If your camera could actually talk to you and give you advice on how to improve your photography game, these are the 12 things it would tell you.
1. Focus Modes are not created equal and they are not scary.
DSLR camera manufacturers may have different names for their autofocus modes, but in general they all offer 3 main focus modes: Manual, One Shot/Single AF, and Continuous AF.
As a basic rule, full manual focus is best saved for professionals or after you have some experience, one shot is for stationary subjects, and continuous is for when either the camera, photographer, or subject are moving. Let’s look at each briefly.
Manual focus allows the photographer to use a focusing ring on the lens to focus the image. The camera has no control over focus at all. It is easy to “miss” your focus in this mode, especially with subjects that are moving.
Single or One-shot AF is useful for many types of photography where the subject is static or motionless. Portrait, product, landscape, and macro are a few examples. It is not a recommended choice for action, wildlife, or sports photography. In one-shot mode, the camera focuses when the shutter release is half-pressed. After focus is locked, it will stay locked as long as the buttons stays half-pressed. It will not adjust if you, the camera, or the subject moves. If you need to refocus, you must release the button and half-press it again.
This autofocus mode can be used to “recompose” the image. Center your subject, press the shutter release halfway to focus, and then while the button is still half-pressed reposition the camera to get the composition you want. Then fully press the button the rest of the way (do not lift off the button before taking the shot as this will cause the camera to refocus again). You must keep the distance to the subject the same, but this way you can position your subject on the left or right, top or bottom of the frame.
Continuous AF (known as AF-C on Nikon and AI Servo AF on Canon) is the best choice for subjects that move (or if you or the camera moves). The camera continuously checks and adjusts focus as long as the shutter release button is half-pressed. When used with continuous shooting mode (burst mode), you can take a series of images with the focus automatically adjusted in between shots. This is a great mode for kids, pets, sports, and wildlife, or anytime a subject may be moving towards or away from the camera. The camera continuously checks focus and anticipates the direction the subject will move, but it is not fool-proof. It is also not a good mode to use if you need to focus and recompose your subject, because as you move the camera it will automatically refocus.
Some cameras have a combination mode. On Canon cameras, this is called AI Focus. AI Focus is considered a multi-purpose mode where the camera switches between single and continuous as needed. If the subject is static, the camera will select one shot. If the subject moves, the camera will select continuous. This seems like a “one-size-fits-all” or “set-it-and-forget-it” mode that would be the solution to all focus needs, but it is not. While it is convenient, you are leaving the decision to the camera and the camera does not always interpret the situation properly. There can be delays as the camera switches modes and this can cause you to miss shots. It also does not work well when you try to recompose your shot. In most situations, you should select one shot or continuous depending on your subject and not rely on the multi-purpose option.
If you want a handy guide to keep in your bag, print out the cheat sheet below.
2. Please don’t fill me with cheap memory cards.
Investing in quality memory cards is important! You spend all the time and effort to pick a good camera, please fill it with good memory cards. You wouldn’t buy a Lamborghini and then fill it with cheap gas would you?
Your camera manual is the first place you should look before buying a memory card. It will provide you with the type of card (CF, SD, etc.), and a list of suggested/compatible memory cards and their card classification. Once you check compatibility, there are several other factors to consider.
The next factor to keep in mind is capacity. More capacity isn’t always better. If you have a small point and shoot with small file sizes, you would probably never need a memory card that holds 8,000 images. You would be paying for capacity you never use (like buying a 8 bedroom home and only using one of them). Consider your shooting style and file sizes to pick a card with the capacity you will use. For example, if you plan a trip to Italy, you might want a different smaller capacity card for each day so you can keep your images and locations organized. However, if you do video or large file sizes you might need one larger capacity card so you don’t have to split your work session onto two different cards.
Next, consider the writing speed. This affects how quickly the card can store the images as you shoot. And higher read speeds will speed up file transfers and workflow efficiency once you get back to your computer. Look for write speeds of at least 30-60MB/s and for video over 60MB/s is even better.
