5 Things I've learned about Photography
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
Last December was Life changing for me. That’s when I bought my first camera, the Canon 80D. I really didn’t know a whole lot about taking photos before I bought it, but I knew I wanted to make vlogs. I wanted to share parts of my life with people on the internet and hopefully show them some of the struggles I was going through and they could learn something from it (also to keep my family updated on the other side of the planet). Photos quickly took over videos because they allowed my artistic side to really shine. With a lot of studying and hard work, my talent really took hold. Now photography is taking up most of my time. I spend my days making Instagram posts and talking with other photographers, trying to soak up all they know, trying to up my photo game.
That brings us here, to this blog post. I figured it’s been almost a year since I started taking photos and I wanted to share a few tips and tricks and knowledge that I've picked up since last December. So here they are, 5 things I've learned about Photography over the last year.
1. Photography basics
I know this might seem like a cop-out. But I really thinks it's important to talk about, because I've seen a ton of people who have struggled for far longer than they need to trying to get those beautiful shots they want. I get it, you buy a new camera and are super stoked to try and capture photos like the great Instagrammers, Brandon Woelfel, Peter McKinnon, Alen Palander, etc. (if you haven't heard of them, GO LOOK THEM UP RIGHT AFTER THIS BLOG!!), but you've neglected to understand how a camera works, or why the light entering your camera behaves the way it does. I’m no expert on the physics of photons, but I CAN tell you about the three basic functions you should know about cameras, Aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. Understanding how these three things affect your photos is CRITICAL.
Aperture is just the hole in which light enters before hitting your cameras sensor (or film), kind of like a the pupil of your eye. Aperture controls the amount of light entering your camera. In modern lenses the aperture is a little ring of blades that opens and closes allowing more or less light in. This also controls something known as “Depth of Field”, which is basically how much of the space in front of your camera is in focus. You can move that space closer or farther from you with the focus ring (unless using a prime lens, which has a fixed focal length. More on that at a later time). The more open the rings are, the more light gets in and less will be in focus. If they are more closed, less light, more is focus. The size of your aperture is represented by what is known as an “f-stop” i.e. f/1.4 or f/16 or f/8, the lower the f-stop, the more open the aperture. (f/1.4 = really open, shallow depth of field; f/16 = really closed, long depth of field).
Shutter speed refers to how long the light coming through the aperture is hitting your sensor. Depending on your camera, you might have a mirror that folds up and allows light to hit the sensor. Maybe you have a mirrorless camera and the shutter speed is just how long the camera tells the already-exposed sensor to record for. Understanding how to manipulate this aspect of the camera can create some really cool effects. If you expose your sensor to a tiny fraction of a second of light, you can create a photo that perfectly freezes life without any motion blur (be careful because less light entering your camera = darker image). Doing the opposite can create equally beautiful images. If you've ever seen car lights streaming by, or a twirl of stars in the night sky, all of those were created by leaving the sensor open to light for an extended period of time.
ISO is and indication of how sensitive your sensor is to light (or is the case of traditional film, ASA). Usually this is represented by the numbers 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and on and on. However with digital photography you are allowed more control over the sensitivity of the sensor by using an ISO of 360 or 250 or any number in between. In digital photography when you turn up the ISO your camera is creating artificial light. This can cause digital noise. When using traditional film, a higher ASA creates a more “grainy” look. I’ll touch on the difference between grain and noise in a bit. A good bit of advice I received was to leave the ISO a low as possible. Depending on the brand of your camera, or the quality of your sensor, the amount of noise changes drastically as you force fake light into your photos. Usually I use higher ISO to compensate for when my aperture and shutter speed just aren't letting in enough light.
Learning to manipulate and optimize these three basic settings is the start to all photography. Understanding how each mechanism changes your photos is key to capturing your best work yet. There is so much more on this topic and I can elaborate for hours, but i'll saved that for later blog posts.
2. Shooting at the right times
If you are like me (a relative beginner) you probably don't have a personal studio, or even access to a studio. No lights, no set up, very little control of light. That’s why learning to make the most of natural light is a massive step up from the total new guy.
With the sun as your only light source, you have literally no control of where it will be during the day, but you CAN make use of its life giving light at the right times. Usually the best times to shoot are during what is known as “golden hour” (about an hour and a half after sunrise/before sunset), or “blue hour” (right before sunrise/ after sunset).
As you can imagine, shooting at golden hour, when the sun is low in the sky, your photos look more golden/orange. The light is being scattered nicely in the atmosphere and you get nice, soft lighting with long dramatic shadows. You can make amazing lens flares and all kinds of really, really effects using this light. I personally love shooting at this time.
Blue hour is slightly different. The sun is just beyond the horizon, reflecting its light off the atmosphere creating a very blue-hued, soft light. You can see this in Brandon Woelfel's work. I don't have a ton of experience shooting with this light as my camera isn't great at shooting in darker environments. I end up turning my ISO way too high and have to deal with gross digital noise. But if you have the right gear, there is a ton of potential during this time.
3. Noise IS NOT Grain!!!
This probably seems petty but it's important to know the difference. When I understood this, the quality of my work skyrocketed.
