25 Photography techniques
Whether you’re using a phone, a camera or a drone, Mark Pickavance’s tips will help you take better photos
Unlike the film photography era, it doesn’t cost anything to take pictures, unless you count the price of your phone or DSLR. Not having to worry about how many shots you’re taking is a major advantage, because it allows for experimentation. The more of this you do, the greater understanding you’ll have of what your device can do, how the controls work, and how to get the best out of what technology is to hand.
Most of our tips cost little or nothing, so you’ve no excuse for not trying them out. While our advice is primarily aimed at those with a digital SLR camera, many of the tips apply equally to any camera, including those on smartphones. Plus, phone cameras are getting surprisingly good these days.
1. Aperture priority
The aperture priority is enabled by using ‘A’ or ‘Av’ mode on most DSLR camera dials. Selecting this mode will empower the DSLR to decide ISO and shutter speed, while leaving aperture as the single feature that’s not camera controlled.
The function of the aperture is to control the amount of light entering the sensor, and control depth of field. Doing this allows you to blur out the background and drive the focus entirely where the images are sharpest.
A high aperture setting or f/1.4 or f2.0 (which lets in a lot of light) will give a very narrow depth of field, where a low one such as f/22 (which is a tiny hole that lets in much less light) will make a deep one with much of the scene in focus. The more expensive lenses offer high aperture settings, allowing for more overall focus control.
When using aperture priority keep an eye on the shutter speed, because should it get below 1/30 second, it will become difficult to shoot handheld and avoid blurry photos.
2. Sporting shots
Unless you’re photographing Crown Green Bowls, the speed of those taking part becomes a critical factor in how you approach getting decent sports photographs.
Ideally, you usually want to freeze the subject in action, requiring a high shutter speed in preference to aperture control.
Using shutter priority mode is the obvious choice, usually the ‘S’ setting on the mode dial. The beauty of shutter priority is that you can set 1/500 of a second, and know that you’ll get precisely that.
However, a high shutter speed doesn’t suit all sports. Photographing racing cars, for example, is best done at a slower shutter, tracking the car to create motion blur around it, while leaving the vehicle sharp.
Conversely, any sport with water is often best shot at the very highest possible speed, capturing all the liquid surface details.
What you can’t ignore is what the camera does with the aperture. With a high f/22 setting the background will be as detailed as the foreground competitor/ vehicle, unhelpfully.
Those wanting to shoot sports on a regular basis will need a big 400mm (or longer) lens, a supporting monopod, and be happy to sift through many hundreds of images that never quite caught the moment.
3. Long exposures
Using long exposure times, you can capture the movement of stars, cars on the road at night and the airliners on their final approach. The trick is balancing the light entering the lens with the length of exposure. The timing requires a bit of guesswork because the light metering in most DSLRs just doesn’t work well for multi-second or minute long exposures.
The mode you need to use is called ‘Bulb’, and it allows you to hold the shutter open for as long as is necessary.
Depending what you’re trying to capture, that might be a few seconds or hours.
To avoid movement of the camera, you’ll also need a sturdy tripod and a release cable to operate the shutter.
It’s worth noting that some traditional long exposure effects, like star trails, are often easier to achieve by taking multiple short exposure sequential shots and combining them in post-production.
4. The Thirds rule
This notion might seem highly unscientific, but humans like the composition of things where objects and transitions happen at approximately one third from the sides of the image, vertically and horizontally.
Known as the ‘rule of thirds’, photography students are taught to place those things they’d like the viewer to focus on along these lines and the intersections between the horizontal and vertical lines.
To help in this most cameras will provide a grid, though oddly most DSLR cameras have a grid with quarters or ‘fourths’, not thirds. (Most smartphone camera apps also have a grid overlay which can be enabled.)
The answer for DSLRs is to buy an extra screen protector and mark it with your own ‘thirds’ lines, solving the problem for minimal outlay.
On some cameras, it is possible to replace the focusing screen element with one marked with thirds. But that isn’t an exercise for the faint-hearted, and these replacements cost much more than a plastic screen protector. Many images have symmetry where important elements seem to align with the rule of thirds, even if some people don’t accept it’s a thing.
5. Thirds on Photoshop
If you want to see a ‘thirds’ grid overlaying any image in Photoshop (see below), here’s the procedure: Open Photoshop Press Ctrl-K (Alt-K on the Mac) Select ‘Guides, Grid & Slices’ Set Gridline Every to ‘100’ and ‘Percent’ Set subdivisions to 3
Make sure that Grid is ‘shown’, and you’ll see where the thirds are on any image.
