10 Photography Tips for Enthusiasts
By Jim Fisher
1. Shoot in Raw. Most digital cameras are set to capture files in JPG format by default. This is very convenient, as it allows you to quickly share files with friends and family—without the need for post-processing. But you're giving up a lot of control by not shooting in Raw—which is an unprocessed file that contains the image as the camera's sensor captured it. A Raw file allows you to tweak colors, exposure, black levels, sharpness, and other attributes with much more flexibility than an already-compressed JPG allows.
2. Consider Off-Camera Lighting. You may have already added a dedicated flash to your camera so that you can avoid the harsh light created by the on-camera flash. But if you really want to experiment with flash photography, moving the flash away from the camera is key. Consider a PocketWizard system of wireless remotes to do so. If you're looking for tips and techniques on how to really use off-camera flashes effectively, check out the Strobist.
3. Try Some Different Lenses. Chances are you've already moved away from the 18-55mm kit lens, either opting for a better quality zoom or a fast prime lens. But if you're stuck in a creative rut, or just want to experiment with some new types of photography, a specialized lens can really come in handy. You can opt for a super-sharp macro lens that can focus close and fill your frame with small objects. You can go in the opposite direction and grab a Lensbaby, a fun lens system that allows you to adjust the plane of focus, creating photos that have a sharp point of focus that gives way to soft, swirly, dreaminess.
If you have a mirrorless camera like a Sony Alpha NEX-C3 or Olympus E-P3 your choices are even more vast. There are numerous lens adapters available that make it possible to mount virtually any lens to these cameras for use in manual focus mode. More interesting options include CCTV lenses, which are generally very fast, but produce images with extremely soft corners, Russian rangefinder lenses like the Industar-69, and lenses from toy cameras like the Holga. Check out How to Use Vintage Lenses on Mirrorless Cameras for more ideas.
4. Keep Your Sensor Clean. If you're the type to change lenses in the field, there's a good chance that you've got some dust on your image sensor. This is often invisible at wider apertures, but if you take a photo at f/5.6 or smaller these spots can distract from your photo. Visible Dust and Lenspen both offer systems for cleaning your camera's sensor.
5. Get a Warm Balance Cap. White balance is important in digital photography if you'd like to get accurate colors, but there are times when you'd like those tones to be just a bit warmer than normal. Using a surface that is just a bit cooler than a true white to balance the camera will result in photos that are a little bit warmer—closer to the red end of the visible spectrum than the violet—which can be perfect for portraiture. BRNO makes lens caps that ship with translucent domes for true white balance as well as warm balance. Simply cap your lens, point the camera at a light source, and take a manual white balance measurement. It's a quick way to help you get the right colors in the field, which can save you time in your workflow application when you get home.
6. Replace Your Strap. If you're going to be doing a lot of shooting, you should be comfortable. If you're lugging your D-SLR or mirrorless camera around on the neck strap that came in the box, don't. There are dozens of third-party options out there—many of which are more comfortable and practical. Straps by BlackRapid are often used by event photographers who carry multiple bodies with heavy lenses attached. Op/Tech also makes a wide variety of straps in styles that are suitable for use for everything from light mirrorless cameras to heavy D-SLRs.
7. Invest in a Workflow Application. You'll need some software to process your Raw images. The best options are Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Apple Aperture. Both offer nondestructive approaches to editing photos—which basically means that the programs record a list of changes that should be made to the Raw file and then output a JPG or TIF version for sharing and printing. And, best of all, both are available in free 30-day trial versions, so you can try out the software before buying.
8. Experiment With Post-Processing. It's fun to experiment with the final look and feel of your photos. You can do a lot in Lightroom and Aperture, but sometimes you're looking for a very specific feel that is out of reach for those applications. Nik Software has a suite of applications that apply different film looks to photos, and can also be used for HDR processing.
9. Print Your Work. It's easy to share your photos online or to view them on a digital picture frame, but if you take a photo that you truly love, it deserves to be printed. You can print at home on an inkjet, but for the best results you'll want to go with a dedicated printing service. Sites like Smugmug and Mpix offer fun ways to display your work, including prints on canvas, metallic paper, and true black and white photo paper for a classic look. You can also opt for a custom photo book, an update on the classic family album with your photos printed directly onto the pages.
10. Upgrade Your Camera for the Right Reasons. If you're enthusiastic about your photos, you might be itching to buy a new camera. There are plenty of reasons to upgrade, but you don't always have to have the latest camera to take good photos. If you're using an entry-level D-SLR, you'd be better served moving up to a higher-class body rather than a higher-resolution camera of the same class. Semi-pro D-SLRs offer better-quality viewfinders, more physical controls, and sturdier construction. For high-end camera shopping advice, check out How to Buy a Digital SLR.
If you're in the market for a new camera, peruse the Digital Cameras Product Guide for the latest reviews, and The 10 Best Digital Cameras, for the top cameras we've tested.