Ever thought that photography was something you’d never be able to master? Think again.
Whether you’re picking up a camera for the first time, or you’ve been trying for a while and aren’t sure how to start out, our handy beginners’ guide to photography has plenty of tips and tricks to get you started.
We’ve collected five simple tips to help you go from absolute beginner to enthusiastic amateur in no time. We’ve asked some of our favourite photographers to share some invaluable advice they wish they’d been given when they started out – so read on for some photography tips for beginners you can’t do without.
1. Get to know your camera better
As a photographer, your camera is your best friend, and the medium through which you practice your craft. So it’s absolutely vital to learn the ins and outs of using it. This applies to beginner photographers and seasoned veterans: you can never know too much about your camera.
The best place to start is your camera’s manual, as that will have all the info that you need about adjusting the settings, how to shoot in RAW instead of JPEG etc. But after that, there’s no substitute for taking some shots yourself using different settings and seeing the results.
Although it can seem off-putting at first when you’re new to photography, once you move from shooting in auto to manual, understanding The Exposure Triangle is key. Simply put, the exposure triangle is composed of the three most important exposure settings on your camera; ISO, aperture and shutter speed. A balance of all three is necessary to achieve the best results.
ISO: ISO refers to your camera’s sensitivity to light. A lower setting reduces the sensitivity, while a higher one increases it. Therefore, a higher setting is often needed at night, while a lower one is adequate during the day.
Aperture: Aperture refers to the opening in your lens and controls the level of light that reaches your camera’s sensor and the depth-of-field. A wider aperture (or lower “f-number”) will let more light through, but with a narrower depth-of-field. A wide aperture is most useful for isolating a single subject, whereas landscape or group shots should be done using a narrower aperture or higher f-number.
Shutter Speed: Shutter Speed refers to the length of time your camera’s sensor is exposed to light. A fast shutter speed is good for sports photography, where you want to capture a moment frozen in time, but a longer shutter speed will blur motion.
From the Pros: “What I wish I’d known…”
“The sooner you move away from the comforts of auto setting, the sooner you will explore the opportunities to create beautiful images through manual control of shutter speed and aperture. Also, the quicker you move away from JPEG and on to RAW, the better. I have thousands of images I can do nothing with because I spent my first 2 years as an SLR owner shooting in JPEG. The resolution is tiny and none of the images are fit for post-editing.” Miguel de Freitas, Portfolio Category Winner in National Geographic Traveller’s 2017 Competition
“I would have liked someone to point out to me that it is not a vain advice to first get to know your camera technically in and out before even thinking of taking a good picture.”
Alexandra Lavizzari, Swiss Photographer, Artist and Author
2. Always keep your camera with you
As a photographer, you can never predict when inspiration may strike or the perfect opportunity might crop up, so it’s important to keep your camera close-to-hand at all times. This is easier than ever in day-to-day life with the convenience of smartphones, but if you’re going on a city break or even a woodland walk, make sure to take your camera – you never know what you might find to take pictures of!
The worst feeling in the world as a photographer is to have seen the perfect shot with no way to preserve it.
“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event. Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.” Henri Cartier-Bresson, pioneer of candid photography.
More practically speaking, investing in accessories is a great way to make your life easier as a beginner. A strap is particularly handy when you’re out-and-about and need to keep your hands free. Or, if you’d prefer not to carry your camera openly, purchase a camera bag. This will help keep your hands free and your kit safely stored away where it won’t get damaged.
A flat battery can soon put an end to your photographic plans, so make sure you carry a spare or have a charger with you!
From the pros: “What I wish I’d known…”
“Engage with people and with your destination. Pictures are not just found things lying around in the streets: they are moments that are created by the way that you as the photographer interact with the world around you.”
Steve Davey, widely-published travel writer and photographer.
Or, read more of our blogs about Steve, including a selection of Steve’s favourite photos he’s captured, or top tips for improving your travel photography.
“I remember holidays fondly; sitting on the beach, drinking cocktails and generally lazing in the warm sunshine, however as soon as you enter the profession of travel photography you no longer go on holidays – even the smallest trip is filled with work, and although enjoyable it is in fact work. You may fully intend to take a break and just relax, but everywhere you go you see a photograph and it consumes you, so much so that you simply end up shooting for your entire trip and then wonder why you’re so tired after what was meant to be a holiday. So if you’re thinking of joining me and becoming a travel photographer – get one last holiday booked and don’t even pack your camera, there’ll be plenty of time for that once it is your job!”
Kimberley Coole, freelance travel photographer.
Learn more about Kimberley’s work as a travel photographer in our blog here.
3. Learn to consider composition
One of the most vital photography tips for beginners is to always consider composition. Composition is a key element in all art forms, from music to books, as well as visual arts such as painting and photography. Carefully considered composition is one of the elements that will elevate your work from average to excellent. Instead of just pointing and shooting, it’s important for a photographer to take the time to compose their shots.
The first rule of photography composition one should learn is the Rule of Thirds, which can instantly improve your photos.
Imagine your image is divided by two horizontal and two vertical lines, creating a three by three grid. Place important elements within the picture close to one of these lines, or near to one of the four intersections of the grid. Positioning your subject off-centre looks much more natural than placing it in the middle of the frame and will result in pictures which are much more pleasing to the eye.
If you’re taking landscape photos, position the horizon above or below the middle of the frame, rather than in the centre, as again this will look more natural.
