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Taking Better Pictures

Updated on February 11, 2013

How to Take Better Pictures. A primer for new DSLR owners

The New Camera

If you've recently obtained your first DSLR you are probably overwhelmed by the number of features that it has. I remember when my camera was delivered. I immediately started to tinker with it and I started using the portrait mode, the landscape mode, the night mode and the sports mode. I had no idea what a macro was and the “C”, “P”, “TV”,”M”, “AV” on the dial of the camera. What is ISO and why is it important? To be better at photography you must know about these things!

To be better at taking truly good photographs you need to know these creative functions. “AV” for instance will let you blur your background,” TV” will get you a nice sharp photo of a moving vehicle “P” allows your camera do most of the work but you still have control over some artistic aspects.

To take truly artistic photographs you need to get on the creative side of the dial and abandon the portrait, landscape and all other automatic modes. The camera does what it thinks necessary and that is not always what you want.

What everything means:

Firstly this is a long article of over 1700 words. I wrote it in short paragraphs so you don’t have to read the whole thing in one sitting. Just find your topic in the first sentence,

ISO stands for International Standards Organisation and refers to how light sensitive the camera needs to be. High ISO say over 800 ISO is when the software tries to make further use of the light hitting the sensor. So if you are at an event at night or in a poorly lit banquet hall you will need a high ISO to record a decent image.

“P” means the camera will look after the right shutter speed and aperture once you set the ISO. There are many other controls will get to know over time. The “P” mode lets you concentrate on your subject and composition and leaves most of the thinking to the camera.

“TV” means “time value” and refers to the shutter speed. The shutter speed can be set slow, say around 1/30th of a second, so the sensor can absorb more light or to a fast shutter speed to freeze action without blur. A fast shutter speed would be from 250th of a second and up to the top shutter speed of the camera, often 1/4000th of a second or 1/8000th of a second. Fast shutter speeds can reduce light as well so there is less of a chance of the image washing out due to too much light.

“AV” stands for “aperture value” and this sets the amount of light coming into the camera. You may have seen at one time or another, what looks like an iris inside of a lens. There are 6-8 blades that open in a circular pattern to let more light in or close to restrict light. The opening size is referred to as the f-stop. A small f-stop number such as f1.8, f2.8 and f3.5 means the aperture is all or mostly open. The f-stop numbers such as f-22, f-32 mean the aperture is closed to the point that only a pinhole exists in the lens to let light in.

The “AV” control changes the amount in focus or depth of field. F1.8,f2.8 and f3.5 leave a lot out of focus so who ever views the photograph can only concentrate on the focussed area. Use these f-stops when shooting a person or a flower. Set the focus point on the eye of your subject (or the pistil) and you’ll get a great, creamy out of focus background. The opposite is true when using f-22 or f-32. Almost everything will be in focus. Perfect if you are shooting a landscape or wooded scene.

“M” on the dial means “Manual” and you have total control over the camera functions. It’s good when for a special need of the photographer but most of the time for a new user it is difficult to get more shots. For today leave it alone and come back to it in a few weeks when you’ve mastered other areas of your camera.

“C” stands for “Custom Function” and while it is a little difficult to learn about it today you can find my article on setting it all up here. This is the camera brains letting you set specific direction for an often used type of photography. For instance it can be used to set up an external group of speed lights (external flash guns). It’s too much to learn here today. My brain is overheating already!

The most important thing you can take from the above paragraphs is that there is a relationship between shutter speed, aperture opening and ISO (or film speed in the old days). What you need to do is practice, practice and more practice. Personally I often set the dial to AV so I can control the amount of what is in focus and set the ISO to about 400 and let the shutter speed be set by the camera. Did I say to practice?

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upside down test
upside down test

Part II How to Compose Your Photographs

There are various rules of thumb to consider when using your camera for hobby use for shooting scenery and other types of photography as well. I’ll briefly cover them here but I have a more complete article here and if you sign up for my email notices I’ll send you a free copy of my e-book on composition when I finally have it written. Once I have the kinks in the book worked out the price will be around $10 but the first edition will be no charge.

Rule of thirds. Your subject should almost never be dead centre in your shot. Slightly off to one side or the other is better. Horizons should never dissect the photo in half. One third up or down on the photograph is much better. The exception to this is a reflection where the upper half and lower have are mirror images. In this case it makes sense to put the horizon in the middle.

Leading lines. A road or path leads you into the shot. A fence runs along towards the middle of the scene. This rule assist your eye to wander into the photograph and often to a main subject.

The upside down test. This is my own rule of composition. Quickly turn a photograph upside down and before your mind has time to react and remember the right side up photo where did your eye gravitate to? Almost invariably it goes to the lightest and brightest part of the photograph. If your subject is not light enough and the overpowering sky is to blame using the creative side of the dial becomes most important.

Isolate your subject. Using the creative tools in your camera or through camera angle find a way to remove all distractions for the photograph.

People should look inward to the centre of the photograph. The artistic tension is broken when people are looking sideways out of the frame.

Leave space for movement. Say you are shooting your child on their first bicycle. There should be ample room in front of the front tire. Otherwise it looks like the bicycle is going out of the shot and there is no flow. There is less concern it the bicycle is obviously not moving.

Frame your shot with a tree or a couple of buildings or anything that could be used as a frame. A branch, street light, mountain, embankments etc. add to the photograph’s appeal when these objects become a frame. You eye tends to move within the frame to the desired subject.

Odd number groupings. Try to keep people and objects in your photographs in odd numbers for some reason this is more appealing to the eye over even numbers. (The same holds true in landscaping if you are taking on gardening)

Triangles. When you are grouping your subjects together try to get triangles into the picture. Just like we draw figures from the stars in the galaxy try to imagine and set up triangles throughout your photograph.

Watch your background. Trees can all of a sudden grow out of heads. All of a sudden you see trash in the corner of your print but your eye didn’t see it when you were shooting. Our mind plays tricks on us and we must unlearn what our mind’s eye sees and see what the camera sees. You will miss clutter and all sorts of things because you are looking at the subject of your photograph to all else.

Fill the frame. We’ve all take photographs where our subject turns out to be some miniscule little thing on the print. Get in close and fill the frame. Just watch you don’t cut off someone’s head or their right arm.


In conclusion I have to remember my early times in photography. One roll of 36 shots (film) occasionally turned out a good shot and even less great shots. Back then knowing your camera was easy but film was way too expensive. The first rules I mentioned in this article was all that there was. Even the ISO was set when you bought the film. You couldn’t change it unless you knew some darkroom tricks. So while today’s digital cameras seem more complicated they can do so much more and so much cheaper than what I had done years ago.

Don’t get frustrated by your camera. There’s an old saying: “How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time.” Make small incremental improvements in your camera and composition abilities. Maybe try joining a camera club or take a course if you want to learn more. Take tons of shots. Your camera will likely last in excess of 100,000 shutter actuations so go have some fun. As you get better at your hobby or craft you will find it a rewarding way to spend your time and your will make a lot of friend along the way. Maybe someday you will be making some money with your camera as well. For now have fun and go out and take some pictures!


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    • passionate77 profile image


      5 years ago

      very nice and so informative, so detailed article janmaklak, brilliant job dear!


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