Intermediate Tips for Better Photography

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Continuing where the first article, Beginner Tips for Better Photography, left off, now we’re on to Intermediate tips! For this article Steve and I will be combining our knowledge to give you a broader spectrum of advice.


Now that you’ve mastered the basics of photography and have gained a good amount of experience, you may find yourself ready to move on to the next level. Perhaps you’d like to learn how to give your photographs that little extra “something” that makes them stand out. You could be thinking about establishing a portfolio and investigating a career in photography. Or maybe the process of learning the basics has only whetted your appetite for more! Here are some tips to get you started in the right direction.

8 by Jose M Izquierdo Galiot on Flickr Creative Commons.

Tiffany’s Top Five Tips:

One – Get your flash off of your camera. A whole new world of nuance, contrast, and style will be opened up to you as soon as you learn how to direct light. The only way to accomplish that is to get the flash off of the top of your camera! That front-facing, single-direction light has very little flexibility and you’ll soon find yourself limited in the kinds of images you can create. So, invest in an external flash and learn how to sync it with your camera. Many current model DSLR’s have wireless sync capabilities between an external flash and the camera. Barring that, products such as the PocketWizard lineup have a wide variety of flash sync products, both wirelessly and with a cable. To kick things up a notch, get an inexpensive but sturdy stand for your external flash, and pick up a couple of different types of light modifiers. Here are some products that I personally own and recommend (and will be reviewing on this site in the near future) to get you started:

- Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash for Canon Digital SLR Cameras
- Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash for Canon EOS Digital SLR Cameras
- Nikon SB-600 Speedlight Flash for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras
- Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight Flash for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras
- Cowboystudio 9 ft Heavy duty Cushioned Premium Black Light Stand for Video, Portrait, and Product Photography
- CowboyStudio Photo / Video 24in Large Speedlite Flash Softbox with L-Bracket, Shoe Mount & Carry Case
- CowboyStudio 40in White Satin Umbrella with Reflective Silver Backing and Removable Black Cover
- Manfrotto 026 Swivel Lite-Tite Umbrella Adapter – Replaces 2905
- Fotodiox 40×60″ 5-in-1 Collapsible Reflector Disc Pro Kit, with Stand and Holder Arm, Soft Silver/Gold/Black/White/Diffuser

Two – Learn how to use bracketing and exposure compensation. Bracketing refers to taking several shots of the same subject at slightly different exposures in order to ensure you’ve captured the correct exposure. I’ll be posting about this specific subject in tomorrow’s article. Essentially, a subject is photographed three times – once at “normal” exposure, once at a stopped-down exposure level, and once at a stopped-up exposure level. This ensures that at least one of the shots will be exposed correctly, which is especially helpful under variable light conditions. Exposure compensation has been discussed in a previous article – it is used to manually adjust the exposure to something different than what the camera’s meter is suggesting. The photographer can tell the camera to allow more light in (positive exposure compensation) or to allow less light in (negative exposure compensation). Exposure compensation is extremely helpful when balancing ambient light with a speedlight. Both of these techniques will assist you considerably in advancing your skills and improving the outcome of your photographs.

Flower by Jason Bache on Flickr Creative Commons.

Three – Use a light meter. Your camera’s built-in light meter only measures reflected light – that is, it measures and exposes for the light that is bouncing off of the subject and directly back towards the camera. If you want to measure ambient or continuous light, or if you want to spot meter when using studio lighting, a light meter is essential to achieve correct exposure and adds a very valuable level of control. When using a light meter, the photographer provides two of the elements of the exposure triangle and the light meter provides the third. For example, if you know the shutter speed and ISO (typical for studio lighting situations, where the shutter speed is the camera’s sync speed), the light meter will recommend the precise aperture value for your shot. You will get the exactly correct exposure every single time. The light meter can also help average the output of multiple sources of light to help you balance the light according to your wishes. I recently used the Sekonic L-758DR Light Meter and I highly recommend it.

Four – Use custom white balance. Your camera has multiple white balance settings – auto, fluorescent, tungsten, daylight, shade, and the like. However, sometimes your camera’s interpretation of white balance can be incorrect. Use your camera’s custom white balance functionality to achieve the correct white balance. The typical steps to set your camera’s custom white balance (which vary from camera to camera, so check your manual) are to set a white balance card in the scene, take a picture of it, select the custom white balance setting on your camera, select the image of the white card, and confirm the selection to be used as the white balance reference. I also recommend the Datacolor DC SC100 Spyder Cube for correcting white balance in post-production.

