Top 5 Shortcuts for Better Photos

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Having taught photography for several years I’ve noticed most students find the following 5 tips provide the biggest ‘aha!’ moments. These are the quickest and easiest techniques for improving your photography.

Top five shortcuts for better photos

1. Switch to aperture priority

Aperture priority

The main dial on top of your camera will have an option called ‘Av’ or ‘A’, depending on the make of your camera. It’s known as ‘aperture priority’. This mode gives you the perfect combination of a decent exposure (in most situations) and creative control. The only time this setting doesn’t give the right exposure is when a scene is particularly bright (like a snow scene), or dark (like a black Labrador).

Exposure compensation

If you’re not happy with the exposure you can use your camera’s exposure compensation setting to make it brighter or darker. This is usually controlled using a +/- button or a large rotary wheel, but check your manual for instructions on how to do this for your make and model of camera. Cameras tend to make very bright scenes too dark and dark scenes too bright.

A large part of the creativity in photography is adjusting the aperture to ensure more or less of the photo is in focus. The beauty of aperture priority is that you can select the aperture you want, and the camera will select the appropriate shutter speed to get the right exposure. Even if the light changes while you’re composing the photo the aperture won’t change, only the shutter speed will. This means your creative vision won’t change either.

All you need to remember is the lower the aperture number (f/4 for example), the less of the image that will be in focus. Cameras can be overwhelming and even have different ways of doing the same thing. When you’re starting out in photography it’s important to keep things simple. This means understanding what you don’t need to worry about yet. Sticking with aperture priority means you have one less knob to worry about, which always comes as a huge relief to my students.

2. How to avoid blurred photos

One of the most common problems suffered by new photographers is blurry photos caused by having a slow shutter speed. There’s a simple rule to help.

Your shutter speed needs to be faster than the focal length of your lens. So, if you’re using a 17-70mm lens and you set your lens to 70mm, then you need a shutter speed of at least 1/70th second. If you zoom out to 17mm then you’d need a shutter speed of 1/17th second. Note that this is the absolute slowest shutter speed you could use and the rule assumes that you and your subject are both still.

Blurred photos

Obviously your shutter speed can be as long as you like if you use a tripod, unless your subject is moving. You can create lovely effects by using a tripod for landscape photos where part of the landscape is moving. For example: flowing water, trees in the wind, car headlights, clouds etc.

If your shutter speed is too slow then you can make the aperture larger to let more light into the camera. Select a smaller ‘f number’ (f/4 instead of f/8 for example). If you’re already on the smallest f number you can get, or you don’t want to lower it because less of your photo will be in focus, then you have another option. Choose a higher ISO number and keep the same aperture as before. Again, aperture priority will ensure the exposure remains correct unless the scene is overall very dark or very bright.

3. Get closer and remove clutter

Almost every photographer starts out photographing things from too far away. They’ll create portraits where the person has a big area of nothingness around them. Maybe this is because most people are uncomfortable being photographed, and most new photographers are nervous about standing near them to take their picture. A longer lens can really help. 100mm or more allows you to stand outside someone’s personal space and still get a tightly composed image.

Just before you press the shutter button remember to check for unwanted items and consider whether your main subject is nice and bold in the frame. Our brain often deceives us because when it’s excited by something, it makes it seem bigger than it really is. Look at the background and consider whether it could be less cluttered. If you’re unable to move yourself or your subject to create a cleaner background then use a lower F stop (f/5 or lower, for example) to blur it out.

Uncluttered

4. Look for geometric shapes

If you look at your favourite photos you’ll notice the composition is often made up of quite defined shapes. Triangles, diamonds, circles, squares, parallelograms and trapezoids all slot together to create a pleasing jigsaw. Our brains like things to be ordered. Think about the calming effect of a nicely appointed hotel room. It’s made up of uncluttered geometric shapes, from the neatly stacked towels to the folded triangle of toilet paper and the round mint on the fold of your bed sheet.

Geometric shapes 2

5. Get in touch with your feelings

Whenever you have the urge to create a photo, think about why you’re picking your camera up in the first place. What was it that inspired you to grab your camera in this instant? If you’re photographing a person, then what are their physical and personality traits that you’d like your photo to convey?