Look for a card that can withstand repeated use. Check for the number of duty cycles (10,000 or more). This represents the lifespan of the card in terms of the number of insertions and removals (with reading and writing of files). Try to find a card with ECC (Error Correction Code) which can help detect and fix transfer errors, as well as “wear-level management” which writes data evenly across the card potentially preventing sections of the card from corruption from excessive wear.
Lastly, depending on your photography genre, you might also need to look for a card that has increased durability, such as water resistance, can last in extreme temperatures, or survive drops and crushing.
Excellent resource from B&H Video:
3. Don’t blame me for things that aren’t my fault.
Sharpness in your images has little or nothing to do with the camera or camera sensor so don’t blame the camera. Lack of sharpness is either because of the photographer (camera shake, missing focus) or because of the lens. Every lens has a “sweet spot” and all lenses are not equally sharp at all focal lengths and distances.
Lack of sharpness may be related to the lens, but even more likely, it is the fault of the photographer or not understanding the difference between sharpness and depth of field (focus). Knowing how aperture and depth of field work are critical to getting good focus and crisp images. We’ve covered these concepts in other blog posts in the past:
4. We like to feel secure (just like you).
Your camera likes to be adequately secured. Nothing will “end” a camera’s life faster than a 5 or 6 foot drop out of your hands or off of an unstable tripod.
When using a tripod, make sure you purchase a sturdy tripod that is built to hold the weight of your camera and lens. After you invest all that money into camera and glass, don’t skimp out on investing in the tripod, getting one that will last and is constructed out of strong materials. There is such a thing as “catastrophic tripod collapse” and it is just as bad as it sounds.
If you are a tall person, be sure to buy a tripod that will get to your height using the legs only, without the need of the center column. Using the center column extended is usually a bad idea. It makes the tripod more unstable and more prone to tipping over.
Learn the proper hand grip for holding a camera. Two handed grip is always more secure! One hand on the camera body and one hand supporting the camera/lens from underneath. If you have a mirrorless camera, there are “grips” sold as accessories for some models to make them easier to hold.
Get a neck strap, wrist strap, or sling strap. These clip to your camera so that even if you lose your hand grip the strap can save the camera from dropping.
Lastly, never walk around with the camera up to your face/eyes. This is a sure way to trip and drop your equipment.
We can help you pick the right gear for your needs. We even have “Try Before You Buy Classes” where you can test different equipment and leave with a customized list of recommended gear for your photography genre and style! And in an upcoming blog post we will share some tripod buying tips.
5. You don’t need to ditch me for a new model
Camera manufacturers make lots of money every time they get you to buy a whole new camera. The honest truth is you don’t need to buy a new model, get an upgraded model, switch to mirrorless, or even have a DSLR camera to get great images. Any camera type (even crop sensor and low megapixels) or model (even a phone!) is capable of quality results when in the right hands. Think about it this way, if you gave Ansel Adams a point-and-shoot camera or your phone, he’d probably still create fantastic images. Give a beginner the most expensive camera on the market and their images won’t be that good. You are better off to work on upgrading your knowledge base and invest in better lenses.
Some often overlooked aspects of photography that will improve your photography game are composition, lighting, and exposure (not just the exposure triangle). Take time to analyze images you like and learn all you can about how they created it. Join photography learning and sharing groups where you can get constructive criticism and ask questions. Get some old fashioned books on these subjects. The underlying concepts behind good lighting and proper exposure don’t change, so these books can be used editions that you can pick up inexpensively from resellers.
If you’d like to read up on some Composition Basics, see our previous blog post or consider taking a Composition Basics Text message class (1 month for $5).
The other way to improve your photography is to buy better glass. “Faster glass” with wide maximum apertures, crisp prime lenses, and fixed aperture zoom lenses for full frame cameras are good places to start. However, it is easy to fall into “GAS”—known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Afflicted photographers find themselves unable to resist the temptation of buying more and more photography gear (ex. lenses). Save up and buy one good lens for each prime focal length or zoom range that serves well for your photography style and that is it. Once you have a great lens that covers the 24-70mm range, a 35mm prime, and a 50mm prime, you really don’t need a 35-70mm zoom because you already have it all covered with what you already own.
