Whether photography is a hobby or a profession, you’ll get a whole lot more out of it if you understand how it works. With a firm grasp of aperture, shutter speed, sensitivity and focal length, the ratio of truly great to merely mediocre shots you download at the end of an expedition is all but guaranteed to climb.
Here we present CNET UK’s 50 essential shooters’ tips. Don’t uncap your lens without them.
1. Understand aperture
The most fundamental element any photographer should understand is aperture. The aperture is the physical opening within your lens that allows light through to the sensor (or film in an older camera). The wider the aperture opening, the more light can pass through, and vice versa.
The size of the opening, which is regulated by a series of fins encroaching from the edge of the lens barrel, is measured in so-called f-stops, written f/2.8, f/5.9 and so on, with smaller numbers denoting wider apertures. If you find this inverse relationship tricky to remember, imagine instead that it relates not to the size of the hole but the amount of each fin encroaching into the opening.
A narrow opening is regulated by a large amount of each fin encroaching into the barrel, and so has a high f-stop number, such as f/16, f/18 and so on. A wide opening is characterised by a small number, such as f/3.2, with only a small amount of each fin obscuring the light.
Picture the size of the fins, visible here inside this lens, when trying to understand the concept of f-stops.
2. Aperture measurements
Lenses almost always have their maximum aperture setting engraved or stamped on one end of the barrel. On a zoom lens you’ll see two measurements, often stated as f/3.5-f/5.9 or similar.
Rather than being opposite ends of a single scale these describe the maximum aperture at the wide angle and telephoto (maximum zoom) lens positions respectively. Always buy a lens with the smallest number you can afford in each position.
3. Avoid using aperture to compensate for poor lighting
Changing the aperture has a dramatic effect on the amount of light coming into the camera, as we have already said. You’ll notice this is the case when shooting landscapes with a narrower aperture (higher numbered f-stop) as your camera will often want to take a longer exposure — so much so that you may have to use a tripod to avoid motion blur.
You should avoid using the aperture scale to compensate for unfavourable lighting, however, as it also changes the amount of the image that remains in focus, as we’ll explain below.
The image on the left was taken with a wide aperture and so has a shallow depth of field; the image on the right was taken with a narrow aperture and so has a long depth of field.
4. Use a wide aperture for portraits
Anyone with a cat knows that when they’re hunting or playing their irises contract to enlarge the size of their pupils. This has the same effect as widening the aperture in a camera lens: it makes the subject they are focusing on very sharp while causing everything behind and in front of it to blur. We call this a shallow depth of field. This is perfect for portrait photography, as it draws forward your model within the scene, making them the central focus while the background falls away. Choose f/1.8 or similar wherever possible.
This image of a chicken was taken with a wide aperture to keep the subject in focus while blurring the background.
5. Use a narrow aperture for landscapes
For landscapes, on the other hand, you want to have everything from close-at-hand foliage to a distant mountain in focus. This is achieved by selecting a narrow aperture. If possible stray towards f/22, or whatever the tightest setting your camera allows.
This image of a Moroccan campfire is taken with a narrow aperture to maximise the depth of field.
6. ‘f/8 and be there’
Static models and immobile landscapes are easy to shoot as you can predict with a great deal of certainty which aperture setting you need to get the best out of either. Reportage and street photography, weddings, Christenings and so on are less predictable as your subjects will be moving in relation to the frame. In these circumstances, adopt the pro photographer’s adage, “f/8 and be there”.
Set your aperture to f/8 for a practical, manageable balance of fairly fast shutter speeds and broad depths of field, allowing you to spend more time thinking about composition within the frame than you do about optical algebra. When shooting indoors without a flash, and depending on the lighting conditions, you may need to increase your camera’s sensitivity setting at this aperture, but be careful not to push it so high that you introduce grain into your images, unless you are chasing that specific effect.
Filters and lenses
7. What does the ø symbol on my lens mean?
After the focal and aperture ranges, the other measurement you’ll see on most dSLR lenses is preceded by ø and describes the diameter of the screw mount on the front of lens barrel. Check this number each time you head out to buy a filter or hood as you can’t guarantee that it will be the same for each lens in your collection, even if they are all designed to be used on the same camera.
