Beginner Tips for Better Photography

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This is one of the first of my own photos that I really liked.

This is one of the first of my own photos that I really liked.

This is the first in a three-part series on improving your photography at every level of ability. This “beginner” article will be followed by “intermediate” and “advanced” articles over the next couple of weeks.


Congratulations! You’ve purchased your first digital camera and are ready to jump right in. Maybe you’re a little intimidated by all of the modes, menus and buttons on your camera. It’s possible that you are dissatisfied with your first few (hundred!) photos. Perhaps you’ve looked through Flickr or 500px and have wondered how on earth the photographers captured the shots, and if you could ever possibly be that good.

The answer is, YES YOU CAN! And here are some tips on how to go about doing just that. I’m hearkening back to the days when I was first getting started, and these were the items that I recall were most important for my own learning experience.

One - First thing’s first, read your camera’s manual. It may seem like a pretty darned obvious tip, but you’d be surprised at how many people just leave the manual in the box and try to figure things out for themselves. Then they get frustrated with the camera, annoyed at themselves, and take some of the joy out of new camera ownership. So, sit there on the couch with the camera in your lap and follow the directions for the various capabilities of your particular model. Become familiar with all of the buttons, dials, and menus and practice getting to them quickly and easily. If you don’t understand the concept that is being explained – say, exposure compensation, or bracketing – pull out your laptop and do a little research. Knowing what your camera can do, and knowing what those capabilities mean, should be your first step. Then when you’re ready to try out those concepts for the first time, you’ll know how to make your camera do what you want. Also, if you find your camera’s manual lacking (as I did with my Canon 7D), buy a book about it. I picked up David Busch’s Canon EOS 7D Guide to Digital SLR Photography and learned a TON more than I would have by just reading the manual that came with the camera.

I used to center my shots all the time.

I used to center my shots all the time.

Two - Pay attention to composition. Nine times out of ten, when you look at a photo that you took and don’t understand why it doesn’t resonate with you when someone else’s photo of a similar subject did, it’s probably because of the composition. Composition means the difference between art and banality. It can create interest and differentiate between a snapshot and a photograph. There are a lot of composition “rules” – some of which can be broken with wonderful results. Some of the most basic are to avoid centering your subject within the shot (that creates the “snapshot” look), strive for simplicity and avoid photographs that are too “busy”, and keep your horizons (and other lines that are meant to be exactly horizontal or vertical) straight! If you’re looking for a book on the subject, The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos comes highly recommended and has very positive reviews.

Three - Make shooting easy on yourself at first. Shoot in JPEG so that you don’t have to master post processing on top of everything else. Use Program Mode or another automatic mode while you are getting used to your camera or are concentrating on composition. Use your camera’s auto-focus capabilities to their fullest extent until you get the hang of positioning specific points of focus. You’re not going to know how to do everything immediately, so concentrate on acquiring your knowledge gradually but consistently. Then, as your confidence grows, give Aperture Priority a try. Many photographers find themselves shooting in Aperture Priority most of the time (myself included) when outside of the studio, because depth of field is usually what we want to control.

I used vignetting WAAAAAAY too much.

I used vignetting WAAAAAAY too much.

Four – Your wish list of gear is going to grow quickly. Prioritizing that wish list might seem an impossible task. My recommendation is to FIRST buy an external hard drive to back up all of your photographs. I just got a Western Digital WD Elements 3 TB USB 2.0 External Hard Drive, and I’m thinking three TERABYTES is enough to get me by for a while. Then of course you’re going to want a couple of extra batteries and memory cards, and a memory card reader so you’re not pulling files off using your camera’s USB cable (which is hard on the camera and the card). Get a couple of good, quality microfiber cloths and a dust blower to keep your gear clean. Finally, get a good sturdy camera bag to keep your investment safe.

Five - The first, middle, and last word in improving your photography is practice, practice, practice. Don’t get so bogged down in the “rules” and technical aspects of photography that you miss out on enjoying yourself. Take your camera everywhere and just shoot. Don’t worry about post-processing, don’t worry about showing anyone the shots, and cast aside any urge to judge your own efforts. Get used to the feel of the camera in your hand, so that your responses to photographic opportunities are automatic. If you only use your camera during special occasions or vacations, you won’t shoot often enough or consistently enough to develop your skills. Soon you will find yourself keeping more photos than you discard, and you’ll have some shots that you’re proud of. Over the course of a few months, you can see for yourself in the examples of your work how much your photographic skills have grown. There is so much value in keeping a visual record of your growth, so don’t delete the photos of your first attempts!

We have a section of this website specifically geared toward beginners, called Getting Started With Photography. This page is updated on a regular basis, so be sure to check it out occasionally for new information! I also HIGHLY recommend Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography Boxed Set, Volumes 1, 2, and 3 – I own them myself and have given them as gifts to several aspiring photographer friends.

Are you a beginner photographer who would like to share your experiences? Are you more knowledgeable about photography and wish to share your own experiences about what would have helped you when you first started? Please share with us in the comments or on our Facebook page.

All photos copyright Tiffany Joyce. Each one of them is from the first six months of owning my first DSLR camera. I love to look back and see how much I have learned and how much I have grown.

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