Getting it Right in the Camera
Revisiting Some Basic Principles
Spreading The Word
On occasion, I have been accused of being a perfectionist. It's okay, I am fine with it. I am continually preaching to people that shoot to take the time to get it right in the camera as much as possible. This advice is good for all of us, from an amateur using a point and shoot to a seasoned photographer using an advanced DSLR. So often I find that many of the people I shoot with for the first time seem to be in a hurry. I'm always astonished that so many photographers don't know how or when to slow down! Taking the time to get it right in the camera not only makes for all around better pics, saves you enormous amounts of time in post editing, thus freeing up more time for shooting. Who doesn't want that? Lots of potentially great pics are missed due to being in a hurry. Many times I have found my best pics are often some of the ones taken last in a series of shots. Choose your location, fire off some shots, look closely at what you have, change the composition slightly if need be, wait for just the right light, and you will find that your patience pays off. Slowing down will only help take your photography to the next level, I promise you.
Pre-Flight The Camera
My routine these days first consists of what I call "Pre-Flighting" the camera. Upon powering up, I do a quick run through of the ISO, shutter speed, white balance, formatting the card, etc. It's easy to forget to change an ISO back to your preferred range, or not notice buttons that got accidentally moved around in the bag. It happens. It's an easy step to overlook or forget because we just want to start shooting. Getting in the habit of checking things over first will save you grief and ruined shots. Once I am satisfied things are where they need to be, it's time to start shooting. When I am certain of the composition I plan to shoot, I then like to check to be sure everything is as level and square as possible. Crooked shots really take away from a photos impact. It only takes a second to be sure it's straight, so why not do it? It also makes it easier in the editing process, particularly when stitching a panoramic. Often times I see these same shots posted, still crooked, and the time wasn't even taken to straighten them in post editing. I then will look for distracting elements, such as branches that detract, or leaves, or rocks or what have you and take appropriate measures to keep them out of the shot or greatly reduce the impact they have overall.
Planning Your Shots
I also tell people that don't do this already to train themselves to shoot a little loosely, then plan for some cropping in the final edited version. I always plan for a bit of cropping when composing my shots. In my honest opinion, cropping is something everyone should get in the habit of thinking about and planning for. This is something I learned first hand from my years as a custom darkroom printer. Trust me, cropping is almost always necessary whether we think it is or not. It seems there is always a bit of unneeded image, too much negative space, a leaf, a twig, format restrictions or whatever that just needs to go. Oftentimes a so-so shot becomes a great shot by bringing the focus onto the subject just a little bit more. The leading lines can then do their job a little better, the rule of thirds might come into play a bit better, or the shot simply becomes a bit more dramatic and has more visual impact just from a small tweak. Remember that sometimes what we take out is just as important as what we leave in. Do an experiment with cropping sometime and judge the results for yourself. You will likely be pleasantly surprised.
Exposure and Bracketing
In today’s world of large storage cards, bracketing should become routine if you don't already practice it. I know of no serious photographers that don't bracket to some degree. There simply is no reason not to do it these days. You never know when the bracketed shot that is a stop over or under will be the perfect exposure, or when new software or a technique will come along that will make you wish you had. People with no real photo training can generally pick out a properly exposed shot compared to one that wasn't but required extensive work to get it that way. It really does make a visible difference. Now you're probably thinking, but Lee, a raw converter or a good photo editing software can save my shot no matter how good or bad. Well, a good raw converter or photo editor definitely can save your bacon when needed, but I still say the best shot taken in camera that needs the least amount of tweaking is always best and always outshines over worked shots any day. The one with the spot on exposure, is tack sharp, the color is almost flawless, and is saturated just right will always need the least amount of work, and will always look the best. You know the one. It almost feels wrong to not have to work on them much, but at the same time rewarding because you know it was done right in the camera. It's confirmation that all of the basics are being done properly.
Learning The Camera
Another mistake I see many photographers make is not taking the time to fully learn or understand their camera. It's important to know the features and create a workflow that's suited to your style. Learning on the fly and missing a critical split second shot does not need to ever happen and is always a disappointment. All of us have done this at some time or another. Spend some time here and there reading the manual. If it bores you, put it down and come back to it when you are more receptive to learning. It might be helpful to only pick out one thing at a time, commit it to memory and learn it, then move onto the next feature. Sit at home and explore your camera and all its functions. Go through each menu. Ask yourself, what does this one do? What happens if I press this? You can't hurt it, so play around! The ability to make quick adjustments can make all the difference from an average shot to a great shot. Sunsets for example are constantly changing light at a rapid pace, and you need to be able to keep up with camera changes as well, and without giving it any real thought. At some point, knowing your camera inside out is going to pay off when you catch that once in a lifetime shot and you will be glad you took the time to learn it!
In Conclusion, there is no real secret to great photography, no magic potions and it is never because the next person has a better camera. Remember, people take pics, not cameras. A camera is a tool to capture light and nothing more. It comes down to how you use it. If you see a shot, or someone’s website, or a photo somewhere and thought, "Wow, that is over the top awesome", it's because that person is applying lots of simple techniques into making that shot. They took the time to learn and understand what makes a great pic. They put all that applied learning into that one fraction of a second to stand out among the crowd. Why take 100 average shots if you can take 100 exceptional ones? Remember, if it doesn't look quite right in the camera, color, composition, etc, make changes until it does. Like anything, you get from it what you put into it. Once all of this has become second nature to you, you will be glad you took the time to get it right in the camera. Your photos will improve as will your love of photography. Anyone can do it, and so can you!