How do I become a better photograper?
March 1, 2014 5:02 PM   Subscribe

I know, I know a generic question .. but I recently purchased a Nikon D5200. I understand the basics but I am trying to get to the "next level". Any tips?

I know the basics. I know what telephoto and wide angle are, I know what aperture, shutter speed and ISO do. I know what aperture priority mode is and why it is a good idea to use it. I know when to use my walkaround 18-55m lens and when to use my prime. I get the basics.

What I would like is to become better, so that looking at my photographs one can instantly tell they are taken with a DSLR.

I live in a super small town in the middle of nowhere (Champaign, IL) so I guess going to take a course or a class of any sort is ruled out (if anyone knows of any, please let me know).

Are there any good books? I see some D5200 specific ones on Amazon, and they all have amazing reviews so I am lost .. is the D5200 for dummies a good book? Any other suggestions?

yes, I understand experience means a lot and I am trying to get better, but thought I could also do something else on the side.
posted by harisund to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I bought a monthly subscription to KelbyOne recently, and I've been pleased. The library is large and the content solid, so far. I have also used PhotoClasses, which was created by the guys behind Improve Photography. I'd recommend both.

The book everyone recommends is Bryan Peterson's Understanding Exposure. It's great. Also, I am a huge fan of David duChemin and his books—both his ebooks and his print books. I think the latter are the best books on photography instruction/theory/technique that I've found.
posted by cribcage at 5:12 PM on March 1, 2014

You are far too focused on the camera. What makes a good photographer is developing an eye for composition, light, shadow, color, etc. In short, everything that makes one a good artist. It really has little to do with how awesome the camera is.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:13 PM on March 1, 2014 [12 favorites]

I believe that a big part of what separates the wheat from the chaff regarding photography is more than experience, it is shooting photos every day all the time. Something that is really important to pay attention to while you are shooting photos 24/7 is the composition of the photos. it helps to look at famous photographers and how they composed photographs. It is hard to suggest photographers if I don't know what kind of photography you want to improve at, but some good basic famous photographers to start with are Ansel Adams, Jerry Uelsman, Gary Winogrand, William Eggleston, and Diane Arbus. Obviously there are many more, but these are a few famous photographers with different styles who are all masters of composition, light, shadow, color and all that jazz. As thorzdad states, the camera means nothing compared to composition, light, shadow, and color. I shot my entire portfolio that got me accepted into graduate school on a camera that is made entirely out of plastic, including the lens, and because of my composition and attention to detail, I was able to create good, interesting photographs.
posted by ruhroh at 5:18 PM on March 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's book/classroom learning and there's experiential learning. Understanding what you're looking for in terms of composition, light etc. is vital, but learning how to achieve it is the real trick. I'd invest a couple of hundred bucks in the Nikon 30mm f1.8 lens, and learn to move your feet to get the composition you're looking for.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 5:36 PM on March 1, 2014

I live in a super small town in the middle of nowhere (Champaign, IL) so I guess going to take a course or a class of any sort is ruled out

You live in Champaign, home to one of the biggest and most prominent public universities in the state of Illinois? There is no chance that UIUC has no photography classes. Look on the website and see what the Fine Arts department is offering.
posted by cairdeas at 5:45 PM on March 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

1. Find a photo site like Flickr where you can easily find lots of really nice photography that appeals to you, and drink from that firehose. Find photos you like which look like there is no real reason why you couldn't do that (eg they're not shot from the international space station, or require lots of models and props and makeup artists beyond your budget (unless you have access to that)), then study those theoretically-possible-for-you photos. Figure out why you like them, figure out what things about them are technically excellent, figure out what things were probably difficult parts of creating that photo, figure out what kind of image processing was involved, whatwas involved in lighting, etc.
Try to create a shot of similar quality. Figure out how you fell short and why. Try again.

2. Play with Photoshop. You'll want to gain a good feel for which kinds of things need to happen in the moment and which kinds of things can happen at your leisure.

