White Sands National Monument | Bosque del Apache Bird Safari

20 Photography Tips


Get Out Of The Car

It seems simple enough - doesn't it?  I've come to the conclusion that most people are inherently lazy when it comes to taking photographs.  When you get out of the car your entire view of the world changes.  You see things you never saw from inside the vehicle.  Take the time to pull over for the photography right now - instead of thinking that there is a better image just around the corner.  Don't pass up one image to take another.  This is a big mistake since you seldom come back.  Don't wait until you are stunned by the beauty of something to take photographs - go out and find the stunning beauty just off the road or out in the meadow.  

TIP  Sometimes you can't get out of your car - maybe at a bird refuge where your car is your best blind or possibly the grizzly bear is uncomfortably close to the car already.  In those situations invest in a good bean bag or small pillow to rest your camera on while shooting through the open window - thus giving you a stable platform to shoot from.  Window mounted tripods are tricky and cumbersome and difficult to get shooting quickly with.


Use a Tripod

Using a sturdy tripod whenever possible is the difference between shooting professional quality images and shooting snapshots.  A tripod will improve your photography because it improves the sharpness of your images by reducing vibrations during the exposure.  If I could take all my images with a tripod I would.  Can they be clumsy at times - yes, can they take precious seconds to set up - yes, are they heavy - yes, are they worth it - absolutely.  A sturdy Induro tripod, while not cheap, should last through many years of rugged use.  Buy a tripod that rises to about your eye level with the camera attached.  Bending over to look through a short tripod is aggravating and painful.  Also, buy a tripod that allows the legs to flair out so it can be either set up low to the ground, or on uneven terrain.

TIP  Anytime your shutter-speed drops below the length of your lens (like 1/250 second with a 300mm lens) a tripod is an absolute must for reliably sharp images. 



Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode

Aperture Priority Mode (A on a Nikon, Av on a Canon) is an easy setting you can use in most photography situations.  It means that you set the aperture, or f-stop - to the appropriate setting and let the shutter-speed be set by the camera.  Why use this setting?  By only needing to change the f-stop you minimize the amount of time it takes to change the camera's exposure settings.   You decide what is most important in the image - without changing any other control.  Small F-stops like f13 or f16 mean greater depth-of-field and slower shutter-speeds, while large f-stops like f2.8 or f4 mean faster shutter-speeds and less depth-of-field.

TIP  The other Camera Exposure Modes like P or S or the other variations do exactly the same thing - setting combinations of aperture and shutter-speeds by which mode you select.  One control for everything is much easier and quicker.



Focus on the Eyes

What is the first thing that draws your attention when you look at a grizzly bear photograph, or at the snapshots taken of your child?  The life of an animal or a person is found in its eyes.  The eyes of the subject are magnetic and attract our attention immediately.  Whether you shoot wildlife or people you focus on the eyes of your subject.  If your subjects eyes are in focus the rest of the image will appear in greater focus – even if its not.  Our mind overrules what we see and we are left with an impression of greater sharpness – hey, it’s true.

One of the great mistakes we can make as wildlife or portrait photographers is to “zone” focus the camera – placing the focusing grid on the largest part of the subject without regard to its eyes.  In the case of photographing wildlife – say an adult bull elk, this focusing habit can put the eyes of your subject more than 18 inches out of exact focus.  Of all the places on an animal or bird, the eyes will show the lack of sharp, clear focus the most.

I find myself framing photographs in terms of focusing grids and eyes.  I’ve learned to rapidly change the focusing grid in order to guarantee its placement on the eyes of my subject.  Modern digital cameras provided many focusing grid locations but adjusting the active grid when needed can be difficult to learn.  Publishable wildlife images or printable portraits mean sharp eyes.  Practice changing the focusing grid location until you can do it without thinking about it.

5 Shoot at Eye Level

Shooting at eye level to your subject isn't always easy, especially with critters on the ground or up in a tree.  But shooting from eye level gives respect to your subject and an equal amount of importance with the photographer.  Shooting at a down angle (photographers POV) implies the photographer is somehow superior to the subject - not in all cases, but certainly when it comes to living critters.

TIP  Sometimes that means shooting from your stomach, possibly your knees, or kneeling.  How many times do parents stand above their children and ask that they look up for a picture.  Shoot from their level.


