How to make the most of your camera

How to make the most of your camera

Guest post by Martien Janssen 

Tips to improve your photography

Want to improve your photography and maybe even take it to a next level? Then this article is for you! It is written mostly for travel and nature photographers, but even if you’re into a different kind of photography this article will be helpful.

The most important thing in photography is you – your knowledge, your skills, your creativity, and your effort. I will start off by writing what things make a good photograph and how you can improve your photos. The second part of the article is about your camera, knowing how to use it, what the manual settings mean and why you should use them. And finally what editing app & programs you can use and the difference they make.

The Queen of rice terraces and man-made landscapes: Batad, Philippines. Panorama shot with DJI Mavic Pro drone. Created by shooting 3 rows of images, stitching up to 60 photos.

 

Rather next level: a 60 shot aerial panorama, stitched together for a 360 degree view of the stunning rice terraces of Batad, Philippines. Stitching images is a fairly easy process these days if you have Photoshop or Lightroom, but even with your phone can you capture some stunning panoramic images.

Making the most of your photography

When it comes to taking good photos, there are several elements that improve your photos:

Light

This goes for every type of photography: photography is about light. Photography in Latin means ‘drawing with light’. Photography is about capturing things in great light; it will make your subject look much better. In outdoor photography, the best light is around sunrise and sunset, when the light has a warm color, is nice and soft and shadows are horizontal and long. During the daytime, light is strong and harsh, and shadows are strong and vertical. For that reason, landscape photographers shoot mostly in the morning and afternoon. Using a flash can improve your photos as well, not only in dark light, even in bright situations where shadows can be softened.

Let’s say you find a certain subject to shoot, the next step is to find a time when the light is nice. For example, if it’s a flower, wait till a beam of sun shines on it. If it’s a landscape, maybe shoot it at sunset. If it’s a statue, maybe shoot it at night when the spotlights are on. Shooting at nice light will make a lot difference. You might not always have the time to wait or return of course, so just take it as good as you can.

Don’t underestimate nighttime. Artificial light can be great as well. And if there’s not enough light or no light at all, lighting up the scene with a flashlight can give amazing results.

Sunset view after rain in General Luna, Siargao, Philippines. After raining for hours, it stopped for a pause just right before the sunset, the colors came out beautiful.

 

A good example of magical light that turns a scene into a stunning lanscape. Shot during daytime, this scene wouldn’t have been that great. Note as well, that this is on the opposite side of the sunset. Shooting at sunset isn’t about the sunset, it’s about the colors!

Subject

Everyone understands you only shoot a photo of something nice. You need a good subject or location. But beauty is found in everything, even the smallest things. Photography can and should open your eyes to that – raindrops falling on a leaf, the light shining on a bicycle, a bug on a flower, the clouds in the sky etc. Such simple things can make a great image. And if you can, try to combine that with nice light.

When you shoot something, even a photo of a friend, always pay attention to the background. Move around to find a background that complements the subject. You don’t want a shot where it seems a tree is growing out of his/her head, right?

Surise at the Cloud 9 boardwalk in Siargao, Philippines. This is the kind of shot you get out of your bed for at *^&%$@ 3:30 in the morning. I got up many times for some good sunrise shots and time lapses at this iconic boardwalk, but wasn’t always as lucky. Sometimes it remained too cloudy for the nice colours to come out. This day I had the best sunrise, could not have wished for anything more. Had my camera set up taking a time lapse automatically, while I was near the tower shooting video. When I checked my footage afterwards, I found out that I messed up with the settings, causing the scene to be heavily underexposed. Fixable for photos, but in the time lapse scene it caused unrepairable flicker, still hurts me to know I messed up myself. At least I got this great shot, showing one of the early bird surfers coming to check out the waves. They’re never as early as the photographer though 😉

 

This shot by itself would have been great, with a gorgeous sky like that. But the magical element is that surfer, the first surfer of the day that comes to check out the waves. It really adds something to the whole scene.

Timing

Timing and, thus, patience is really important, especially in nature and landscape photography. If you’re shooting a landscape, maybe wait till some birds appear – some birds in the sky can really make such a difference! Maybe you know an old rusty car somewhere in a field that you’d like to shoot. Time your moment, maybe shoot it at night when the Milky Way is visible, or when a storm is nearing.

