Less than a decade ago, I picked up a DSLR for the first time in my life. Having very little prior knowledge in photography, my instincts drove me to operate it as if it were just some bog-standard digital camera.
Boy was I wrong.
Although this particular camera did have beginner friendly settings that allowed me to point and shoot for a while, little did I know that there was actually a lot more to it than that. Like, a lot more. There was so much to learn in fact, that I actually stopped using my DSLR entirely at one point, and switched to a fully manual film camera.
But let’s not skip too far ahead of ourselves, right? I’ll discuss that later, along with the things that I learned from using it.
After having conquered the fundamentals of the aperture ring, shutter speed and ISO settings, it turned out that I had barely even scratched the surface in terms of understanding the camera. And I’m not even talking about all the fancy dials and buttons attached to the fancy DSLRs that you see out and about. No. As it turns out, learning what everything on the camera actually does will only get you so far if you want to stand out as a photographer.
So how do you actually improve your photography skills beyond just understanding how the camera works? To answer that question, we need to learn to walk before learning to run. By this, I mean let’s get to know our equipment before we start exploring our surroundings.
I. Full control
It is likely that at one point you were used to having all of the camera settings pre-determined for you. Perhaps you’re only used to the convenience of using your phone camera. At this stage the ease of pointing and shooting is all that really matters. Who cares about turning down the shutter speed to capture a moving object, or using a large aperture to take a portrait shot?
As it turns out, everyone who is better than you does.
But don’t be disheartened. Taking the time to learn about how the aperture size and shutter speed can change to produce different images can be very beneficial in the long run. For example if you wanted to capture motion in a photograph, then you would want to use a slower shutter speed. But this would in turn produce an over-exposed image, so you would want to turn the sensor sensitivity down.
Learning about how these three aspects work together, and actually using them in practice will give you greater control over the photographs that you produce, since you will actually have more of an idea as to what they will look like before they are taken.
One way to go about this is to switch your camera to manual mode and try to take control of everything next time you’re out and about with your camera. Now for sports events such as an Airshow, I don’t recommend using manual mode, since every second is precious, however for everyday photography, you will start to notice a shift in your mindset, which will be reflected in the shots that you take.
II. Should I shoot my shot?
In short, yes. The more you photograph, the better a photographer you will become, and sometimes if there’s something that you should have photographed that you didn’t, you may end up regretting it later on.
You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.
Although it’s very true, that doesn’t necessarily mean that quantity is always the way forward. If you get into the habit of using a bad shooting practice, then this will reflect in more and more of the photographs that you take.
In the days of film cameras, you normally had about 30 shots per reel, and that was it. Since reels cost actual money (and aren’t particularly cheap) you had to learn how to discipline your shots, and ask yourself, “will that look good in my photograph” when you saw something that you wanted to shoot.
Nowadays, thanks to the advances of modern technology, SD and CF cards can hold hundreds of high resolution images, and be reused as many times as the user wishes, until they run out of backup storage to store previous photographs.
When it comes to learning how to be a photographer, there are major advantages to both taking loads of photographs, and taking very few photographs. However at the beginner stage, I highly recommend that you try to take as few shots as possible whenever you’re practicing. By combining this method with learning to use your camera in manual mode, you will teach yourself to absorb your surroundings, and adjust your camera to take the shot that you want, as opposed to blindly shooting away at everything.
Once you have mastered this, you will end up taking less photographs in the future, because you will have developed the skill of setting your camera up for the situation at hand. Now at this point you may be wondering, why not just slap the camera into auto mode and let it do all the work for you? Here’s a few reasons:
- You won’t learn anything since you aren’t fully in control of the camera,
- You will have much less of an idea as to what the photograph will actually look like once it has been taken,
- It’s a lot more fun to experiment in manual mode, and it’ll set you up for different styles of photography, some of which I’ll discuss later.
III. Back to the roots
When I was learning to become an enthusiast photographer, there was a point in my hobby where I decided to take a break from the digital world of cameras, and have a go at using a manual camera. Luckily I was able to get ahold of an old Nikon FM2, which was spring loaded, and had no digital parts, except for the battery-powered light meter.