Feelings

Imagine looking over a rocky coastal bay as the sun sets to your right. There’s a lighthouse straight ahead on the far side of the cove and storm clouds are rolling in behind it. Frothy waves are pummelling the rocks below. Most people would get out their wide angle lens and try and capture the whole scene in one go. The trouble is, the sunset would be distant, and the waves, rocks and lighthouse would be almost imperceptible.

Feelings 2

In this situation I’d recommend you create more than one photo. First you could walk to the rocky shore and get down low so the spray of the waves would be majestically backlit against the sunset. Then you could create a stark, bold silhouette of the lighthouse against the inky storm clouds. By creating two photos your message is much clearer.

So, before you press that shutter button consider if you’ve composed your photo in a way that makes your message clear.

Do you disagree with any of these tips, or have some better ones? Leave a comment below so we can see who has the best ninja photography techniques.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Dan Waters runs Get Pro Photo Club, where he shows dedicated students exactly how to become a full time photographer. He also practices what he preaches and is one of the leading wedding photographers in Peterborough and was voted one of the UK's top 10 breakthrough wedding photographers by Hitched and Photo Professional magazine.

  • Brad McDaniel

    Nice read. Every now and then it’s good to get back to the basics.

  • I always try to go back to some of these very tips, especially about getting closer and keeping things simple. I’m not sure I agree with the use of wider apertures to ‘blur out’ distractions though – a distraction is a distraction whether it is in focus or not!

  • 6. Use Auto ISO! (if you can set your minimal shutter speed)

  • When I’m just out and about with my camera I’ll use Auto ISO and then shoot in what ever mode I see fit. Since my camera seems to do alright up to ISO 6400 I don’t mind leaving it on Auto ISO.

    I’ll take it off Auto ISO if I’m going things like long exposures, or I know I have enough light around me to shoot with a specific ISO setting.

  • Sean

    Just for clarity, I’m using a 1.5x crop APS-C sensor and using a 70mm zoom. Would you then need to have a shutter speed of at least 1/100 since you’re shooting at what is effectively a 105mm zoom length or does the 1/(zoom) rule still apply? I know that it’s not that much difference at 70mm but I often shoot with a 70-200 and the difference is more pronounced at the longer focal length.
    Cheers

  • yes 1 over the new approximately focal length after the 1.5x is applied. So for your 70mm yes 1/100, that same lens at 200mm needs 1/300. If you have IS on the lens you can get away with a bit slower.

  • Tell us how Auto ISO will yield better photos? I neither agree or disagree just explain for those that may not get the point

  • I mostly shoot Aperture priority mode with Auto ISO on. I set an aperture I find suitable (say f/2.8) and let the camera measure the settings and leave myself think about my composition, etc. This way I don’t have to fiddle with the settings and can focus on getting the shot.

  • Same with me, I turn it off only when I’m on a tripod or try handholding low shutter speeds.

  • Raghu

    Great explaination. Thanks a lot

  • Barry E Warren

    Thanks for the good read,It help refresh my memory. Aperture priority is nice and easy to use, Manual is challenging and fun for creating a photo.

  • jimi

    I’ve always shot 2x(Focal Length) and never have a blurred photo on crop or full frame (up to 300mm). I know some say they can shoot 1x(Focal Length) but that (as you’ve stated) starts to fall apart at longer focal lengths. Just multiply the effective focal length by 2 for hand-held shooting and you’ll be fine. I’d rather sacrifice shutter speed before quality (ISO) or DOF. Unless of course you’re trying to achieve a visual effect that relies on a slower shutter.

  • jimi

    I just realized I worded that last part all wonky… set your shutter 2xMM and sacrifice the others to maintain a still image. Also, be in the habit of shooting manual so you can be quicker to make the conscious decision of what your going to sacrifice and why.

  • Christine

    RE the minimum shutter speed for preventing blurry photos. While using 1/mm lens length is the standard number, with image stabilization, you can often shoot at slower speeds than that formula dictates. And depending on your camera brand (Olympus has 5-plane IS vs the others’ 2-plane IS), you may be able to hand hold at even slower shutter speeds if you’re good.

