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What are the Best Ways for Beginners To Shoot Above Their Skill Level?

There is always someone better than you, and photography is no exception. But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for your lot, even as a beginner, and while improving, there are ways you can ensure you are shooting above your ability level.

I’m sure many will react unfavorably to the notion that people can — or perhaps, more importantly, should — shoot above their own current level. What I mean by this is that it is possible for beginners (and intermediates, but we’ll focus on beginners for now) to take pictures that are better than what they ought to be able to produce. If I were to gauge a photographer’s ability, the key indicator for me alongside the quality of images, is consistency. Can the photographer produce strong images on command and over and over again? As with any skill, consistency is usually the hardest part; anyone can hit the occasional home run.

It should go without saying, but there is no substitute for great composition, mastery of light, and the myriad other skills that weave into making a good photographer. But while you’re learning them, you might be able to still shot very attractive images. Here are some ways I would suggest for achieving those results.

A Fast Prime at the Right Focal Length

One of the most common differences between the kit of a beginner photographer, and the kit of a veteran, is the speed of the glass in their bag. This is of course not always true (there are wealthy beginners and experts who have no need for wide apertures) but this difference is often betrayed in the lack of bokeh, or a deeper depth of field. Now, while a shallower depth of field is not indicative of skill, due to popular portrait photographers often having buttery bokeh, one way of shooting images that look better than a beginner ought to be able to create, is a longer focal length prime with a wide maximum aperture.

For example, the 135mm focal length primes have always been a favorite of mine, and I’ve joked in the past that when you set them to wide open, it’s hard to take a bad looking shot. My go-to is known as Lord of the Red Rings, and is the Canon EF 135mm f/2 L USM, but it’s far from the only option. The Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art lens has had rave reviews (and has a slightly wider maximum aperture) for Canon, Sony, Nikon, and Leica mounts.

What these lenses do is create a brilliant sense of subject and background separation. That is, the subject pops out from the blurry background which gives a pleasing, cinematic feel. These lenses do of course come at a premium, but I would suggest looking for a second-hand copy or even searching for, and adapting, some vintage glass. For example, the Pentacon 135mm f/2.8 is known as the “Bokeh Monster” and can usually be picked up reasonably cheaply. If, however, money is no object, try the Canon EF 200mm f/2 L IS. While you’re at it, send me one and we can discuss how great it is.

A Camera With Eye AF

There have been just two advancements in camera tech that have instantly become fundamental to how I work: the first is the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) and the second is Eye Autofocus (Eye AF). The former isn’t quite as crucial for beginners, though it is helpful, whereas the latter can have beginners missing far fewer shots. Eye AF is simple: it prioritizes focus on the subject’s eyes. If you’re shooting at a narrow depth of field (which you might be if you’ve followed tip one!) then it’s tremendously easy to focus on the tip of the nose, the eyebrows, or if your depth of field is shallow enough, even the eyelashes. When you look at the back of the camera it can seem as if it’s tack sharp, only to realize once you’re in Lightroom that things have not gone as expected.  

In addition to this, freeing yourself up from having to pay close attention to exactly where your focus is, allows you to instead concentrate on the other important elements, like settings, light, or posing your subject. This tip of course only pertains to portraiture (though it can include wildlife and animals if the firmware includes that.)

Focusing on Composition

The first two tips for shooting above your general skill level if you’re a beginner both required the spending of money. Fortunately, this third option doesn’t: mastering composition. While you may not be able to get as quick results as the above tips will yield, I can promise you there are more effective methods for creating great imagery. Masters of composition in photography could comfortably shoot on a 15-year-old digital camera stuck in auto mode and consistently churn out fantastic imagery. Command over a camera’s settings can take time, but even once you always pick the perfect settings for a given shot, composition is what makes an average shot great.

There are many ways to learn about it, with books and videos being in abundance as many of the rules for photography stem from, or are directly lifted from, painting and earlier arts. However, more recent examples I would advise looking into are legendary street photographers. I have spoken about him before, but the street photographer I consider to be one of the — if not the — greatest when it comes to composition and light, is Hong Kong’s Fan Ho. The majority of his work was created in the 1950s, but that makes no difference; his command of composition shows that your eye for a shot can far outweigh the importance of what is capturing that which it sees.

What’s the Best Way For Beginners to Take Better Shots?

We have a wealth of experienced photographers in our community, so, to you all, what would you suggest beginners do to shoot above their current skill level while they learn? What will make the biggest difference in the least amount of time? After all, we all want to take our best ever photograph, every time we raise the camera to our eye.


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