Also, in street photography, let’s say you see a nice shop window you want take a photo of, besides trying to shoot it in nice lighting, you should try to add an extra subject to the image. Wait until a bicycle is in the frame, or maybe a kissing couple, or anything like that. If you’re shooting a monument, wait till the people in it have gone, or maybe wait till there’s couple in a perfect position. Some photographers spend years going back to the location trying to find that perfect moment to shoot a certain scene. Timing can make such a difference!

The weather is always a factor when shooting outdoor. It can make or break your photo. The sky is the most important element in any landscape photo. Although a clear sky can be nice, clouds are often much more attractive. Nothing beats some nice colourful clouds during sunrise or sunset. Sunrises are often nicer than sunsets and it’s quieter with less people in the way. Don’t just shoot where the sun is, the sky is often great on the other side as well and light is much better there. Be patient, sometimes the best part comes when the sun has gone below the horizon.

The balloon adds the magical element to the whole scene. Without it, it would have still been nice, but ordinary. Anyone could take that shot. By waiting for that one balloon to be in exactly that location, it made the image so much more unique.

Composition

When people take a photo, they tend to shoot it from where they’re standing, at theirs eyes’ height. They centre the subject and put the horizon in the middle. That is the worst thing you can do and gives boring images. Try to find an interesting angle. Maybe stand near a tree to get a nice framing of branches and leaves. Or hold the camera near some flowers. Maybe hold your camera right above the ground or shoot the scene in the reflection of your sunglasses. Be creative; shoot dozens of different photos of the same subject to learn how each angle affects the image. Make sure your subject is clear to the viewer (dare to get close!) and that the composition makes the image interesting to look at. Shooting a flower? Don’t shoot in from the top, try shooting from the ground; be creative, be different.

There are rules of composition, like the rule of thirds: divide your image in 9 squares and try to frame your composition so it aligns with those squares. By using these rules of composition you can create more visually appealing images. Nevertheless, often the best images break the rules!

So I found this nice location to shoot the sunset over the rice fields, but staying at the side of the road I couldn’t really get an appealing shot. I wanted to clearly show the little hut, so I had to get closer. By standing at this location, I had a really nice composition where the lines of the rice terraces lead to the hut.

Foreground + background

Try to get some foreground in your photo. When you’re shooting a landscape, or a temple or whatever, you will create a much more interesting photo with more depth if you add some foreground to it. Let’s say your shooting at a temple, try to shoot so you have a statue in the front and the temple in the back and maybe some flowers in the foreground.

Sunset seen from the boardwalk at Cloud 9, famous for surfing, one of the best locations around Siargao. Life is all about surf here at Siargao.

 

The sunset is great by itself, but if you can add something of your surrounding to the image, you can create something so much more interesting. By using the wooden frame of the boardwalk I’ve captured an image with much more depth and a unique twist.

Shooting a winner

Of course, it’s really hard to incorporate all these elements into a photo – it’s almost impossible. And you don’t have to, but you have to keep your eyes open to the possibilities. And every now and then, you will be able to create a photo that has several elements, a great location with the perfect light, a wonderful foreground and some interesting other subject. When those things come together, you have a real winner!

Fire dancer Kevin Jay Rama of Isla Kalayo (Fire Island) at Guyam island, Siargao Philippines.
After shooting the Milky Way at Guyam island and taking some photos of Jay (fire dancer) at Viento del Mar, I want to improve my shot of both. Finally I came up with the idea to combine them and thus take Jay to Guyam.

 

This image is a good example of a photo where several elements come together really well: Location (deserted island) + timing (Milky Way) + subject (fire dancer). Shots like these require some inspiration and organization, but results are only achieved through experimenting. Even though I’ve been into photography for years, many shots and testing are still necessary.

 

Making the most of your camera

Let’s first clear out a few misconceptions about photography

It’s not about the gear, it’s about you

A bigger, more expensive camera or lens will not make you better photographer. They are only tools to capture a photo and other gears will barely change anything about it. Of all things that go into capturing a great photo, the camera is the least important element. It is 99% about you, choosing your subject, shooting in the right light from a great angle, and coming up with a good composition is what it is all about. A camera or lens won’t change much about that. Knowing how to use the gear that you have and how to properly post-process an image is much more important. Don’t be obsessed with a new gear; you’re better off investing on education. And don’t ever let your gear stop from creating whatever you want.