This link will take you to see some great examples of images posted on 500px that were taken with point and shoot cameras: https://iso.500px.com/15-awesome-photos-captured-on-point-shoot-cameras/
6. Know my size. Am I full frame or crop?
Camera sensors come in different sizes. Larger sensors are usually in larger camera bodies and smaller sensors are usually in smaller, more lightweight and compact camera bodies. But that is not the only difference. The sensor size and camera type can affect what lenses you can use and they will definitely affect how that lens performs.
Some full-frame cameras are not compatible with crop sensor lenses which are constructed for optimal performance on smaller crop sensor camera bodies. Trying to use them on a full-frame could cause damage to your camera. See your manufacturer’s camera manual to see which types of lenses you can use.
On the other hand, you can use full-frame lenses on crop sensor camera bodies, but the image will be cropped to the smaller size of that sensor. The “crop sensor effect” refers to how the resulting image appears as if it was taken using a longer focal length lens. For example, a 50mm full-frame lens on a full-frame camera will give you a greater angle of view than using that same lens on a crop sensor camera. On the crop sensor camera the angle of view is more similar to an 80mm lens. If you full-frame camera does have a setting that allows you to use the crop sensor lenses safely, then it will still have this cropped view since the lens was design to cover a smaller sensor size. Our blog article “FocusEd on Focal Lengths” goes into this in a bit more detail and the cheat sheets below can help you see the concept visually.
7. My Self-Timer isn’t just for “selfies.”
The self-timer camera function allows you to set the shutter to release after you have stepped away from the camera. Depending on the manufacturer and model, this is most commonly a two second timer or a 10 second timer, but there could be other options. Most often, the timer is used so that you can get a picture with you in it. You set the 10 second timer then jump into the frame before the shutter releases.
However, there are other great uses for this timer, the main one is that it can be used to reduce camera shake. With your camera set up on a tripod, set the timer for the 2 second delay. This way your actual finger press up and down on the shutter are not vibrating the camera as the image is taken because the image is taken a few seconds after the shaking is done. This is especially helpful for longer exposures and will ensure your images are as crisp as possible.
For instructions on how to use low key lighting and your camera's timer to make images like the one below, sign up for our mailing list.
8. Know the different File Formats I offer
Most cameras allow you to choose whether your images are saved in RAW (NEF, CR2, etc) or JPEG, as well as the size of the JPEG files – small, medium, or large. These choices affect your final images, how you can edit them, and the size of enlargements you can create while still maintaining a quality image.
RAW files should never be left RAW. They need to be edited in a program like Photoshop or Lightroom, otherwise they may look a bit dull.Then they can be saved in a format like PNG, or JPEG, to be shared on social media.
Shooting in RAW has many advantages in post processing. A RAW file contains all of the data from in the camera which allows you to recover shadow and highlight details, choose white balance, apply LUTs and profiles, choose your own level of sharpening and noise reduction, and more. RAW files are like negatives and allow you to make edits that are non-destructive, meaning you can revert back to the original at any time. They are “lossless” files and don’t have compression issues. JPEGs are simple, ready to go files. You have less editing ability and you should never edit a JPEG, save, then reopen and edit more and save again. Each time a JPEG goes through this process it loses detail to compression which leaves artifacts in your image (simply opening and closing without making changes or saving does not create loss). Shooting in RAW+JPEG gives you the best of both worlds (but it does use more memory so consider that when buying memory cards). You end up with a “ready to go” JPEG file that you can post and saves time, but you also get the “digital negative” of the RAW file that you can edit when you do have time later on.
