So, you've decided to take take the jump. To begin entering the world of photography... Maybe as just as pass-time, or maybe something in it ignites your passions and you want to learn and eventually make a career out of it. But for now, you're stuck on several questions. The most glaring of which: What camera do I buy? In my other post I broke down the various types of cameras most commonly on the market and which benefits and limitations they offer... But I never did touch on which camera is simply "the best".
The simple answer is the best camera is the one you already have... Whether it's a smartphone, a simple point and shoot, a film camera, an entry level DSLR, or so on... It doesn't matter at all if you don't know what you're doing. That's why, long before you commit ample resources to gear, you need to commit time to composition, lighting, setting, and subjects. The best gear on earth won't make an ugly scene less ugly, in fact it may make it look uglier as the Camera is not auto-piloting corrections for you... So here are three beginners tips to producing the best photos with the gear you have, before you invest in the gear you want:
Suggestion One: The Rule of Thirds
While not an absolute rule, and one that is often broken for specific photography needs, the rule of thirds is a crucial concept to understand. Imagine for a second that your photo is divided into a 3x3 grid with lines, just like what you see on your iPhone's stock camera app (screenshot below). Now imagine for a second that you're trying to incorporate balance between your subject, the environment, and the light... With the most fluid and interesting points being captured along the intersecting grid lines. You can go from left to right or right to left and achieve the same results. The end result is a photo that helps engage and feel more natural to the audience observing it. A scene that does more than just showcase a subject, but tells a story about what the subjects are doing, what you the artist are seeing, and what elements of the world are involved. The more engaging a photo can become, the more interest it will gather and the more people will take engage with and relate to it. Composing and staging photos to capitalise on the Rule of Thirds can be the difference between a captivating shot and another one of the billions that gets forgotten about on Istagram feeds.
By telling a story with the rule of thirds as a flexible guideline, you can pain wider narratives of the world you're observing. As you follow this rule more and more, the type of camera in use becomes less and less important... You'll learn that you can compose and produce beautiful photos, even with something as simple and understated as an iPhone... A great resource when in a pinch.
Suggestion Two: Lighting Always Matters!
Once you've started to figure out how to compose your photos and stage your scenes, you next have to look at lighting. Lighting is quite simply one of, if not the most, important rules of photography. Not just how much is in a scene, but what type, what colour, where it is coming from, and how it is being adjusted for in exposure.
While the amount of time I can spend on lighting can be an article in and of itself, for the sake of simplicity this is more about shooting outside and among many various scenes. Studios and manufactured light bring with them their own rewards and challenges.... But I'll use natural light and simple off-body flashes as an example here.
with lighting, one of the key things to remember if you are using natural light (EG the sun), is that sunlight has different colours at different points in the day.
Mornings: As a rule of thumb, early mornings around sunrises produce a unique blend between warm and cool colours. Used correctly, you can gather stunning landscapes, rich and colourful urban scenes, and even some creative portraits.
MidDay: Harsh, bright, blue... This is why most photographers won't shoot outside during midday. There are some exceptions, such as overcasts, covered shadow photos, and adding artificial colours with reflectors... But generally speaking, lunchtime is rest time for photographers.
Afternoons: Offer softer lights, a more natural hue towards warming oranges and yellows. This is when we start to enter "golden hour", a time when our suns rays and our planets atmosphere align to set off gorgeous colour displays that can change the way any scene looks. But it does much more than add more colour.
In fact, the right lighting can be the difference between textures and features appearing in plain detail or being lost. The "Golden Hour" varies by time of year and location, but it is something every beginning photographer should learn to use to their advantage. By allowing the natural transitions in colour to assist with your photos, you can accent your creative works with vibrant, rich, real textures and feelings. Consider this when shooting portraits especially, as well as landscapes and urban scenes.
Next, lighting plays a big role in what features we see. When shooting portraits, whether using off-camera flash, natural light, or a mixture of natural light and reflectors, its important to understand what light is doing to your scene... Too harsh of light, or light coming from overhead only, can severely impact a subject. This is most notable in portraits, where depending on above-scene lighting can severely damage an image. The main reason for this is that your subjects eyes are slightly recessed below their brow... An above-head source will cast shadows on the eyes of your subjects and remove life from them. This is why it is important to always look for the glimmer in your subjects eyes... If you can focus on seeing the reflection of light sources in their eyes and being able to discern their eye colour, you'll be one step closer to producing great portraits. And the type of camera used won't be much of a concern.
In addition to making sure the light sources are correctly aimed and used, it's important to know that colours matter, too. Reflectors are a great way to add light and control the colour of it. Many come with several sides and reversible covers, which gives a large spectrum of lights anywhere from simple opaque white to silver and golds. Each choice will have a drastic impact on the colours your subject is absorbed in and it matters a great deal. In using these sides and experimenting with the contrasts each can introduce to a specific lighting scene, you can drastically improve your photo regardless of what device is used to capture it.
Suggestion Three: Location, location, location!
So you're wanting to showcase your stories using better composition... You've chosen how to stage your subject. You've got the lighting you want. Now you're beginning to frame that perfect shot... But suddenly, the background is in focus and theres a trashcan right over the shoulder of your subject. Whoops, now it's pretty trashy!
This is why location is so important in telling your story... Even when the story is the location. One way around this is to photograph the environment in absence of the subject first and ask yourself what you see. Another is to simply canvas the area with your eyes and ask if the scene works. In some cases, a soft bokeh behind the subject can remove some undesired items. In others, bokeh may not be enough or may worsen the obstruction. For this reason, it is good to know exactly what you are shooting, where you are shooting, and how it may impact your photos. If you're in crowded places like cityscapes, this may mean being creative with the environment or avoidant of some items of it. In nature, it could mean choosing areas that are absent certain colours or shapes.
Another thing to keep in mind is how the textures and colours of your environment may impact the foreground and subject. In most cases, you'll want to create a starch contrast between the surrounding and the subject. This can be controlled by the colours the subject wears, the textures of the clothing, or the same for the backdrop in question. Always be looking at how your environment and location impact the shot. This can be the difference between producing a beautiful photo with interesting elements and simply having something in the background override the shot entirely.
Pay attention to focus points and be mindful about how your aperture will impact the depth of field. The more of the background that is visible, the more your primary subject will fight with the environment to stand out. Luckily, most smartphones even feature "portrait modes" now that allow you to artificially bokeh your subjects background. Learning to do this before investing into expensive gear is a great technique... And you'll learn that you can take excellent photos using nothing more than a smartphone and some creativity! Knowing how to properly and effectively use the gear you have now can best prepare you for the gear you may want later!