If you’re photographing people or animals, have them looking into the frame, with more space on the side of the frame the action is heading towards. This looks less posed and adds interest to the image.
Look for leading lines to draw the viewer’s eye through the picture, or towards a focal point. These can be either natural, like a line of trees or a hedge, or man-made, such as a wall or staircase.
However, as with all art forms, rules are made for breaking! Don’t be afraid to experiment and find your own style, taking photos in as many ways and from as many angles as possible.
Take a look at this gallery of impressive experimental shots for some inspiration.
From the pros: “What I wish I’d known…”
“Many of my images are ‘frame filling’ shots, giving detail and interest to the image, and you will no doubt have been urged to get closer, fill the image! However, try experimenting with the opposite and consider zooming out as far as possible to tell the story of the animals in the image.
This could be the lonely steps of a polar bear, a chick facing a vertical drop on its first flight or a leopard basking in the early morning rays. Wildlife photography is about more than photographing animals, but also about photographing their world and how they interact with it. If you achieve both ends of the spectrum you will hopefully produce a varied and rich body of work.”
Harry Skeggs, wildlife and travel photographer.
To view some of his work for National Geographic and read more about him, click here.
4. Find the right lighting
The levels and quality of lighting are quite possibly the two elements that will affect your ability to take a good photo the most. The right lighting will add an inimitable depth, mood and quality to your shots. Natural lighting is always preferable to artificial lighting or even the dreaded flash – so make the most of any favourable weather and get out and about with your camera.
You should avoid taking photos outdoors around midday, as the light will be much too harsh. Instead, aim to be out with your camera during either the Golden Hour, which is the hour just after sunrise and just before sunset, or the Blue Hour, which is the hour just before sunrise or after sunset.
The Golden Hour: Also known as ‘golden light photography’ or ‘magic hour photography’, golden hour photography is taken during a short window in the day when the sun is low in the sky, which soaks the landscape with a dreamy golden hue. It’s used to create ethereal-looking photographs by making the most of the unique natural light. Portrait photography is especially popular in the golden hour as it casts gentle shadows and a flattering sun-kissed tone over the face. Learn more about the Golden Hour.
The Blue Hour: Also known as ‘blue light photography’, blue hour photography makes use of the period of time where the sun has dipped below the horizon, but still emits a light. This then leaves a serene blue cast over your images. If you’d like your next landscapes to have an atmospheric, ethereal quality, then read on. There are few better times to capture cityscapes, as the deep blue sky enhances the bright lights of the city. Learn more about the Blue Hour.
Indoor Photography: If you’re taking shots indoors, make sure to position your subject(s) close to a source of natural light such as a window, or you could even improvise a DIY reflector from a white piece of cardboard or a white bedspread to reflect light back onto your subject.
Indoor photography can be especially challenging when compared to photographing using natural light. Photographer Christophe Buiron has this to say: “It can be useful to take several shots of the same place, with different settings…” Christophe says. “This will increase your chances of getting a good shot! But nothing will ever replace experience and practice. As is often said, we learn from each of our mistakes!” Source
Don’t be afraid to experiment with flash. Even outdoors, a good flash gun or reflector can emphasise the foreground, and will brighten deep shadows on a particularly sunny day.
From the pros: “What I wish I’d known…”
“I had always thought that the famous ‘golden hour’ for photography was a sort of myth and I would go out taking landscape pictures in the early afternoon – which turned out bland and totally uninteresting and for which I mainly blamed my lack of skill.
But then, someone told me to wait for the golden hour and I listened and found out that it is actually true; these magical moments before sunset do have a wonderful positive impact on the overall atmosphere in landscapes and even other kinds of photography. So now, I don’t waste my time anymore by taking pictures at the wrong time of day.”
5. Change your perspective
Experimenting with angles can help you capture more varied shots with a far more unique look than standard photography shot from straight ahead six feet in the air. It’s important to compose shots from as many different positions as possible, get up high, crouch or even lie down low – do whatever you need to do to create a more interesting shot.
When photographing animals, get down (or up as the case may be!) to their eye level to capture a more engaging portrait. As with human portraiture, animals’ eyes should always be kept in focus as they’re what the viewer is naturally most drawn to at first and form a natural focal point.
If you’re taking pictures of famous landmarks or architecture, seek out a more unconventional angle to avoid a predictable, postcard-style shot we’ve all seen before.
Whatever you’re shooting, try to compose the shot with a perspective unfamiliar to the viewer. This is your opportunity to capture something unique, so play around with different shots and see what results you get. After all, if you’re not happy with anything you’ve shot you can always delete it and nobody will be any the wiser!
From the pros: “What I wish I’d known…”
“Successful wildlife photography is about creating images that instantly connect the audience with the animal subjects. Shooting at our eye level not only gives an unexciting viewpoint we have all experienced (going to the zoo for example), it also means we are often looking down on the animals, which implies a sense superiority, breaking any form of connection.
To create an engagement between subject and viewer, I have found getting down to shoot at the eye level (or lower!) of your subject helps bring you within their world, to place you as the prey through hunters eyes, or make you the hunter yourself.
There is an added benefit that, when you shoot at their eye level, you also help position the sensor parallel to the most important plane of your subject (the eyes and as much of the body as possible), creating sharper images.”
Keep all of this advice in mind and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a far more confident and capable photographer. But if you’re ever discouraged, don’t forget – we all have to start somewhere! So if you’ve been itching to pick up your camera but your nerves have stopped you, why not make today the first step in your journey?
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