Check the diameter of your lens when heading out to buy a new filter.
8. If you only buy one filter…
…make it a circular polariser. This is the perfect beginner’s filter, and one that will have the biggest effect on your day to day photography, giving holiday skies a vibrant blue tone and accentuating the contrast between the sky and passing clouds to afford your images greater texture. Although you can add blue to your images in Photoshop or a similar post-production editing tool, the effect is never as believable when done that way as it is when shot using a lens.
Invest in an inexpensive circular polariser to improve the blue of skies in your images.
9. Don’t confine it to skies
Polarising filters also cut through glare and reflection. Use it to shoot through windows and water.
We used a polarising filter when shooting this frame to cut through reflections on the surface of the water.
10. Look for lenses where the zoom control doesn’t change the filter orientation
Rotating a circular polarising filter changes the strength of the polarising effect, making skies deeper or lighter, and changing the amount of reflection they cancel out. If you plan on using such a filter then wherever possible buy lenses where turning the zoom control doesn’t simultaneously rotate the end of the lens, and with it the filter, as this will change the effect. If you have no choice, set your zoom first and adjust the effect afterwards, being careful not to throw the lens out of focus in the process.
11. Don’t forget about white balance
When using a filter set your the white balance on your camera to the appropriate conditions, rather than auto, to stop the camera compensating for the filter in front of the lens.
Make sure you set your white balance manually when using a filter.
12. Don’t rush out to buy a skylight filter
Putting a clear filter on the front of your lens to protect its surface sounds like a great idea. After all, your lens was an expensive investment. The end of your lens is stronger than you might think, however, and easy to clean if you don’t let the dirt build up. Dispensing with a skylight filter will not only save you money, but also avoid the chance of introducing light problems due to increased reflections or the slight reduction in the level of illumination reaching the sensor.
13. Cheat’s macro mode (add-on filters)
Dedicated macro lenses are expensive, but you can quickly and easily improve your existing lens’ macro credentials by using screw-on magnifiers. They’re not a perfect solution as they decrease the level of light coming into the lens, but for occasional work they are very effective, easily sourced and cheap. We bought ours, below, first-hand from eBay, where you should expect to bid around £15 for a set of four screw-on filters.
If you can’t afford a dedicated macro mode, you can achieve the same result using an inexpensive set of add-on magnifiers.
14. Avoid stacking up too many filters
It’s tempting to add multiple filters to the end of each lens to achieve different results, but bear in mind that although they may look perfectly clear to you, each one reduces the amount of light passing through by a small amount. For the best results, use the smallest number of filters possible.
15. Choose a manual lens over a powered one
Some compact interchangeable lens cameras come with a choice of powered or manual zoom. The former is a great lazy option, allowing you to press a button to get the framing you’re after, but the latter is often cheaper and almost always quicker to use as it moves at whatever speed you turn it, without being hobbled by the speed of an internal motor. You can also often make finer and more predictable changes when zooming manually than you can with a powered zoom rocker.
16. Shoot slowly, zoom quickly… At the same time
If you’re shooting a static display, add some interest by turning the zoom control while shooting with a fairly slow shutter speed (you can only do this with a manual zoom, as a powered lens will be locked off when shooting). This works particularly well when shooting cars and other forms of transport as it gives them a sense of motion.
Give static subjects added dynamism and excitement by changing the zoom while using a slow shutter speed.
17. Try a prime lens for more creativity
Shooting with a fixed focal length — a prime lens — will make you think more carefully about how you want to frame a subject to tell a particular story. It will often also get you a cleaner, sharper result.
18. What do the measurements on my lens mean?
Lenses are measured in terms of their focal length, which broadly describes the effect they have on incoming light and the way it is focused on the sensor. A short focal length, such as 24mm, doesn’t have a very high level of magnification, so will focus a broad vista on the sensor. A long focal length, such as 240mm, has a high level of magnification, like a telescope, and so will fill the sensor with just the central part of the view.
This lens has a fairly long telephoto with the zoom topping out at 300mm.
