Next Level Techniques for Advanced Beginners

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You’ve been bitten by the photography bug – it’s not an actual insect, but you know what I mean.

Andreas.

By Andreas.

After the salesman pried that hard-earned money from your hands, you brought home that tantalizing-looking DSLR and your friends looked at it like it was a dangerous alien device, inquiring what all of those buttons, dials, and switches actually do.

At the time you didn’t really even know what they did, but you did know that once you figured it out, some cryptic combination of clicking knobs, pushing buttons and twisting rings on that lens, you were going to produce some knock-out photos.

Since then, you have spent eons of your life that you will never get back reading and researching on Digital Photography School, and highlighting juicy passages in your camera’s user manual (that last part might not be true). And guess what? It’s paid off!

Now you know how aperture affects depth of field, how to use shutter speed to freeze or blur movement and that once mysterious acronym, ISO, finally means something to you. Looking back you now understand what it is like to be a beginner, and that realization alone has raised you to a new level.

JD Hancock

By JD Hancock

What now? You are getting some shots you are proud of, have a pretty firm grasp of the fundamentals and are ready to take it to the next level. You are ready to learn some new techniques, emerge from survival mode and get out there and photograph with intention.

Let’s take a look at some techniques that just might get you over that hump and give you the skills, knowledge and power to capture great photos consistently.

Understanding and Using Aperture and Shutter Priority Modes

These are features that the vast majority of DSLRs have, and even many point-and-shoot cameras on the market as well. Some purists may balk at the thought of using one of these “automatic” settings, but pro shooters have long ago learned the versatility and usefulness of these controls.

Aperture priority settings

Aperture priority gives you full control of aperture while your camera takes care of the rest.

Although the various options for these settings may vary between manufacturers and camera models, the basic premise remains the same.

As the name suggests, these settings are pseudo-automatic. However, unlike the Program (P) setting, which does allow a minute amount of influence from the shooter, Aperture and Shutter Priority modes let you set certain parameters that change automatically to compensate for other adjustments that you remain in control of.

For instance, if your camera is set to Aperture Priority you retain the ability to adjust the Aperture to alter the depth of field as you see fit, and in conjunction with ISO, the camera will automatically choose the corresponding shutter speed for correct exposure. Many cameras give you the option to control ISO manually or let the camera adjust it for you.

The Shutter Priority setting does what you would expect, allowing you to control the shutter speed while the camera does the heavy lifting of setting the appropriate aperture.

Thomas Hawk

By Thomas Hawk

Some cameras offer the option to set limits on the extent of certain settings. For example, if you are shooting in aperture priority, you can set the camera so the shutter speed won’t drop below a predetermined speed or the ISO won’t exceed a maximum level.

My camera is set to Aperture Priority more often than not – this is personal preference. I know my camera like the back of my hand, and can anticipate how all the settings correspond to one another, so I feel comfortable using this setting under most conditions. It is certainly important to be comfortable using your camera in Manual Mode, however, you are likely to find that once you become accustomed to Aperture or Shutter Priority modes, you will have enough control without having to spin dials as much. Priority modes also help prevent accidental changes which can result in improper exposure.

Exposure Metering, Exposure Lock, and Exposure Compensation

A*J*P

Vintage exposure meter – By A*J*P

While we’re on the subject let’s look at some other ways that you can work with your camera to get proper exposures in all sorts of conditions.

DSLRs give you a few different options as to how they meter and determine exposure for a given scene. The most common are spot, center-weighted and evaluative or matrix metering. Take a look at this handy cheat sheet that should help you wrap your mind around the concept.

Fancy technicalities aside, what are the practical applications of these different settings?

Spot metering

Since spot metering bases exposure on the reading from a very small area of the image, it is a great choice if the subject of your composition is small and significantly lighter or darker than the rest of the image, so you can hone in on the correct exposure. This metering mode can be useful for small backlit subjects, as the light source shining directly at the camera will most often result in an underexposed subject. Keep in mind that regardless of the type of focus points you are using, spot metering will read only about a 4mm radius (depending on the camera) from the very center of the focus point.

Center-weighted metering

Center-weighted metering takes the whole frame into consideration, but puts more value towards the center of the focus points (somewhere in the 12mm range). This setting works great when your subject takes up a larger part of the frame, or the lighting is more even. Consider a close-up portrait where spot metering might be too specific if it reads a shadowed or highlighted area, but center-weighted would give you more of an average.

Evaluative or Matrix metering

The last of three main metering types, evaluative (Canon) or matrix (Nikon) metering, determines exposure in a more complex way by taking into account composition, tones, color and some cameras can even factor in the distance objects are from the camera to estimate what the main subject is. This system of metering works great for landscapes and wide angle shots.