Shoot Verticals

Too many people get locked into shooting horizontal images of every subject in front of them.   Let the subject dictate the horizontal or vertical angle of the camera.  Vertical images are typical in photographing individuals, sports, and some wildlife and scenic photography.  Fill your frame with the subject and get closer - and shoot verticals.  Personally, I look at verticals being more portrait oriented photographs - no matter what I'm shooting.  Bridal portraits or elk portraits - it doesn't matter.  Horizontal images are more environmental in their nature.  Turn the camera vertical and get closer - now your shooting a portrait image of the person, minimizing the environment. 

TIP  For those of you budding professional nature photographers - vertical images are Magazine Cover Images.  If you want to be published - then try to grab the best image offered by a magazine - the COVER Image!  The second best images in a magazine are full-page images . . . also verticals.



Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is an easy compositional guide.  If you take the area of the film or sensor and equally divide it with two additional lines vertically and two lines horizontally - you have an area divided up into thirds.  Where those lines cross each other are considered powerful intersection points in composition.  For example, if you are shooting the Grand Canyon from the rim, don't place the horizon line in the middle - place it at either the top third line (to emphasize the canyon) or the bottom third line (to emphasize the sky above the canyon).  Simple.

This compositional rule can add a great deal of impact and balance to a photograph that would otherwise just be a snapshot.  Check out the sunset silhouette image in the Bridal Gallery.  Their vertical bodies are my two vertical composition lines and the horizon and setting sun are close to the upper horizontal line.

TIP  Many of the newer digital cameras have a compositional grid in the viewfinder.  Turn it on in the menu.  Get used to paying attention to it and use it to improve your compositions, or at least keep your horizon line square.  If there is no grid then many times the auto-focusing points in the viewfinder form a grid themselves.



Animals Doing Animal Stuff

Nothing is more boring than an animal just walking along, sauntering across a meadow.  We have all taken countless images of this type of inaction and sometimes you really have no options.  Learning about the animals you photograph allows you to anticipate their movements and put yourself in a position to shoot the best images possible. 

I was in Yellowstone recently and ran across a typical black bear walking parallel to the road - dozens of photographers shadowing him along the road as he moved.  A hundred yards farther up the road a hillside came down and forced the meadow into a narrower bottleneck.  I drove down and parked and set up in a position to safely photograph the bear as he walked towards me in the bottleneck.  Bears don't want to climb hillsides if they don't have to, so I figured he would follow the contour of the hillside past the road - which he did.  With the other photographers running down the road in pursuit the bear walked right past me giving me plenty of time to shoot much better images of him walking and looking into the camera.  Other photographers breathlessly arrived - too late to get the shot I did - and continued to photograph him as he walked across the next meadow.  Dull.

TIP  Centers of attention - like den sites or nests, food sources, meadows with mating activity, etc. - can put a photographer in the best position to shoot quality images of animals doing animal stuff. 
9 Fill Flash for People

Nothing looks worse than shooting people that are squinting into the sun.  Not only is an image like that unprofessional, but it casts the subject with the worst possible look on their face - contorted eyes and cheeks.  It is a simple thing to put the subjects back to the sun - then use either a built-in flash or a hot-shoe mounted flash to fill the shadow now on the subjects face.  By doing this your subjects eyes are wide open and they have a normal look on their face, and nice balanced skin tones.

TIP  Fill Flash can be used in wildlife photography to light small subjects and as fill for those hidden in the shade.  It is a must have piece of equipment in macro photography as well - such as butterflies.

10 Shoot Fast Lenses

What is a fast lens and why should I buy them?  It is a lens with a large initial f-stop, such as F2.8 or F4.  For example, I shoot a Nikon 500mm f4 Silent Wave Motor Telephoto lens - this is a very FAST lens for its length.  I shoot a Nikon 80-200 F2.8 Zoom lens - another fast lens.  If my 80-200 Zoom lens was f4 or f5.6 - it would be considered a SLOW lens.  Fast lenses let in a lot of light and are crucial for three reasons:

1.  Fast lenses allow you to shoot earlier in the morning and later in the evening at a given shutter-speed.  2.  Fast lenses give you a brighter viewfinder to compose in and to focus on your subject with.  An f2.8 lens lets twice as much light in as a F4 lens.  3.  Fast lenses allow you to use a lower ISO setting, which improves image quality.