Yes, of course, if you want to shoot wildlife, you’ll want a zoom lens, or if you’re into shooting landscapes you will want a wide angle. If you’re into small things, you’ll want a micro lens. These things are all true, but don’t overestimate the importance of gear. Just because you have a f3,5 lens with crop sensor camera, doesn’t mean you can’t shoot the Milky Way or a nice portrait. Develop your skills.

 

The Perfect Storm: This time lapse movie was shot with 3 types of cameras: A professional full frame camera, a consumer crop-sensor camera and compact camera. Amazing results were achieved with all cameras. Can you even tell what camera was used for each shot? It’s about using the right settings and applying the proper postprocessing.

A camera does not capture reality

Many people tend to think that a camera captures reality and that any kind of editing makes an image fake. The opposite is true. What a camera captures depends on many things, like the sensor, the lens, the settings used while shooting, and the camera settings that convert the RAW file to a JPG image. You can get some pretty un-real results by using the wrong settings. And if you’re using the right settings, results may vary a lot from reality. Photographers edit an image to make it match with reality or to their own taste. If you’re a serious photographer, editing is as much part of photography as shooting.

A camera’s sensor is not as sensitive as our eyes are. In high contrast situations, you really start to notice the limitations of a sensor. When you shoot into the light, a camera cannot display the extremes of light and dark. If you focus on the bright sky, the foreground becomes underexposed: darker than it really is. If you focus on the foreground, the sky becomes overexposed: brighter than it really is. So that is why photographers use shooting techniques such as multiple exposures and editing techniques such as HDR to create images that match reality.

Supermoon at Cloud 9 boardwalk in Siargao, Philippines, November 14 2016.

 

This is how the scene really was, but not how it came out of the camera. I shot 2 exposures to create this, one where the clouds were correctly exposed (but the moon turned completely white because the camera can’t capture the high contrast) and one where the moon was correctly exposed.

Know your equipment

To make the most of your equipment, you need to know it inside out. That means read the manual, go through all the settings, try them out and take many test shots to understand what the different settings do. Maybe even read some articles about your equipment and watch some videos about it. There are a lot of tips and tricks than may improve your photography. Only by knowing your equipment inside out and how to use the appropriate settings, can you achieve great results. When a great photo moment appears in front of you with only seconds to act, you don’t even want to think about what settings you should use. It should come naturally and within seconds, have your camera ready for the shot. Or else, you’ll miss it or mess it up.

Understanding ISO, Aperture & Shutterspeed

If your camera has the ability to shoot in these manual settings, you should really master them. It’s the only way to capture professional looking images. The Auto mode on the camera will not always capture a properly exposed image. It can only calculate an average based on the scene, if that is a very bright or very dark or a scene of high contrast, it will choose an exposure that is either over- or underexposed.

The manual settings might seems confusing or intimidating, but they are actually really simple:

ISO: handles the light sensitivity of your camera. Low ISO gives the best image quality; a higher ISO starts to give noise. So you will always want to use a low ISO to have the best quality image. But when your scene is dark, you will have to use a higher ISO to get a proper exposure.

Aperture: controls the depth of field. A low aperture will create a scene where the subject is sharp and the background is not sharp. A high aperture will create a scene where everything is sharp. So for a portrait you will want a low aperture, while with a landscape it should be high.

Shutterspeed/Exposure: controls how long/short it takes to capture the photo. That way you can capture movement if you want. Let’s say you’re shooting a dancer, if you want to avoid any movement/blur, use a fast shutterspeed. If you want to capture the movement, use a slow shutterspeed. Also, by using a longer exposure you can capture more light on the sensor, so for example in dark situations like astrophography.

All three are linked to each other: A higher Aperture requires a longer Shutterspeed (=Exposure) or a higher ISO, because it takes more time to achieve the large depth of field. A slower Shutterspeed increases the light on your camera, letting you use a lower ISO. A faster Shutterspeed does the opposite.