Some people will tell you that editing is cheating. Basic editing like correcting white balance, improving the color (by bringing down highlights or changing vibrance), sharpening, or applying noise reduction is not cheating. JPEGs are RAW files where the camera has made all of those post processing decisions and applied them for you. RAW files allow you to make those decisions and apply those changes yourself. Post processing can be time consuming, so if the image looks great in JPEG then save time and just go with it!
9. Use my AE/AF Lock feature!
AE/AF lock is a commonly overlooked button. Auto Exposure (AE) lock will freeze the exposure and Auto Focus (AF) lock will lock the focus. These can both be helpful for recomposing a shot for difficult lighting or when a focus point does not exist where you want focus to be.
Have you ever tried to take a photo where the camera can’t decide whether to choose the lighting of the sky or the lighting of the person or landscape for the exposure? Half press your shutter while focusing on the area you want to base your exposure from. Hold the AE lock button and keep holding the half pressed shutter. Reposition the camera and fully press the shutter. The exposure will stay locked where you set it.
AF lock works similarly, except for focus. Have a shot where you want something in the foreground in focus and the camera keeps switching to the background or it won’t focus because there is no focus point on that spot? AF lock is the solution. Lock your focus, then recompose your shot.
Not all cameras have an AF lock button. If you are using one-shot/single focus the half-press of the shutter button functions as an AF lock. A separate AF lock button is only helpful if you are using a continuous/servo, or combination/hybrid mode. (See #1 – Focus Modes above).
These buttons are located in different places on different models and brands and may have slightly different names (or in the case of Canon AE-L is an asterisk * symbol). In some cases you may have to assign which function you want the button to use. Consult your camera manual for guidance and see the photo below for some examples of these buttons.
Your camera may also have an AF-ON button. This can be used for “back button” focus which allows you to set the camera focus button in this position instead of on the shutter release. The shutter release will no longer control focus. Focus will only activate using the AF-ON button. You won't know whether you will love or hate back button focus until you test it out, but many pro photographers use this feature.
10. I can save you so much time in editing, if you just spend a little time getting to know me.
Metering Modes, Histograms, White Balance, and Exposure Compensation all sound complicated (or terrifying), but a few times using these with your camera manual in hand and your images will be so much better in the camera that when it is time to edit there is much less to do!
Metering modes are how your camera chooses proper exposure. Your camera’s built in light meter then uses this mode/setting to indicate whether you are under or over exposed.
Common modes for metering are Zone, Partial, Averaging (or Matrix), Center, or Spot. Spot metering does exactly like it sounds. It takes a light reading from one small spot of the frame. The is most useful when there is one important area you want to make sure is properly exposed, like the face of a person. Matrix/Averaging tries to balance exposure by averaging the brightest/lightest and darkest parts in the frame. Landscapes are one example of where this metering mode can be very useful.
Perhaps in a future blog post we will go into metering modes in more detail, but for now, your camera manual is your best resource.
Once you understand basic metering, know that sometimes the camera exposure is not what you want – you want darker or lighter. This is where exposure compensation comes in. You can adjust more positive (lighter) or negative (darker) exposure. Not all cameras have this function. Those that do, most often allow you to make adjustments of 3 stops of light (positive or negative). How the camera creates this compensation will depend on what mode you are in. For example, if you are in Aperture priority, the camera will adjust ISO or shutter speed, but not the aperture. In shutter priority mode, it will adjust ISO or aperture, but not the shutter speed. A few practice sessions with your camera manual and you will have this function in your arsenal of tools to use in complicated lighting situations. The exposure compensation button is usually a square symbol with a plus and negative inside. You will need to consult your camera manual for the location of this feature and how to operate it.
Now, you have exposed your image, it’s time to review it. Learn how to read the histogram. The histogram is that scary looking graph that sometimes pops up after you take a photo (you may have to go into settings to be able to view this on your LCD after each shot). This graph represents all of the pixels in your image based on each shade of gray (the camera basically looks at all colors as grays – that’s why there is that 18% grey card in white balance card sets – but this is a whole topic all its own). A good exposure still has details in the darkest and lightest areas and on a graph this might look like a bell shaped curve, or even multiple spikes along the graph center, but not at the extreme left and right . If you see a graph where a lot of pixels are all the way over on the left (black) or all the way over on the right (whites), then “clipping” has occurred. This means the details of the image in the dark and light areas will be lost and most likely cannot be recovered in editing either. A “blown out” white sky is a common example of this. A few basic histograms are show below.