  • Thanks for the feedback and intelligent questions. While we’re on the subject of larger sensors, they also handle higher ISO better. This means if you’re hovering around the slowest appropriate shutter speed and still have some higher ISO available then it’s worth bumping up the ISO a bit more to be safer with the shutter speed. Blurred photos are ruined, but a bit of ISO grain isn’t the end of the world and can be improved with software. Thanks again everyone.

  • E.K.

    I mostly shoot on aperture priority unless I want to do a shutter speed effect. BUT you have to pay attention to what shutter speed the camera has chosen! (Changing your ISO will help you get the shutter speed you need for sharpness, light allowing.) If the shutter speed is too slow when the light gets low or when your aperture is too closed down, like f22, your photo will be blurry unless you are on a tripod! Then, all your time shooting will be wasted on blurry photos. Never relax too much when shooting. Pay attention to everything.

  • Robyn

    I found points 3 & 5 most helpful, even though I’ve come across them before. Your way of really ‘putting me in the situation’ in Point 5 was beautifully done and clearly explained. Many thanks.

  • Col

    Regading Tip 1…
    I used to use aperture priority as my default/go-to mode for the majority of situations, but a couple of years ago I switched to shutter priority and my images have benefitted greatly ever since. I do shoot mostly hand-held and a lot of sports stuff – fishing, and shooting, plus BiF shots, animals running around, etc. With Auto-ISO now acceptable up to big numbers, it allows me to use 1/250 s to 1/1500 s and keep an eye on aperture, rather than shoot in Av and always be worrying about shutter speed.

    In Av, when moving from target to target with different backgrounds – light – dark – light – it results in the shutter speed jumping up and down and giving variable results – sometimes with too much blur at the slowest speeds. In Tv, that shutter speed is constant, is my choice for the situation, and the one I know I can trust.

    When carrying on shooting as dusk is falling, use of Tv will see the ISO rise but the shutter speed will still give a blur-free shot. The same situation in Av would see shutter speed going down to 1/10 s… 1/4 s… slower, and blurred images would result.

    Of course I’ll change back to Av when I put the camera on a tripod and shoot a landscape, still-life, etc.

    It’s all horses for courses, but I think it is misleading to state (of Aperture priority): “The only time this setting doesn’t give the right exposure is when a
    scene is particularly bright (like a snow scene), or dark (like a black
    Labrador).” Or, you could add that when shooting action, or in low light situations, you might be better to use shutter priority, particularly in conjunction with Auto-ISO.

  • Thanks Robyn. I guess I was trying to paint word photos! 😉

  • Absolutely – your approach is just as valid in many ways. What people like when I teach them is that I focus in on one effective way of doing something rather than show them several. By telling them to stick with aperture priority (or indeed shutter priority) they can now forget about that knob on the camera for the time being. Once they get comfortable with what I’ve taught I can then expand their knowledge a little more.

  • adrian

    Col, I 100% agree with you and find your post very important, coming from relevant experience. Exactly, I did start with aperture priority….but some of the best possible shots were missed because there was not enough light and the shutter speed automatically jumped too low…:(
    That’s why I switched to shutter priority. And as a new very powerful tool, on my D600 I choose automatic iso. So when it’s not enough light, the real technical limitation and challenge in photo, I sacrifice iso but not time speed….anyhow the aperture goes maximum wide very quickly….
    Really good point. Thanks.

  • Valie

    Great tips.
    About the last one, since it’s for begginers and everyone now uses digital cameras, I wouldn’t discourage taking that first, whole scene picture. If the whole is what impacts us first, then we should fulfill that first, then go around and try all the other crops and angles, right? After all, when you go back home and see that in that first picture the lighthouse is gone and the sun is too far, well, at least now you saw for yourself that it doesn’t translate as well as you thought and you still have the other pictures to compare and see how much better they look 🙂

  • Jordan

    Although this is partly covered by #3, I feel the #1 answer should always be ‘change your perspective’. It’s the first I tell anyone with a point-and-shoot who complains about the flat-looking images they get vs. ‘my DLSR’.

    https://digital-photography-school.com/perspective-photography-dont-just-stand-move-feet/

    Maybe more applicable to those at earlier stages than this article is aimed at, though.

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