TIP  Slow lenses are entry level, or consumer grade, lenses only.  They aren't made to the same quality as faster, more expensive lenses.  Spend your money on a fast lens and watch the quality of your images increase.   Used fast lenses can always be found on E-bay, or similar sights.  If you shoot Nikon, buy Nikon lenses - same with Canon.

11 Choose a Camera System

When you buy a camera body you are really buying a camera system.  You are buying into a system that will either provide all the types of equipment you might want, or one that will force you to go to off-brand equipment makers to fill the gaps.

There are two main camera makers today that offer full systems to their photographers - Nikon and Canon.  They offer camera bodies, lenses, flashes, and accessories that fit into any photographer's needs.  Also, they are at the front of the technology curve in photography and can be counted on to incorporate that technology into new camera equipment.

TIP  Nikon lenses are black - Canon are white.  So, your choices are as clear as black and white.  Personally, I shoot Nikon.  I think they are the most rugged cameras incorporating the best technology in the world.
12 Quick-release Tripod Head

The best way to buy a tripod is without a head.  More important than the tripod itself, the tripod ball head with a snap-in plate quick-release system makes your photography easier.  A quick release plate attaches to the bottom of either your camera body or your telephoto lens.  The plate can be quickly snapped and locked onto the quick-release ball head.  By moving a lever the camera/lens and its attached plate quickly snap off the tripod - leaving it open and ready to be snapped back on quickly.  Arca-Swiss heads are very popular.

There are some important do's and don'ts to buying a useful head.  I learned by sad experience that the more levers a ball head has the more problems it causes.  One lever minimizes the number of movements I have to make in order to get shooting photographs quickly.

TIP  The bigger your prime telephoto lens the bigger your ball head and quick-release plate should be.  I spent more money on the ball head I use than the tripod itself.  Recently I've gone to a Wimberley Head for my 500mm lens.

13 Set the Correct ISO

The ISO Speed is simply an indication of how sensitive the camera meter will be to light.  Low settings, like 50-200, will produce fine, nearly grainless images which are great for enlargements.  These settings will give you slower shutter-speeds but better images, hence the need for the tripod.  Use an ISO setting that is appropriate for the intended subject.  Groups of people, portraits, macro, and landscape photography are perfect for this low ISO range.  Also, if the light is good - some wildlife photography as well.

Higher settings, like 200-400, provide higher shutter speeds to capture action photography in poorer light conditions.  These settings will still produce good images - but add some "noise" to the images.  Cameras, like my Nikon D4s, will produce amazing results at ISO 3200, and higher.

TIP  Use the ISO setting as your final adjustment to achieve the shutter-speed the subject needs.  Only subject movement or extreme low light requires high settings, otherwise lower ISO settings will work on your tripod.  I never use Auto ISO settings, I'm smarter than the tiny chip in my camera and am better able to choose the correct ISO.

14 Which to Shoot in, JPG or RAW?

Many professional photographers will shoot RAW for everything.  All images are initially taken in the raw format by the camera sensor.  When you have jpg quality selected for the image, your camera processes that raw image into a jpg, compresses it and saves it.

RAW - Shooting in raw mode (NEF in Nikon and CR2 in Canon) retains the maximum amount of information that the image contains.  Images aren't compressed or processed in-camera.  They are large files and eat up loads of space not only on hard-drives, but more particularly on compact flash cards.  Suddenly, a 32 gig CF card isn't what it used to be.  If you don't mind the additional processing time involved and quality is a huge issue to you, then raw is for you.  Shooting in raw mode often slows down the camera's ability to process images quickly, thus affecting your speed of shooting.  A program like Photoshop has much more power in processing images than does your camera's built-in processor.

JPG - Shooting in high-quality jpg mode means the camera processes the image and compresses the image.  JPG files are 8-bit images and can display only 256 levels of brightness.  The image can then be taken directly into a processing program, e-mailed, even printed without any further work.  Because they are compressed they take up less room on hard-drives and shooting cards.  If you would rather minimize computer processing time, storage space required, and overall ease of use, then shooting jpg's is for you.

