15 ways to improve your photography skills

Whether your interest is professional or you simply like taking pictures for fun, solid photography skills can be extremely useful for designers and illustrators (as is a decent camera and knowledge of the latest photography trends.)

At the very least, you'll be able to take better portfolio pictures of your work – and you might well find your client work being enhanced, too.

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But where do you start? What are the basics? This essential photography crash course will give you everything you need to take your photography skills to the next level.

From focusing and composition to white balance and lighting, this guide will cement your basic photography skills, rid you of bad habits and leave you to concentrate on getting better images. We'll walk you through how to make the most of the controls on your DSLR to take better pictures (note that we'll explain procedures for Canon and Nikon cameras, but these techniques will work on cameras made by other manufacturers, too).

(You'll also find plenty of tips on these photography websites, and for DSLR photography beginners – or those who just need a reminder – this DSLR cheatsheet is a handy resource, too.)

Read on for our essential crash course in photography…

01. Take control of focus

Bright red acer leaves

Use individual AF points to focus on off-centre subjects

Leave your camera to its own devices and it will focus using the central focus point. While this will produce sharp images in many situations, for more creative photography it's better to take some control over the focus point. Your chosen subject won't always be in the centre of the frame, after all.

So the first skill you need to master is how to get your camera to focus on exactly the point you want to be sharp. Your camera has a number of focus points spread across the frame – you can see them through the viewfinder – and these offer an excellent solution for focusing on off-centre subjects. You'll need to set your camera to its single-point autofocus mode, rather than the multiple or automatic selection.

The exact procedure for selecting individual focus points (and the number available) varies according to your camera, but generally on Canon models you have to press the AF point selection button, then rotate the input dial or use the selector on the rear of the camera. Look through the viewfinder as you do so, and you'll see the active AF point (in red) move around the frame.

Focus points on the leaves

Here we selected the focus point on the lower left to focus on the most dominant leaf

On most Nikon DSLRs, once you've selected single-point autofocus you simply use the four-way controller on the back of the camera to highlight a different AF point.

The main downside to using the outer focus points on many cameras is that they aren't as sensitive as those in the centre of the frame. This means that they can struggle to focus in low light, if the subject is low contrast or you are using a lens with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or narrower. You may also find that there isn't a focus point exactly where you want the camera to focus.

In both cases you can manually focus the lens, or use a technique known as focus lock, where you highlight the subject with the active AF point and then half-press the shutter release to lock the focus distance before reframing the shot.

02. Focus on moving subjects

Bird in flight

Learn which focus mode you need to use – continuous autofocus is good for tracking moving subjects

Focusing on a static subject is all well and good, but not everything will wait patiently for you while you compose and capture your shot. For this reason, you need to master the art of focusing on moving subjects.

To do this, change the autofocus mode from Single Shot (Nikon) or One Shot (Canon), to Continuous or AI Servo mode. Now, once you've locked focus on your subject by half-pressing the shutter-release button, the camera will continue to refocus as the subject moves, until Below Use Continuous autofocus to track moving subjects you fully press the button to capture your shot.

You can choose from all of the focus points for off-centre subjects, but when shooting in low light, shooting low-contrast subjects or if using lenses with a maximum aperture narrower than f/5.6, you will find these outer points will struggle to focus.

03. Understand what makes a shot blurry

When it comes to mastering focus, you also need to know why your shots aren't sharp. This can be down to focusing, but it may also be due to camera shake or the subject moving. You'll need to spot the cause, fix the problem, then try again.

  • Incorrect focusing: If the softness is due to incorrect focusing, you may find that areas in front or behind the subject are sharp. if you can't see any sharp areas, incorrect focusing will give a uniform blur all around each area of the image.
  • Movement: You can easily spot blur caused by camera shake by the characteristic 'streaking' of highlight areas. These indicate that the camera (or possibly the subject) has moved at some point during the exposure.

04. Get white balance right

Golden coloured trees against a blue sky

Selecting the daylight white balance preset gives a good balance of warm foliage and cool blue skies here

You might forget all about setting the right white balance – especially if you shoot in raw, as then you can change it when you process your images later. However, you'll need to get the right white balance in-camera to be able to assess the exposure and colours of your shots and achieve the best results.

Your camera's Automatic White Balance setting generally does a pretty good job of capturing colours correctly in most lighting conditions, but it's not infallible.

