Snappy Tips for Better photos / by Neil Alexander

Trees near the M6, Warrington

I've had quite a lot of interest lately from people wanting to know how to get the best out of their camera, and with the holiday season rapidly approaching I thought I'd try and save you a little money by encouraging you to explore your existing gear a little more beforehand. The next few Tuesday posts will hopefully be informative, concise tips on maximising your current gear. The idea being that this will save you putting that shiny new piece of gear you've been lusting over on your letter to Santa, and to better improve your skills ready for you to get some great images of your kids demolishing their presents or the wife cremating the turkey....


  1. Take control of your camera On automatic your camera will always do it's best to try and interpret a scene and set it's values for lighting, shutter speed, aperture etc based on a series of algorithims written by a bunch of scientists in a lab somewhere from data compiled from thousands of photographs taken in a whole range of different environments. Often the nerds will get it right and the environmental variables in the scene you are shooting will match something that they've already coded for and your camera will get it right, but just as often something in your scene will cause the parameters to deviate sufficiently from the microchipped brain's pre-configured numbers that the camera will not produce a good image; either the lighting will be wrong, or the camera will have picked the wrong focus point or some other computational error will have ruined that once in a lifetime opportunity to capture your moment or just won't allow you that artistic freedom to create exactly the image you wanted. Once you've reached this threshold with your camera, you've discovered it's automatic limitations and it's time to start really using it. So turn that dial away from the Automatic setting. On most DSLRs, your options are: A (Nikon) or Av (Canon) - Aperture priority - In this mode your camera will determine the shutter speed required to facilitate the aperture that YOU have chosen allowing you to select how much of your scene you want to be in focus. - Read more here S (Nikon) or Tv (Canon) - Shutter priority - This is the reverse of Aperture priority - your camera will determine the aperture required to work the shutter speed that YOU have chosen. So based on the lighting conditions, your camera will determine how much of the scene will be in focus based on the shutter speed and ISO that you have selected. P (Nikon) - Program (NOT Professional) mode - In this mode, the camera gives you control over ISO, flash and white balance. - Read more here Learn about the first two particularly and experiment with them. Play.
  2. Slow down Slow down. Even if you are shooting at a Motorsports event and the cars are going passed at over a 100mph, you still need to slow down. Take the time to think about what you are trying to achieve and how you'd like the final image to appear when you print it out. Then try and implement that notion through what you've learnt about your camera and thinking about your composition. Too many people no longer attach a cost to the old "Spray and Pray" adage. As that 8 frames per second burst mode isn't going to burn through an entire 36 exposure roll of film in 4 seconds any longer, there is still a cost; and that's your time. If you shoot for an hour and make 200 pictures rather than 20 well thought out compositions, it's going to take you 10  times as long sat in front of your computer deciding which ones to keep when you could be doing better things. There's also the added cost of all that extra data storage. It might not be that expensive, but I can assure you that it soon mounts up!
  3. Don't get caught up in gear It's all too easy to get caught up in the gear race. I know that some of you will be desperate for that new body with all it's new Whizbangs and Whatchamacallits but do you REALLY need it? Have you completely exhausted all the limitations of your current gear? Just remember that some of the best photographs of the last century were made with quite literally the bare essentials. Ok so if you are getting into wildlife photography, then maybe your 18-200mm kit lens isn't quite going to cut the mustard, but have you tried zooming with your legs first? Is there no way that you can get a little closer first? If you absolutely do need that 600mm F4 lens at £7000 have you tried renting it for a weekend just to make sure that it does do exactly what you expect? Often I find that I get into an artistic rut, and begin to get into a mindset that some new gear will help me get out of it. But more often that not, it's just an excuse not to push myself and try something different with what I've got. It only really makes sense to upgrade gear when you have completely exhausted it's limitations and it is actually starting to impede your work - you know what you want but your current gear just will not allow you to do it - then by all means, go shopping………
  4. Study other photographers Finally for today, how many other photographer's work have you looked at over the last week? Do you even bother to look at others' photographs? If not you should. All the master painters over the last few hundred years would happily admit to having been influenced by their forefather's work. How many times have you heard an interview with famous musician where they talk about their musical influences? You will find that the more you look at, the more your photographs will improve. I'm not saying that you should try to copy other photographer's work, but use it for inspiration. Expand on it. Incorporate their ideas into your own and come up with something new and different. Try subscribing to some RSS feeds of other works for a daily dose of inspiration. A few I can recommend are: 500px , National Geographic Photo of the day and 500 photographers

That's all for my first little installment, ingeniously titled "Snappy tips for better photos". Swing by next Tuesday for some more, or add my feed to your RSS reader here