3. Subject matter - you could hone your skills for weeks on a bowl of fruit, and it's probably useful to do that, but it requires a lot of self discipline to plow through boredom. If you don't have a specific kind of photography you want to focus on, then I like to think along the lines of "what do I have access to that is interesting or unusual? What is in my life that other people would like to see?" Maybe you have a collection of something odd, and photographing it would require you to learn about macro photography? Maybe you have great scenery nearby? Maybe you have storms or starry skies? Maybe your job or hobby is something that is normally out of public view or "backstage"? This doesn't actually help your photography skills, but I think it's nice to be making things that other people like - positive reactions will encourage you to do more. Plus it gets you thinking about shots all the time :)
posted by anonymisc at 6:03 PM on March 1, 2014

The signature look for full-frame cameras is subject in focus, background out of focus. If that's what you're aiming for, set your aperture to its widest, then use aperture priority mode. The shutter speed and/or sensor gain will adjust to give you the correct exposure.

The only real other tip I can give (and I'm not an amazing photographer, but this has helped me) is to remember that your photograph is going to be a flat rectangle, not a 3D environment. It's helpful to be able to see what you're looking at through the viewfinder in those terms. It's really easy for your mind to fill in gaps and make you think you're seeing things that the camera is not actually seeing. If you can train yourself to look at only what you can actually see in that rectangle and ignore what your perceptual filters are trying to fill in you'll more easily compose shots that achieve what you intend.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 6:54 PM on March 1, 2014

I believe that a big part of what separates the wheat from the chaff regarding photography is more than experience, it is shooting photos every day all the time.

Check out the flickr Monthly Scavenger Hunt group. It's a fun, easy, and supportive way to begin thinking about your surroundings like a photographer. It's been years since I participated, but I believe it did more to improve my photography chops than any class I took or book I read.

I'm also a huge fan of Scott Kelby, although I could do without the periodic Christian evangelizing.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:00 PM on March 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

You are far too focused on the camera. What makes a good photographer is developing an eye for composition, light, shadow, color, etc. In short, everything that makes one a good artist.

Yeah pretty much this. Learning to use a camera is easy, and these days everyone is a photographer. What makes a photograph good or interesting or meaningful or fun to look at? These are not things you'll find out in a camera book, but by shooting more and thinking about why you are making that particular photo and what does composition/light/color/etc. have to do with it?

What are you interested in shooting? Look at photographers who do that - why are they 'good', what did they say about their own work? Not just about how they made it, but why.

Most people who become interested in photography hit the point of diminishing returns pretty quickly. The camera and shooting part are easy, thinking about photographs as more than the sum of a shutter and aperture and lens combination is hard.

My practical advice is to give yourself assignments (or take a class where assignments are given, if that works for you better). Read about photo history and visual design principles.
posted by bradbane at 7:04 PM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here is a trick that I stumbled on by accident that transformed me into a far stronger photographer:

Find a crappy, low resolution camera that is difficult to work with — in my case, it was BlackBerry Curve 8320 with a laughable resolution of 2mp; glacial shutter speed and exposure control of a naked blind mole rat.

I shot with that thing consistently for 2 solid years. Because the equipment sucked, I lost all pretensions that comes with a fancy-pants, expensive camera. The limitations forced me to truly hone my observation skills and timing.

Now when I work with better equipment, I hardly pay attention to the machine itself. It's all about the subject in front of me, the imperceptible beauty hidden within the gaps of reality. You will begin to see them as a living, breathing composition.

Even now, I have to be careful to not become complacent when shooting with better cameras. It's too far easy to fire off 200 shots in hopes of hitting the one.

And study works of photographers that you admire; figure out what makes their work tick.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 8:46 PM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

To add to what some others said; if you're taking a picture of a person, take a picture of the whole person, don't cut off their feet. If you're taking a portrait, it's shoulders up, not thorax up. If you are taking a feature photograph, i.e. cutting a birthday cake, make sure the action itself and both of the subject's eyes are in the photo. Landmark with a person in the frame? Whole person in the foreground, landmark in the background. These few rules make for pretty great pictures generally. Have fun.
posted by IfIShouldEverComeBack at 9:02 PM on March 1, 2014

Learn the rule of thirds. It's not ironclad, and like all rules, it's made to be broken, but it can help you learn a lot about composing photos.

A technical thing - most of the time you will use your camera in auto white balance mode. However, taking time to learn what white balance is, how it works and how to set it in camera can help you get better color during challenging lighting situations.

Another technical thing - shoot in RAW. People often shoot in JPEG, which works fine, but you lose a lot of the advantages of a DSLR if you don't shoot RAW. To go along with that, you'll need software that can work with RAW files. Photoshop can, iPhoto & Preview on Macs can, Lightroom was made for RAW. If you're on a Mac, you can get the free Darktable as a Lightroom alternative; I'm not sure what the PC free alternatives are. RAW gives you the file as the sensor sees it, with no conversion or compression. Software such as Lightroom can do a tremendous amount of color adjustment to the photo without altering the original file.