If a faster or slower Shutterspeed under- or overexposes you image, compensate by changing your ISO. If that is not enough, compensate by changing the Aperture.

If you are shooting from the hand, you can’t shoot any slower than 1/50, because the motion of your hand will cause the image to get blurry (unless you have ‘vibration reduction’, which will allow longer Shutterspeeds). Use a tripod if you want to shoot long exposures or if you want to capture scenes at low ISO (which require longer Shutterspeeds)

Milky Way above the Cloud 9 boardwalk in Siargao, Philippines. Siargao is the country’s surfing capital, Cloud 9 is the famous icon, this is where the big waves and surfing competitions are held. So busy during the day, so quiet during the night, except for the occassional local or tourist that comes to have a look at night. I’ve spend a lot of hours here at night, sitting on my sarong, listening to music, drinking Tanduay Ice or whatever, munching on candies, enjoying the view, hoping the weather stays nice, waiting and waiting for the time lapse to finish and finally go to bed.

 

For shooting the Milky Way properly, you need certain settings to capture it properly. It depends on the type of camera and lens that you have, but always use your lowest aperture to maximise light sensitivity, use a 20-30 second exposure (as long as you can while keeping the stars dots and not strips) and crank up your ISO to 1600-3200, or even higher.

Using M, A, S and P mode

M: Manual, you control Aperture & Shutterspeed

A: Aperture Priority, the camera chooses the suitable Shutterspeed

S: Shutterspeed Priority, the camera chooses the suitable Aperture

P: Program Mode: camera chooses Aperture and Shutterspeed, similar to Auto Mode.

If you don’t want to worry about ISO, you can set your camera to Auto-ISO, it will automatically use the proper setting. Using Auto-ISO might be good to use until you have mastered using the modes. Start with beginning using A and S mode, keep note on what the camera uses for the other setting. Check your results and adjust where necessary. Your camera has an Exposure Compensation setting as well, that you can adjust with -3, -2, -1, +1, +2, +3. You can change the setting in case your images get over- or underexposed. In photography where you capture a sky, you will usually always want to underexpose with -1 to avoid the sky becoming overexposed. You cannot fix overexposure (the image data is simply gone), but you can fix underexposure (there is still image data).

Using filters

Once you’re getting really serious about photography, consider these filters:

ND Filter: available in various darkness; these filters let you slow down your shutterspeed, making it possible to do long exposures during daytime

Polarizer: darkens the sky and eliminates reflections on water and windows, has a rotating disc that lets you adjust the intensity

Graduated ND Filter: darkens the sky and not the landscape, only the upper half is darker; works only for flat horizons in the middle of your image

Mayon volcano, also known as Mt Mayon; worlds most perfect cone shaped volcano, located near Legazpi in the Philippines. It is the most active volcano of the country, erupting over 49 times in the past 400 years.
Getting some good shots of this volcano was high on my photography ‘to do list’ and I spend 3 afternoons/evenings here capturing photos and timelapses. I followed the river towards the volcano until I found this green area with a nice stream of water, allowing for some nice long exposure shots. The first shot of this series of 7 was taken at the nearby Cagsawa ruins, an area that was destroyed by the 1814 eruption.

 

By using a ND filter I was able to slow down the shutterspeed make the water look soft & silky

Using flash

Some prefer shooting in natural light only, but a flash can work miracles. When shooting indoor and even outdoor, a flash gives great results. Even when the sun is bright and there’s enough light, a flash can soften shadows or bring a sparkle in the eye with a portrait. Play around with adjusting the strength of your flash. Once you start enjoying using it, you might want to invest in a small external flash that will give you a lot more options and even better results.

Using a timer or a remote

If you’re using a tripod to take photos, you might want to consider to start using the timer or a remote. Pressing the button on your camera might cause enough movement to create some blur, especially if you’re using a zoom lens. A wireless remote will let you take photos without being behind the camera, you could do you own light painting shots for example, or shoot selfies without having to touch the camera. Get a more advanced remote and you will have options for timelapses and others.

I waited years for this shot; it’s my favourite location in my city Utrecht. Around Christmas, they decorate the trees with lights, which looks so nice. I wanted to capture it when there was snow, which would make the scene look even more picturesque. To capture this when it’s that dark, (you can’t shoot it from the hand) I had my camera on my tripod, low ISO, high aperture to have everything sharp, so I ended up with a shutterspeed of 20 seconds. To avoid any type of camera shake I used the 2-second timer to make sure I had the sharpest possible image.

