This lesson is part of the How To Photograph Life - FREE Course. To see the full list of lessons, and learn more about the course, click here for the index.
We’re going to kick things off by jumping right into the good stuff: technical tips and tricks that will help you see a fast improvement in the quality of your images.
This course is going to cover a ton of great information, but if you don’t have these technical skills in your pocket first, it’ll be hard to take advantage of it.
Three things before we begin.
1. You don’t need a fancy camera to take great photos of your life. Whatever you have will do just fine. Sure, there are some options that are better suited to this type of work (we’ll cover those in a later lesson), but what matters most is that you have a camera and use it.
2. The camera you’re using may not have manual controls (camera phones and many point and shoots don’t). That’s ok, they can still make great photos. But that doesn’t excuse you from learning how a camera works. We’ll do a super fast review of that here, but I’ll tell you that the sooner you learn what’s going on in your camera, the faster you’ll be able to take control over the look of your photos, no matter what you’re shooting with.
3. If you’re a manual shooting machine, you might think you can skip this lesson. But stick around to the end. We’re going to cover some simple concepts that a lot of pros don’t understand well, and these ones will dramatically change the look of your photos.
Ok, let’s do this.
Typewriter In Peru
From the streets of Pucallpa, Peru, a typewriter sits, ready to work. Many people would come to the typewriter operators to have important documents typed up. Taken with a film camera.
Beachgoers walk or rest on the famous Ipanema beach, in Rio de Janeiro. Taken with a point-and-shoot camera.
Your camera is a simple machine. It lets in light, which strikes the sensor, creating an image. There are three settings that control how the light is handled, and each one will also affect the look of the photo. Together these are known as the exposure triangle. This stuff is key to taking what’s in your head, and translating it to a photo. Here’s a super fast review.
Aperture: This is the hole in the lens that lets in light. How wide or narrow that hole is changes the amount of light that comes in, as well the depth of field of the image (how much of the photo is in sharp focus). A lower aperture value (like f/2.8) means the aperture is more open, letting in more light. This also results in less of the photo being in sharp focus (shallow depth of field).
Shutter Speed: This refers to how long the shutter is open to let light come into the camera. The shutter speed can also change whether you freeze fast action, or get motion blur. A smaller number (like 1/500 second) means the shutter is open for less time (a faster shutter speed), allowing less light to come in, and freezing the action.
ISO: This refers to how sensitive the sensor is to light. A higher ISO value means the sensor is more sensitive, and will pick up more light. With higher values you will also get an increase in digital noise (not something you really want).
One of the most essential technical skills a photographer can have is the ability to make a sharp image. (that means that the subject is in focus). The reason for this is simple: our eyes automatically go to the sharpest point in a photo. The goal of photography is to have your viewer pay attention to your subject. Sharpness helps you get there.
But I’ll tell you right now, it’s not always easy, even when you’re experienced and skilled. The situations that you often find yourself in while documenting your life are some of the most challenging for getting those crisp results. Namely tough light and moving subjects. Sounds familiar, right?
Thankfully, with a few solid skills, you can up your keeper ratio.
The three things that affect the sharpness in a photo are depth of field, focusing and shutter speed. Let’s go over each one.
A shallow depth of field can add an attractive quality to an image, but it makes it harder to get sharp focus. Less of the image will be sharp, so you’ll have to be certain that you get your subject in that region.
This is especially tough if you have multiple subjects. When they are different distances from the camera, you’re going to need to use a higher aperture to get them both in focus.
Determining how much of your image will be in focus at any given aperture, with any given lens, can be challenging. Many cameras have a depth of field preview button that you might find handy. And a lot of it comes from consciously considering it, as well as experience. Make sure to review your photos often to get a good sense of whether you’re choosing the right aperture for the scene.
Shallow Depth of Field
A wide aperture value (f/2.2 in this case) is more likely to give you a subject that seems to pop against a blurry foreground or background. It also makes it tougher to ensure that your subject is sharply in focus.
Deep Depth of Field
A narrower aperture value (f/8.0 here) will give you comparatively less blur, and will increase the chances that your subject is super-sharp.
The biggest culprit to blurry photos is a slow shutter speed. When your shutter speed is slow, and your subject moves, you’ll get motion blur. If you’re not controlling your camera settings, you might not even realize that your shutter speed is getting too low. This usually happens in low light conditions, as the camera tries to get more light in to create a proper exposure.
So a few tips:
• If your subject is moving, try to keep your shutter speed at 1/125 second, or higher.
• If your subject is still, and you hold very still, you can probably get away with 1/60 second.
• As a general rule, the longer the lens, the higher the shutter speed you’ll need. A rule of thumb is to keep it at 1/[focal length of your lens].
Slow Shutter Speed
A slow shutter speed (1/4 sec here) turns motion – like the fast flow of water – into a streak of colour.
Fast Shutter Speed
A super-fast shutter (1/2,500 sec) can totally freeze even fast motion, like this impressive mid-air somersault.
A good focusing technique is key to getting sharp images. Most cameras have many focusing points that are used to try to focus the lens on your subject. You can engage the focus by pushing the shutter button half way down.
Now, one option for focusing on most DSLRS is to manually select a focus point that is over your subject, and then shoot. We’ve always found that way too slow, especially when shooting the fast pace of everyday life.
Our favourite focus technique is knowing as “center point focus and recompose”. You use only the center focus point (which happens to be the most accurate). You focus on your subject, and then, while still holding the shutter button down halfway, you very carefully recompose your shot, and then finish pressing the button. It’s incredibly fast when you get the hang of it, and, as long as you’re not making very large movements, or shooting at f/1.2, it’s accurate too. In the end it’s a balance between accuracy and efficiency, but it’s a balance that we’ve been happy with.