Equipped with this fascinating piece of equipment, I not only learned to become disciplined with the number of shots that I took, but was forced to. It was a completely different ball game when it came to using it, because each reel of film was fixed to a single sensitivity.
For those of you who don’t completely understand film sensitivity – this simply refers to how ‘quickly’ the film will produce an image under a fixed amount of light. For example, at a fixed aperture and shutter speed, a low ISO (~400) is more suitable for broad daylight, whereas a higher ISO (~3200) is suitable for low light photography, like at night or generally dark environments.
This meant that I had to think ahead and equip my camera with film according to what I was planning on photographing, because once you remove a reel of film from a film camera, there’s no going back!
So at this point, I have about 36 shots per reel at my disposal, at a fixed sensitivity, and I’m shooting completely in manual mode. And to make matters more difficult, I was shooting in black and white since it’s easier to develop film and produce images on paper in monochrome that it is in colour.
I learned quite a lot from my time using a film camera, and for those of you who would be interested in picking up an old film camera just to experience the niche of film photography, here are a few things that I have learned from it that may help:
- Always make sure that your film is attached properly, or else you really will regret it later!
- Before taking each photograph, ask yourself if it’s worth taking, since you only have a limited number of shots.
- Make a reminder of the sensitivity of the loaded film so that you can plan your shots accordingly.
- Try to imagine what your image will look like before taking it – your light sensor will only tell you the intensity of the light on the crosshair, and not on the rest of the frame.
This is the fun part. Once you have gained enough experience behind the camera, you may want to start looking into different styles of photography that fit your interests. Before wrapping up, I would like to discuss a couple of my favourite styles that I have developed an interest for in the past.
A time consuming discipline which is both high risk yet high reward, Infrared photography combines the beauty of capturing motion in a single frame, as well as extracting imagery from a scene that isn’t necessarily visible to the naked eye. If nature and landscapes are for you, then you should definitely look into this particular discipline.
There are two main ways to get into this hobby. The cheap option is to purchase an Infrared filter that you can attach to your camera lens. The more expensive option is to purchase a cheap digital camera and have the sensor replaced with an IR sensor. Since I am only a student, you could probably guess which option I opted for.
Now the reason why some people are particularly interested in this discipline is because of the bizarre, yet enticing imagery that it produces. As the name suggests, the photographs captured using this method are completely red, and derived of any other colour. But by using popular image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop / Adobe Lightroom, you can add layers of filters to your images to make them appear distorted. Some photographers opt for the monochrome infrared option in their photographs, which adds slightly more glow to their shots than traditional monochrome.
When using an infrared filter, you have to aim for a long shutter speed (normally over 10 seconds to capture anything meaningful in daylight). However when using an infrared filter, you can shoot away as much as your heart desires, since your camera sensor is built to detect infrared light immediately. The downside to using a filter however, is that you have to adjust the camera settings, and then attach the filter before taking the shot. Talk about time consuming right?
Public Event Photography
For years I have been fascinated with aircraft, particularly military and stunt aircraft that you see at annual Airshows. It’s just something about the fast pace and the stunts that they perform that amazes me. But when it comes to photographing them, you need to have a particularly sharp eye!
This particular branch of photography is an exception that I make to my manual shooting habit. For this, I normally shoot in shutter priority mode, since it allows me to switch between capturing motion in an image, or just capturing a still frame of an aircraft in the sky. I encourage you to experiment with this, since you can capture some really nice still shots, as well as bizarre shots that capture motion - particularly in other areas of event photography.
One big challenge that arises once you try to start capturing faster aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon with a long range lens is that focusing is an absolute nightmare. This is because the aircraft are constantly moving back and forth away and towards you, so you need to be able to focus on the subject less than a second before you actually capture it. Even with smaller apertures this can still be quite the challenge!
You will never be able to truly master aircraft photography, but that’s not to say that you can’t improve each time.