 

Editing your photos

Not everyone is into editing their photos, which is fine. If you want to keep them how they come out of the camera, do it. Nobody is forcing you. But if you’re willing to take your photography to the next level, I believe the editing process is just as much part of photography as the actual shooting.

Smartphone

Of course there’s a myriad of phone apps available and you probably have a few already. If using filters is your thing, go for it. But the time where filters were appreciated is over and it’s preferred to give your image a more natural look. Don’t over-edit or over-saturate the image, no matter what. You might think it’s nice in the beginning, but in reality it’s not and it’s the most-made mistake in photography.

The one app I recommend is Snapseed, it’s very advanced and it’s free. Although it might seems a bit complicated at first, once you get the hang you can edit your photos in seconds. A great feat is that it doesn’t ‘destroy the pixels’ (the worst thing you can do to an image, really, because it degrades the quality badly), but saves an editing file with the original jpg, so you can also always go back to adjust the settings. Once you use Snapseed, you don’t even need to bother with any other app.

Port Barton, Palawan, Philippines. This quiet fishing village is becoming one of new popular destinations among tourists for good reason. It’s a welcome escape from the crowded El Nido. Along the nice beach are simple bars and restaurants offering fair prices in contrast to the overly expensive El Nido. Here in Port Barton you can go island hopping without having to share the beach with many others. Unfortunately I didn’t have time myself to do any island tours and only spend one night here during a motorbike ride from Puerto Princesa. A great ride of 150 km taking about 3-4 hours.

 

A little motion blur was added to this photo to make it look as if it was a shot as a long exposure – a tiny touch that made a huge difference.

Computer

A few of the best free photo editing programs are Gimp, Pixlr and Photoscape. NIK is an incredible filter collection that is free, it can be used stand-alone or as plugins in Photoshop and Lightroom. Nothings beats Photoshop and Lightroom though, they are the most versatile programs out there. I’m not doing an in-depth article on processing here, but if you will be editing your image, just editing your RAW files will make a huge difference. It’s very easy as well, just play around with the sliders to your liking. If you really want to take it a step further, master editing with Luminosity Masks, for example with Raya Pro. There are countless ways and filters to edit your program, but there really is no better way than Luminosity Masks, because they give you complete control over all the tones in an image. Learn that and you can forget about all the rest.

Editing Tip: The two main things you will (usually) want to edit in photos are Highlights and Shadows – highlights are often too bright and shadows too dark. So by fixing just those two things, you will notice a huge difference and your photo will look much more natural. If you’re shooting RAW files, they’re usually quite ‘flat’, because it’s the untouched camera that that you need to edit according to your taste. Add some Contrast, Clarity and Saturation, and your image will pop instantly.

Landscape panorama during a passing lightning storm. It’s a typical landscape view, ricefields and a house in the middle. The storm was really nice, I shot this quickly before setting my 2 camera’s for a time lapse.

 

Darkening the sky and making the land brighter brought a much better balance to the whole photo and made it more realistic. Add some contrast and saturation and colours will pop out.

Keep it fun!

There are many types of photographers doing it for various reasons. Whatever you do, just make sure you keep it fun. Do whatever you like and what makes you feel happy. Once you get more serious about photography and start reading articles and books, they might make it sound as if you need to do it according to that, don’t feel pressured by it. Photography is a playground and it should remain that way. I will be the last to force you into doing all the above, they are just tips for improvements if that’s what you’re after.

To me, photography is freedom, to do whatever I want, whenever I want; however I want to do it. And that is what is should be to you too! Go out into nature, explore cities, enjoy the beauty of our planet, be creative, play with your camera, that is what it is about, right?!

Keep shooting!

Martien Janssen

Next level photography, a time lapse video created from photos. An ode to the sky, the sky has so much to offer, a never-ending work of out.

For more of Martien’s work, check out his Website, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Vimeo.

Martien’s post is featured as part of the Lessons Learned series – If you have a story to tell or a lesson to teach and you’d like to be featured – I’d love to hear from you!!

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