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7 Essentials Every Ambitious Photographer Should Learn

There’s nothing quite like the excitement of finding a new passion—especially when that new passion is photography. But why keep that excitement in check when you can use it to your advantage? Plug in all that energy into learning the skills that will accelerate your photos from boring to astounding. Feeling ambitious? Grab your camera and explore these seven essentials every ambitious photographer should learn right now.

1. An ambitious photographer should know their own camera better than their best friend

photographersYou know how your best friend takes their coffee, how, if you get them laughing hard enough, they’ll snort. But how well do you know your own camera? Do you know how to adjust the focus area? Does your camera take double exposures or time lapse videos? Where is the back focus button?

The camera is simply a tool—like a painter’s paintbrush. But many new photographers, and sometimes even seasoned enthusiasts, aren’t getting the most out of that tool simply because they don’t realize everything it has to offer, or how to access the more advanced features. Along with knowing all the features and where everything is, an ambitious photographer should know his camera well enough to adjust settings quickly; she should be able to adjust the exposure without even taking her eye off the viewfinder.

Feeling ambitious? Here’s how your camera becomes your best friend.

  • Hang out—a lot. Take your camera out shooting often. Head out when you have nothing in particular that you have to shoot and just concentrate on exploring the camera and becoming more familiar with the controls. Practice until you can adjust the most frequently used settings without looking.
  • Read up. That instruction manual that came with your camera? Flip through it. Even just a glance through the table of contents might list a feature you’ve never used before—if that’s the case, head to that page and read up on it. You can also hang out in online message boards and talk to friends with the same camera.

2. The ambitious photographer should learn manual mode until it’s more comfortable to use then auto

manual modeThe ambitious photographer won’t use auto for long. Once you understand the basics of exposure—shutter speed, aperture and ISO—manual mode becomes the troubleshooting option when an automated mode just doesn’t get the shot right. But the ambitious photographer takes it one step further, practicing manual modes until they’re just as easy to use as auto, frequently using Manual mode and choosing Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority when there’s simply no time to adjust every setting with every shot.

Feeling ambitious? Here’s how Manual becomes just as comfortable as auto.

  • Know the exposure triangle. If you’re not sure what shutter speed, aperture and ISO are, stop right now and look them up. Memorize them, then memorize where those settings are on your camera until you can adjust them without looking.
  • Know how to use the exposure meter. Using manual modes isn’t about guesswork. The exposure meter helps guide your choices so the image is properly exposed. Usually located in the bottom or side of the viewfinder, the middle of the meter indicates a proper exposure, though sometimes you’ll want to overexpose or underexpose just a bit. Remember, exposure is more a matter of opinion then a right or wrong setting.
  • Don’t get to a special event where you have to get the photos right and expect to learn manual. Head out when the photos don’t matter, when you have time to fidget with all the settings without missing the moment.

3. An ambitious photographer should know what metering is and how to use it to find the right exposure

That exposure meter we just talked about? It’s guided by the metering mode. Metering modes tell the camera what parts of the image to measure to find the proper exposure. Should the camera measure exposure for the entire image, or for just a section of it? Metering modes help the photographer work in tricky lighting conditions.

Feeling ambitious? Here’s what you need to know.

  • Evaluative metering measures light everywhere within the image, though gives a bit more attention to the area around the focal point. Use it for evenly lit scenes.
  • Center-weighted metering measures light from the center of the image, no matter where the camera is focused. Use this mode for subjects towards the center of the image, especially if the subject is backlit.
  • Spot metering uses a very small portion of the image (your focal point) to measure the exposure. Where evaluative metering takes a large portion around the focal point, spot metering takes much less of the image into consideration. Use this when the subject doesn’t take up a large portion of the frame—like for photographing birds.

