How to be a better digital phototographer
July 1, 2005 7:26 AM   Subscribe

I recently inherited a pretty decent digital camera, and want to learn how to become a better digital photographer. What would you recommend, resources wise, for learning how to take better photos?

I am a grad. student, so please don't suggest 'take a class'! The whole point of this is to stop being in class and have some fun. I have been admiring a lot of photos taken by photobloggers, and have already covered the 'take a pretty picture of a flower' self taught photo session. I think I need to progress beyond that, though. What should I be doing next?
posted by sperare to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think the most important skill is composition. Today's digital cameras will do a pretty good job of getting you a properly focused and exposed photo. Certainly a book on some techniques to play with exposure and lighting will expand your horizons, but first and foremost is getting a well composed photograph, something interesting in the frame. These two books are pretty good, but I would check out what your local library has to offer. That's right, books, not websites. For this subject at least I have found much more depth in books.

Learning to See Creatively: Design, Color & Composition in Photography by Bryan Peterson

Photographic Composition by Tom Grill and Marc Scanlon
posted by caddis at 7:39 AM on July 1, 2005

This is advice (not a resource): take as many photos as possible. When I started, I was surprised to discover that the pros took tons and tons of photos of the same subject. Out of 100 shots, maybe three will be good. So you keep those three and discard the rest. Digital is great for this, because it doesn't cost anything to take a huge number of photos.
posted by grumblebee at 7:39 AM on July 1, 2005

Not only should you be taking as many photos as possible (that blurry badly exposed shot could be so neatly composed as to be useful after creative photoshopping), but you should try to find a small group of like minded photographers. I started shooting live bands last year by chance and fell in with a group of other music shooters. A year later, we're gearing up to start our own gallery and possibly another business down the road. It helps if the egos aren't TOO big. A little ego is good, but too much turns creative criticism to sniping. I think its the group that pushes me more than any examples that I see.
posted by Jase at 7:55 AM on July 1, 2005

It depends on what kind of pictures you want to take - family/friends/pets - landscapes - flowers/still life - souvenirs - straight representational - interpretative - etc.

Technically, and for taking nice pictures of friends/family/places to share, composition tutorials will give you lots of tips on basic technique. You might try taking a chapter from a tutorial, and spend some time trying to reproduce the results, and try and figure out what how the lens/aperture/exposure/focal length/lighting/etc. are working together in those circumstances. I would go to your local book or photo store and browse the books until you find one with the kind of shots that you would like to take in it.

I'd also look for a book that explains the *mechanics* of cameras - lens, aperture, focal length, etc. The advantage of this is that once you get the feel of how camera, lens, scene, lighting, etc., interact, you can then start to manipulate things the way you want to. You can also train your eye to spot manipulable scenes - for instance, if you shoot a lot of b+w, after a while b+w compositions will start popping out of your surroundings - you start 'seeing' in b+w.

Compositionally/artistically, many great photographers bend/ignore all the advice in composition tutorials, in order to get the results they want. That's partly what makes them stand out as great photographers. So if you want to do more, step two therefore could include going to the library and just going over different photographic monographs. If you have not done this before you will be astonished (I hope!) by the range of approaches that people in fact take, and how little these can reflect 'how to' photography books.

- learn the rules
- break the rules
- have fun!
posted by carter at 8:08 AM on July 1, 2005

A common problem appears to be night time or dark shots where a flash cannot be used (as either it floods the foreground or isn't allowed) and the picture comes out blurry because of hand-shake.

To get around this, purchase a small camera stand, place the camera on it, set up the 10 second timer, line up the shot, press the button and take your hands off it.

When the photo is taken, the camera will be rock steady and you'll get a far better picture. In places where you cannot use a stand, just set the camera down on something solid. The timer is used so that the action of pushing the button doesn't cause the camera to move slightly and blur the picture.
posted by ralawrence at 8:22 AM on July 1, 2005

Something to try:

Find an old manual film SLR, preferably with a working light meter. Learn how to take pictures manually. This will give you an absolutely invaluable grounding in photographic theory you'll probably never get with a digital camera, but which you'll want to have all the same.

I say this not as a film snob but as someone who discovered how to use a camera this way after wrestling with a fancy digital camera for a while. My experience has been that digital cameras are maybe a bit too easy to get "okay" results with, and it can be hard to make the step up to taking really interesting shots.

Langford's Basic Photography is IMHO the best book for beginners. It has very little information on digicams, though, so YMMV.

The best beginner's website for technical tips: DPFwiw.

Everyone learns composition a little differently so I would echo grumblebee: shoot a lot (this is probably the best thing about digital). Look at what shots work and think about why they work.
posted by selfnoise at 8:24 AM on July 1, 2005

I always suggest the National Geographic Field Guide.
posted by CrazyJoel at 8:26 AM on July 1, 2005

Use a tripod. It will improve all shots, night or day, dark or light, and the additional time you take to set up shots is likely to make you consider your compositions more carefully. Beyond that, shoot hundreds of pictures, and be ruthless in editting yourself - I totally agree with Grumblebee - if at first you are finding more than 1 or 2 truly good shots in a set of 100 you are probably being too kind to yourself.
posted by extrabox at 9:55 AM on July 1, 2005

You might find Digital Photography Hacks to be a useful tool to have. It has some interesting ideas to play with.
posted by plinth at 10:10 AM on July 1, 2005

Think of Photoshop (or equivalent) as a darkroom for digital photography. If you really want your work to look professional, it helps to be fluent with things like color spaces, curves, layers, contrast masks, etc. (essentially all the photographs you see in books and magazines are processed with these tools). This is great book for learning how to use Photoshop for improving photographs.
posted by driveler at 10:48 AM on July 1, 2005

As others have said, take lots of photos. Go out shooting a lot, and shoot multiple versions of the same image.

