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Photography Tips and Skills for Beginners

Photography Tips and Skills for Beginners

Whenever I think of a useful photography tip, I always write it down for later. Most of them are forgettable, but some are so helpful that I try to tell them to as many photographers as possible. This article contains 20 of the best. These bite-sized photography tips are easy to understand, covering everything from beginner camera technique to creativity and composition. If you’re learning photography, these should be especially helpful for you along the way.

I’ve also made a video with a separate list of tips, if you’re more of a visual learner. It has some more “advanced” tips (mainly some lesser-known photography techniques I like to use) that are different from the tips in the rest of this article. You can watch it here:

Now let’s take a look at my favorite photography tips for beginners.

Work with Your Composition

To take engaging photos, you need to be engaged with what you’re doing. Don’t just fly by on autopilot. Instead, put thought into your composition and try to make your photos as good as possible.

That starts with knowing the basics of how to compose good photos. Don’t cut off important parts of your subject with the edge of your frame. Keep your horizons level, and try to eliminate any distractions in your photo by adjusting your composition. See if your photo has a sense of balance and simplicity. And if the photo doesn’t look good on your first try, keep experimenting until you get it right.

Use the Camera You Already Have

Camera gear is not all that important.

There are countless cameras, lenses, and other accessories on the market today. We spend a lot of time reviewing them at Photography Life, and it’s true that some are better than others (or better suited for a given job). But once you’ve tested enough of them, the real takeaway is that pretty much everything today is excellent. The differences are almost always minor, especially at a given price.

So, use the camera you already have, and don’t look back. In almost every way, today’s entry-level DSLRs are better than the top-of-the-line film SLRs ever were. Yet somehow those film photographers managed to capture beautiful, iconic photos that still look great today.

Much more important are your creative skills and knowledge of camera settings. Focus your effort on those, not on collecting camera equipment.

Learn Which Settings Matter

There are a lot of camera settings, and it takes some practice to get them right, especially as a beginner. Even advanced photographers won’t always do everything perfectly. But it’s worth learning how to set your camera properly, and which camera settings matter the most, so you have the best chance to take the photos you want.

First, try practicing with camera modes other than full Auto. You won’t learn anything if your camera is making all the decisions for you. It might be confusing at first, but hopefully our articles on aperture, shutter speed, and ISO will give you a good head start. Those are the three most important settings in all of photography.

Aside from aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, learn how to focus properly by practicing with the different autofocus modes. You’ll probably prefer single-servo autofocus (also known as One-Shot AF) for stationary subjects, and continuous-servo autofocus (also known as AI Servo) for moving subjects. Don’t use manual focus unless it’s so dark that autofocus isn’t working.

Lastly, shoot in RAW if you want to edit your photos, or think there’s any chance you’ll edit them in the future. JPEGs look good out of camera, but the files have much less latitude for post-processing. (If you aren’t sure, shoot RAW+JPEG, and keep the RAWs for later just in case.) See RAW vs JPEG for more.

Don’t Overexpose Highlights

When you are picking your camera settings, it is critical to avoid overexposing highlights in a photo. The reason? It’s simply impossible to recover any detail from white areas of a photo. Personally, I prefer the sky in my photos to have nice texture and color, rather than being just a big, featureless blob, and I bet you do too.

It’s pretty easy to keep your highlights intact. But this is where shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are so important. These are the only camera settings that directly affect the brightness of a photo (ignoring flash settings, of course). Even exposure compensation – an important setting itself – just tells your camera to change one or more of these three variables.

When you’re taking photos, watch the camera screen to see if there is any overexposure. If there is, the first thing you should do is lower your ISO to its base value (usually ISO 100). If it’s already there, use faster shutter speed. That will take care of the issue. As for aperture, make sure it isn’t set to a crazy value (f/32, f/45, etc.) and you’ll be good.

Pay Attention to the Light

Probably the single most important part of photography is light. If you take a photo with good light, you’ve taken a huge step toward getting a good picture. But what counts as good light? It’s not all about sunsets.

Often, the goal here is to balance the light’s intensity between your subject and background. Even if you’re photographing an amazing sunset, the photo could be ruined by a completely dark and silhouetted foreground.

The easiest way to solve this is to pay attention to the direction and softness of the light. If the light is too harsh, you could get bad shadows going across your subject, which is especially a problem for portrait photography. If the light is coming from an unflattering angle, see what you can do to move the light source (in a studio) or move the subject (outdoors) – or wait until the light is better (landscape photography).

Also, if you’re taking handheld pictures, make sure there is enough light. If not, use a flash or move where it’s brighter. The easiest way to get bland, discolored photos is to shoot in environments without enough light.

Take Your Time

It’s easy to make mistakes in photography if you aren’t careful. The best way around this is to slow down and take your time whenever possible, particularly when you are first beginning to learn photography.

First, double-check your camera settings. If you’re shooting outdoor portraits on a sunny day, but you’re using last night’s settings for photographing the Milky Way, something is terribly wrong. Slow down and take the time to get it right.

