If you have recently migrated from a compact point & shoot to a DSLR you no doubt will be very excited. Finally you are in a position to make ‘better’ photos with your bigger and more professional looking camera. But, there is a problem. Your ‘smarter’ camera somehow isn’t quite able to make better photos on its own. Somehow the results that you obtained with your new DSLR are somewhat similar to what you were getting with your point & shoot. The thing is your camera may be a better shooting tool, but, that does not mean that it can make photos on its own. It still needs a brain to operate it. In this article we shall be looking at a few common situations. These are situation from everyday life and  where you need to tell your camera what you want rather than the camera telling you what it feels is right. We will be looking at a few essential tips to improve your photography straight after you have unboxed your camera.

  • Understand the Relationship between Shutter Speed and Aperture

Shutter speed and aperture form two facets of the holy trinity of photographic exposure. Together, shutter speed and aperture form what is known as the exposure value. It is a quantitative measure of the amount of light that your camera receives when you press the shutter release. You can arrive at the same exposure value by using different combinations of the two.

Let’s say that your camera is set to aperture f/4. The shutter speed, as indicated by the camera, for the scene is 1/250. If you now reset the aperture value to f/5.6 (one stop smaller) and leave every other setting as the same, the camera will indicate a stop slower (longer) shutter speed of 1/125. This is of course provided the ambient light condition does not change between the two shots.

The crux of the matter is aperture and shutter speed has an inverse relationship between them. It may appear that the two are connected, somehow, at the middle. If you reduce one the other needs to be increased so that the same exposure value can be maintained.

Having said that, however, this is not mandatory. Especially, when you are shooting in full manual mode. Manual mode allows you to be flexible in selecting both the aperture value and the shutter speed. In that regard consider manual mode to be the ultimate shooting mode.

  1. The Light Meter, Selection of the Right Metering Mode

One of the most essential tips to improve your photography is to watch out for the built-in light meter; and override it when necessary. The built-in light meter is not my favorite for measuring the ambient lighting, because it measures reflected light. Reflected light metering is inherently a flawed system. It gets skewed depending on the average reflectance of a scene.

Brighter the colors, the more the meter will indicate that the scene is bright and try to compensate by pulling down exposure. Conversely, darker the colors in a scene, the more the meter will indicate that the scene is underexposed and try to raise the exposure in order to adjust for the ‘underexposed image’.


Rider Park (2) by Nicholas A. Tonelli

Having said that, the digital light meter on your camera is a subject of intense scientific research. Camera technicians are working to improve the accuracy of the digital light meter so that it can better ‘see’ a scene, read the colors and accurately meter for it. Canon’s 150,000 pixel RGB+IR metering e.g., used in the EOS 7D Mark II is a case in the point. Canon calls this technology iTR or Intelligent Tracking and Recognition and is the latest when it comes to accurate scene recognition and consequent application of the correct metering mode. However, even then, manual adjustment and overriding of the metering is probably the best way to go.

I prefer to change the metering mode around and select something that is better suited for the type of scene that I am photographing. If it is a landscape scene I select matrix metering. If it is a portrait photo session I prefer the partial metering. If it is back-lit or where I need to emphasize only a small aspect of the image I prefer the spot metering mode.

Even then, with all the technology working behind and the accurate identification of the scene, I have to sometimes compensate for the deficiencies of the built-in digital light meter. How do I do it? Experience. Let’s say that I am photographing a scene that is overtly bright. Let’s take a classic example. You are holidaying at a skiing destination and recording your experience on your camera. However, the camera is tend to underexpose all of your snow scenes.

Exposure compensation for snow scenes

Kaimaktsalan 2009 SL training by Apostolos Follow

This happens because when you are photographing the built-in meter ‘sees’ all that bright white snow and meters the scene to be too white (or over-exposed). Thus, it reduces the exposure to compensate for all that brightness. The result is an overtly gray snow and darker shades across the scene.