6. How to shoot sunsets
Great sunset shots are about preparation, and not just being there when the sun goes down. But first, be safe. Always use ‘live view’ on the camera display and not direct or optical viewing, as you can damage your eyesight should the clouds suddenly part.
Those wanting to shoot the setting sun in detail will need at least a 200mm lens, and a tripod to avoid camera shake or high grain (ISO 800 or higher) images.
Those who want to capture a landscape at sunset have two basic options; accept a silhouette or use multiple combined exposures. In a silhouetted sky that region becomes the critical exposure concern. Unless you’ve got lots of water to reflect it. Alternatively, you can shoot bracketed exposures to bring out the detail and colour in the landscape lost on those frames where the sun and sky look amazing.
The best modes for sunset shots are either with an aperture or shutter priority. Pick one of these and then keep adjusting
that control while shooting a spread of different settings. Using exposure locking onto dark areas is often a good plan, and always shoot RAW files so you can reclaim lost detail where needed.
For each amazing sunset shot a photographer gets, there are usually hundreds that didn’t quite work. It’s mostly about perseverance.
7. Better sea shots
Photographing the ocean can be a challenge, mostly because so much of what you see in the water is reflected sky. If the sky isn’t interesting, then the sea won’t be either. One way to get an interesting seascape is to wait for an especially windy day, and one that has the odd break in the clouds is ideal.
Shooting at high shutter speed should pull some great detail out of the churning surf. But please be mindful of safety. Don’t stand anywhere that could get your equipment might get wet or swept away.
8. How to photograph children
For obvious reasons, when photographing youngsters make sure that you have the permission of those responsible for them to do that. Great shots of them usually involve capturing those moments when they’re engrossed in what they’re doing and oblivious to the camera.
Staged shots often look staged because children aren’t naturally still, posed or perfectly behaved. They look best being natural, so aim to show that. The best shots of children are usually taken with a reasonably wide angle lens and at short range when they’re least aware of you.
Shooting in burst mode is also a good way to catch the fleeting expressions that children often make.
9. How to photograph landscapes
Capturing a great landscape shot is usually a combination of the right light, the best location and a good composition. Light is best during the ‘golden hours’ (see our tip on how to get good lighting on page 85), and you can enhance any location by knowing the terrain and discovering the best aspects.
A good composition is about seeing a balance in the framing or at least capturing enough of what’s there to allow you to crop it perfectly when you get home.
Use a narrow (f/22) aperture to make sure the entire shot is in focus. Don’t be tempted to use a very wide-angle lens that misses what’s interesting or dramatic in a scene, and think about the foreground as much as the most distant objects. Creating depth in a landscape provides a context and scale.
10. How to take a better group portrait
With each added person to a group, the possibility of them all doing what you want at the same time becomes increasingly small. The real trick is, therefore, organisation. Telling everyone where they should be, and possibly where they should look.
Never take just one picture, take lots in burst mode, because you might even need to stitch the best together to get everyone to look their best at the same time.
Don’t be concerned about getting in close, as unless it’s a fashion shoot very few people will be concerned if their shoes aren’t in shot.
11. Don’t buy cheap flash cards
There was a time when flash memory was expensive, and large capacity cards could be outrageous. They’re not any longer, so don’t skimp on getting a decent brand and a high-speed specification.
Buy Class 10 cards, even if you’re camera will work with lower specification ones. It will make saving the shots quicker, allowing for faster burst speeds, and it will also increase the speed of transfer to the computer.
12. How to take a better selfie
The problem with smartphone selfies is that most phones front-facing cameras are rubbish compared with the rear-facing one. That’s because they were designed mostly for live video conversations, and not taking still images.
There a few ways you can get around this, the most obvious being to shoot into a mirror. Alternatively, on Android and iOS, there are plenty of apps that can identify a face and will tell you when you’ve aligned the phone correctly to take a picture without having a
screen to see. This method
can work, but not reliably. Another method to improve your results is to buy a selfie lens.
These can either give your front facing camera a wide-angle/fisheye modification, enabling you can see more of your surroundings and less of you in the frame.
13. How to improve low light or night photos
It might seem obvious, but you should disable the flash unless you want to illuminate something nearby. And then, if you do then use a flash extension cable and flash from the side rather than from the camera. All night/dark photos are a fine balance between capturing a clear image, shutter speed and the graininess that high ISO values can introduce.