Many cameras are equipped with a dedicated exposure lock button or have customizable settings in order to delegate one. This is used when you want to take an exposure reading and hold it. If your subject fills a large part of the frame, the camera may do a good job at setting exposure. If the subject takes up only a small part of the frame, you can move in close to get an exposure reading, lock exposure and recompose the image.

Exposure/focus lock button

Once you familiarize yourself with the exposure/focus lock button, you will be surprised how often you use it.

Exposure compensation

Exposure compensation allows you to over or underexpose the image manually. This is most useful while using automatic or semi-automatic settings like Aperture or Shutter Priority. In the example of a backlit portrait, many photographers prefer to overexpose the camera’s suggested exposure, knowing that the reading will be wrong because of the lighting. You could certainly change your exposure metering to try and secure a more accurate reading, but with experience you can easily predict how the camera’s exposure meter will react ,and use exposure lock or exposure compensation as a more direct, and one-off, route to proper exposure.

Just keep in mind that the most challenging conditions for your camera’s exposure meter are high contrast situations, and with enough experience you will learn to “see” like your camera and easily be able to anticipate necessary compensations.

Selecting Different Focus Settings

To start with, there are two main categories of autofocus settings: Single and Continuous.

Single (One Shot on Canon) is intended for stationary subjects. When the camera finds focus in single servo mode, it holds that focus point until the shutter is released or the autofocus is released and re-activated.

However, single servo focusing can be very useful for action in certain applications. For example, one technique when shooting a moving, yet predictable subject, is to compose the image and lock focus on the spot where you know your subject will be, and wait for it to enter the frame (think panning).

In continuous focus mode, your camera will continually refocus while the autofocus is engaged. This is the setting to use if your subject, or you and your camera, are on the move. In continuous mode, many cameras allow you to choose how many focus points are live. Say you are shooting a sporting event and there are a lot of players, you may want to use fewer focus points in order to single out your subject.

Continuous servo autofocus

Continuous servo focusing is best used to maintain focus on moving subjects – especially if they are moving towards or away from you.

It’s also worth mentioning that just in case you haven’t figured it out already, you can move the focus points around the frame in the viewfinder with the multi-selector. This is key while trying to maintain a certain composition with a moving subject. Consider some basic compositional conventions such as the rule of thirds when setting your focus points for a shot.

Confirm Focus by Previewing Images at 100%, In-camera

As a digital photographer you are extremely fortunate to have access to a feature like this –film shooters didn’t/don’t have this luxury.

The concept is simple: if you are unsure whether you nailed a sharp image, due to camera shake or shallow depth of field, zoom in to 100% and do a little pixel peeping for confirmation. Make a habit of doing this instead of ending up in front of your computer in disappointment at a great shot that’s not sharp.

Zoomed to 100% in camera

Zooming to 100% is a quick way to confirm you have a sharp image.

Some cameras (check your user’s manual to see if your camera supports this feature) allow you to customize a button which zooms directly to 100% for this purpose.

Many cameras have a setting (sometimes called shutter release priority) which won’t allow a picture to be taken unless it recognizes that your focus point is actually in focus. Personally, I loathe this setting. I think it is better to take your chances and at least try to get the shot. Although the focus may not be spot on, you still may get a usable image.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the major technical considerations to keep in mind as you bravely forge ahead in your photographic pursuits.

Every situation requires its own approach, and the more tricks you have up your sleeve, the more prepared you will be to nail the best shots. Keep your nose to the grindstone and embrace the challenge!

Do you have any other tips for the advanced beginner? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jeremie Schatz is a freelance photographer, photojournalist, journalist, copyeditor and videographer for a variety of clients and companies in the United States and Thailand. Find his portfolio of colorful images and more of his writing at Exposed World Photography and on Facebook.

  • James Vodicka

    A great read with some useful tips! Would have been very helpful when I started out learning the basics!

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  • Grimm Tale

    Yes James, sure wish I had just a fraction of the oooodles of helpful information like this, back when I first started 40+yrs ago! But, I guess learning from mistakes is still learning…just going about it the xtra-hard way!

  • Angela

    Fabulous post!! I loved all of it. It’s hard to find information that is just beyond the beginner level but not too advanced. Thanks for giving me some things to work on. This is why I subscribed to this blog.
    Angela

  • Jeremie

    Great, I’m glad you guys are finding some value in the post.

    I agree, although trial and error may eventually get you there, having some guidance can save tons of time and frustration. Luckily, I had the opportunity to work under seasoned photographers in the past and find it rewarding to pass on some of the wisdom they imparted on me.

  • Jeremie

    Thanks Angela!

