Practice makes perfect
Becoming a photographer for us is more than turning a passion into a job, its all about being able to focus on what you're good at and make yourself better. We always knew that with every passing day we would improve, but little did we know by how much. Every photo we take is experience and we'd love to share some of this experience with you.
Tools are just the start
You might think that to take the perfect photo you need the best camera, but we, like many other professional photographers disagree. Having a great digital camera sure helps, but it shouldn't be a barrier to getting truly amazing photos. But one thing you should try and get is a camera that allows for manual adjustments, don't shoot in automatic mode (more on this later) and also if you can, shoot in RAW this will mean the photos are unprocessed. When shooting in RAW instead of JPEG you get far more capability in processing your image, but you do require software to do this. But generally any half decent camera should give you a great start.
If you have a DSLR with interchangeable lenses, the lens choice is more important that the camera choice. The lenses we use for our business can cost thousands of pounds, but again it doesn't mean you need to. When you take a photo in the dark on automatic mode, you might find it either grainy or blurry or both, this is because the lens isn't letting enough light in. Using a lens with a higher aperture will help with this. So try to find lenses with a good aperture. You're better spending more money on this, than you are on the camera. You also want to make sure you have the right lens 'zoom' on. Interchangeable lenses work on millimetres, so a 25 mm lens will be very close range and a 400 mm will be quite a long range. Picking the best lens focal length is also important, but remember zoom lenses with varying focal lengths, for example, 25-100mm will be able to adapt to most situations, however generally the aperture is reduced with these lenses meaning they don't work so well in the dark.
But remember, the equipment doesn't matter so much, just make sure you can use manual settings and you're off to a good start.
Shooting in manual
Shooting in manual mode is daunting to many fledgling photographers, but don't be afraid to experiment. The three areas you will want to focus on are aperture, shutter speed and iso. You can start by setting any one of these setting to manual and see how they effect the others. But the only way you'll get the best shot you can, is by taking over the control of the cameras settings.
The problem with automatic shooting is the camera doesn't know what you're taking a photo of. If you're at a party and the light is low, but your friends are moving around, you will likely find it will reduce the shutter speed to compensate. You see, if you reduce the shutter speed, it will allow light in for a longer time, but this also means the picture will still be changing while it gathers the light, that's why they look blurry. If you want moving targets to look still on your photo, you want to be able to set the shutter speed to around 1/100 sec. That means that the shutter is only open for 1/100th of a second, so most human movement is stilled, but because you are reducing the time you allow light in, you must compensate by then letting more light in by increasing the aperture, or increase the sensitivity to light which is ISO. All of this is a balance you must juggle when taking the perfect photo. But you always have help, most cameras have an exposure meter these days, and you want that to be around the 0 mark, meaning it will come out visible.
To help explain these components I'll list them here.
The amount of time the shutter on your camera remains open. A high shutter speed will freeze all movement, so if you want to capture the flapping of a birds wings or a running dog, the perfect photo will need to have a high shutter speed. But this will make your photo darker. Likewise, if you wanted to be artistic and capture some movement, you should lower the shutter speed, setting it just right will mean you get a slight blur to movement, but the main image is still crisp.
Aperture works in reverse to how you might expect. The smaller the number, the wider the opening. A f1.2 aperture is very very wide indeed, whilst a f16 is very narrow. This is how wide the shutter is open, a wide aperture means more light comes in, but this reducing the depth of field, so if you focus on a face with a f1.8, you will notice that everything behind that person is out of focus. This can be very flattering and is ideal for portraiture or wedding photos where you want the subject to really stand out. You can use a wide aperture to counteract a fast shutter speed, to ensure that even when you have moving targets, you can open the aperture up wide and turn the shutter speed up higher. But be careful, if you want to capture more than just one person or object, a high aperture will not allow focus beyond or in front of your main subject. For this reason you must be choose the right aperture for the right job. Individuals are ideally suited to high aperture, but groups will need a narrower aperture to ensure you get everyone in focus.
ISO is the sensitivity to light your setting your camera to. ISO is one factor where the camera itself really can make a difference, but it doesn't mean you can't still get great photos with limited ISO. Since ISO controls the sensitivity of your camera to light, you can use this to compensate for times when you might have to set the shutter speed higher in a dark room to prevent blur, but your taking a photo of a group, so you can't turn the aperture up high enough, by increasing the ISO you make your camera more sensitive to light, but there is a cost. With a higher ISO you allow 'grain' into the picture. Ideally you want the ISO as low as possible when taking a photo. Pro cameras can go as high as 180000 without getting too bad, where as a consumer camera you probably want to keep it below 6000 before the grain becomes too much trouble. Taking photos with 100 ISO is for daylight conditions only, but results in the crispest photos.
Most cameras have an exposure metre, it may not be enabled as default, but the camera always measures light coming into it depending on its settings. This is just a reading to say how the photo will be exposed given the settings you've got on your camera. If you increase the aperture of your camera and let more light in, the exposure will move up. 0 being what the camera believes is a good light photo, +1 will be very bright with some overexposure where its whited out +2 will likely be totally over exposed. Likewise if you then increase the shutter speed you'll see the exposure go down, -1 will be dark with some black areas, and -2 will be very under exposed. You don't need to get the exposure to 0, but try to aim around there, but take a test shot with your settings and see how it comes out. The exposure metre is not 100% accurate, but it gives you a good idea. Use it to get close, then tweak with the settings and review the photos you take.
Once you understand what your camera is doing, its important to get into a good position. The best photographers will intuitively find the best spot for a photo, depending on the subject, but sometimes you just need to find the right level.
For pet photography, equine photography or safari, you should try and get as low to the ground as possible, this can make even the smallest of creatures look grand and allows you to capture them in all their glory. You should also pay special attention to what you want a photo of with animals, if you want a picture of just the head, don't cut off the ears, likewise a full body shot shouldn't cut the tail or any feet off the shot.
Using the rule of thirds can also help a photo. Though this can be flexible, generally if you keep your main subject off centre, either filling two thirds or one third of the photo, this will natually allow the eye to track the subject better and take in what you're intending the subject to be.
For wedding photography or couples or even family photography, you want to pay particular attention to the backgrounds. You should again aim to be low, sometimes crouching can get you a better photo, however what's behind them can make or break a photo. Make sure you don't have exit signs, fire extinguishers or bins littering up the background which can really detract from the perfect image. Find an angle that captures the whole subject in the most artistic way. A face portrait isn't always best face on, a slight tilt can make the difference. For a group, try to get a more interesting angle and have them do something other than stand, even capturing them naturally is normally the best.
Lighting is one of the most important aspects to pay attention to, however its also sometimes the thing we have least control over. Bright sunshine is not normally a good thing for a good photo as this creates harsh shadows, find a shady area or wait for the 'golden hour' where the sun is low in the sky. Shooting into the sun can create some incredible photos, however its also a risk as you can overexpose completely. Make sure you expose to the subject and take a test photo or two to make sure you're getting the picture you want.
The use of a flash can help thing, but a pop up flash is generally to be avoided. These do not work at all well in daylight, but in the dark, without the settings of a pro flash, they will generally try to replace the light in the room with their own light. Unless you can set the flash up to only compliment your current exposure, try to avoid the flash.
The best thing to do, if you're taking photos of your pets, your beautiful bride or your hansom groom, your horse or your house, is experiment. Use manual modes, take as many photos as you can and enjoy the art you create. Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk offer some amazing skies, use them to you're advantage, but remember don't use auto mode, it will rarely give you the artistic flare you're after.
By James Corbett
Nia and James The Photographers