First Steps On Your Journey In Photography

Many of you are just beginning your journey in photography with cameras you received or bought for yourself over the holidays. 2011 may not go down in many record books as a banner year, but it was a great year for discounts on high end camera equipment. Many of you are now carrying in your hand some of the most advanced and sophisticated optical imaging devices ever created!

Starting out is an exciting time. Every photographer remembers their first really amazing image the same way romantics remember their first kiss.

So, from those of use who have been in the business for many years, here are some suggestions for your first steps in your new passion of photography.

Learn About RAW

Jared Polin from looks at the difference between RAW and JPEG. Raw photos save more info about the image, allowing greater control when editing.

While many of you may have a fantastic new camera, you may not have an editing program capable of handling RAW images. It’s okay if you can only work with JPEGs at first but, if your camera supports it, do shoot RAW+JPEG even though it will burn through your card storage space like wildfire. Even if you can’t work with RAW images right away, save copies of your images in RAW format so you can revisit them in the future.

RAW images are everything your camera sensor records while capturing an image and much of that data is discarded by the compression to JPEG. Once that data is gone, it’s gone forever if you don’t have a RAW backup.

Compression artifacts are not the problem they were a few years ago. JPEG compression has improved dramatically over the years but it’s still a good idea to keep those RAW image copies around in case new imaging technologies arise in the future.

Read The Manual

I know I sound like a broken record when it comes to reading the manual, but cameras are so sophisticated today, packed with so many features, that it really is time well spent. You don’t have to memorize where every feature and menu item is located, just know they’re in there. You can always drag out the manual later if you need to look up a particular feature.

Get A Skylight Filter

photo by Ondra Soukup

Look on the barrel of your lens or check the manual (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) for the filter size of your new lens and order a skylight filter right now. It’s really just a clear piece of glass, but it can save your lens.

Every photographer in the business very long has a cracked or crushed skylight filter on a shelf somewhere that would have been their lens without the sky filter.

Get a Rain Sleeve

Photo by Rachel

While you’re ordering your skylight filter, add a rain sleeve like this or this and keep one in your camera bag or jacket pocket at all times.

Weather happens and, even though most new DSLRs have fairly good weather sealing, the amount and quality of that sealing can vary widely. Why risk your camera when rain covers are so cheap? Some day you’ll thank me for that advice when you get back to the car soaking wet but your camera is safe inside its rain sleeve.

Now get out there and take pictures!

Tips For Shooting Dramatic Silhouettes

silhouette example
Exposing for the daylight beyond the door got the look I wanted in this photo

A silhouette can add dramatic flair to an otherwise average shot by providing a bold subject and sharp contrast. A silhouette turns a solid thing with depth into a flat, two-dimensional cut out that brings back memories of shadow puppets.

Modern digital cameras make shooting silhouettes a lot easier and what the camera can’t do for you, you can always touch up in post processing.

Find The Scene

A silhouette is basically an underexposed subject framed by a brightly lit background. Look for situations where you’re shooting from the shadows toward the light, like the photo of the man and his son sweeping out the garage.

photo by Kol Tregaskes from flickr

Another trick with silhouettes is to get low and in close to the subject and shoot at a slight upward angle. Shooting slightly upward lengthens the lines and makes the contrast bolder.

Any bright background will do. Daylight, stained glass windows, bright lights, or a sunset sky are all great backdrops for a silhouette.

Turn Off The Flash

Munich in Silhouette by Werner Kunz from flickr

This is one time you want to be in a shooting mode that gives you at least some manual control and in auto mode your camera is going to try and fire that fill flash. I’d shoot the scene both ways: One as a silhouette, the other with the fill flash, and see which one you like better.

Expose For The Background

There are a number of ways to do this. Many cameras will let you point the camera at the brighter part of the picture, then press the shutter release button half-way down to lock the exposure and reframe the picture before pushing the button all the way down. Other cameras, like the Nikon D5100, have a special exposure lock button.

