For folks unused to photography, letting the camera make the decisions seems the best way to ensure a decent photograph. If that were so, cameras would be even more popular than they are now. Improving your photography skills starts with understanding five basic concepts. Work on them, and you’ll quickly build a collection of “before-and-after” shots.
- The Focal Point: Call it the center of visual attention. Call it the photographic nutgraph. Whatever the name, a good photo needs a dominant image that tells the viewer where to look. There’s no ambiguity in this photograph by Joe Buckingham.
- The Rule of Thirds: Although this compositional techniques dates to ancient Greece, it’s found a home in modern photography. The rule tells you where to put important elements to create a pleasing picture. It’s relatively simple to use. Mentally divide the frame into horizontal and vertical thirds. You should visualize a tic-tac-toe board. Place the important elements at the intersections surrounding the center square. This post from the Digital Photography School blog illustrate the concept. Don’t be put off by the word “rule.” You can fill the frame with an image, or place it right smack in the center. Just be sure the subject is arresting enough to overcome the compositional imbalance.
- White Balance: Different types of light emit different temperatures. The brain doesn’t always register them, but the camera does. That’s why it’s necessary to select the correct white balance, or color temperature, for the scene you’re shooting. You can rely on the camera’s automatic white balance setting, but you might get a cast that can’t be fixed in Photoshop. Step three in this post from slrlounge.com explains the most common icons and the effect they produce.
- Depth of Field: Depth of Field is the amount of sharpness between the nearest and farthest objects in a photograph. Shallow or narrow depth of field means that distance is small. Wide depth of field means the distance is large. This photo by Kicki shows how dramatic shallow depth of field can be. But artistry isn’t the only reason you should know how to manipulate depth of field. Say your photograph has an ugly or distracting background. Choose the right depth of field and that flaw can be partially or completely blurred. Depth of field is controlled by the distance between the subject and the photographer, the length of the lens, the lens opening or aperture. Get an in-depth explanation at “To Blur or Not to Blur.”
- The Exposure Triangle: Photography occurs when light burns an image onto a medium, whether film or a digital sensor. The amount of light can be controlled in three ways:
- The aperture or lens opening: The size of the aperture is measured by a number called the f-stop. The larger the number the smaller the opening. The smaller the opening, the less light hitting the medium. Thus f/16 is a smaller aperture than f/11, which is smaller than f/8
- The shutter speed: This number signals the amount of time the shutter stays open. The larger the number, the more quickly the shutter closes. Thus a shutter speed of 60 is really 1/60 of a second. It’s much shorter than a shutter speed of 30, which is 1/30 of a second. The faster the shutter closes, the less light that hits the medium. But slower shutter speeds require a tripod so the camera doesn’t shake and blur the image when you take the photo.
- The ISO: The ISO measure the sensitivity of the medium itself. The higher the ISO number, the less light necessary to burn an image onto the medium. But a high ISO translates into a grainer or noisier image.
How does this work? Say it’s a dark, cloudy day. That means less light for the photograph. You can compensate by increasing the ISO or opening the aperture (choose a lower number for the aperture) or decreasing the shutter speed. You don’t have to do all three. Changing one will be enough. Or take the situation described under topic four: you’re taking a photo with an ugly background. You can blur the background by using a lower aperture because lower apertures have shallow depth of field. But a lower aperture lets more light into the camera. Avoid overexposure lowering the ISO or increasing the shutter speed. Don’t do both. This post from digital-photography-school.com offers a simple but in-depth explanation of the exposure triangle. If you want to play before you take a photo, experiment with “The SLR camera explained.” Or get out and shoot. If you’ve got a digital camera, you don’t have to worry about wasting film. Just keep notes so you’ll know what worked and what didn’t.