To get this shot, I focused the centre focus point of my camera on Rob and, holding the shutter button down halfway, carefully recomposed the shot. I then fully pressed down on the shutter and, voila! A crisp shot, with an interesting composition.
Sometimes I dream that my house is a minimalist paradise - chic furniture, color sorted books, and, of course, every flat surface is completely and totally free from clutter.
That is not my house. That’s the opposite of my Ikea-catalog-meets-a-junk-shop house.
I don’t dream of the minimalist house to impress visitors or get a bit of that magical-tidying-up feeling into my life. I dream about it for my photos.
Clutter is not just the enemy of tidy folks. It’s the enemy of photographers. Clutter is stuff in your image that is distracting from your subject.
Now, when we’re taking photos of our messy-yet-beautiful life, we want to ensure that the thing that caught our eye, and inspired us to take the photo in the first place, is standing out. That it’s not getting lost in the detritus around it. Not always easy to do. But one really handy way to do that is what is known as background separation.
Simply put: we want to separate our subject from the background so they can stand out and shiiiiiiiine.
Now this is a technical skill that a lot of pros don’t even have a good handle on. It is a bit tricky, because there are a few factors that come into play. But it’s well worth studying, and practicing, and very quickly you’re going to see a huge change in the way your subject pops out of the image.
There are 4 different ways to get some lovely background separation.
This one is easy peasy. If your depth of field is shallow (less of the scene is in focus), and you focus on your subject, the background will be blurred out, and help your subject to stand out. So simply use a lower aperture value. This is a great reason to have a nifty 50mm lens in your bag. A 50mm f/1.8 costs only around $100, and can get you incredibly beautiful shallow depth of field, perfect for helping your subject stand out.
Note: If you’re shooting with a camera phone, you won’t really be able to achieve this. The very small sensor means that in most shots everything will pretty much be in focus. This is a very good reason to shoot with more than just your camera phone when possible!
A shallow depth of field helps separate Max from the foreground and background of the scene.
The idea here is that the further your subject is away from the background, the more separation is possible, especially combined with a shallower depth of field. It’s so simple, and yet somehow I always forget it, and place my subjects right up against the background. This essentially gives the background and my subjects equal sharpness in the image, which means equal attention. And that means my subject isn’t standing out as much as they could. So when you can, bring your subject away from the background and you’ll find that they command a lot more attention in your frame.
In general, the more distance you put between your subject and your background, the more separate they'll look.
Now this is one nifty. Every lens has what is called a minimum focusing distance. This is the very closest the lens can get to something and still focus on it. You can either find this out by trial and error (just keep moving closer until the lens can’t focus any more), or look up your lens specs and it will be listed.
The neat thing is that at the minimum focusing distance, you will get maximum background separation. So if I’m shooting at f/5, and I’m standing 10 feet away from my subject, a lot of the scene will be in focus, and it will be hard for them to stand out. If I move as close as I possibly can, and still keep my settings the same, I’ll wind up with the background looking much more blurred out.
This one is really handy to know if you’re using lenses that don’t have a super low maximum aperture. Even a lens that doesn’t go below f/3.5 (as many kit lenses don’t) can get some great background separation if you know how to use it.
Camera to Subject Distance
The closer you can get your camera to your subject, the greater the separation between your subject and the background.
Here's another “lens hack” of sorts. A longer focal length, like 70mm and higher, will give the appearance of more background separation. A wide focal length, like 24mm, will make everything look in focus. So if you want that subject to stand out? Try shooting with the longest focal length possible!
Here’s the thing about these four ways to create background separation: they all work together. Want to make your subject pop out like crazy? Bring them away from the background, set your camera to the maximum aperture, use your longest lens, and shoot at the minimum focusing distance. Each one of those choices will increase the background separation until the subject is popping out like WOW.
My favourite part of these techniques is what I mentioned before: it lets you get amazing looking photos, and that all-important background separation, even if you’re using a lens that isn’t super fast. Only using a camera phone? You can still use techniques #2 and #3: bring your subject away from the background, and shoot as close as you can.
A focal length of 200mm not only lets us get closer to our subject than would be possible (without getting run over by traffic, at least!), it helps create greater separation between our cute subject and a busy background.
There’s a whole lot of stuff that goes into making a sharp photo that really draws attention to your subject. And I can tell you right now that even after a decade of doing this, there are days when I still struggle to remember all of this stuff. So don’t get discouraged if you find it overwhelming right now. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of crappy photos, and a lot of reviewing your mistakes to start to get the hang of it. But one day you will just make these decisions instinctively, I promise.
And in the meantime, every time you put in that extra bit of mental effort to get a sharp image, and some background separation, you’ll be creating stronger photos that you’ll be proud to put into your family archive.
Understanding how your camera works, and how to control it, is fundamental to creating great images. This lesson has only scratched the surface - there’s a whole lot more to know about shooting in manual mode, the exposure triangle, bracketing, focusing, settings, white balance, lenses, depth of field, light meters, and more.
If you’d like to feel totally confident using your camera, and learn it all in only three hours, check out our super popular tutorial, Extremely Essential Camera Skills. It covers everything you need to know, in a fast and fun format, with videos, illustrations, and lots of sample photos to make learning easy!
Click here to check it out and get it with an instant download - keep on learning, you’re doing great!
"It was worth every penny and I am so excited to put into practice what I've learned. You made concepts I've previously found to be very difficult, easy to understand. It's opened up a whole new world for me in the area of photography.”
In the next lesson, we’re going to talk about the most fundamental part of photography - light. This is one of the biggest challenges you will face in creating great images of your life. So I’m going to take you through the toughest types of light, and how to work with them. Don’t miss it!
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