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  • Mukund Umra

    Dear Jeremie,
    Excellent post, refreshed my knowledge.It’s simple, informative, and basic.
    Dr.Mukund Umra.

  • Blake Lewis

    This stuff is advanced now? I’d call all this beginner information.

  • Susan Steineke

    I still read even the stuff considered completely for beginners, you never know when something is really going to click in. I know that even tho I in my head know most of this stuff sometimes I still have to go to manuals. I have been taking photos since my first AE1 in 1979 but since I don’t do it all the time I forget. I love getting the email every Thursday with all these articles.

  • CrustyOF

    How does continuous focus differ from back button focus?

  • Martin Green

    Hi CrustyOF

    These are two quite separate functions: back button focus allows you to select a button at the rear of your camera which will then serve as your focus button, disabling your shutter button from that function (there are a lot of articles about the advantages of this and I have to say that I agree it is useful; it takes a little getting used to but worth it). Continuous focus, as Jeremie says, will allow you to keep your subject in focus when either you or subject is on the move.
    Hope that helps!
    Martin

  • CrustyOF

    Isn’t the advantage of the back button that it keeps the focus where ever the camera is aiming? Maybe I am being unclear. When would I want to use back button as opposed to continuous focus? Sorry if I am being thick.

  • Martin Green

    I think you are getting your wires crossed a wee bit, I hope you don’t mind me saying!
    Firstly, regarding the choice of button that you press to activate your autofocus; you could choose standard button (i.e. in conjunction with your shutter button) focus or back button focus (leaving your shutter button free to just operate the shutter, or meter + shutter). Both are valid and it’s really a matter of choosing which works best for you and getting comfortable with it so focusing becomes second nature. Generally speaking, this is set and then forgotten.
    Then, regarding your two options (on Canon there is a 3rd, I only know Canon) of autofocus. Continuous focus mode; you’re telling your camera that it will need to keep continuously re-focusing as long as your focus button is pressed, until you take your shot. It won’t do this in single focus mode.
    I find the advantage of BBF is that as the two functions (focusing and taking the shot) are separate, it is easier to quickly focus on your subject, compose and take the shot without the camera refocusing. Also, it helps hold the camera more steadily. I think I read a pretty good article on DPS on the advantages of BBF which would be worth a read.

  • Jeremie

    Good explanation Martin. A little clarity with the terminology might help you as well CrustyOF. The term back-button focus refers to a button on the back of your camera that you can use to activate autofocus instead of pressing the shutter button halfway down. As such, whatever autofocus settings you have set (single point, continuous, etc.), is what the camera will use when activating autofocus no matter what button is delegated to to activate it.

  • Jeremie

    This article should be old news for advanced photographers, but advanced information for a beginner.

  • CrustyOF

    Thanks for your explanation. My wires have been crossed for decades. I started using back button focus after reading an article in DPS.

  • Right – advanced beginners. So those not brand new but want to go up one level.

  • CrustyOF I use Back button focus almost exclusively for moving and non-moving subjects.

    Non-moving: the advantage for a subject that is still is that I can press the back button to lock focus (using Single or One Shot focus mode) and then I’m free to shoot away and compose, and recompose. As long as I don’t change the distance to the subject each successive shot will still be focused on the same spot. I use this for portraits on tripod ALL the time! It is key to not accidentally getting the background in focus and not your people.

    Moving: also then change to Continuous Focus mode as Jeremie mentioned, and to Continuous Shooting or Burst drive mode. The advantage here is that while you hold down the back button, and the subject is moving – it keeps focusing on them the entire time – even between shots in burst mode. That does NOT happen when using the shutter button for focusing. When you focus and shoot with the shutter button when the camera fires an image it stops focusing. So in burst mode you might get the first one sharp and if the subjects keeps moving closer to you each gets more out of focus. But with back button it keeps focusing (assuming you keep your thumb on the button the entire time) even during burst mode. Sports shooter use this technique for sharper images.

  • CrustyOF

    Thanks so much. I get it.

  • Helena Henning

    Two questions: can you turn off shutter release priority to take photo even if it’s not in focus? And with 4mm focus spot metering, is that 4 mm in real life ie subjects face or in the finished photo?

  • Calvin Guyer

    Back button (and single point) focus – singularly the best things I started doing early on.

  • Suz Swanson

    Personally, I don’t agree with strictly shooting in aperture and shutter mode. Shooting in full manual gives you control over your entire camera.that way, you know exactly what is going on. Relying strictly oone or the other, you will have times where you’ll miss great photos. I used to think strictly shooting in aoerture would be ideal. Boy, was I wrong. Ever since learning manual, I won’t go back.

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