The solution is in overriding the exposure settings and telling the camera that you like your snow to be white and not gray. In other words you have to crank the exposure up. You can do this using two methods with your camera. The first method involves using something known as Exposure Compensation.

  1. Overriding the Light Meter – Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation is a small adjustment function on your camera that allows you to override the metered exposure by your camera and set your own exposure for the scene. It works in Auto, Aperture priority and Shutter Priority modes. In manual mode you don’t need this feature because you can manually adjust the exposure the way you want.

On most DSLRs, mirrorless systems and advanced compact cameras you have a button that is labelled something like this – (+/-). This is the exposure compensation button. You need to press this and then turn a command dial or some other button to crank up down pull down the exposure.

In the above scenario where the camera was underexposing consistently. Thus, you will need to increase the exposure. If you were shooting in aperture priority mode, cranking the exposure up would result in a slower shutter speed (slower shutter = longer time frame lens remains open = more light collected).

  1. Overriding the Light Meter – Manual Mode

The second method is in shooting in manual mode. One of the most essential tips to improve your photography is to shoot in manual mode. Manual mode is also known as the creative mode of shooting. This is because manual mode allows you to choose your own shutter speed, aperture and ISO combination. You don’t have rely on what the camera states is the right shooting combination.

Confused? Let’s start from the beginning. Let’s take that previous snow-scene scenario. The camera was set at f/4 and was underexposing at 1/250 sec. You could simply switch to manual mode, keep the aperture at f/4 and then set the shutter speed to 1/125. The other option would have been to boost the ISO from whatever you had it set on your camera and crank it up by a stop.

The importance of the manual mode can be explained further with the use of the image below. In this image the shutter speed used was 30 seconds. A normal exposure do not need such a long exposure. This image, however, could not have been shot without any other setting. If the camera were set to Auto mode it would have simply frozen the moment. The long exposure smoothed out the flowing water, which enhanced the quality of the image. Plus, the small aperture of f/16 gave it a vast depth of field.

low light photography

Esplanade Theatre, Singapore by Lenny K Photography

  1. Back-button focusing

We have talked about the advantages of back-button focusing on this website before. The concept of back-button focusing is all about separating the two functions of focusing and shutter release to two buttons on the camera. Rather, it is about separating the focusing function from the shutter release button and assigning it to another button, usually at the back of the camera.

Each camera system is different and their menus differ as well. This means no two set of steps to assign a button for back-button focusing would be the same. The general steps involve digging deep into the menu system of the camera and assigning one of the button at the back of the camera the task of focusing.

The greatest advantage of back-button focusing is that when you disconnect the shutter release from the task of focusing, you can lock focus in advance and just press the shutter release to make an image. At this point you may ask how that is in any way different to what you have been doing already; i.e., setting focus and making an image at the same time.

With back-button focusing you are always pre-focused. The advantage of that is that the shutter release process doesn’t have to check whether you are focused in order to fire, a precondition which often results in you losing critical images while the camera is still hunting for focus.

  1. Experiment with your compositions

I am not going to go too deep into the composition aspect of photography here. Just a few points that can help you make better compositions in everyday situations. The first thing that you should try to inculcate into your photography is that you should stop making dead-center compositions with immediate effect. Instead put your subject on a side. Off-center compositions always appeal to the human eye more than dead-center compositions.

essential photography tips

In the bamboo forest by aotaro

Another thing that you can try is not to shoot from the eye level at all times. I know that coming from a point & shoot camera system means you are quite adept at the art of raising your arms and making snapshot. It is very difficult to come out of that ‘set-up’. But you have to if you want to improve your photography. I have absolutely nothing against shooting from the eye level. But the thing is when you do that on a consistent basis you deprive yourself the wonderful photography opportunities that comes from experimenting with the other camera angles. There are a plethora of shooting ideas that you can explore once you decide to take the camera off the eye level.

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib’s love for the road is second only to his love for photography. Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly. He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favourite pursuits.
Rajib Mukherjee