19. Understand your lens’ true dimensions
Unless you’ve paid for a high-end dSLR, or a professional camera such as the Leica M9, your pocket snapper’s sensor will almost certainly be smaller than a frame of 35mm film, the standard point of reference against which all focal lengths are measured.
The 35mm in a frame’s name actually relates to the space between the top and the bottom of the film strip, which as well as the frame itself also contains some border areas and the sprocket holes used to move the film through the camera. A 35mm frame is positioned lengthwise on this strip, with its shortest dimension — top to bottom — perpendicular to the film’s direction of motion. As such, neither the height nor the width of the frame measures 35mm, but instead 24x36mm.
To understand how the stated focal length on any lens will affect the shot captured by your camera, you need to factor in the multiplier effect, which converts the size of your sensor to the size of that 35mm piece of film. The multiplier is often between 1.5 and 1.7 but varies between manufacturers and models.
So, if you’re buying a lens for the Canon EOS 600D with its 22.3×14.9mm sensor you’d need to multiply the stated focal length of the lens by 1.6. This would make a 50mm lens, commonly used in portrait photography, act like an 80mm lens, thus increasing the effective zoom and narrowing the amount of the scene seen in each frame. On a Nikon D5100, which has a slightly larger sensor (23.6×15.6mm) you’d need to multiply the lens’ measurements by 1.5, in which case an equivalent 50mm lens would act as though it were a 75mm unit.
20. Save money by opting for a smaller sensor
This means you can, technically, save money by opting for a smaller sensor, as you’ll be able to buy less powerful lenses to achieve the kind of results you would otherwise only get with a longer, more expensive zoom.
21. Use zone focusing
Related to point 6 — f/8 and be there — if you have a lens with both f-stop and focal measurements on the barrel, understanding how they relate to each other can help you take great spontaneous photos with a high degree of confidence.
In the image below we’ve set our aperture to f/5.6, as indicated by the red line pointing to the 5.6 reading on the lower gauge. We’ve then set the range on the yellow gauge to around 1.2 metres by positioning this at the top of the same line. We can now use the green scale to understand how far away from the camera our subjects need to be if they are to be accurately focused.
By following the lines running from the two green entries for 5.6 on either side to their measurements on the yellow scale, we can see that so long as we’re more than 1m away from our subjects they will be in focus (the green 5.6 on the left is linked to around 1m on the yellow scale, while the green 5.6 on the right is linked to the infinity symbol, which is like a number 8 on its side). Anything closer than that will be blurred.
This gives us a great deal of freedom to snap whatever we want without making any further adjustments, so long as it’s no closer to us than 100cm. To create a more intimate effect, adjusting the distance ring so that 0.4 sat at the top of the red marker would mean that only those objects between around 36cm and 50cm would be kept in focus.
Use zone focusing to understand which parts of your image will be in focus at any particular aperture setting.
22. Invest in a cheap pair of lights
If you’re doing any kind of indoor photography, invest in a cheap pair of lights. Buy at least a pair, complete with tripod stands and reflectors to direct the light. Opt for continuous light rather than flash units, as they’re cheaper, easy to use and great for beginners, as you don’t have to take test shots to see how the shadows fall during setup.
23. Understand colour temperature
Different colours and levels of light are measured using the Kelvin scale. For the best results, look for studio lights with a temperature of around 5,500K-6,000K to emulate bright daylight. Lights with a lower colour temperature often render a colour caste in your images that will have to be corrected in Photoshop or an alternative image editor.
This professional studio bulb maintains a constant colour temperature of 5500K, as specified on the furthest end.
24. Buy a light box — but don’t spend more than £20
Minimise shadows in your studio-lit work by investing in an inexpensive light box. Effectively a five-sided cube with gauze sides and top, you position your lights so that they shine through the sides of the box, diffusing the light and softening the shadows. Light boxes usually ship with a felted back cloth that can be attached using Velcro to create an infinite field of view by obscuring the seams of the box.
An inexpensive light box makes it easy to shoot with artificial light without casting strong shadows.
25. Make best use of available light with a sheet of paper
If you can’t afford studio lights, even out harsh contrasts when shooting with natural light by positioning a large sheet of paper or card to reflect the incoming light onto the unlit side of your subject. If shooting people, ask them to hold the card themselves outside of the framed shot. Alternatively, invest in a set of reflectors. You can pick up a new, multi-part set with white, silver and gold reflective surfaces for around £12 on eBay.
