For the past 12 weeks I’ve been taking a photo course at RISD; our final presentations are on Monday and to say I’ve learned a lot would be an understatement.
The class itself is a black and white film course. I thought there was no way the skills used in film photography could carry over to what I like to do in digital. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I know so much more about how to set up a shot, how my digital camera works, and even how to edit photos on a computer because of the work we did with film. The two pretty much go hand in hand and I feel like I take stronger photos because of it.
Here are the 9 most valuable tips I’ve learned from the past semester; I’d suggest that you don’t just read them, but take them in, grab a camera, and practice. The best thing you can do to strengthen your photos is get hands on experience, and no amount of reading can match that.
Check the light meter
That little thing in the bottom of your viewfinder actually turns out to be incredibly helpful. Before I was shooting in manual but always looking at the screen to see how I needed to adjust the shutter speed. That meant having a lot of shots that were horribly, horribly exposed. Using the light meter has cut down on bad shots tremendously.
Food photos in general look better overexposed by a stop I think but with a properly exposed file there’s nothing you can’t do in a digital editing software.
Pay attention to lighting
Lighting is pretty much everything in a photo. The best way to practice finding good lighting isn’t taking pictures at all; just simply observe the light in a space at different times during the day to see how it changes and how the shadows make things look. Lighting really is essential to taking a good photo so figure that out before anything else.
Also, avoid flash whenever possible. It just makes people’s skin look like reflective vests and that’s never attractive.
Crank down the ISO
I was always shooting in 1600 ISO because I thought that was “good enough”, but after working with photos in 400 ISO the quality isn’t even comparable. ISO measures the amount of detail in a photo, the lower the ISO meaning the more detail. Setting your ISO to 400 means you’ll have to use a slower shutter speed, but for well-lit shots like outdoor photos on a sunny day there’s no reason not to use it.
The whole frame matters
It’s easy to get caught up in a subject and start taking pictures not paying attention with what’s around it. The problem is other people will pay attention to it when they look at the photos. If it’s not meant to be part of the photo, it probably is just a distraction and shouldn’t be there. You could crop it out during editing, but it’s so much easier to pay attention to the whole frame when you’re shooting than manipulating things after the fact.
Tripods are your friend
I got a tripod for Christmas this past December. I hardly used it at all until a few weeks ago, and now I can’t stop. It’s just so much better for when you want to take low ISO photos and the lighting isn’t that great. It doesn’t have all the mobility of using your hands, but if you’re savvy you can get some pretty great shots. I’ll definitely be using mine most of the time when I’m taking food photos from now on.
“Stealing” is fine
Stealing a recipe from one website and posting it on another is bad. Stealing a car is worse. But “stealing” a photo is fine—or rather, the concept of the photo. Stealing in art just means seeing something that someone else did well and that you like and trying to recreate it yourself. So if you have a particular favorite photographer who does great work, why not try to make your photos look just like theirs? As long as you’re the one taking the photo, it’s not breaking any rules.
Prints are never out of fashion
With everything being digital today, no one has prints of their photos anymore. They’re a lot of fun to keep around, put on display, or even give as gifts. Get your favorite digital photos printed once and a while and do something fun with them; otherwise they only live on your computer and where’s the fun in that?
Find your style and stick to it
Everyone has a different style. Even after 12 weeks of class with people I never knew before, it’s easy to tell who took what photos based on the subject matter and style. Likewise, I can spot a lot of my favorite food bloggers just by how their photos look because they’ve stuck with one style and gotten really good with it. It’s great to try new things but start with a strong foundation by working on your own look.
Of course you should always please yourself with your work, but sometimes we get too attached to make objective decisions; that’s when having people who are going to tell you the truth is most important. Don’t go asking your mom or best friend who’s never said a mean thing in her life how your photos are—find someone unbiased who knows a thing or two about photos and ask what you could do to improve. Most of the time, we aren’t our best critic. In the words of Tina Fey, “If you’re ever feeling too good about yourself, there’s this thing called the internet.”