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.