Use shutter priority to set 1/30 speed, ISO to 800, and use the f-stop as the flexible parameter. If you have something to rest the camera on, you can go to 1/15 and depending
on the camera push the ISO even higher. In general, don’t use a flash, even if the camera will always use one in automatic mode.
Turning the flash off vastly improved this scene taken in a cave (see page 86).
14. How to get good lighting
Shooting on an overcast day with indistinct shadows can suck all the life out of any amazing vista. The best times of the day to shoot are the ‘golden hours’, just after dawn and before dusk. At this time you should still get plenty of light, long shadows and an attractive colour component.
Avoid midday, when the sun is directly overhead, and also consider that when
you’ve plenty of reflective surfaces such as the seaside, the amount of light bouncing around can send shutter speeds very high even at 100 ISO settings.
Professional photographers are always pursuing ‘good light’, and that’s mostly about being prepared to get up early or wait for the right conditions to prevail.
15. When to use a polariser
Some photographers always have a polarising filter installed, but there are only limited situations where they’re a necessity. Its job is to cut down light that’s scattered by atmospherics or is coming in at sharp angles causing glare.
They work best when the sun is either directly behind you or up to 90 degrees left or right, while in the direction of the sun they have no impact at all. Shooting water, misty landscapes and delicate cloud formations benefit most.
The downside of using them is that along with diffused light reduction they also tend to notch the colour saturation down too. Because of this avoid using one to capture a sunset or fireworks.
The best results from using a polariser come from water photography, where you can rotate the filter to provide the perfect amount of refracted light removal. Just watch out for zoom lenses that rotate the end of the lens as they extend/retract, because that will alter the amount of polarisation you see. On the left is a photo taken with no polariser. Using a polarising filter makes the sky extra blue and gives cloud details more punch.
16. How to shoot HDR on a DSLR
HDR or High-dynamic-range is a technique that’s become very popular since the inception of the digital photography. The idea is to capture multiple exposures and then combine them in post-production to provide a much wider dynamic range than the sensor could achieve in a single shot.
Most cameras have an built-in HDR mode, but the best results come from using exposure bracketing and assembling the image away from the camera.
Typically, exposure bracketing allows three, five or seven images to be fired off in rapid succession, with a different exposure on each. The exact increment and centre point of exposure are usually definable in
the camera settings, as is the increment. When the images are recombined on the PC (or Mac) using Photoshop or the many free HDR tools available, you should end up with detailed shadows without blownout highlights. Because of the time delay between shots, it is best to restrict this technique to static scenes and avoid moving subjects. And, unless you’ve got a very rapid burst mode and strong light, using a tripod is also a necessity.
Photos 1, 2 and 3 (above) were taken at different exposures. The three shots are recombined in software to create one image (4) with enhanced dynamic range.
18. HDR from a single image
If you’ve only a single image, you can still process it to get the very best out of the captured data within it, especially if you use a RAW file format.
Using a Photoshop plugin like HDR Efex Pro 2 (free from Google) or standalone PC applications such as Luminance HDR, significant amounts of detail can be extracted from one image.
Alternatively, you can take any image and alter the levels to bring out the shadow and highlight details, saving them as separate images, and then recombine them for HDR processing.
Even using a single RAW image, you’ll be impressed with what tone mapping can pull out of what looks like a rather unexciting and flat image. Processing a single image using tonal mapping tools can exploit the hidden data in an image.
19. How to shoot in black and white
Digital black and white is shooting colour with the intention to eliminate it later, even if you use the hue data in post processing. Most cameras offer a black and white viewfinder mode or in-camera processing. Nikon, for example, will convert the JPG to black and white, while shooting in RAW+JPG, though the RAW will still contain colour. It then shows you the mono JPG on the viewfinder. These features help, but it’s also down to the photographer’s eye to see the light and dark within the frame and understand how that might work in monochrome.
Photoshop has excellent control over the conversion process, letting you reduce or enhance different channels, making it one of the best tools for black and white to work. You can do this at the camera with coloured filters, but that limits the options available to you in post processing. However skilled you are with using these features, the real trick is to pick subjects with high contrast that don’t rely on colour for composition or impact.
As shown above, low contrast scenes or ones with strong colour don’t convert well. However, those with high contrast can look spectacular (see below)
20. The tilt-shift technique
The use of perspective control lenses goes back a long time, with Nikon selling
the first one for their SLR cameras back in 1962. You can still buy these devices, and they are often used by architecture photographers to shoot tall buildings.