For composition, the rule of 3rds will help you develop striking shots. Imagine a tic-tac-toe grid on your view finder. Position elements of interest where the lines intersect.

Simplify your composition as much as possible. Look for angles that remove anything that doesn't add to the photograph.

Also, look for angles that reveal your subject in new ways. Get in close, or get skewed or whatever. Play around with this. This is the fun part.

It's easy to be so aware of your subject that you don't see other elements that will wreck your shot. Before shooting, mentally note what's in the four corners of your view finder. Make sure nothing is creeping in to distract from your subject.

Have fun.
posted by willnot at 11:29 AM on July 1, 2005

Probably the most important thing at first is learning the rules of composition (e.g. rule of thirds, leading lines). If learning rules sounds dull, just remember, the rules are really really simple, and if you take lots of pictures, they very quickly become second nature, so you can take decent pictures without having to think too much.
posted by chill at 1:14 PM on July 1, 2005

All great suggestions above.

I strongly echo the shoot-shoot-shoot advice and the use of Photoshop or even some of the lower-end image -manipulation software in the way our foredudes used the dark-room.

I would add that sites like Flickr are useful in that if you are publishing shots for others to see you are forced to look critically at your shots and select the best. There can also be useful feedback and a chance to link up with people with similar interests artistically.
posted by mmahaffie at 1:18 PM on July 1, 2005

bring your camera with you wherever you go. take pictures. take lots. try different angles, try two steps forward [click] now return to your original position then take two steps back [click]

get to know your camera.

and get to know your own strengths - and work on one or two weaknesses while improving the strengths.

Absolutely agree with mmahaffie regarding FLICKR. Several cities have active groups of Flickr members, who meet on a regular basis to take pictures, shoot the breeze, have a beer, etc. If you live in Vancouver, come join us. If you live in Atlanta or NYC, there are very active groups there. These are the ones that I know of - there are certainly others.

Membership is free at Flickr, you can upload up to 100 photos into your library, and there are monthly bandwidth limits (upload only). A paid membership is only a few bucks and opens up a new level of discussion and sharing.

But go out there, and shoot every day. Progress will be painful at first, but certainly swift. All the best to you!!
posted by seawallrunner at 1:32 PM on July 1, 2005

Check out There are two weekly digital photography challenges (one for members, one for registered users - they have different editing limitations). Each one has a topic and you're required to shoot your entry within the week. There's a very broad range of abilities there. You can get feedback on your photos and the forums are pretty active and usually helpful.

For many people, having a required topic helps them to get out and shoot. For some (me), it doesn't really work. Perhaps it will help you?
posted by undertone at 2:11 PM on July 1, 2005

Another interesting challenge site is Lensday.
posted by kindall at 3:15 PM on July 1, 2005

Everyone here's offered great advice; heed it. I'm a newish photographer myself, and have really enjoyed the journey. I know you don't want a "take a class" answer, but I'll give you one anyhow. I learned by taking a once-evening-a-week community college class. It was completely low pressure, and I learned a hell of a lot from the instructor and from the other students.

I started with film, but have moved to digital. I'm going to take another class about digital, because the two media are not quite the same. I can't get the hang of white balance with digital, for example; I always have blown highlights.

I recently discovered Flickr, too, and think it's a great way to share photos.

Other than that, as everyone has said: take lots and lots of photos. (I bought three fast 1gb memory cards so that I wouldn't ever worry about running out of space.) Keep your camera with you when possible. Use a tripod. Always have a set of spare batteries on hand. Read your camera manual. Think! Photography is a subtractive art — you're looking for the simplest possible composition.

Most of all: have fun!
posted by jdroth at 3:16 PM on July 1, 2005

jdroth - white balance would impact a color tint - for instance if you find indoor shoots taken under incandescent lights make everything look kind of orange, then that is a white balance issue. If you're blowing your highlights, than that's a problem with the image being over-exposed.

You might try under-exposing the image (on the assumption it's easier to lighten details in software than it is to bring them back when they aren't there. Some cameras will even let you set an exposure compensation that says hey camera - whatever you think the right exposure should be, I want you to expose it a couple ev's darker.

You might also try a different form of metering if your camera supports that.
posted by willnot at 4:53 PM on July 1, 2005

Thanks, willnot. I've set the d70 to -0.3 EV, and actually often manually meter. This seems to help. It definitely helps that if I think my exposure is questionable, the d70 automatically "blinks" blown highlights in the preview screen. I don't use the preview screen often, but I do for that!
posted by jdroth at 5:09 PM on July 1, 2005

The one thing I really like about my digital camera, a Dimage A200, is viewing the picture in the digital viewfinder and being able to see the effects of changing aperture or exposure time right in the viewfinder. It makes getting a proper exposure in tough lighting conditions brainless. Expose for the one item against a total black background, or worse a bright sky - just keep adjusting exposure until it looks right in the viewfinder. Awesome convenience.
posted by caddis at 5:50 PM on July 1, 2005

Worth perusing - morguefile photography course.
posted by peacay at 7:34 PM on July 1, 2005

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