Personal, The Home, Travel

How I Improved my Photography: Tips & Tricks

I know people have been asking me for a long time for photography tips, but the truth is, I was never content with my photography until pretty recently.

I’ve had a camera in my hands for ten years: right around the time I started traveling. I was gifted my first camera, a Kodak point and shoot, before I headed off to Ukraine. A couple years later I made a huge jump to a Nikon DSLR and purchased a super zoom lens.

I wasn’t ready; it was, quite honestly, a huge waste of money because I never used the camera to it’s full potential. It was a very heavy and very expensive point-and-shoot. Fast-forward another 5 years and I was truly questioning my abilities to even take a picture. How, in my almost ten years of taking photos, had I not improved? I was frustrated whenever I tried to learn anything new from photography tips because the camera I was using was just too complicated for me.

So I started to ask myself why I wanted to take pictures in the first place. This is something everyone who is interested in photography should ask themselves. My list looked something like this: to capture my travels, to capture events, to document my daily life. Why wasn’t I doing these things? The answer was simple: because I didn’t want to drag around this gigantic, intrusive camera!

Here are some photography tips and tricks to help you to not make the same mistakes that I made.

Photography Tips:

Only buy a camera you will use

Once upon a time, I owned a giant DSLR camera. It sat on my shelf a lot and was a pain in the neck when I travelled (literally). Then I made the game-changing decision to get rid of my DSLR and purchase my current OM-D EM5 MII (read my review here). Because the camera was lightweight and user-friendly, I wanted to tote it around with me everywhere. This gave me more opportunities to take the photos I wanted.

Olympus OM-D EM5 MII
Lightweight Olympus mirrorless

Shoot with a fixed lens

My old giant zoom lens made me an extremely lazy photographer. When I first started shooting on my travels, I would arrive in a new place and just pivot on the spot, zooming in and out while snapping everything in sight. Now, I take my time and set up my shot. Besides, if you really have to zoom in, you can crop your picture smaller later. This tip works for smartphones too – smartphone zoom sucks! Snap and crop is a much better technique.

The only time you should have a zoom lens is if you literally can’t get close to your subject (AKA you’re on a safari and might get eaten). I’ve heard that the best zoom lens a photographer can have is “foot zoom” and it’s true! Not only do fixed lenses take better photos, but they force you to really see your composition in real life. For the same quality of lens, fixed lenses are a fraction of the price of a zoom.

London building
I was especially bad on my first visit to London with pivoting. I literally shot from this spot 360 degrees.
Blue and white tile Netherlands
Here’s an example of “foot zoom”. I wanted to get closer to the tile, so I went right up to it and snapped it again.
blue and white tile Holland
If I hadn’t gone up to it, I wouldn’t have seen the beautiful detailing on each tile.

Shoot in RAW

I ‘ve read that you should shoot in RAW, not JPEG. Scared, I brushed this photography tip off. I honestly had no idea what shooting in RAW even meant (TBH I still don’t). Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with JPEG in great light, or if you either don’t care about how coherent your photos look, or are already a great photographer. If you’re not super interested in how your photos look, you might as well take use your iPhone – it’s really the best point and shoot camera. But if you are interested in styling your images (like many Instagrammers), shoot in RAW, then apply filters or edit.

JPEG doesn’t allow you to manipulate your image to the extent that RAW does – your camera automatically edits for you and saves it. Shooting in RAW saves the original untouched photo instead, with a lot more information. This allows you to do the manipulations.

Maybe this all freaks you out too, like it did for me, but it’s actually simple. The most difficult part is finding where to switch from RAW to JPEG in your camera’s menu. If you’re unsure and want to experiment, most cameras have a setting to shoot in both.

I’m happy to say I only shoot in RAW now, but I do edit all of my photos for either my blog, Facebook, or Instagram. Many people like to shoot in RAW+JPEG so they can choose whether to edit or not. This just takes up a lot more space on your memory cards. RAW images look flat, but with a little editing…VOILA! Your image can be what you want it to be. This bit of extra work really allows your creativity to shine.

fondue in Amsterdam - Photography tips
I took this food picture with my Olympus camera before I started using RAW and Lightroom.
Canadian burger and beer
Here’s a food picture I took on the same camera, in similar lighting; the only difference is shooting in RAW and using Lightroom to correct the exposure.

Use Lightroom (or a similar editing program)

Lightroom, like shooting in RAW, used to scare me. It looks so much more complicated than it is. It’s really just about finding a Preset you like, downloading it, and applying it to your photos. After uploading my images, I can edit my photo in about 5 clicks: preset, preset, exposure, clarity, and export. Sometimes I’ll play with the image a bit more, or crop/straighten it before I’m happy.

I only truly understood Lightroom when an Instagram friend, Kelsey from @abalancingpeach (check out her photography website here) posted a live tutorial and it all finally made sense. Like her, I use the Mastin Labs presets because I really enjoy their timeless look.

The only issue with Lightroom: it costs $10/month and great presets have a price. The average at-home picture-taker might not be able to justify these costs, but when I’m sorting through THOUSANDS of trip photos, it’s so worthwhile.

According to this article, your Mac can handle RAW photos in its apps. I’m not too sure how it works, as I’ve never tried, and I really don’t know anything about editing photos in a PC. But with my camera, and many these days, you can also upload images straight to your phone. If you’re already using a smartphone to take pictures, that’s one less step, and you can use the VSCO app to edit everything.

Photography tips - Lightroom
Why do all these random messy pictures from Christmas blend together? Because of Lightroom Presets. – screenshot from my Facebook album.