4. An ambitious photographer knows how to shoot in any lighting

Importance of light in PhotographyOften, the photo shoots are scheduled for the times of the day when the lighting is best, like late in the evening. But what about when a wedding ceremony unfolds at high noon outdoors with no shade? The same shot will look different at different times of the day, but an ambitious photographer will still get the shot even if the lighting is tricky.

Feeling ambitious? Here’s a few tricks to learn for when the lighting just isn’t ideal.

  • Get comfortable with fill flash. Flash isn’t just for lighting up dark indoor shots. Used in bright light, flash can fill out harsh shadows from the sun.
  • Learn how to use a reflector. Reflectors bounce back light, filling in shadows. Often, 4-in-one reflectors also have a blackout panel for blocking light too.
  • Learn where to stand when the sun is bright. If you stand so the sun is behind your subject, it will be backlit and you’ll need to compensate with flash or a reflector and the right metering mode. Front lighting is simpler to work with, but best avoided when photographing people, or your subject will be squinting.

5. The ambitious photographer should learn how to manipulate depth of field

depth of fieldIf you’re comfortable in manual mode, you probably already know that the aperture setting determines how much of the image is in focus, and that a low f-stop like f/1.8 will leave you with a nice, soft background. But did you know there’s more to the depth of field then just the aperture? And that these other elements can often be manipulated too?

Feeling ambitious? Some factors that affect the depth of field can’t be changed without a new camera, like the sensor size. But these elements also affect depth of field:

  • The distance between the subject and the background plays a big role in the depth of field. To get that softer background in a portrait, simply ask the subject to move farther away from the backdrop.
  • Lenses with longer focal lengths will also result in a softer background, so use that telephoto lens even when you can get up close if you need an extra boost in the depth of field.
  • The distance between the camera and the subject matters too. If you can’t achieve the shallow depth of field you are looking for using the other factors, physically moving closer to your subject will soften the background too.

6. The ambitious photographer should learn how to read and use a histogram

Imagine all the pixels in your image were arranged from dark to light on a graph. Well, that’s a histogram. A histogram shows photographers the range of tones in the image. While ideally the histogram should arch in the center, darker subjects will have more peaks to the left (and vice versa for lighter subjects) and can still be properly exposed. But, an image that isn’t properly exposed will have peaks heading off the chart, instead of just touching the edge, or gaps where the pixels don’t even come near to the edge. Remember, the histogram is a representation of the pixels in the image—missing information (peaks that head off the edge or empty gaps on the sides) cannot be recovered in post processing.

Feeling ambitious? Here’s how to master the histogram.

  • Intentionally over and underexpose an image, then take a look at the histogram. Instead of using the exposure meter as a guide, take additional photos until the histogram reaches both edges without spilling over.
  • Don’t fret if you can’t get the histogram quite right. Some images with a wide range of highlights and shadows won’t have a perfect histogram—these scenarios are often the best for High Dynamic Range and merging several shots in post processing to preserve all the details.

7. The ambitious photographer knows how to edit RAW files

RAW files in photographyThe ambitious photographer will aim to get everything right before the shutter is released—but also know how to make corrections when it’s not quite perfect after the fact. Shooting in RAW is simply a matter of switching the file type in the camera and learning how to make adjustments in post processing.

Feeling ambitious? Learn how to edit RAW files with these techniques.

  • Watch how-to videos. YouTube is a great place to visit when you’re unsure of how to make the right edits to your photos, the same goes for learning RAW. Search for the keywords “RAW” plus whatever your favorite photo editor is to see editing in action.
  • Play with your shots. Those shots that don’t matter from practicing your camera settings? Open one and play around with the different editing options. Move the sliders to see what happens. Don’t forget about the tools either, like the adjustment brush that applies the sliders to just one portion of the image.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but ambition drives the photographer to greater images. Take your ambition and use it to learn the ins and outs of your camera, manual modes, metering, lighting, depth of field, histograms and RAW edits.

Keep the ambition going—explore Shaw Academy Photography courses to take your photography to the next level. 

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