with your camera should show you the EXIF data for the shots. That gives you all the data you need to evaluate how the shot was taken and how the exposure looks.

Bracketing is the process of taking over and under exposed shots, of the same scene,  in a short period of time. Most cameras have a bracketing feature but if you shoot in manual mode, you can easily do it yourself. Take 5 shots, 1 at what you think is the proper exposure and 2 at lower shutter speeds (over expose) and 2 at higher shutter speeds. Don’t change the aperture if possible because that changes the DOF, thus changing the shot. Go in 1/2 or 1 full stop increments.
Shutter speeds in full stop increments are (seconds): 1,1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250,1/500, 1/1000, 1/2000, 1/4000.

11. Manual Focus: Understand how to use manual focus. Auto focus has made us a bit complacent and we expect that it can do everything. To be fair, today’s viewfinders are not as good for manual focusing as the older film cameras. They lack the brightness (although some come close), the matt screens are not as defined and there are no split screens as standard issue.

With practice you can do as well or better than the AF systems. Maybe not in speed but in accuracy. The reasons for learning this skill are numerous. Macro shooting basically demands it, low light or low contrast scenes may require your input. But maybe you want to limit the DOF of a scene and 2 objects are close together (maybe 2 faces) and you want one face sharp and the other blurred. The AF system might hit the wrong face and then the person moves, you’ve lost that shot forever. If you can correctly manually focus a shot, you nail it accurately and get the shot.

A side benefit of manual focus is better composition. We take our shots too quickly sometimes. No film costs and you are only limited by the number of cards you have. So we fire away hoping a good shot is in there somewhere. With a manual lens, you take your time, you look at what you are shooting and compose better.

12. Tripods: Buy a good tripod. Camera makers claim anywhere from 2-4 stops improvement with the new SR, VR or IS systems. In my opinion, these systems deliver what they claim combined with good shooting technique. But nothing replaces a proper tripod. Get a good quality one that is a little heavier than you think you need. There are a number of considerations for a tripod but a good head that allows freedom of movement and a solid set of legs that can hold things steady.

For a long lens, you need some weight and the ability to add a sandbag or counterweight to the center column is a plus. The tripod should allow you to shoot in a comfortable standing position without using the center column. The center column is a handy feature but will reduce the stability when the column is raised and you will get vibrations in wind. Get a mini pod for your camera bag and consider getting a lightweight travel tripod for hikes and walking.

Monopods can serve you well for this as well. They make a good support and double as a walking stick. Get the same head system for the monopod as the tripod if possible. Manufacturers like Manfotto and Gitzo (and others) have quick release plates that can be used on different heads. So you can leave the plate on the camera or lens and switch supports easily.

13. Subjects: Know your subject. Don’t expect to go for a walk and get 6 great shots of a Blue Jay you just happen to come across. I have a friend that has become obsessed with a woodpecker that has made a home in his backyard. Seems simple. I have a camera and a long lens, just shoot right? Nope this has been going on for a year. He’s been learning the bird’s habits and learning his equipment. Hundreds of test shots, a few good shots but just not the one. A new longer lens has been added. This year the woodpecker hasn’t got a chance but last year the photographer  didn’t. We’ll post the pictures this year when he finally gets that award winner.

Point is, study your equipment and your subject. The photo below is one that took me all summer to get right. There are still things I’d like to improve in it. But the Blue Jays will be back and I’ll be a little more prepared.
Blue Jay

Cheers and good shooting –Peter Zack

10 Responses to “Learning to Shoot – 13 Lucky Photo Tips”

  1. Excellent Peter, one of the best articles I have read in a long while. I especially liked what you wrote about the histograms.

  2. Thanks for the nice read Peter! Excellent photos too! I have missed so many split second shots like the one you didn’t miss! I am fascinated by Blue Jay shots (even though I don’t ever see them in my area) and yours is very nice.

  3. This is a really helpful set of tips, Peter–especially for those of us who may have skipped a step or two in the sheer joy of shooting.

    Your woodpecker-obsessed friend and I seem to have a lot in common ;~) That sort of intense focus on a specific subject is a great way to get a real grasp of how various settings and functions affect results (and go beyond casual observation in understanding the subject.)

  4. I was ROFL when I read about the woodpecker!….. 😉

  5. This is an excellent post. Reading this matures me one step further!

  6. Glad you are all enjoying these and getting something from them. Dave, the pressure is on! We need a shot of Woody this season!

  7. Useful information, nicely put, Peter.

    One small comment would be concerning use of shutter-priority AE – as far as I know, nobody calls it Sv–currently unique to Pentax, ‘Sv’ is sensitivity-priority. So probably ‘S’ (Nikon, Sony, Olympus) or ‘Tv’ (Pentax, Canon). Of course you knew that…just a brain fart I’m sure.

  8. Andrew, thanks for spotting my error. I had it half right 🙂 It’s been corrected!

  9. A very nice comprehensive article.

  10. Awesome how to for beginners or even those with experience. I went from film to a digital camera with a lot of functions to a DSLR with a 18-250mm all purpose lens. I got lazier and lazier shooting. It was like it was too easy. I put a prime lens on my DLSR and got my old original digital camera out because they both make me work for the shot. And I get better photos too as a result.

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