Improving your skills in photography is like learning English: the moment when you can say that you have learned everything is somewhere very far away, if at all.
However, you are definitely moving to the next stage, when using the camera in manual mode becomes something simple and mundane. You know everything about aperture, shutter speed and ISO and know how to work with them to get the right exposure. However, there is still much to be learned on the path to mastery.
Once you get the hang of manual mode, try learning the following things to bring your photography skills to the professional level.
Working with exposure compensation
Most cameras have an exposure compensation feature. It is available in the following modes: “S” — shutter-priority mode, “A” — aperture-priority mode and “P” — programmed auto mode. In manual mode (“M” mode), you work on your own — only the exposure meter moves in the viewfinder, showing you when the exposure is correct.
In “S”, “A” modes, you fix one parameter and let the camera determine the rest. Using built-in sensors, the camera evaluates the brightness of the frame and sets other parameters for correct exposure.
These sensors try to expose the image, so the average tonality is 18% gray. However, in some situations the camera uses the wrong exposure settings, where white areas end up looking a bit gray instead of white. If you’re taking night photos, the reverse is often the case, with very dark areas turning dark grey.
Exposure compensation allows you to change the exposure after the camera sets the parameters, and take brighter or darker photos than the camera suggests. Take a look at the example of a magpie on a light-filled beach. In this situation, exposure compensation helped to better expose the photo in terms of tone, subject, and background detail.
Large white or black areas confuse camera sensors and result in overexposed or underexposed photos.
Another situation where exposure compensation is useful is when you have a high brightness contrast between the subject and the background (for example, when photographing the moon). If you let the camera expose the subject, the background will be overexposed or underexposed. Exposure compensation allows you to step in and choose the right exposure for your shot.
Explore Focus Modes
Focus is an important component of a great photo. But it’s not just about choosing an object, catching it, and highlighting it in the frame. When it comes to moving subjects, knowing which focus mode to use greatly increases the chance of getting a good shot.
First, you can choose between manual focus mode (adjusting the focus ring until your subject is in focus) and autofocus mode (letting the camera determine the area in focus on its own).
Most of the time, you will most likely be shooting with autofocus, and it has a lot more to offer than meets the eye.
Most cameras have several autofocus modes:
- Frame-by-frame (AF‑S) — press the button once and the camera focuses on the object;
- Continuous (AF‑C) — the camera focuses on the subject and continues to track the subject if it moves;
- Auto (AF‑A) — The camera decides whether it will use single or continuous mode, depending on the movement of the subject.
Use continuous mode for wildlife photography and single frame for landscape photography.
When working with moving subjects in continuous mode, you should also learn how to use the AF zones, which determine how much of the scene comes into focus.
You can choose between:
- Single-point autofocus — the camera uses one point to focus;
- Dynamic autofocus — the camera first focuses on one point, but then switches to one of the neighboring ones when the subject moves. As a rule, you can choose the number of dots surrounding the main one: 9, 21, 51 or even more.
Knowing how to use the focus modes is especially useful when your subject is moving or far away and you find it difficult to get focus using the single point mode.
Learn to use flash
The benefits of using a flash will become apparent when you learn how to use an external flash rather than the built-in flash and combine it with a diffuser or softbox.
We use the flash to illuminate the subject and get the correct exposure without sacrificing ISO, shutter speed or aperture values. In addition, there are many other reasons to learn how to use flash.
If you know how to use flash in manual mode, you can adjust the light intensity and use it without interrupting the ambient light. Add a diffuser or softbox to soften the light. Hold the filter close to the flash to make the light warmer, cooler or completely change the color.
Adding an external flash is great for both indoor photography, such as portrait photography, and outdoor photography, such as photographing flowers. Using external flashes, a ring flash, or a dedicated macro flash, you can create complex lighting to your liking. With flash you can control the light, its intensity and direction.
Use custom settings
Once you get comfortable with manual mode and begin to understand which focus modes to use in a given situation, you won’t want to spend time adjusting your camera every time.
Most SLR cameras provide the ability to save a specific combination of frequently used settings. If you’re shooting a variety of genres and need to change a lot of settings, it’s great to use saved custom settings for every occasion.
Practice a certain technique, don’t grab everything at once.
Mastering a wide range of technical skills is good, but it will be more effective to master each technique gradually.
It’s hard to be successful in everything at once. Choose a couple of techniques and practice them until you reach a good level.
For example, you can delve into shooting moving subjects if you are interested in wildlife or sports photography. Or you can become a bokeh expert because you love night photography.
It can also be compositional skills. For example, if you haven’t previously paid attention to lines in landscape photography, take the time to incorporate them into your composition.
Practice and when you feel you’ve learned everything you can, move on to the next topic. First deep, then wide.
Choose the genre you will specialize in
If you have not yet decided on the leading photography genre in your activity, it’s time to stop and think. As with the various techniques described above, you won’t be able to master all types of photography in depth and professionally. So you have to choose, and it’s better to do it sooner rather than later. Specialization allows you to become the best photographer in your field, focus on what matters to you and develop a personal style that is recognizable.
Study the work of the pros in your favorite genre, study their history and understand their philosophy.
The genre of photography is not only technical skills, although you will need them too. It’s also about a certain vision, about some kind of story that you lay in your style, and psychology in the field of photography.
Try video shooting
Photography is a good starting point for trying your hand at videography. You already have some knowledge of composition, working with natural or artificial light, and many DSLRs are also good video specs.
Never stop learning. Even after many years of practice. Always looking for opportunities to grow both as a photographer and as a person.