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7 Daily Exercises that Will Help Make You a Better Photographer

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The saying ‘practice makes perfect’ is as valid for photography as any other activity, so we’ve put together a collection of exercises that will help you become a better photographer.

1. Spot meter

Modern metering systems have great general-purpose modes, often called Evaluative, Matrix or Multi-area, which do a great job of accessing a scene and setting good ‘average’ exposure settings in many situations.

However, they’re not 100% foolproof and very dark or very light scenes, or backlighting can trick them into over or under exposure. They’re also not psychic and don’t know what you’re seeing in your head when you take a shot.

Switching to spot metering puts you in control of where the camera meters from and helps you develop a much better understanding of the tonal range in a scene.

A standard spotmetering system allows you to meter from a very small part of the scene and it suggests exposure settings that will render your target a mid-tone. Consequently, you need to take care with the positioning of this spot, study the scene carefully and decide which is the best area to take a reading from.

It’s often helpful to combine spot metering with AE Lock as this will fix the exposure settings (after metering) while you compose the image.

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2. Check the histogram

Just like the Levels display in image editing software packages such as Adobe Photoshop, a camera’s histogram display is a graph that represents the brightness of the pixels that make up an image.

The scale runs from black, with a brightness reading of 0, on the left to white, with a brightness reading of 255, on the right.

The peaks in the histogram indicate the number of pixels with that brightness and a large peak means lots of pixels have that brightness. This means that a vary dark image will have peaks over to the left of the graph, while a bright one has peaks on the right.

Meanwhile, a correctly exposed ‘ideal’ scene has a histogram with a so-called ‘normal’ distribution with a peak in the middle and just a few very bright and very dark pixels.

Checking the histogram after every shot will increase your understanding of the brightness distribution of an image. It will also enable you to determine whether an image is under- or over-exposed with the majority of pixels being grouped to the left or right of the graph respectively.

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3. Use a single prime lens

Using a prime, or fixed focal length, lens enables you to forget about the distraction of zooming in and out. Instead you walk towards a subject, assess it through the viewfinder and then either shoot or move again to find a new or alternative vantage point.

It forces you to explore the subject more fully you’ll soon get a better understanding of the angle of view of the lens.

As well as letting you travel light, if you take just one lens with you on a shoot, or day out with your camera, you’ll really get to know that focal length and in the future you’ll be able to decide which lens to mount on your camera just by looking at the scene and framing an image in your mind.

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4. Set a specific white balance

Modern automatic white balance systems are extremely capable, but that’s not always a good thing because it can mean that you shoot with your mind in neutral (ha!) as far as colour goes. This may be fine much of the time, but if the camera delivers a result that you don’t like, you may find yourself a little stuck for answers.

The answer is to climb free of the auto white balance safety-net and set a preset white balance value for the appropriate lighting conditions.

You may find that the Daylight or Sunny white balance setting produces the best results for the majority of the time, but it’s worth experimenting with the others to assess their impact in a range of conditions so that you know when to use them in the future.

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5. Set a custom white balance value

It’s easy to set the custom white balance value of a camera, you just set it to the correct mode (the manual will explain how to find this) and then photograph a white or neutral grey card in the same light as your subject. Well that’s the theory.

In practice it can be little trickier, because the angle at which you hold the card can have a huge impact upon the final result.

If the main light is coming from directly above your subject, for example, and you tip the card slightly downwards towards a coloured area under your subject you will find the result is very different to the one you get if you hold the card slightly tipped upwards.

Learn how to make a custom white balance setting with your camera and experiment by holding a white balance card at different angles to see for yourself and learn. If you find you don’t like the neutral look of images that your camera produces in this mode, try the adjustment controls until you find a setting that works for you.

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6. Use manual exposure mode

Although aperture and shutter priority exposure modes are very useful, they leave the decision about how bright or dark the image will appear to the camera.

Manual exposure mode puts you in charge and it forces you to think about the brightness of a subject and its surroundings. It also means that you have to consider both depth of field and freezing or blurring movement.

It can be helpful to combine this exercise with using spotmetering as it will enable you set select exposure settings that work for a specific part of the scene.

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7. Post a single image every day

Rather that shooting in a sporadic fashion and positing images to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram or any other social networking or image sharing site as and when you feel like it, try committing to shooting at least one image and posting only one shot every day.

This will encourage your powers of creativity, helping you to find novel subjects and explore new areas or genres of photography. It will also mean that you have to critically assess each image to identify the best shot from that day to post.

Wherever you post your image, make it known what you are doing as this will underline your commitment.