Remember this - you aren't paying for film, so shoot, shoot, and shoot! I've seen too many people only take 1 or 2 shots of something and then find themselves disappointed later that it didn't come out the way they'd hoped. You can always delete things later.

Most of all, it's not the camera, it's how you use it. The advantages of a DSLR are the ability to use the lens you want to get the angle, zoom, and composition you're looking for, and to use the manual settings and focus the camera as you like. But no matter the camera, it all comes down to composing the shot. I've gotten some really good shots with my old 2.1 megapixel HP point and shoot. I have a DSLR and it allows me some luxuries that I don't have with my older cameras, but it still hasn't figured out how to get a good shot without my help :)
posted by azpenguin at 9:23 PM on March 1, 2014

Getting into a class at UIUC may be difficult, but you can certainly find a photography class at Parkland Community College. Don't feel limited by your location. Immerse yourself into a class, give it your all, and learn from what the instructors have to offer. One class won't make you an amazing artist, but it can set you on the path.
posted by hydra77 at 10:42 PM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

A wise photographer once told me: First, find the light.
posted by emilyw at 7:08 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Edit, edit,edit! You should be discarding 10 times as many frames as you keep.
posted by txmon at 7:35 AM on March 2, 2014

As a couple have mentioned, learning some basic editing techniques using Photoshop may give you satisfying results as far as giving your photos a "professional" look: playing with saturation, contrast, levels and what not. Use a light touch though: overly edited or manipulated photos are the mark of an amateur, IMO.

Sorry I don't have recommendations, but there are blog posts and online courses out there that I'm sure would be great.
posted by dahliachewswell at 9:01 AM on March 2, 2014

I made this especially for you.
posted by pjern at 10:10 AM on March 2, 2014 [12 favorites]

Beautiful work, pjern.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:43 AM on March 2, 2014

Go out shooting with other people, it gives you a whole new perspective seeing how differently other people shoot the same things. Join a local photo meetup group - is a good starting place.
posted by kenchie at 11:46 AM on March 2, 2014

A bit of contrary advice: find the content you like and make photographs of it. Worry less about how the pictures demonstrate your skill and more about finding interesting subjects to photograph. To someone looking at your pictures, good content is very likely more compelling than your artistic efforts. People don't really want to look at demonstrations of your eye as they want to look through the photograph and relate to the subjects. Whenever you feel yourself trying to be clever or artistic, back off and do it more straightforward and matter-of-fact.

You say you live in the middle of nowhere, but there is an art to finding evocative emptiness or finding beauty in the mundane. Find some themes to document and catalog. Think like an anthropologist. Old cars? Old trees? Old houses? Store fronts? And of course, people. Shoot portraits of everyone in your social circle.
posted by conrad53 at 12:25 PM on March 2, 2014

Set yourself a project (or multiple projects) that will encourage you to take many pictures of many of the same type of things, even if they're generally boring and simple things. For instance, start a blog that shows every X in Champaign.

If you need a utilitarian goal to drive you along, start with something like taking at least one picture of every gravestone in a certain cemetery in Champaign and posting them all to Find a Grave. Now every picture you take matters to someone, so you have to do it right. People are looking at your work. Your subjects aren't going anywhere and you have uninterrupted access to them pretty much any day of the year.

No matter the subject, get good by trying over and over. Where you used to take dozens of pictures, now take hundreds of pictures, thousands of pictures. Try everything. Try every likely option and a few of the unlikely ones. Know how and when and why to use every control on your camera, but also every angle, every flash setup, every standard composition, etc. When you go through all your shots later, figure out why some worked and the rest did not.

When you're all done with gravestones, do doors or cats or garden gnomes or mailboxes or fire trucks or dog walkers or trees or stores. Anything. You just need an unending supply of similar subjects that will let you concentrate on making the subject look good, not on finding a good subject.
posted by pracowity at 12:38 AM on March 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

A wise photographer once told me: First, find the light.
posted by emilyw 2 days ago

We use a pro photographer sometimes for our cover shots. As she was explaining to someone who was asking why she was better than all of the people with DSLRs who are trying to get photography gigs, she said, "They can shoot it, but I can light it."
posted by azpenguin at 8:15 PM on March 4, 2014

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