Spectacular photographs don't happen by accident. They come from understanding the principles behind photography and the capabilities of your equipment. If you enjoy taking photographs and you're ready to take your photography skills to the next level, here are some of the tricks of the trade used by professional photographers. Each is simple to do, but some do require some degree of play and practice. If you make mistakes, just delete the photo from your camera and try again.
Take More Photos
As with most things in life, the more you practice, the better you get. Rather than taking your camera out only when you know you will be taking pictures, bring your camera everywhere, and look for photographic opportunities. Josh Ross, a commercial portrait and still life photographer based in Los Angeles and Portland, encourages anyone who enjoys photography and wants to improve their skills to take lots and lots of photos. "Think about the type of work you want to do," he suggests, "then start coming up with ideas and executing them." If you aren't sure how to do them, experiment. Mistakes and bad shots are part of the learning process and shouldn't be viewed as failures but as learning opportunities. "Sometimes, you will make a technical mistake, prompting you to research what went wrong so you can try again," says Ross. "Other times your concept will fall flat, and you will need to think of something else. Whatever happens, you will have learned valuable knowledge and as you continue to execute images, you will grow as a photographer."
Use a Light Meter
When it comes to camera technology, Ross' first piece of advice for aspiring photographers is to learn how light meters work. It measures the amount of light reflected from your subject into the camera and is used to determine what the correct aperture and shutter speed should be. If there is too much light or not enough light for your current settings, the light meter will tell you. Meters may vary, but your user guide will document what those numbers mean and how to read them so you can use the right settings in different lighting conditions.
Use Manual Settings
If you really want an intimate relationship with your camera and take your photography settings to the next level, ignore the automatic settings for a while and shoot in only manual mode. "Just forget your camera has any other mode for a while," says Ross, "and get to a point where you can shoot manually like it's second nature." Manual mode does take a lot of practice and experimentation, but it gives you the chance to see what your camera is capable of. For example, taking several shots of the same subject, using the same lens, but changing the shutter speed and aperture settings will quickly show you the effect each setting has on the photo. After hundreds of photos, you will know what settings you prefer for different lenses, different lighting situations and distances. "Once you are at that point," says Ross, "there will be times when it makes sense to use aperture priority or shutter priority, but you have to understand how manual works first."
Rather than relying on the lighting that's available to you, professional photographers know how to take control of lighting before pressing the shutter button. Using an external flash with a swiveling movement and manual settings gives you more control over flash photography than is available with a camera's built-in flash. For example, you can bounce light from the ceiling rather than blasting the flash in your subject's eyes. Using lighting beyond your flash is also important, especially for studio shots. Which lights you choose isn't as important as learning what the lighting can do for you, says Ross. For outdoor shots in full sun, bring along a couple of light shades or reflectors–a large piece of white cardboard can serve as both. You can then shade your subject's face with the cardboard in the sun or put your subject in the shade and reflect the light towards the face.
Use RAW Mode
Most advanced cameras have a RAW mode for saving image files. Rather than processing the files into the familiar and compressed JPG format, RAW mode leaves the raw data gathered for each photo intact. This means two things: much larger file sizes and much more control over processing. Underexposing landscape shots using RAW mode can bring out dramatic colors and fine details that would otherwise be bleached away if fully exposed. Of course, you need a quality image editing program that is capable of processing RAW files to do this, but this software is an important tool for any serious photographer. "All the great photographers put their images through post production," says Ross. "It used to be in the darkroom, but now it's in the computer."
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