Five – Calibrate your colors. Have you ever taken a photo, viewed it on your computer, viewed it on-line, and viewed it in printed format, and noticed that the colors all looked different? Have you ever taken a photo and noticed that the reds looked pink, or the whites looked gray? You may need to calibrate your display, monitor, and/or printer to display true colors. This is KEY for post-processing, as the actions you take in post-processing are dictated by the results that you see on the screen. There are a variety of color calibration tools available – my recommendations are:

- The X-Rite ColorChecker Passport, which can be used in tandem with Lightroom for quick, SIMPLE and extremely accurate color correction.
- The ColorMunki Photo – Monitor, Printer & Projector Profiler, which is used to calibrate colors between devices (multiple computer monitors, projectors, printers).
- The Datacolor DC S3X100 Spyder 3 Express, a less costly yet still effective solution for hobbyists and enthusiasts.


Steve’s Top Five Tips:

Before I start my Tips, I wanted to add to one of Joyce’s. The Sekonic light meter she recommended is an awesome piece of equipment. However, if you click on the link she provided you will see that it costs about $600. If that’s a little steep for your budget check out the Sekonic L-358 Flash Master Light Meter. This is also a really good light meter and is roughly half the price of the L-758. Of course, the lower price for the L-358 means that it doesn’t have all the functionality of the l_758. Also, note that if you want to remotely fire flash or studio strobes with the L-358, the Sekonic 401-621 Transmitter Module for L-758 Cine and L-358 must be purchased separately.

Okay, now for the tips-

1 – Composition. To take a really good photograph there are three things that are required – subject, light and composition. To move from beginner to intermediate, learning and understanding composition is critical. Good composition has a lot of rules. However, there is no rule that says you can’t break rules of composition. Still, you should know and understand composition inside and out. When you break a rule, know that you’re doing it and know why you’re breaking it. You can have the aperture spot on, the shutter speed can be perfect for what you’re trying to accomplish, but if the composition sucks, so does the photograph.

2 – Let the photo tell a story. Think about what you want the photograph to say to the viewer before you press the shutter. The green heron in this photo was feeding when I captured the image. It was a lot of fun just watching the bird’s antics as it chased and snapped at dragonflies. How do I let the viewer of the image know what was happening. Look closely and you’ll see the wings of a dragonfly on either side of the bird’s beak. Unfortunately, it’s not a good photograph because the compensation is off. Actually the bird’s tail is cut off. Of course, when you’re using a 500mm lens and you’re too close for the lens to “see” all of the subject that’s going to happen.

3 – Practice. You can’t become a better photographer with your camera and lenses sitting on a shelf in the closet. A creative writing professor once told me that until you’ve written at least a million words you won’t really “grok” writing. That’s a lot of words and I now understand what he was saying much better than I did when he first told me. I don’t think you need to take a million photographs to “grok” photography but I do think that after ten thousand or so you start to get close. Practice allows you to have enough successes and failures that you begin to understand the difference between the two and what causes each. With experience and practice, you’ll get to the point where you know what the photo is going to look like before you take it.

4 – Know your subject. It is very important to know your subject so that you can anticipate what is going to happen. This is especially true when photographing animals and children. It’s critical when photographing sports, dancing and other activities where the subjects are in constant motion. If you know, you can anticipate. If you can anticipate, you will capture better images like this great egret displaying during the mating season. Knowing your subject is also important when photographing an inanimate object, like a building for example. Being familiar with the building will guide you to the best angles and views.

5 – Learn, observe, listen and learn. I can’t stress enough how important it is to learn as much as you can. I’ve been around very accomplished professional photographers enough to know that they are still learning. I’ve listened to conversations between them where one will say I do it this way and the other responds with, “I’ve never tried that before. I need to do that.” Learn through experimentation. You know how to achieve a certain effect. Try to do it differently. Change perspective, angle, exposure, etc., and learn what happens when you do. Photographers that believe they know all there is to know and that every shot they take is exactly what they were looking for are stuck where they are.
Have you moved up to Intermediate photography, and would like to share your experiences? Do you wish to share your own tips about what helped you advance? Please share with us in the comments or on our Facebook page.

Photo credits (in order of appearance):
- “8″ by Jose M Izquierdo Galiot on Flickr Creative Commons.
- Flower by Jason Bache on Flickr Creative Commons.
- Green Heron by Steve Russell
- Great Egret by Steve Russell

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  • anonymous

    I feel like I’ve seen these same photos in used over and over.

  • Dennis

    I don’t understand why an intermediate photographer would use exposure composation.  If you need to adjust the exposure, go ahead and manually change the aperature, shutter speed or perhaps the ISO.  Letting the camera make these decisions could have unwanted results in depth of field or motion control. Knowing what you want to do and how to achieve it, usually results in a better image.

    Tiffany and Steve, your tips are all certainly very worthwhile!

  • Las Vegas Photography

    Some great tips and pointers.. I have to say the Sekonic meters with built in transmitter is a must. I can’t tell you how many times I tripped in a studio when I had to switch cables out from the lightmeter.