This shot would have benefitted from a reflective surface positioned to the left of the frame to illuminate the right-hand side of our subject’s face.
26. Don’t be dictated by the sun
Using automatic settings to shoot into the sun will throw your subject into silhouette as the camera dials down the exposure to compensate for the bright background. Shooting people with the sun in front of them, meanwhile, solves the silhouette problem but introduces another one: squinting. Solve this by keeping their back to the sun and forcing the flash to fire (switch from it ‘auto’ to ‘on’ or ‘forced’) to correct the exposure on your subjects’ faces without leaving them squinting.
27. Observe the rule of thirds
The most aesthetically pleasing images are those in which the subjects are aligned with the one-third power points in every frame. Position horizons one third up or down the height of the image, and people one third in from the left or right. Likewise, if you’re snapping a frame-filling head shot, position the eyes so they’re one third down from the top of the frame.
Some cameras give you the option of displaying an overlaid grid on the rear LCD to help you line up your subjects along these lines. If yours does, go one step further and put key elements on the points where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect.
Here we’ve added short red ticks to the top and the bottom of this frame to show how the man warming his drum is positioned one third of the way in from the right of the frame, and the flames of the fire are one third of the way in from the left.
28. Exposure and focus come first, framing second
Half-pressing the shutter release fixes the focus and exposure settings for the shot you’re about to take. Pressing it all the way captures the frame.
Use this to your advantage by metering for particular conditions by putting your subject on one of your camera’s focus positions and half pressing the shutter to lock its settings then, without releasing the button, recompose the framing to align your subjects on the one-third power positions. This way you’ll get perfect exposures every time, whatever the composition.
29. Use your free light meter
If you don’t have a light meter, use your camera’s auto mode to gauge the optimum settings, even if you don’t want an immaculately exposed result. Examine the shot’s settings and then switch to manual mode and replicate them before pushing individual elements — shutter speed, sensitivity, aperture and so on — to achieve the moody result you’re after.
Let your camera do the hard work: take a picture in auto mode and use its self-selected settings as the basis for your manually dialled variables next time around.
30. Get up early, stay out late
Photography is all about painting with light. Light is what gives your pictures contrast, shape and texture, and often the best light it that which appears at either end of the day when the sun is lower in the sky. At these times of day it casts longer, more extreme shadows, which in turn pick out small details, bumps and texture.
By shooting early in the morning and late in the afternoon, you’ll achieve far more interesting results than you would at high noon when you’ll spend more time controlling the light coming into your lens than you will manipulating your subjects to best exploit the shadows.
It’s a cliche, but this shot of Whitby Abbey wouldn’t be nearly as atmospheric if it weren’t taken at sundown.
31. Embrace the grey day
Don’t let an overcast day put you off heading out with your camera. The softer light you get on an overcast day is perfect for shooting plants, flowers and foliage as it dampens the contrasts we were championing in our previous step. This allows the camera to achieve a more balanced exposure and really bring out the colours in petals.
Overcast days present the perfect conditions for shooting flowers and foliage.
32. Travel without a tripod: tip 1
Packing a tripod when you head off on holiday is a great way to extend the shooting day, allowing you to take some stunning night-time shots with streaking lights and illuminated landmarks. If you’re pushed for space, though, check out this trick. Balance your camera somewhere sturdy and safe, disable the flash and set a slow shutter speed or two seconds or more.
Now set your self timer, fire the shutter release and let go of your camera so that you won’t cause it to wobble. By the time the self timer countdown expires, any residual movement caused by your hand letting go should have evened out, so your camera will sit still and steady throughout the exposure for a crisp, sharp result.
We took this using the self timer and a long exposure. Avoid the temptation to squat in Rome’s rush hour traffic.
33. Travel without a tripod: tip 2
It’s not always possible to find a flat surface on which to perform the previous trick. Try and find a flat surface on some castle battlements and you’ll see what we mean. Combat this by packing a small beanbag in your camera bag.
