Photography techniques & tips to improve composition and exposure
If you have landed here, you’re probably guilty of endlessly scrolling your Instagram feed and marveling at the glossy photos that look no less than magic. But don't worry. We all do that. Thankfully there are many amazing and creative photos available on Instagram.
However, there is no magic involved in taking well-composed photos that can say more than 1,000 words. The photos that we obsess over are the products of certain principles and rules that we will help you learn and improve here.
In this tutorial, you will learn the essential principles, rules and photography techniques to improve your skills and take better photos immediately. Yes, the next photo, be it on your phone or your DSLR or mirrorless camera. Ready? Let's get started.
Photography Techniques & Concepts – Overview
Equipment isn't everything. Expensive gear alone does not promise you exceptional photos with that ‘wow’ factor you crave. Why, you ask? Any camera can take a picture, but it’s you who decides where to point the lens and how to point it to lead the viewer’s attention directly to the subject in focus. Photography courses will provide you with a solid background here.
You hold the power. It’s you who holds the power to truly capture a feeling and define the viewing behavior. All of which can only be achieved when you employ a bunch of rules and photography techniques. They also expand your perception, discipline you, and help you concentrate on the subject to bring the best out of it.
What are these photography techniques? They generally revolve around composition, exposure, focus, and lighting, all of which can transform an ordinary snap into a masterpiece when done right. If you are an ambitious beginner looking to learn the ropes, knowing the basics of these techniques is the first step towards excelling in photography.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” – Pablo Picasso.
Below is a table overview of the essential photography techniques that will help you churn out outstanding images. I will discuss them in more detail, followed by handy tips and hacks to improve your photography immediately. Use the links for direct navigation.
Essential photography techniques & tips
|Composition Rules||Exposure Rules||Shooting Modes||Tips & Hacks|
|Rules of Third|
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Photography Techniques – Composition Rules
Before discussing any rules, it’s important first to understand what composition is and what role it plays in photography. Composition refers to the arrangement of various elements in the scene that best expresses the subject matter. In other words, it’s the way you’d position your subject in relation to the background and other objects in the frame for it to stand out.
A good composition makes your photo compelling and visually pleasing. Keep the following composition techniques in your mind the next time you take your camera out. I list further reading resources below if you want to research more advanced aspects of composition.
1. The Rule of Thirds
Although it can be tricky at first and might take some training, the rule of thirds is one of the key photography techniques that will bring out the best in your photos.
How to use – It involves dividing your shot into nine equal sections by imagining two horizontal and two vertical lines across the frame. The next step is to place the subject across one of these lines or at the points of intersection. Most cameras can display such a grid on your screen or within the viewfinder to help apply the rule of thirds.
Why it works – The reason why it’s called the ‘rule of the thirds' is that the focal subject runs along the top or bottom third of the picture. The rule of thirds creates balance and lends a sense of depth to the image. It allows you to creatively use the negative space and capture the scene so that the human eye is drawn directly to the subject matter.
When to use – You don’t have to imagine the grids every time though since many manufacturers include this feature to aid you with this kind of composition. If you’re wondering whether you can apply this technique to portrait photography, the answer is that there are no limitations. It works equally well for street, still, and landscape photography.
2. The Golden Ratio
The golden ratio rule has been around for centuries and can be found even in the ancient work of art and architecture. From the Parthenon temple in Greece to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, all are said to have been based on the golden ratio.
What it is – The golden ratio is the perfect balance found in the ratio of 1 to 1.618. While it may seem like a complicated and difficult concept to grasp at first, it’s quite easy if you look at it as a complex version of the rule of thirds.
How to use – Instead of a regular grid that forms the basis of the rule of thirds, the golden ratio follows something called the ‘Phi grid’. It uses a series of squares from which a spiral called ‘Fibonacci spiral' originates from. The spiral that looks like a snail determines how the scene in the image should naturally flow with the subject matter placed within the origin of the spiral.
How it works -The golden ratio brings harmony and structure to your shot that can’t be achieved otherwise. While the rule of thirds may seem like an easier approach, oftentimes, it fails to blend certain elements flawlessly with the rest of the scene, especially in landscape photography. You might notice the horizon line being too obvious and sometimes standing out as a distraction. Following the golden ratio eliminates this problem.
3. Frame Within a Frame
Also called ‘sub-framing’, this photography technique comes in handy while shooting interiors or exteriors of buildings. It emphasizes and guides the viewer’s eye right towards the subject in quite an imaginative way.
How to use – You can use structures such as windows, arches, doors, pathways, or even overhanging branches to form a frame and bring your intended subject into focus.
The ‘frame within a frame’ technique adds depth to your shot and a pleasing structure that seems attractive to the eye. The frame within your shot doesn’t necessarily have to hold the entire scene. It can also capture a part of it for the shot to be effective.
Frames are around you – Once you start looking around you, you will find an impressive number of natural, artificial or fictive frames to use in your photography. It is the same way you will see faces in objects once you try to spot them in the wild. Use everything and anything as a framing tool if it helps to improve your photos.
