Want to know a secret? Every photographer wants to take better photos. Shhhh…don’t tell anyone but you, me and yes even those “famous” photographers all want to make stronger and more impactful photographs. That’s the wonderful(and frustrating) thing about photography; there is always room to improve ourselves and our work. The most simple yet often most painstakingly effective method for getting better at what we do is practice, patience and vigilance. It takes a while to become a “good photographer”…whatever that is.
But there are a few things that we all can do to immediately improve the images that we make. These are all simple practices that can go a long way to making your photographs sharper, cleaner and let’s face it, more appealing to more people. I’ve listed off five tips that will help you take a few giant leaps in your photographic evolution.
1. Use the Reciprocity Rule
I’ve always been of the belief that there are very few absolutes in life. This is especially true when it comes to photography so when I use impose the word “rule” please, take it lightly. The Reciprocity Rule is no more than an easy estimation for the slowest shutter speed you can use while still avoiding camera shake if shooting had held. It’s based on the focal length(zoom) in millimeters of the lens you happen to be using at any given time. The Reciprocity Rul…eh…guideline tells us that your shutter speed should be no slower than “1” over your given focal length. Meaning that if you’re shooting at 80mm your slowest hand held shutter speed should be no longer than 1/80 seconds. If you’re shooting at 50mm then it would be 1/50 second or at 300mm not longer than 1/300 second and so on and so forth. Again this is always just going to be an estimation but it is something that I use virtually all the time to help bag sharper photographs. Have a look at these two images. Both were shot using an 85mm lens but one photo adhered to the maximum shutter speed indicated by the Reciprocity Rule and the other did not….
According to the Rule, my slowest shutter speed at 85mm would be 1/85 seconds. Notice the camera shake in the first image which was shot at 1/40 second? Then look at the second image that was shot after I rounded the shutter speed to the next fastest setting to 1/85 which was 1/100 second.Try it out and see how much you will reduce sharpness robbing camera shake. Speaking of sharpness…
2. Don’t Fear the ISO
In today’s weird world of digital a good number of photographers have begun to make a ISO out to be the bad guy. The fact of the matter is that shooting an image with higher ISO means that you can use a faster shutter speed…a faster shutter speed translates into less camera shake(see where I’m going with this?) which…drum roll…means a sharper image. Today’s digital sensor are light years ahead of the sensors from ten or even six years ago. If 40 is the new 30 then ISO 6400 is the new 2000. It is almost always preferable to have an image with more perceived noise than one that is unintentionally blurry.
Doubling the ISO means you are making your image sensor twice as sensitive to light. This means you can half the exposure time for each instance you double the ISO while still maintaining exposure. So don’t let a little increased noise in your photo deter you from bumping up your ISO in order to keep that fast shutter speed. I can guarantee that any person critiquing your images will point out the blur before the noise every single time.
3. Get up early…stay out late
I don’t have to tell you that morning and evening light is also the best light. The gold and blue hours before and after each sunset or sunrise can transform even a mundane scene into one of photographic splendor. The downside, you will have to get up early if you want to catch that magical sunrise and you’ll have to stay out late(or all night) to get those stars dancing around the Milky Way. Is it worth it? Sometimes it will be, sometimes it won’t. You won’t always come away with a photo that makes your heart skip but the cold hard truth is that you will NEVER bag that perfect image if you don’t put in the effort to be present for the shot.
Remember, the golden and blue hours aren’t truly an hour each and the duration for each one will vary. If you want to get technical, the time when the sun begins to give that awesome golden hour light is when it is anywhere between 6 degrees above the horizon. On the other hand, that nice soothing blue hour light happens when the sun is below the horizon at about that same degree of measurement(usually a little less than 6 degrees). When in doubt, for morning shots just find out when sunrise will be for your area and put yourself at your shooting spot an hour prior for golden hour. If afternoon blue and golden hour is your goal then make sure you’re ready to start shooting an hour before the time of sunset. Keep in mind though, mountainous areas can play havoc with known sunrise and sunset times!
4. What am I supposed to do with my hands?
One of the best ways to make better photographs has nothing to do with your camera settings or being at the right place at the right time. In fact, it’s one of the easiest things you can do to get sharper photos yet not everyone realizes it until it’s too late. The key to helping to reduce camera shake when shooting handheld(and thus increasing sharpness) is proper camera holding technique and mechanics. Making yourself as stable as possible will work wonders for your images. Here are a few easy fixes for most folks who find it difficult to hold their camera steady.
