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Top 5 Shortcuts for Better Photos

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.


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?


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.

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Dan Waters
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.

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