Check out school sports and games categories on eBay to find 100g beanbags (a pack of four costs less than £5), which can be pressed into shape on uneven surfaces, with your camera snugly settled on top. It’s more stable and less likely to either fall over or wobble during the exposure.
Paris this time, and we’re once again employing the delayed shutter trick.
34. Travel without a tripod: tip 3
Professional tripods use quarter-inch screws to fix your camera in place. You can easily source a screw of the same size from a normal hardware store. To avoid travelling with a bulky tripod, drill a hole in a standard bottle top (the type you’d find capping a 500ml drinks bottle) and thread the screw through it, fixing it in place using strong glue.
Keep this in your camera bag as you travel, but don’t bother carrying the rest of the bottle, as these are easily sourced wherever you happen to end up. Fill an empty bottle with grit to give it some weight and screw your cap to the top. Instant tripod.
35. Banish long-arm self portraits
Self portraits are great for capturing holiday memories, but if you can’t find somewhere suitable to balance your camera while also framing the scene behind you, the only way you can take them is to hold your camera at arm’s length and press the shutter release. The results are rarely flattering.
Invest in a cheap monopod (search eBay for handheld monopod) and use this to hold your camera away from you while keeping your hands in a more natural position and the great scenery you want to stand in front of behind you. Use your camera’s self-timer to fire the shutter 2 or 10 seconds later.
Your author in Greece, without the aid of a monopod, where the arm and watch strap somewhat distract from the Acropolis.
36. Look at the eyes, not around the eyes, look at the eyes
Ever wondered why so many magazines have faces on the cover? It’s because we identify with such pictures, which in turn helps us identify with the magazine. Art editors know that our inclination is to connect with the eyes staring out of the cover, and the same is true of your portraits.
When shooting a person, if only one part of your image is in focus, make it the eyes. That’s the first place your audience will look. So long as they’re in focus, they’ll consider the whole image to be accurately shot, no matter how shallow your depth of field and how blurred the rest of the frame.
The eyes are in focus in this shot, so we read it as being accurately focused overall.
37. Use burst mode when shooting pets
Pets are unpredictable, so don’t wait for them to pose before shooting. The chances are you’ll miss the crucial moment.
Don’t wait until you’ve attracted their attention — start shooting while you’re trying to do it, as they don’t understand the concept of cameras and will move at the worst possible moment. Switch your camera to burst mode and start shooting while you’re trying to attract their attention towards the lens for a better chance of capturing something close to the picture you wanted.
Use burst mode when shooting animals and pets to increase your chances of capturing the shot you’re after.
38. Make use of scene modes
Your camera knows better than you do how to use its own settings to create special effects. Don’t be afraid to use its in-built scene modes for punchy monochrome or high-key effects. If possible, set your camera to save raw and JPEG images side by side so you also have a copy of the original unadulterated scene should you later change your mind.
39. How to shoot fireworks
Frequently the most impressive spectacle, fireworks are nonetheless tricky to shoot. For your best chance of capturing a display, set your sensitivity to ISO 100 and compensation to 0EV so that you don’t unnecessarily lighten the sky, which you want to keep as black as possible.
Mount your camera on a tripod and set your shutter speed to at least 8 seconds. Zoom out so that the fireworks just fill the frame, preferably without being cropped by the borders and be careful not to wobble the camera during the exposure or you’ll end up with blurred results. All being well, the result should be pin-sharp streaks of light falling to the ground.
We shot these fireworks using an 8-second exposure with the help of a tripod and timed shutter release.
40. How to shoot moving water
Short shutter speeds do a good job of capturing a waterfall and its surroundings, but you’ll achieve a far more attactive result by slowing things down. To do this without overexposing your image, start by switching out of auto and reducing your camera’s sensitivity to its lowest setting (usually around ISO 100 or ISO 80), then either use a neutral density (ND) filter or, if you don’t have one or can’t fit one to your camera, dial down the exposure compensation to its lowest level (usually -2EV, -3EV or -5EV).
Mount your camera on a tripod, half press the shutter release to fix the focus point and exposure and then press it all the way to take the picture, being careful not to shake the camera while it’s taking the shot. It’ll take some experimentation to get this right, so don’t be put off if you don’t get the perfect results first time around.