The main situation in which you'll get better results by using one of the manual preset values is when your subject is dominated by a single colour or tone, such as a blue sky, orange sunset or even a large expanse of green grass.

Split screen shows trees photographed with different settings

The Automatic setting removes some of the warmth, while the Cloudy preset emphasises it

In these situations Automatic White Balance can set a value to counteract this strong colour, so you will get better results by selecting a white balance setting that suits the lighting conditions, such as Sunlight or Shade.

The actual white balance of the light at sunrise or sunset is close to the Tungsten or Artificial Light setting (3,200K). But if you set this preset you will lose much of the warmth that you want to capture in your shot. Instead, try setting the white balance to Daylight, or even Cloudy, to capture the orange glow in all its beauty.

Check out our sister site Digital Camera World's Cheat sheet to White balance presets and article on How to creatively tone your images with white balance settings.

05. Set a custom white balance

Take a shot of a white or grey subject that fills the entire frame (a piece of card is ideal) and is in the same position as the subject you want to shoot. Now select your camera’s Custom or Preset Manual white balance setting.

Next page: Exposure compensation and high-contrast lighting tips

06. Master exposure compensation

Plant photographed against a dark background

The dark background has caused the camera to over-expose the shot

Deciding whether to increase or decrease the exposure of your shot can be puzzling, as the adjustment you need to make is often the opposite of what you might at first expect. Here's how to use your camera's Exposure Compensation function to lighten or darken your image.

If the subject contains mostly light tones you may find that your camera will under-expose your image. In this situation, you need to press and hold the Exposure Compensation button, increase the exposure by turning the dial right to enter a value of +1, then take the shot again.

If shooting a mainly dark subject, your camera is likely to over-expose the scene, so you may need to reduce the exposure. Press and hold the Exposure Compensation button as before, but this time turn the dial left to enter a value of -1.

Read Digital Camera World's articles How to always get exposure right – exposure settings explained and What are the differences between the PASM exposure modes on your camera? for more tips.

07. Decipher the Histogram

Image of castle and sky with a white sky, left, and a waterfall that's too dark, right

The over-exposed image is on the left, while the image on the right is under-exposed

The easiest way to check the exposure of your shots is to use the Histogram display on your camera's rear screen when reviewing your images.

This shows the distribution of exposure as you shoot. To get the most from this handy tool you need to recognise the characteristics of under- and over-exposed shots. If there’s a gap to the left of the Histogram, and the graph goes off the right-hand side, the image is over-exposed. The opposite will be true for under-exposed images – there will be a gap to the right of the Histogram.

08. Deal with high-contrast lighting

Waterfall and lake in shadow and sun

Learn to deal with high-contrast lighting and capture the maximum range of tones

Using your DSLR's Exposure Compensation to adjust the overall exposure is fine for many subjects, but there are also times when the brightness range of the subject is too large for your camera to capture detail in both the shadows and highlights.

This range is known as the camera's dynamic range, and while it does vary between different models, it's pretty common to find scenes where the contrast is greater than even the best cameras can cope with.

With practice, you'll often be able to recognise these conditions before you start shooting, but the easiest way to spot the situation is by reviewing your shot and checking the histogram and highlight warnings.

Two images of the waterfall and pool, one darker and one lighter

We shot one image at -1 exposure compensation, and another at +1. Combining the under- and over-exposed shots gives an image with detail in both highlights and shadows

Start by taking a shot and checking that the shadows reach the left of the graph. You can now activate the highlight warning display. If the display blinks to indicate that there are highlights without any detail, then your camera can’t record the whole brightness range.

When you are faced with this situation, there are a number of ways to deal with the problem. If you are shooting in JPEG mode, many cameras offer built-in systems to capture more highlight and/or shadow detail than normal images. The Nikon system is called Active D-lighting, while the Canon version is Auto Lighting Optimiser.

09. Try an ND grad lens filter

Filters held up to bright skies

ND grads help tame bright skies

The traditional solution for dealing with high-contrast lighting is to use an ND grad lens filter. These filters are half dark and half clear, so you position the dark area of the filter to reduce the brightness of the lightest area of the scene.

This is fine where a large area of the scene is brighter than the rest, such as the sky in an open landscape. However they are less useful for subjects containing smaller bright areas, such as windows or sunlight through trees, because the filter will darken the areas around these highlights too.