There’s also the old fashioned way of using your camera to meter the brighter part of the photo, then dial the exposure in manually.

bird silhouette
A fairly average looking shot is improved greatly by taking the detail out of the foreground subject
Focus For The Subject

The only problem for some cameras when it comes to using the half-way press on the shutter button is that it also freezes the auto-focus. Not so much with modern cameras, like my Canon 7D, which will adjust the focus even if the exposure is locked. Just be aware you may have to tweak the focus manually on some older cameras.

Clean It Up In Post

photo by Brenden Sherratt, used with permission

If the exposure isn’t perfect in the camera don’t sweat it, a silhouette is fairly easy to clean up in post. Since you’re not trying to preserve any detail in the subject, you can usually make the adjustments with just the brightness/contrast tools, which almost every image program on the planet offers.

Worst case you have to use the selection tools to outline the silhouette and selectively drop the brightness.

Silhouettes are a good exercise to get familiar with your camera’s exposure compensation features and you’ll end up with some great shots as well. Happy shooting.

Learn To Lie To Your New Camera

daylight flash fill
This was a tricky exposure with skin tones bracketed by dark and light colors. You can see the fill flash in the sunglasses catch lights which also helped with the shadows under the ball cap

Honesty may be the best policy in life, but one of the keys to getting the best pictures is learning to lie to your new camera. Unfortunately, in many ways, your relationship with your new camera will be one based on deceit. But it’s okay, your camera is not going to feel betrayed and you’re going to like the results.

Lie About White Balance

I guess you could classify this as little white lie (ba-dum pah!). Specifically you’re telling the camera the light is really a different color temperature than its electronic sensor is measuring.

Your camera is measuring the temperature of the reflected light reaching the lens and comparing it to daylight. It then uses those calculations to try and determine the type of light source illuminating the subject. These days your camera is really good at making that calculation but there are still good reasons for you to lie about it.

Most cameras balance out full daylight a little on the blue end of the spectrum. Human perception likes skin tones a little on the warmer side, with a slight reddish gold cast. So lie to your camera’s white balance calculation by telling the camera it’s really cloudy outside and not clear. Your camera will shift the color to the red end of the spectrum thinking that it must be overcast outside.

You can also do something called white balance bracketing and just run through all the options and pick the one you like best.

Lie About Exposure

Our trail of deceit next takes us to exposure. On the Auto setting your camera is going to meter several points in the scene and set an average exposure right down the middle for 18 percent gray and try to balance the luminosity. You can lie to your camera and make it underexpose by pointing the lens at a lighter area of the frame and then push the shutter button half-way to lock the exposure, or some cameras have a special exposure lock button. You can go the other way and make it overexpose by pointing at a dark area.

The exposure lock feature on your camera is one of the best pro tips for consistently getting better photos.

Lie About Being Indoors

When taking photos of a person outside, go ahead and lie to your camera and tell it that you’re really inside and that it should use the flash.

On some electronic level it will know there’s really plenty of light, but since you’re the boss it will figure the flash into the equation and give you a nice fill for the subject’s face. It’s one of the great ironies in photography that your camera’s built-in flash is an absolutely dismal light source for pictures, but a fantastic fill light.

While it’s terrible to suggest starting off your relationship with a new camera based on lies, it’s really okay. You’ll get much better pictures while having way more fun and, scout’s honor, I’ll never tell.

What happens in the camera, stays in the camera. Or something like that.

Five Pro Tips For Better Candid Photos

shoot while walking
Shooting subjects while walking is a great way to catch candid moments - by flickr user loura

If you want to know who to ask about taking good candid photos, find yourself a photojournalist (PJ). When I first really noticed the difference in how a “PJ” shoots and a portrait photographer was spending time in one or two area photography studios. It was obvious we came from different worlds. From the selection of lenses, to camera settings, to framing, we were as far apart as people in the same profession could be. Portrait photographers are all about consistency, PJs are all about the moment in all its unstructured naturalness.

Whether you’re hoping to break into the ever-diminishing PJ ranks some day or are just looking for better candid photos, here some PJ tips for catching those world class candid moments.