By taking this picture with a slower shutter we’ve softened the water both in the waterfall and passing in front of the lens.
41. Focus on the details
When a scene is simply too big to fit in your picture without it getting uncomfortably close to the edge of the frame, focus instead on one of the details that makes it unique. An abstract crop can often have greater impact and give a more original view of a tired, over-used view we’ve all seen before.
Zoomed and cropped: an unusual night-time view of the Louvre Pyramid, reflected in the pools that surround it.
42. You can’t shoot speed head-on
You can’t properly capture speeding subjects as they come towards or move away from you. If you’re shooting track events, position yourself side-on to the action so that it passes across your field of view rather than coming towards it. Shooting into a chicane works well on TV where we delight in seeing the cars snake around it in sequence, but fares poorly in static frames.
43. Focus on the action
If you really want to convey an impression of speed in your images, pan your lens in line with speeding cars, horses and runners and shoot with a fairly slow shutter speed — 1/125 second or below — to blur the background. Keeping the subject sharp in the frame while blurring the background gives a more effective impression of speed than static backgrounds and blurred subjects.
44. Reflect on things
Do rainy days and Sundays get you down? Don’t let them: embrace the photo opportunities afforded by the puddles. The rain is as much a part of the story of your holiday as the food you ate and the sights you saw. Use reflections wherever possible for a different take on otherwise well-known scenes.
Even ugly urban decay can sparkle with the help of a reflective puddle.
45. Don’t believe the megapixel myth
We’re glad to see manufacturers are starting to see sense here, with many high-end cameras now sporting comparatively modest pixel counts. At the lower end, however, some manufacturers continue to cram 16 megapixels and more on tiny sensors that can’t cope with high levels of incoming light. Pay for quality, not quantity, remembering that as few as 10 megapixels is plenty for printing at A3 using online photo-printing services.
This squirrel was shot using the 10.1-megapixel Nikon 1 J1. Despite the conservative resolution, the quality is great and we’d be happy to print this as a poster to pin on the wall.
46. Flickr: your shopping assistant
Baffled by numbers and stats? If you can’t get your hands on a camera to try before you buy, at least have a look at the shots it produces. Flickr uses the metadata attached to every photo shot by a digital camera to catalogue them by manufacturer and model, allowing you to click through a representative sample of output in its enormous online archive. Find it at flickr.com/cameras.
47. Don’t be a memory cheapskate
Buy the fastest memory cards you can afford to minimise the time it takes for your camera to write each shot to the media, and how long you’ll have to wait before you can take the next shot. Wait too long and you’ll miss something.
Cards are ranked using a simple class system, where the class number is simply the number of megabytes the card can store per second. So, your camera will be able to write to a Class 4 card at up to 4MBps, and a Class 10 card at up to 10MBps. Faster cards are more expensive, so if you’re having trouble justifying to yourself the extra expense, compare them to the speed boost you get from upgrading the memory in your PC or Mac.
This Class 10 card is the fastest you can get, minimising the time you’ll have to wait between taking multiple sequential shots.
48. Size really is everything
Think carefully about how you want to balance the convenience of carrying fewer large cards with the security of travelling with a larger number of lower capacity ones. On the one hand you’ll spend less time swapping 16GB cards than 2GB media, but if you lose a single 16GB card, or it corrupts, you could lose all of the shots from your trip.
Splitting them across several cards, and locking full cards in your hotel safe so you’re only carrying around empty cards plus the one on your camera means you’ll be taking fewer risks with your digital memories.
Travelling with several smaller cards than one large card means you can lock your photos in a room safe while out and about.
49. Replace your cards every couple of years
Memory cards might not have any moving parts, but that doesn’t mean they don’t wear out. On the contrary they each have a finite life, and every time you write to, delete from or read the card you’re bringing it another step closer to the end of that life. If you don’t want to risk corrupting your pictures far from home, replace heavily used cards every couple of years.
50. Break all the rules
Be truly original. Ignore the rule of thirds. Shoot at high noon. Shoots sports photos at slow shutter speeds for blurred results. Whatever you do, make your pictures stand out from the crowd and relish the results.