10. Create HDR images

High Dynamic Range (HDR) has become a popular technique for capturing images that would otherwise have burnt-out highlights, no shadow detail, or both. 

To achieve true HDR images you need to take at least three shots, one under-exposed, one correctly exposed and one over-exposed. Then combine these images using either the Merge to HDR tool in Photoshop, Lightroom's HDR Merge tool or software such as HDR Efex Pro 2 or Photomatix.

11. Recover detail

Set the exposure so you capture as much highlight detail as possible

Shooting in raw will allow you to capture more highlight and shadow detail than in JPEG mode. But even in raw it’s easier to recover more detail from the shadows than the highlights. For this reason, when shooting high-contrast subjects set the exposure so that you capture as much highlight detail as possible.

Next page: Pro composition, sharpening and saturation advice

12. Position your subject

Positioning the main subject centrally in your shots can give a very static and boring composition

Besides choosing what to shoot and the best settings to use, learning the basics of composition is one of the fundamental ways to improve your photography skills. There are plenty of rules and theories about what makes the perfect composition, but the key thing that you should think about when taking your shots is where to position the main subject in your image.

Moving your main subject to one side creates a far more balanced image

It's tempting to put the subject in the centre of the frame, but this can produce static-looking compositions. It's often much better to put the subject just off centre.

The classic approach is to use the rule of thirds, which is defined by imaginary 'lines' that divide each side of the image into three equal-sized areas. You then position the main subject on one of these lines, or where they intersect.

13. Make good use of space

Giving the subject room to move into in the frame is good when shooting movement, animals or portraits

The space around your subject is nearly as important to the success of your composition as the subject itself. First of all, you need to think about how much of the subject’s surroundings you want to include in your shot.

This isn’t an exact science, but as a general rule you should include the surroundings if they add to the photo, such as showing the environment around the subject in a portrait or wildlife image. Alternatively, a tighter composition that excludes the surroundings can help to make the main subject dominate the image.

A picture can appear cramped if there’s little space for the subject to ‘look’ or move into

One key aspect of using space in your shots is particularly applicable to action shots and portraits. When looking at images of moving subjects, you naturally look ahead into the area that it’s travelling towards.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to leave more space ahead of the subject for it to move into than there is behind it, otherwise your shot can end up looking rather unbalanced.

Portraits can also benefit from a similar composition technique. Leaving some space on the side that your subject is looking into instantly creates a considerably more balanced composition.

14. Sharpen your shots

When sharpening a shot, always use the smallest amount that just makes the detail in your shot crisp and sharp

Getting the most from your imaging software is a skill that takes time to master. It’s tempting to think that the more sharpening you apply to your images, the sharper they’ll appear. But you need to exercise some restraint; otherwise you’ll end-up with increased noise and ugly ‘haloes’.

One of the most common causes of over-sharpening is applying it at the wrong stage in your processing, or even applying it to images that have already been sharpened. If you shoot JPEG images, these may have been sharpened already in-camera, so you need to take great care when applying extra sharpening.

Raw files won’t have had any sharpening applied in-camera, but it can be applied when processing your images. You just need to decide whether it’s best to apply it to your raw conversions, or later on.

Zoom in to 100% to spot any over sharpening

The best way to avoid over-sharpening is to make it one of the last adjustments that you make to your pictures, so if you are going to be editing your shots in Photoshop Elements or CS, then it’s best to turn off any in-camera or raw conversion sharpening.

The most obvious side-effect of applying too much sharpening is a halo around details in your shots, the result of using a high Radius setting. To spot this, zoom in to 100% on an area of the image containing dark lines or fine details against a lighter background.

Here’s a super tip: if applying sharpening to your images using photoshop’s unsharp Mask filter, the key is to be subtle. As a starting point, try to use an amount of between 50 and 80%, a Radius of 1 and a Threshold of between 2 and 5.

15. Use saturation

Using the drop-down menu in the Hue/Saturation window allows you to decrease the saturation of individual colours, without losing detail

Similar to sharpening, saturation needs to be used with care if you want to avoid your images looking garish and over-cooked. In many scenes you'll find that some colours are much more saturated than others, especially reds and greens, so rather than simply adjusting the saturation of the whole image, you can also target individual colours using the Hue/Saturation control.

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