Find the light

I’m not a photographer, I’ve never taken a class, and I’ve never been educated in this art. Something I’m really trying to work on is shooting in low-light or bad-light situations, like in a museum, dark restaurant, or just at a indoor family function. Taking good pictures in these situations is hard without the right equipment.

That being said, it’s easiest to take photos in soft, indirect daylight, or when the sun is a bit lower on the horizon. Daylight flooding through a big window? Check! An hour before sunset or after sunrise (AKA the golden hour)? Check! An overcast day or a shady spot on a bright, sunny afternoon? CHECK! I’ve found these situations the easiest to take a predictably lit picture.

While really dim lighting might be the obvious one, you also don’t want super bright lighting either because it can cast weird shadows on your subject or even blind them and cause squinting. If you have to shoot in bright overhead sunlight, put the sunshine behind your subject (especially if it’s a person) and get low. The light will look like a halo! If you have to shoot in low light, bring a tripod, or experiment with flash (particularly external). If these aren’t available, play with the light a bit, find a candle (or something with a nice glow), or prop your camera on something sturdy.

girl studying - photography tips
In this image, I not only set up my shot for the optimal time that light would be flooding in through my window, but I set up a secondary light source (my lamp) on the left side.
Meadow in the sky hiking
Here’s an example of how full sun can be harsh. While I wouldn’t let the opportunity pass to take a photo with this view on a mountain top, it definitely isn’t my favourite photo.
girl boy selfie golden hour
In this selfie, I used the sunlight in the background to my advantage.

Take a stance

Speaking of sturdy, that’s what you should be whenever you take a photo. While this might look different for everyone, I personally like the wide-legged, elbows tucked in stance. I sometimes hold my breath when clicking too, just to be safe. If you need extra help (particularly in low-light situations), resting against something sturdy works well.

What’s your subject?

Composition is really important when taking a photo – or so I’ve heard. But this can be an unnecessarily complicated thought to figure out before snapping. It’s really just better to figure out why you’re taking the photo in the first place. Once you’ve found your subject, declutter the image. Is there a way you can simplify by “foot zooming” or by literally taking something out of the photo?

For example: if you’re trying to take a photo of your dog and a shoe is on the ground next to him, as long as the shoe isn’t important to your photo or part of the story you’re trying to tell – remove the shoe. If your subject is too busy or too complicated, try finding a new or more interesting subject.

Let’s say you’re taking a photo of a beautiful view while traveling: there’s people, trees, buildings, really everything in your sight. While it may look pleasing to your eye (because your eye focuses on one thing at a time naturally), this tends to look flat and busy in a photo. Let’s say in that same view, there’s a cute bicycle leaned up against one of the trees. Focus on the bicycle with the rest of the scene in the background and you’ve got yourself a more interesting photo.

street in London
What’s my subject here? I know I just wanted to capture how different the streets look compared to home, but there’s a better way to emphasize the street.
vintage car in Netherlands
This shot was taken even more quickly than the last one, but it’s clear what my subject is.
tree lined road in the country side
This shot really emphasizes the interesting road.

Lines, Rule of Thirds, and breaking all the rules.

For beginners, the rule of thirds can be really helpful for figuring out composition. But once you’ve gotten this down, it’s time to break this rule. Another rule to figure out and break is lining up horizontal and vertical lines. Following these rules will make you a better photographer, and simplifies things, but breaking them allows you to be creative and become a great photographer.

Texel Lighthouse Netherlands - photography tips
I waited until everyone had passed (decluttering my image) and then lined up the lighthouse, putting it in the top right-hand rule of thirds line; the secondary point of interest (the path) lines up with the left-hand line.

Practice makes perfect

This is really one of the most important photography tips I can share. If you read my last post, you’ll know I struggled for years with improving my photo-taking abilities because I didn’t spend time with my camera. I didn’t pick up my first camera ten years ago and take amazing photos. I still don’t take amazing photos, but compared to my first few shots, my images look a thousand times better. I’m truly proud of the progress I made, and will continue to practice and improve. Yes, there will always be those people who are naturally incredible photographers, but anyone can be their own life-capturer.

cat laying on a couch
I snapped this photo five years ago with my DSLR…eessh.
cat grooming - photography tips
A recent photo of the same cat in a similar location. The only thing that’s changed is the amount I’ve practiced! Which picture would you rather frame?

Carry extra batteries and memory cards

I can’t stress this enough. I will always remember that time in Italy when I ran out of storage space and for an hour, searched for a shop that sold memory cards; that card cost me a fortune. And there was another time in Drumheller when I left all my memory cards at home and had to buy more. I HAD ONE JOB. But really, in this day and age, memory cards are so cheap, there’s really no excuse to not having more than enough. Extra batteries are really important when you’re traveling and shooting from 6am to 10pm, but maybe that’s just me.

Back it up

I’ve heard so many horror stories of people who lose every photo they’ve ever taken. Don’t let that happen to you. I keep my photos on at least two storage devices at all times. First, on my memory card and my computer, and then before I delete the images off my memory card, I upload all my images to Facebook. If you don’t use Facebook (literally so much free storage and you can make albums private so only you can see them), make sure to use some kind of cloud storage. Then at some point, I regularly back up everything on my laptop to an external hard drive. I hope in the future to go an extra step and start printing my favourites.

Them blooms wild flowers in Alberta

So there you have just a few photography tips and tricks that I’ve found work for me and have greatly improved my images. Let me know if there’s any photography tips that have helped you on this list, or some that I’m missing here!

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