However, most digital photographers use a software simulation of the effect on the computer to take an image and tinker with the perspective and focus. The common use is to fake miniature scenes with real locations, but they can also solve the perspective issue of shooting large objects from relatively low level.
Many tilt-shift shots are often taken from an elevated location, simulating a viewing angle is the one that you’d experience looking down on a model city/scene.
You can buy a proper tilt shifting lens, or use software (such as Photoshop or Lightroom) instead that usually offers more control. Plenty of phone apps have a tilt-shift effect, too.
21. Shooting Panoramas on a DSLR
The most basic requirement for doing good panoramas with a camera is a tripod. Using one allows the camera to pan accurately, and avoid unintentional pitch angle changes.
At least a third of each frame should overlap the next, and much more overlap if there are foreground objects close to you. Having a grid with ‘thirds’ active is good if you have that, and any viewfinder grid is a useful reference. For those wanting the very best quality creating a horizontal panorama should consider shooting in portrait mode, as it will give you the best vertical resolution. And, always use exposure lock, so that all the images end up with the same light levels.
There are special tripod mounts available to help shoot panoramic, though you’d need to be very keen on them to invest in one of these. Those with even greater resources should buy a drone, for the ultimate panoramic results. A Panorama can be vertical and not horizontal, especially if you’ve got access to a drone (see right).
22. No macro lens, no problem
Shooting small objects is problematic because most standard lenses won’t focus on anything very close. The answer is a Macro lens, although even these have limits as to exactly how close they will work.
A cheap workaround that offers amazing results is a reversing ring that allows you to attach a lens backwards to the DSLR. These cost very little, less than £5, and can allow you to capture stunning macro shots without a macro lens.
These rings work best with old manual focus lenses. They can also be found very cheaply online if you need one. The other prerequisites include a good tripod, a shutter release to avoid shake and a DSLR that will still shoot when it thinks no lens is attached.
As the lens won’t be electronically connected to the camera, focusing will be manual, and you’ll need to adjust shutter speed to achieve the perfect exposure. Top get enough light into the lens wedge out the aperture control with something stable, a blob of Blu-Tack comes in handy.
The rest is about experimentation, and dealing with having a very small part of the object in perfect focus. Get all this right, and you can achieve some stunning results.
23. Use a wide-angle, prime or telephoto lens
It’s tempting when many DSLR cameras come with a very good kit lens to just use that and entirely negate the real reason for owning a DSLR over a bridge camera. After the outlay on a DSLR starter kit, further immediate investment is often the issue.
However, having a decent wide angle, telephoto and a good prime lens are essential for anyone wanting to take photography seriously. What many don’t realise is that you can get good lenses for many systems at very low prices, if they accept a few limitations.
Older lenses, some even pre-DSLR, will usually fit onto a modern body, with the
24. Experiment with framing
We’ve all seen enough photos where people are half-inshot or missing the tops of their heads to realise how important framing can be. But, sometimes picking an interesting angle or cropping the subject can improve a photo rather than detract from it.
Here are three images of a hot air balloon. The first is the balloon in its entirety, nice but not very exciting. The second is better because the burner creates extra interest. The third is equally pleasing because the angle says something about how balloons travel, up-up-and-away.
You have very little to lose by framing in less obvious ways, so try it. limitations being that the autofocus won’t work and the automatic aperture control might also be disabled. For prime lenses, these aren’t massive issues, and the result of using a cheap 50mm f/1.8 lens over the stock 18- to 70mm f/3.5 is huge when shooting portraits. And when we say cheap, you really can pick these up for around £60 to £70. Get cheaper old or lower quality new lenses to start, and then when you’ve learned to appreciate what they can do it’s easier to justify an investment in better glass.
25. When to use ND Filters
Neutral density filters appear to do something most photographers wouldn’t want, as they cut the amount of light entering the camera. However, there are some situations where you’ll require a short focal length at ISO 100, but not a high shutter speed. Because motion blur being visible on the wings of a hovering bee might be preferable, for example. The ND filter enables you to reduce the incoming light without altering the aperture and ending up with a deeper than intended depth of field.
They’re also very useful on drone cameras to avoid choppy video caused by high shutter speeds removing all the motion blur. It might seem counter-intuitive, but reducing the light entering the lens can be useful.
They’re also useful on drone cameras to avoid choppy video caused by high shutter speeds removing all the motion blur. Reducing the light entering the lens can be useful