As I wrote about earlier, noise is a side effect of your camera creating artificial light in your photos and trying to make something up that isn't there. A good way to understand this is by comparing it to audio. Static in an audio recording is the result of background radiation, noise that is there but your ears can't really hear it, or when you can (via microphones) it doesn't make any sense. Now imagine the visual equivalent, and you have visual noise, a reception of stuff that isn't there, radiation from the big bang. You can't see it normally, but it causes problem with your cameras sensor. This usually occurs as a consequence of high ISO in a dark shooting situation.
Now compare that to film grain; beautiful, stylish, and just plain GOOD. Grain, is traditional photography was a result of the paper used to capture light. Different companies had different methods to making the photo sensitive paper, so by using a microscope you can actually identify who you bought the film from. Some companies had nicer, more aesthetically pleasing, even iconic film paper. Others… less so.
When I shoot I always try to keep my ISO low and capture less noise. This saves time in post production and ensures quality work. However, using a higher ISO is not the end of the world. With some camera brands, the software in camera does a really great job of getting rid of noise. And the quality/type/size of the sensor in your gear can really make a huge difference.
Post production offers tons of solutions to this seemingly small, but hugely important issue. Programs like Lightroom Photoshop offer a “denoiser” option. This is incredibly helpful, because sometimes shooting in blue hour forces you to use a higher ISO. Another great option in post production is to add grain. I add grain to everything. Literally every photo ever. I can’t not add it anymore. I've incorporated it deep into my personal style. It adds a Classical look to everything I do. It's very powerful in portrait work, especially when shooting in black and white.
4. The basics of color theory
To create eye grabbing photos that absorbs viewers is the goal right? Well, doing that not only requires good composition, an interesting subject, but also GOOD COLOR. Understanding the entirety of color theory is a massive undertaking, and i'm not even that knowledgeable. However, with a few resources and a little determination and repetition you can develop a good eye for color. In this essay I won't go into all the different things you should keep in mind, like complimentary colors, color triads, primary/secondary/tertiary colors, rather, the simple trick to make awesome looking portraits a whole lot easier.
Let's talk about the Teal/Orange look. Matti Haapoja has a great video about why this look works so well, and i'll do my best to summarize it here. On a color wheel (basically just a rainbow of colors in a circle) we can see that the colors teal and orange are on opposite sides of the spectrum. A general rule of colors is that colors opposite each other on the wheel are complementary and look good next to each other.
The next thing to understand is a little rule about skin tones. People have an orange skin tone. Is doesn't matter the color of your skin, its some variation of orange on the color wheel. Except for maybe if you are from the Appalachian mountains… but that's for a medical essay, not this one.
Understanding those two easy principles is how I started taking portraiture. I always try in incorporate a blue or teal element into my photos when editing. Whether it be a deep blue hue to the shadows, or some physical element in the composition itself. This, I believe is why shooting at golden/blue hour is so effective for natural light portraiture. The atmospheric colors naturally compliment the subjects skin tone, and really make them pop, grabbing attention.
Obviously this doesn't have to be a rule above all else. There are tons of options out there and photography is flexible, so don't be afraid to step out of this basic rule and explore other lighting setups! I sometimes use Adobe Color CC to help adjust colors and create the look I see in my head. Click here to check it out.
Now, this probably seems more like a piece of life advice, but when ball is life, what can I do? Organizational skills were something I had to develop as a consequence of wanting to be more professional, and save time when editing. Searching through one massive folder in my computer for a single photo I took two months ago just to send to a friend was a serious pain in my ass.
Everyone has their own method and mine isn't too complicated. The entirety of my folders are organized like this: Desktop>Photos>Year>Month>Day>Post Lightroom Edit> Post Photoshop Edit. That’s it. Easy, simple, organized. Most photos don't even make it to the post Lightroom folder, even fewer to the post Photoshop folder. This method only requires I remember on which day I shot what.
That brings me to a second point point about getting organized. Scheduling. I became so strict with writing down my schedule, I sat on Saturdays and made my entire on paper, knowing what I would do EVERY 15 MINUTES. It was hard at first because I realized how much time I was wasting, and it exposed how little I knew about my own habits. It paid off though. I wrote down when I did shoots with who. if I can't remember when I shot then I simply search my schedule at it tells me when and with who. Super effective.
This dramatically changed the amount I could do with my life, I realized where I could improve and make better use of my time. I could plan more shoots and use my time more effectively for editing. All this while working a full time job, even occasionally taking overtime hours! The need to keep my photos together literally changed my behavior in a dramatic way.
Since then I realized every 15 minutes was a little intense and it was conducive to a creative and productive life. Most of my day is still planned in 15 minutes segments, but now I give myself a few hour chunks for creative work, or girlfriend time. I do my best take advantage of my time. As I write this essay, I'm on a bus traveling from my new home in Kfar Saba to Jerusalem to close up some last few things with my old landlord. With my scheduling process, I would never have realized I won't have time later today, with a couples shoot AND the drive home, to get this work done.
That's it! 5 things I learned since starting photography. I hope this helped some people understand a few new things. Maybe even inspired someone to pick up their camera and go shoot.