It’s also often a good idea to request constructive criticism to help you see your shots from another viewpoint and improve as a photographer.


About the author: Jeff Meyer is the editor of Photoventure, a photography blog for everything post-capture — improving photos, image management, sharing and more. This article originally appeared here.


 
  • Will Mederski

    one of my greatest frustrations with nikon digital SLRs is the lack of a meter on the top LCD…
    my old nikkormat has one, and i love not even having to look thru to viewfinder to set the f/stop + shutter. (for more stealth / street work)

  • Col Jung

    I agree with Mark–there’s something special about the Oly E-M5′s colours that I’ve never been able to replicate in ACR.

  • http://mattmasha.com/ Matt Masha

    Number 7 I really have to try

  • gfd

    incident meter!

  • Vin Weathermon

    7 Daily exercises

    1. Grab a bag of sugar and tape it to your hand and walk around for 2 hours. This will strengthen your hand and forearm so you can handle your massive Nikon with its long lens.
    2. Take your thumb and fore finger and press them together while rotating in a circular fashion, slowly at first then ramping up to a frenzy. This will prepare you for split second rear camera adjustments and get your trigger finger to be its sharp-shooter best.
    3. Go to a mirror and look at yourself, with serious expression, and repeat “I am a photographer…can I take photos of your hot teenage daughter?” Follow this with “I am a photographer …may I trespass on your property to take photographs of your daily life?” This won’t prepare you for the angry backlash you will receive, but possibly you will become more convincing as you practice.
    4. Grab a backpack and fill it with heavy kitchen utensils, like a mortar and pestle, maybe a blender or meat hammer. Make sure it is about 27 pounds and strap that on your back. Then run in place for 10 minutes to simulate being late to your wedding shoot.
    5. Similar to number 4, obtain a random address from google (without driving directions) and then hop in your car and go there. Then drive like mad to the actual address you intended to be at which will simulate going to the wrong location on the right day.
    6. Take your memory cards and fill them up with images you have already taken. Then put them in your camera and selectively remove images to simulate not dumping your cards when you had the chance and began shooting your next gig. Do this in 2 minute intervals to simulate actually getting photography done between deletes.
    7. Send an email to a random person to confirm tomorrow’s shoot at a specified location, tell them you’ll pay them $50 an hour. Then go to a Denny’s and wait for the person to show up (they won’t.) This will simulate being stood up by a model or a customer who didn’t think your time was important.

    Ok I am being a smartass..

  • AP

    I can’t think of worst ways to screw up your photography than to follow many of these “tips”. Photography is about the photograph, not the technology. You should get to know your camera, yes! understand what it can and cannot do with the direct feedback of looking at your photos on your big screen afterwards, yes! Fooling with all your WB, manual exposure and spot meter are GREAT ways to miss those photos that you need to react to without wondering about 10 different settings on your camera. Modern cameras are awesome in being able to expose for so many different situations, why fight it? Concentrate on subject and composition because in the end, what you’re looking at, the purpose, is the photograph! Put it on P, know how to adjust your +/- when you need them and go look for photos! Carry your camera with you at all times and take photos every day is the best advice. I really think this article is hugely flawed.

  • http://www.flyingsuicide.net/ Oj0

    I quite like number seven. I’m overly critical of my own work and only share it if it’s something I’d hang on my wall for the rest of all time. I’ve been told I’ve taken several good shots that I really need to share but don’t, I’m going to try to share a picture each day and see how things go. Maybe it’ll get me out of my self imposed rut.

  • Omar Salgado

    It says: “When in doubt, underexpose.” Indeed, the way cameras measure intensity of light is towards middle grey, and if you expose your highlights correctly, they are grey. 1) Expose to the right without clipping them; 2) you take advantage of the sensor, because the highlights are taken to the 255 value. The data proccessed by the analog-digital converter is translated into values, from 0 to 255, but they are not linear. ETTR is not a fancy trick, it is knowing how light is converted into data.

    The main task is not to clip the highights (at least the “important” ones).

  • Toby Hawkins

    Probably just need a curves adjustment. This might help you http://petapixel.com/2014/03/12/tutorial-easily-replicate-photos-look-using-curves/

  • http://www.mbrown.ca Mark Brown

    Thanks, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately I’ve just never been able to get the curves just right to match the colours in the RAW to the jpeg. There is no official Adobe profile for the Olympus cameras – as far as I know. I did download a third-party profile, and it’s closer, but even still it’s not quite the same.

  • MrBase

    number 6 contradicts the number 1.