TIP  I shoot the highest quality I can, so I shoot in raw exclusively.   This gives your image processing software the most data in which to convert the image to another format, like a tiff or jpg. 
15 Edit Ruthlessly

Photographs tend to be like children - we protect and save the good shots as well as the bad.  What this creates over the years is thousands of unprintable, unpublishable, really unwanted images that clog our hard drives and back-up systems.  They make it difficult to find the gems amid the rubble of poorly executed photographs.  Delete them, delete them, delete them.  When I get back from a shoot I usually go through three edits before I feel like I have a grip on what I really have.

1.  Edit for out-of-focus, blurry, bad exposures, unanticipated lens flare, and just plain poor images that are technically defective.

2.  Edit for images with subject problems, like: animals with closed eyes,  heads obscured by branches, cluttered backgrounds (like with cars when your shooting bears in Yellowstone), or other things that degrade the image subject.
3.  Divide the remaining images into two directories - label one Good and the other Fair.  Once divided, delete the Fair sub-directory.

Don't allow yourself to have an emotional connection to poor images, unless of course, their your kids.  Ok, keep those.  Ruthless editing keeps your image library filled with only your best, most promising images.

TIP   Editing images is an intensely personal thing.  Don't allow clients or others to edit your photos.  Only show them the post-edit images, they don't need to see your mistakes or take a sudden liking to poor images you would prefer to delete.
16 Process your Images

When you shoot a digital image you have just begun the process of creating a printable or publishable image.  Whether you shot in raw or jpg you need to process those images on your computer to bring out their full beauty, sharpness, and impact.  Try not to get behind in processing because there is a point where you won't want to go back and process them.

TIP  Every image benefits from good image processing.  Taking your CF card out of the camera and to a store and printing the images limits the possible quality of the photographs you have taken.
17 Shoot with a Professional

You get to a point in your photography where you feel like you have hit a wall.  Your images aren't as exciting as you would like, maybe your composition skills are suspect, or your images aren't as sharp as they should be - it's time to get help.

Participating in a digital photography seminar, going on a 1 day regional workshop, or even a multiple day safari with a professional photographer will open your horizons and show you a better way of doing things.  It allows your technique to be refined and your basic photography habits (equipment, camera settings, etc) to be tweaked and improved.

So many folks who have gone to my seminars or done the workshops/safaris comment about learning the correct way to do something they have always done wrong.  They learn to get into action quickly, look for subjects within the big picture, and thoroughly photograph a subject from all angles.  They learn how lens choice affects perspective, and how to apply the creative controls that are at their finger tips.

TIP  Go to the Photo Safaris page to review upcoming events and sign up for a photographic adventure.
18 Back-up Images

I have two back-up, 4 TB external hard drives in a dual RAID system.  Then, I have another 4 TB drive that I alternate backing up my entire photography library once every three weeks or so.  Of course, I also have a my entire photography library on one of my 4TB internal hard drives as well. 

TIP  Never keep your RAID or your back up external hard drives connected to your computer if you aren't backing things up.  A shorted-out motherboard could compromise a plugged in back up hard drive connection - permanently.
Don't Forget Your Field Equipment

Field equipment might vary for everyone, but there are several useful pieces that everyone should bring along.  Bring gardener's or plumber's knee pads to save your knees in rocky or thorny terrain.  Have thin shooting gloves handy when temperatures get chilly
and carrying that aluminum tripod is freezing you.  A hat, lip balm, sun screen, bug repellant, extra water, snacks and candy - will all help with long hours in the field shooting.  A small jeweler's tool kit, electrical tape, tripod leg nut tool, etc - all come in handy eventually. See my Field Check List Page.

TIP  There are a lot more things I carry in my vehicle.  I have a small box (about 18"x15"x15") in the back with an extra blanket, flares, hand winch, tow ropes, flat repair, etc.

Bracket Your Landscape Images

Taking multiple images, at different exposure settings, guarantees you a close to perfect exposure.  Not all scenes are easily evaluated by the camera's sensor - and those that are problematic could be poorly exposed if you don't bracket your images.  Without going into a lot of writing about this, simply read your manual about bracketing - usually called AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing) and follow the steps to activate it this feature.

TIP  When you can tell that a scene will fool the meter, like lots of snow, make an intelligent estimate on how much light to add and use your exposure compensation (eV) control to add it.  Then when you activate the AEB it will bracket your images around that eV setting.

© 2023 Brent Paull     All Rights Reserved under United States and International Laws     559-909-5208