On every game show, the host always seems to ask the contestant this question: ‘If you win, what are you going to do with the money?’
That’s a great question to ask new photographers: ‘Now that you’ve learned manual mode, what are you going to do next?’
Photography is a continuous learning process, and while mastering manual mode is an essential step to becoming a better photographer, there’s plenty more to learn. So, what do you tackle after knowing your shutter speed from your aperture?
There’s no exact order to follow—but here are seven things you could direct your attention to next.
Window light here provides soft side light with just a bit of shadow.
Without light, there’s no photography—after all, the word photography means ‘writing with light’ in Greek. Lighting is essential to good photography, but you don’t necessarily need to invest in studio-level gear to light your images.
Understanding how to work with the light that’s already there will boost your photos, without necessarily burning a hole in your wallet.
The direction that the light is coming in makes a big difference. Front lighting, where the light is in front of the subject, is easy to work with, but can leave images looking flat.
Side lighting adds dimension and shadow and works well for many scenarios.
Back lighting will turn the subject into a silhouette, unless you use that knowledge of manual modes to expose for the subject and not the background, or use a flash or reflector to fill in some additional light.
Direction is just one way that understanding light will help you take better photos. Factors like the size and distance of the light source and even the color or temperature of the light all play a role.
Choosing a location with even lighting—and learning to avoid awkward lighting set-ups like shooting inside a pavilion—can also make a big difference.
Learning light through practice, a class, or reading is a great way to move beyond simply understanding exposure.
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2. Focus Techniques
‘Why aren’t my images sharp?’
It’s a common question among new photographers. You already know one of those answers (shutter speed), but focus is another essential for getting sharp images. Learning how to properly focus for different scenarios is a good next step after you’ve got manual modes under your belt.
Focus modes determine if your camera focuses just once, or continuously. Choosing the right option—continuous focus for action and single focus for still life—helps increase the chances you get a sharply focused image.
Focus areas, on the other hand, give you more flexibility over what is in focus. For example, the single point autofocus mode, instead of automatically selecting a set of focal points, allows you to use the arrow keys on your camera to choose the focal point.
Of course, those techniques all involve autofocus. While autofocus technology has made huge progress, there are a few scenarios, such as in macro photography, that still call for manual focus techniques.
Manual focus can help get those tricky shots, but learning how to focus manually is essential to getting sharp images without autofocus.
An off-center composition helps draw the eye.
Composition is about more than just framing what interests you. While finding what inspires you is a great start, learning composition techniques can help give your photos that extra wow factor.
The most basic composition technique is the Rule of Thirds, where you imagine the photo is divided into a tic-tac-toe grid and place the subject on one of those lines, instead of in the centre.
If the subject is facing a certain direction or moving one way, it’s a good idea to leave the empty space in the direction they are looking or moving.
Of course, artistic rules are sometimes meant to be broken—for example, a centre composition helps emphasise symmetry in a scene.
Composition doesn’t just stop with the rules, however. Implementing tips like trying a different angle by kneeling or climbing on a step stool can help create a more dynamic image.
While what you include is important, what you leave out is just as important, since empty space helps draw attention to the subject too.
4. Manual Flash
The flash is one of the most important tools in photography, yet it’s also the least understood.
If you avoid using flash because it creates that “flash look” with weird shadows, it’s time to dig into manual flash photography. Done right, most won’t even realise you used a flash in the first place.
Manual flash modes allow you to turn down the strength of that light, which helps eliminate those weird shadows.
Adjusting manual flash actually isn’t too tough to learn—it’s simply a matter of changing the flash mode and adjusting the intensity: 1/1 is full power, 1/2 is half power and so on.
Along with those fractions, you’ll also see flash compensation values—these are just like exposure compensation, only work to turn the flash output up or down.
Understanding how to adjust flash modes is straightforward, but unlike learning manual modes, there isn’t a built-in meter, so there is some trial and error (and some guess work) to find what settings work best for different scenarios.
Along with adjusting the intensity of the flash, hot shoe flashes have even more ways you can avoid those harsh shadows. Indoors, bouncing the flash off a light coloured wall or ceiling creates a much softer light without that “flash look.”
Using a flash diffuser and even taking the flash off-camera with a wireless flash kit will not only allow you to add light to any scene, but to create different lighting effects too.
Shutter speed helps prevent motion blur—or creates neat blur effects. Panning, or moving as the subject moves, with a slower shutter speed will blur the background while keeping the subject sharp.
This technique is popular for photographing race cars, but can be used with anything that’s moving in a predictable way.
The steps behind panning aren’t too complex, but it does take quite a bit of experimenting to get it right.
Start by using a shutter speed that’s a bit slower than you’d need to freeze the action—the exact speed will vary based on the speed of the movement and how much blur you want in the background, but 1/60 is a good starting point.
As the subject passes in front of you, you’ll move the camera, keeping the subject in the same part of the frame, while triggering the shot. A tripod with a panning head is a big help, but it’s possible to take panning shots handheld.
Panning takes some practice, and even experienced photographers will only get a handful of good shots from several attempts. But, the technique is a great way to show motion in a still image (and, well, it’s fun to do).
6. Genre-Specific Techniques
By now, you’ve probably realised there are one or two things you like photographing more than others—maybe kids, landscapes, or food. But each genre has it’s own set of tips and tricks that help get the best shots of those subjects.
Once you’ve mastered manual modes, taking a look at the specifics of the images you shoot most is a good next step.
If you are fond of portraits, consider taking a class on posing. If landscapes are more your style, dig into HDR photography or focus stacking tutorials. If you simply love taking pictures of people around you, read up on street photography.
While many techniques span several genres, mastering a few specifics for the photos you love to shoot the most can make a big difference in your images. \
7. Post Processing
Photo editing could be considered an art in itself. While it’s always best to get it right in-camera, there are a few adjustments that you can’t do in-camera, like enhancing contrast, for example.
But, when it comes to post-processing, there are hundreds of different techniques and styles—so where do you start? Actually, start with your camera by changing the file type to RAW. Unlike the traditional JPEG, a RAW photo contains more data, so you have more flexibility in post.
Shooting in RAW, you’ll need a good photo editing program—I use Lightroom and Photoshop, but if you can’t spend the $12/month just yet, there are some free editing programs that will often get the job done.
Once you’ve picked your program, start by looking into the basic tools—either by exploring on your own or through tutorials, YouTube videos, or classes.
Once you’re a bit familiar with the interface, dig into some specifics—try Googling “How do I ______ in Photoshop?” to find specific techniques. (I often learn something new that can be applied to other images even in specific tutorials.)
Manual Modes and Beyond
Learning manual modes is essential to taking full creative control over your images, but you certainly shouldn’t stop there.
From lighting to post-processing, photography is a continuous learning process. I’ve been taking pictures for nearly a decade, and I still learn new tricks and tweaks almost every time I take my camera out of the bag.
Where you go from manual modes is up to you—just do yourself a favor and never stop learning new ways to improve your photography.
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