Shoot From The Hip

Aiming and framing takes time and, as soon as you point a camera at someone, they react to it. Models, people in the media, and politicians all instantly adopt one of their automatic poses (or lunge at the camera) and people unused to being photographed looked startled and uncomfortable.

A good PJ gets used to aiming and shooting the first couple of shots before ever raising the camera to eye level.

Use A Fast Lens

Waiting for a flash to charge is out, you have to shoot fast! Shooting fast on the go means a fast lens and one more on the wide side.

You want to use a wide lens, but not so wide that it introduces wide angle compression into your pictures which becomes noticeable when doors seem to tilt toward the outside edges of images and it makes your subject’s head outsized compared to their feet. I wouldn’t go any wider than 50mm for candid photos, unless you’re shooting a crop sensor camera, then you can go as wide as 35mm.

Get In Close

In the old days reporters would use huge 4×5 cameras like the Busch Pressman Model C that would allow them to shoot a chaotic scene quickly and use that big negative to crop out the photo for the newspaper later. Today you can do something similar with a wide lens by shooting close in with a full frame sensor, a 50mm lens and zooming the cropped shot in post.

Take a Different Perspective

A PJ will either elevate their camera over the crowd and shoot at a slight downward angle or get low and shoot up which makes their subject look larger than life.

It’s okay to mix in a few eye-level shots, just mix it up with high and low angles.  This is especially important with a wide lens.  If you have a wide angle lens, either get low or get elevation because eye-level shots are going to show wide angle distortion.

Shoot While Walking

A great candid tip comes from something PJs do all the time: Shoot while walking. Let your subject start walking and shoot while you walk along next to them and backwards in front of them. You won’t be able to aim or time your shots, you’ll just have to blaze away and see what comes out later. Walking is a natural action and most people lose apprehension about the camera when they’re moving.

Try that and you’ll discover all the PJ tricks of not aiming, holding the camera up high shooting down and down low pointed up. You’ll discover Live View if your camera supports it and how convenient that can be for shooting on the go.

It may seem hard at first, but with enough practice you can do almost anything while walking backwards and shooting. The first thing you’ll learn is to sense obstacles and curbs, another reason PJs don’t always look while they’re framing. You may only get one or two good shots, but the ones that do come out will be fantastic.

Night Photography Tips

night photography
Night photography is fun and endlessly fascinating - By Circa24

As winter rolls into town and the heavy coats come out of the closet, we also start getting into the best time of year for night photography. The stores area all still open at sunset, all the lights are on, and there’s plenty of rush hour traffic for light streaks. Winter is the best time to get some great nighttime shots and still be home in time for dinner.


Besides your camera, the key piece of equipment you’ll need will be a tripod. You’ll want one that’s light weight, sturdy, and fast to setup and take down.

Another factor to consider for tripods is the weight rating which, on many models, is a big, fat lie. You’ll want at least a 10 pound weight rating if you’re shooting a full size DSLR. No, your camera and lens combo doesn’t weigh nearly that much, but start getting close to the upper limit of the weight rating and the legs will start to bow and the slightest whiff of a breeze will make your tripod shake.

If you’re going with a brand name, I’d suggest a model like the Manfrotto 190XPROB 3 with a ball head. Weighing in at around 4 pounds, it’s easy to carry and fast to set up.


The best night shots happen just before it’s completely dark, while there is still enough light left in the sky to keep the background from being completely black and the shutter speeds slow enough to get all the great streaking effects and color aberrations that make night photography really fun.


As much as I love my Canon 7D, and as great as the pictures are in daylight, the internal computer does not like night photography. It tries everything I don’t want it to do like correcting the white balance, averaging the exposure across the scene, and trying to optimize the contrast.

Night photography is one of the times I turn off automatic everything and work almost exclusively in manual. Strange things start happening to images with really long shutter times, so don’t be afraid to experiment. You can even get different results on the same scene with the exact same exposure settings.

Don’t Forget Your Flash

Bring your external flash, if you have one. Use it to combine a long exposure night shot with some foreground lighting, the effect can be quite attractive when done right.