Then, keep the same mindset for every other important decision. Is your composition as good as possible? Did you autofocus in the right place? Have you done everything possible to improve the lighting conditions?

And don’t listen to people who tell you to avoid reviewing photos in the field. Sure, it’s a bad idea to review photos when something amazing is happening in front of you, but you’ll almost always have some downtime between shots. Figure out the problems with an image in the field – not back at your computer.

Move Your Feet

It’s easy to get stuck in one place while you’re taking pictures. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, move your feet (or your tripod) as much as possible. Climb on top of things, change the height of your camera, walk forward and backward, do whatever you need to do – but keep moving.

If you take a dozen photos from the same height, facing the same direction, without moving your feet or tripod at all, guess what? They won’t be very different. If your entire portfolio is taken from the same height and without any experimentation, you’re missing out on some great photos.

Moving around is the only way to change the relative sizes and positions of the objects in your photo. Don’t like that your subject is too big and the landscape in the background is too small? Stand back and zoom in. Want to fix a rock that looks distracting? Move around until it’s out of your composition, or too small to be a nuisance.

Know When to Use a Tripod

Tripods are one of the greatest inventions in photography. They all but eliminate one of the trickiest problems there is – a lack of light. With tripods, you can shoot multi-minute exposures and capture details so dark that they are invisible to the human eye. Even in a brighter scene, tripods improve the stability of your composition and help you take sharper photos.

So, when should you use a tripod? If your subject is stationary, almost always. That means landscape photographers, architectural photographers, and still life photographers better have a good excuse if they aren’t using a tripod.

Event photography and action are a bit different because it’s true that a tripod can slow you down. The same is true of travel photography; as much as you may want to bring along a tripod, it might not be worth the hassle.

That’s fair, but know that you’re missing out whenever you leave your tripod at home. If you offered me the choice between an entry-level DSLR and a tripod versus the best camera/lens combo on the market without one, I’d pick the tripod kit every time.

Know When to Use a Flash

Flashes aren’t just meant for dark environments.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re great if you need some extra light. Get an external flash, tilt it at the ceiling, and use a relatively long lens (50mm or longer). Everyone you know will be amazed at the quality of your event photos. It’s the easiest way to get good results without actually knowing what you’re doing.

But flashes are useful outdoors, too, even in the middle of the day. If you’ve ever heard of “fill flash,” this is why it’s so important. You can fill in ugly shadows on your subject just by using a gentle flash – and most people looking at the photo won’t even be able to tell.

It’s silly, but I like to tell people that their camera’s built-in flash is more useful on a bright, sunny day than in the dark. That advice holds just as true here.

Clean Your Camera Lens

I’ve seen too many people walking around with the front element of their camera lens dirty, dusty, and smudged. That’s the easiest way to get blurry photos 100% of the time.

Of course, a little bit of dust won’t do any harm; it won’t even be visible in an image. There are small particles of dust inside every lens, which are impossible to clean without taking apart the lens – and they have no impact on a photo whatsoever.

Instead, I’m talking about lenses that have never been cleaned, with grime and fingerprints that haven’t been removed in ages. Do yourself a favor and get a microfiber cloth and lens cleaning solution. Bring them along on trips and use them at least once a week.

Don’t Use a Cheap Filter

The second easiest way to get blurry photos 100% of the time is to use a cheap filter on the front of your lens.

Personally, when I just started out in photography, my grandfather gave me an old, clear filter from his film camera. It fit my lens perfectly; I was so surprised that I kept it on my lens all the time, never worrying if the glass was up to today’s standards or not. Turns out that it wasn’t. The corners of all my photos were blurry, and any mild bright area in the photo (like the sky or a lamp at night) turned into wicked flare. Here’s a photo I took with this filter, followed by a crop:

But, when you look at just a minimal crop, the blurriness is easy to see:

Don’t make the same mistake I did! Yes, this was an old filter, but cheap ones today do exactly the same thing. Personally, I never use a clear, protective filter on my lens anymore, except in environments where I also need protective eyewear.

Learn Basic Post-Processing

Post-processing isn’t very high on the typical photographer’s priority list, but it probably should be. Sometimes, with the right post-processing, a good photo can turn into something truly exceptional.

It’s easy to overdo it when you’re post-processing, so the most important thing is to make sure none of your edits are permanent (AKA “destructive editing”). Either use the Save As command to preserve your original files or, better yet, edit in software that stores your edits in a separate file rather than baking them into the image.

Post-processing is about imparting a mood and guiding your viewer’s eye in an image. You’ll get better and better at this over time. My top recommendation? Be subtle. You don’t want your photos to look over-processed.

Back Up Your Photos

Almost every photographer I know has lost some important photos at least once in their life. Don’t let this happen to you.

For starters, keep a backup of every single one of your photos. Your photos should never be stored on just a single hard drive at a time, because eventually your hard drive will break. It’s not a question of if, but when.

Ideally, you would have at least three copies of all your photos at a given time. This should include at least two different media types, such as an internal hard drive and a removable storage medium. And at least one of the backups should be stored off-site. This is known as the 3-2-1 rule. It’s the best way to avoid losing any of your photos.

