12 Tips to Improve Your Photography Skills

woman taking photos outside

In the age of Instagram, we have higher expectations of photographers than ever before, professional or amateur. A well-lit, thoughtfully-composed, sharp photograph can go along way toward building your social presence, and that kind of attention can be invaluable to bloggers and other freelancers. Here are 12 tips for beginner photographers I wish I’d had when I was starting out.

1) Take a Class (Online is Fine!)

Yes, this is really the first thing you should do if you’re serious about improving your photography. Luckily, you don’t need to go back to school – a few online courses can go a long way toward making you more comfortable with your camera and helping your photos appear more professional. Especially when it comes to editing, expert education is invaluable. And it doesn’t have to break the bank. Sites like Udemy, Lynda, and Creative Live have affordable classes taught by some of the best in the business. There are also tons of YouTube tutorials available for free.

2) Shoot in RAW

For high-quality, data-rich images that will allow you the most editing capability, set your file format to RAW rather than JPEG. Yes, they take up more space. But being able to edit extensively without sacrificing image quality is worth the extra SD card.

3) Understand Aperture

When you’re just starting out, I recommend shooting in aperture priority mode. Composing a sharp image is a blend of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, but their interaction with each other is pretty complicated. Aperture mode lets you determine the f-stop, or the width of the opening that allows light in the lens, and the camera adjusts the shutter speed and ISO accordingly. By adjusting your aperture, you control the depth of field of the image. A shallow depth of field means that objects farther away are not in focus, and yields that blurry background effect, known in photographer circles as bokeh. Increased depth of field means that objects far away are clearer.

4) Use Light

Once you know how to control your depth of field, utilizing ISO and shutter speed help you use available light to your best advantage. ISO refers to the sensitivity of your sensor, so the lower your ISO, the sharper your image will be, but a low ISO requires a lot of light for proper exposure. Shutter speed is the duration of time the shutter is open. More light hits the sensor the longer the shutter is open, but fast shutter speeds allow you to capture action in well-lit environments.

photographer in forest during golden hour of light

5) Control Exposure

Once you know how to manipulate your aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, make sure your shot is properly exposed. A photo with proper exposure will be well-balanced, with good contrast and few shadows or hotspots. Once you’re in the right ballpark, you can use a digital analyser called a histogram to determine if your shot is over or under exposed, and adjust your EV setting accordingly. To test this out, you can adjust your EV setting while shooting a white, blank background, and compare the resulting images.

6) Check Your Settings

After a mishap in which I shot a whole city series with a white balance optimized for indoor lighting, I am a little OCD about checking my settings before a shoot. My checklist includes shooting mode, focus, ISO, shutter speed, EV settings, white balance, a correctly formatted SD card, and two fully charged batteries.

7) Position Yourself for the Best Shot

Practicing with a prime lens will force you to do this, but oftentimes getting the best shot requires changing up your angle, whether that’s getting down on the ground, climbing a tree, or leaning off the edge of a building. I’m not telling you to endanger your life for a shot, but I am suggesting you try different perspectives and consider your interaction with the subject. The position in which you first see the shot is usually not your best option.

8) Use Composition Tricks

Pay attention to your composition during a shoot. It’s surprisingly easy to forget about, but you can manipulate your subject to be more proportionally pleasing. You’ve probably heard of the rule of thirds. You can easily enable grid lines along your viewfinder and align your subject with the focal planes. You’ll be amazed at how much more compelling your images appear.

view through camera lens in nature

9) Invest in the Right Gear

You can easily spend a fortune on state-of-the-art photography equipment, but you can still take fantastic photos with just a few key improvements to your standard DSLR kit. A good, versatile prime lens (a lens with a fixed focal length) will do wonders for your photo quality, as will a sturdy tripod in low light settings. I like a 50mm lens for most of my photography, and my collapsible BAALAND tripod is indispensable to me.

On the practical side of things, I like to have a backup SD card, so I never have to waste time dumping files. If you plan on doing long shoots or travel photography, do your shoulders and back a favor and invest in a comfortable and protective camera bag with padded compartments, and a thick, supportive camera strap.

10) Learn How to Edit

Everything that goes into taking a picture will only get you so far. To really level up your photography, you need to learn how to post process your images. For editing software, I recommend investing in Adobe Lightroom, which has professional color-correcting software with a user-friendly interface. Don’t worry about getting the entire Adobe Suite – you can do everything you need as an amateur photographer with Lightroom.

11) Establish a File Management System

When you start shooting regularly, keeping all your images in a folder on your desktop and hosting high def photos directly on your website will no longer cut it. Backup your photos on a portable hard drive. I recommend no less than 1 TB to store all your RAW image data, along with your finished, edited versions.

It’s also a good idea to embed your data-rich images on your WordPress or Squarespace site while hosting them elsewhere, so you never have to sacrifice image quality for website speed. Lightroom can store your images in-app and upload them directly to a hosting site like Flickr, Adobe Stock, or SmugMug.

12) Practice

At the end of the day, the only way to improve is to get out there and shoot. And not just when you’re on vacation. I’ve found the best way to get better is to shoot the same or similar subjects all the time – whether that’s your kids, pets, spouse, or the flowers in your backyard. Working with the same subject under the same conditions really allows you to focus in on your camera settings and your composition. It’s also cool to be able to look back at your progress over 2, 6, and 12 months. That’s how you get to Carnegie Hall, right?

To Sum Up

There’s definitely a bit of a learning curve when it comes to getting comfortable controlling a shot and setting your camera up to your advantage. The best investment I ever made in my photography was taking an online course. It helped me understand the technical components, so I could use them to my advantage and focus on my art. Using these suggestions, you’ll be well on your way to taking eye-catching, professional looking photos yourself.

What’s your go-to photography subject? Let’s talk about it!

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