Grip the camera firmly…but not with a strangle hold
This is the Goldie Locks of camera techniques…not too hard…not too soft. Holding your camera properly makes not only for a more stable and relaxed shooting platform but it also makes for a more comfortable experience for your hands which means you’ll want to shoot more often.
Grip the camera with your right hand(sorry lefties!) with your left hand beneath the lens for support. Learn to keep your hands relaxed yet able to manipulate the buttons and switches readily. It can be easy to over-grip both the camera and lens especially during the excitement of tense shooting situations but try to avoid becoming too rigid! Over-gripping the camera or lens can cause muscles to tremble in your hands resulting in increased camera shake.
Try the “push pull” technique
Ultimately, your camera grip will evolve as you shoot more and more but one camera holding technique you should at least give a try is what I call the “push/pull” method. The technique is exactly as it sounds; it involves slightly pushing forward with your camera hand while gently pulling backwards with your lens hand. This counteracting force helps to stabilize the camera and makes for a less shaky shot. But don’t over do it! Remember to push or pull only slightly and pay careful attention with your lens hand as some zoom lenses can actually zoom in or out with a pull!
Tuck in those elbows!
This is the #1 mistake I see while people watching in highly trafficked photo areas. Many photographers will grow wings! Subconsciously we sometimes raise our elbows outwardly when we shoot. This destabilizes our arms and makes our entire bodies less steady. The more muscles you use the more movement that is likely to be transferred to your hands which in turn will cause more camera shake…and you know what camera shake does…. When you’re shooting, always stay mindful to keep your elbows tucked in close to your body.
This keeps your center of gravity well…more centered…and it also makes for better body mechanics by keeping the weight of the camera more on your bone structure and not your muscles. When everything is more stable your camera will become more stable as if by magic.
I’ve saved the best way to instantly improve your photography for the last. It is a little different than the other tips but for me it’s the most important. It doesn’t even involve a camera. Instead, it comes down to your state of mind while shooting. Much like Bill Murray, I’m a firm believer that we become better at everything when we are relaxed and calm. This is especially true when it comes to making photographs. You love what you do or else you wouldn’t be reading this article so why turn your shooting experience into an exercise in anxiety by overthinking and worrying over every aspect of the process?
When you find yourself worrying just a little too much about choosing ISO 3200 or debating whether or not the top of that tree is too close to the horizon, just take step back and breathe. Remember that while our intentions may be perfect our images never will…at least to us. So don’t allow yourself to become so distracted by the technical that you forget why you’re there making images in the first place. Slow down, relax, and let the photograph happen. I’m sure you’ll find your images taking on new life. You might even begin to enjoy your camera time more than ever before.
There are loads of ways to improve your photography. Luckily, the majority of them don’t cost any money and better yet you can put them into practice right now. Let’s round out this article by hitting the high points on some ways to make better pictures you can put into action today:
- Use the Reciprocity Rul…Guideline. To get sharper images when shooting handheld don’t set your shutter speed any slower than “1” over the focal length of your lens…50mm lens would be 1/50 and so on.
- Don’t be afraid to use higher ISO settings. Higher ISO means that you can shoot faster shutter speeds which in turn translates to sharper photos. A little digital noise is better than a blurry photograph!
- Get up early and stay out late. The golden and blue hours of surrounding sunrise and sunset offer some of the best light for making photographs. Going further, astrophotography will require some late nights as well!
- Use good camera holding and body mechanics. Start from the ground up to make better photographs. Hold your camera firmly yet gently and tuck in those elbows. The more steady your shooting platform the more sharp your images will become.
- Relax. Yes, being relaxed while your shooting can make all the difference not only in the way you feel but also in the quality of your photos. Take in a breath and enjoy the experience that is photography. Your images will thank you.
Everyone wants to make better photographs. Use the simple techniques you’ve read about here and begin making your images better today. It’s not difficult to make small changes that will reap big rewards. Happy shooting!
Photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find me on some distant trail making photographs or at my computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Pick up a copy of my new photo book of wild pony portraits, Faces of Grayson.