Personally, my photos are my most important possessions, and I don’t want to lose them no matter what. My hard drive is backed up online in real-time, and I have several external hard drives with complete backups as well. It’s overkill, but that’s the point.

Get Organized

Whether you’re an organized or messy person, it’s very important that your photos are easy to find. It’s not just about speeding up your workflow; if you don’t remember how you’ve organized your hard drive, you might end up deleting a folder that contains important images without realizing it.

My method is simply to create a new folder of images for every year, then divide each year by months (labeled “01 January,” “02 February,” and so on, for alphabetical order). Then in my post-processing software, I sort and organize the photos separately into different collections. This way, I can find images from a given location or intended for a particular project.

But this is just one of many possible methods. Some photographers prefer to organize their photos by year, then divide each year by specific events rather than months. The exact method doesn’t matter; use what you’re comfortable with. But make sure that you start good habits early, or you’ll eventually run into a lot of issues.

Try Something New

The more you experiment with photography, the more interesting it becomes. It’s easy to fall into a routine and take similar photos over and over, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s also important to try something new from time to time.

Give macro photography a shot, or test some new lighting techniques. Branch out to a different post-processing style. Be spontaneous and drive to a location you’ve never photographed before. There are so many ways to try something new in photography, and you won’t regret it if you do.

Usually, you’ll discover something – either a new technique or a personal preference – that you can bring back to your regular photography for good results.

Meet Other Photographers

Meeting other photographers is one of the best ways to keep learning and improving, either for inspiration or for advice.

You’d be surprised how much people enjoy sharing their tips and techniques with other photographers. You’ll rarely encounter secrecy or disdain; even the great Ansel Adams wrote several books explaining his photographic techniques.

If you’re the type of person who prefers self-guided learning in photography, this still applies. Ask questions on online forums, email photographers whose work you admire, and otherwise save resources you find valuable. No matter what, don’t stop learning. There’s always more to learn.

Fix Your Weak Points

If you’re still trying to wrap your head around shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, it can be tempting to revert back to Auto mode rather than practicing what you don’t understand. That’s a huge mistake!

If you’re trying to learn portrait photography, but you’re having a hard time getting light from your flash to look good, it can be tempting to take all your indoor pictures next to a window for nice light. That’s also a huge mistake!

If you’re trying to learn post-processing, but your software is confusing, it can be tempting to shoot all your pictures in JPEG to get something good out of the camera. But – you guessed it – that’s another huge mistake!

Don’t work around your weak points. Fix them. The best way to improve your photos is to analyze what you don’t yet understand, then spend the necessary time to learn it. This applies most of all to beginner photographers, who naturally have the most to learn, but even experts would do well to follow this advice.

Look at Your Old Photos

I’ve noticed that a lot of photographers have a tendency to take photos, pick out the best ones from a shoot, then rarely or never return to the others. But there are many reasons why your old, unused photos are some of the most valuable in your portfolio.

First, they help you fix your weak points. Just ask yourself, on average, why are your bad photos bad? Maybe you tend to focus incorrectly, expose too dark or bright, compose awkwardly, and so on. All of that is very useful information since it helps you improve the problem next time.

On top of that, you might find an old photo that truly sings – yet somehow you didn’t notice it the first time. This happens to me from time to time, and it feels like striking gold.

Have Fun

Photography is supposed to be fun. Even professional photographers chose this career, almost without exception, because they enjoy photography. Don’t let that spark die out.

Some of this is down to trying something new, as mentioned earlier – and also continuing to learn new skills. But it’s also about not taking photography too seriously, or getting caught up in camera equipment at the expense of photography itself.

I see a lot of people online get into heated debates about their choice of camera brand, or a good/bad/opinionated review they see from someone else on the internet. Who cares? All of this is contributing to exactly what you’re trying to avoid – making photography just another annoyance in your life, not a source of happiness or joy.

Instead, think about why you like taking pictures. It’s meaningful; it’s a way to see amazing sights and meet brilliant, creative people. No surprise, the best photographers I know are always the ones who have the most fun with it.

Shoot a Lot and Experiment!

Practice, practice, practice. It’s a tip that will get you ahead in any skill, not just photography.

Cameras are complicated. So is post-processing software, and so is (maybe especially) the creative side of photography.

The more you experiment, and the more photos you take, the better your photos will be. It’s not just about the quality, either – it’s also about quantity. You’ll find that later trips and photoshoots almost always have more winners than your early attempts.

That’s not to say your early photos are always going to be bad. The famous Henri Cartier-Bresson quote, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst,” is a bit overdramatic. But I have to admit that there’s some truth to it. You can take great photos when you’re starting out, but it requires some luck, and you’ll continue getting better as you take more pictures.

In short, the more time you spend on photography, the easier it will be to take the photos you have in mind. That’s the end goal in all of this – translating the image in your head, and the emotions you feel, into a photograph that makes other people experience the same thing.


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