11. I need you to pick Focus Points/Autofocus Area Modes or I will have to pick for you (and I am not really very good at this).
One final, overlooked area in your settings are Focus Points and the Autofocus Area Modes. Again, these sound scary, but they aren’t and once you know how to use them they will help you achieve crisp focus! These are not the same as setting Auto focus (Servo/Continuous, One-shot) or Manual focus from our first section above, and this is not the same thing as selecting a Metering Mode. Metering modes as discussed above are related to light and exposure.
Your camera allows you to specifically pick which parts of the image you want to have in focus by using Focus Points. Focus points are the spots that cover your frame of view and blink or light up when you half press the shutter button. (If you have never seen this “blink” you may have it turned off in your camera settings). Unless you make a selection, all off these points are active by default. Having all of these points active or “on” might seem like a great idea, but it does not mean the camera is focused in all of those places. They are active, but when you go to take a photo the camera will select one of them, usually whatever it locks focus on first, whether that is your intended subject or not. Often it is the wrong point or wrong part of the subject and that is where choosing your point or Autofocus Area becomes important.
There are three common modes for selecting an Autofocus Area among most camera models and brands.
Single Point AF Area means you are selecting one single focus point. If you want a “set it and forget it” setting, then you’d be best off to choose this one and select the center point. The center point is most accurate and as long as you always put your subject smack in the middle then it should work 90% of the time (as long as you ½ press and make sure your camera locks focus before you take the shot). With Single Point AF the camera will focus on the subject under the selected focus point only. You can select which point this will be. This mode is best for stationary subjects like portraits, landscapes, macro, studio work like product photography, and architecture.
Dynamic or Expansion AF Area expands your point selection. The camera will focus based on information from surrounding points if the subject wobbles or moves slightly from the selected focus point. Many newer cameras allow you to choose how large of an “expansion area” you want. A smaller area (9 points) would be useful for predictable movement, like runners on a track. A larger area (21 or 51 points) is more useful for erratic and unpredictable or very quick movements, such as soccer players or birds in flight. Therefore, the Dynamic Mode is great for wildlife and sports photography. Of course, you will still need to pan or “track” your subject by moving the camera along with your subject to keep it inside the selected focus area.
Automatic AF Area is just like it sounds. This mode lets the camera make the decision about which point to use and what area to focus on. Unfortunately, the camera can focus on the wrong area. It decides what area is most important and it may give priority to a bicycle rider behind your child on the swing. This mode is best for beginners or when you need quick focus on something that is easy and close to you.
Your camera may also have a Group AF Area or even Eye AF, and new modes are being developed and added all the time. Some additional details about these are in the cheat sheet pictured below.
12. Shoot more than you need, because unlike film, digital is basically free.
Digital photography gives you a freedom that traditional film photographers never had. They didn’t know for certain how their images would turn out until they were in their darkroom waiting for their composition to appear. Nowadays, you can review your images, but even then, those little LCDs will lie like politicians, and when you get home you come to realize that you missed your mark. So consider all the previous tips in this blog and use some of those settings to lower the risk of this happening to you.
Shooting more than you need doesn’t mean 18 straight shots of the same thing without making any changes. It means take lots of photos with some adjustments in between each one. Shoot in burst/continuous mode or change the exposure with exposure compensation. Try a different metering mode, adjust your angle, or use a different auto focusing mode, AF point, or focus area mode. Shoot in RAW for more post processing/editing options (or even better RAW + JPEG)! If you are ever unsure about your results, shoot more than you need. It costs very little and whatever that cost is will be worth it when you only have one opportunity to catch the moment.