4. Leading Lines
Lines and shapes also immediately draw the human eye’s attention. As evident from the name, ‘leading lines’ is the corresponding photography technique that leads an easy path for the eye to reach the subject in your shot. Again, lines are all around us, and it is impressive that everything can consist of lines.
How to use – Roads, bridges, floors, fences, walls, train tracks, and even hallways provide an excellent linear perspective. Our eyes instinctively follow the lines all the way toward the subject in focus. It could be the sky, mountains, a person, a building, or any object at the very end of the lines. Hence, lines can help to guide the main object or the main message.
Experiment with shapes – However, these lines don’t always have to be straight. They could be curved, converging, or diagonal, all of which create a sense of more natural motion than straight lines. Have a look around. Some lines might appear dotted or are just a line-up of objects (trees, cars, people). You can use lines as a framing tool as well, of course.
Try it – Your next photo could be a photo that actually has lines as the main subject. Symmetry and geometry are interesting concepts, and Instagram offers great hashtags to follow and learn from the images posted there. Particularly black and white photography is suitable to show how lines can influence our vision and perception. And, it is art too.
Diagonals add depth, direction, and dynamics to your shot. They also lend a dash of visual tension, which instantly grabs the attention. To make you understand better, let’s take the example of horizontal or vertical lines. Being straight or aligned with our view, they give out a feeling of strength, stability, and reassurance. On the other hand, steep surfaces and slopes create dynamic tension, making the photo more engaging.
How to use – You can expertly introduce diagonals to your photography in three ways.
- Shooting acute diagonal lines (roofs, rock formations, telephone lines, stairs)
- Placing objects diagonally, for instance, a row of bottles
- Creating a diagonal line by viewpoint, i.e., shooting from the side instead of the center.
Photography Techniques – The Exposure Triangle
One of the most important but rather technical photography techniques is understanding and mastering the exposure triangle. The exposure triangle consists of three basics: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. You must balance all three for your photos to be exposed correctly or to come out just the way you want.
Keep in mind – When you adjust one of them, remember also to adjust at least another one of the three (see also shooting modes). While the automatic mode eliminates this apparent hassle, it also limits your ability to be creative with your photography and let your shots truly shine. To use manual mode, you must learn your way around the exposure triangle.
Aperture is essentially a hole in your camera’s lens, the size of which determines how much light will pass through it and fall on the sensor. A larger hole will let in more light brightening your shot, whereas a smaller hole will let in less light, also affecting the brightness.
Understanding the aperture – On your camera, the aperture is referred to as f-stop or f-number, which is represented in fractions. Adjusting the size of the aperture can be a little confusing at first. Since the number is in fractions, a smaller number would mean a larger aperture and a larger number would mean a smaller aperture. For example, an aperture of f/2 is much larger than an aperture of f/11. Hint: 1/11 is smaller than 1/2. Maybe that helps.
Aperture controls depth of field – Another pointed to be noted is that aperture also controls the depth of the field. Depth of field is how much of the scene is in focus or how much of the shot is razor-sharp. A smaller aperture of f/11 will give you a wider depth of field with more of the scene in focus, whereas a larger aperture of f/2 will have a shallower depth of field, giving you a beautifully blurred background or bokeh perfect for portraits.
Aperture vs. exposure triangle – Adjusting the aperture also gives rise to a problem, which is why you need to understand the exposure triangle. When you use a smaller aperture, particularly for landscapes to get the most of the scene in focus, it also limits the light and the image might not come out as bright as you’d want. There is where the two other settings shutter speed and ISO come in to help you control the amount of light you let in.
One tip though, if the sun is out and bright you can use aperture 8. With some exceptions and depending on what your message is, it often works, and you can lower or increase your aperture from this number if needed.
2. Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is the measure of time for which the shutter remains open and exposed to light. The shutter can be left open for a fraction of a second or even minutes.
Understanding shutter speed – Faster shutter speed means the shutter remains open for less time, allowing a little amount of light to hit the sensor. Similarly, slower shutter speed allows more light to fall on the sensor resulting in higher exposure. Balancing the shutter speed with aperture (how wide the lens is open) can get you the desired result.
Example – There’s a difference between a pleasantly bright image and an over-exposed shot. If you choose a slow shutter speed on a sunny day, it will consequently collect more light and destroy the photo. Outdoor shots on a sunny day call for faster speed, say of 1/500. Whereas a slow speed of 1/100 would be nice for indoors.
Sharpness – Higher shutter speed also helps to maintain the sharpness of the photo. When the shutter remains open for too long, it also keeps recording the moving elements of the scene. If you wonder why your shots are constantly coming out blurred, you might want to check the speed.
Tip – A tripod will solve the problem of blurred images in darker light conditions. There is also a handy rule of thumb to keep photos sharp when hand-holding a camera. Your shutter should at least match the focal length of your lens. A zoom lens set to 80mm should be combined with a speed of at least 1/80th or faster to take shake-free images.
ISO refers to the light sensitivity of the image sensor and is measured in numbers, i.e. 100, 200, 400 and usually goes up to 12,800 or higher in modern or professional cameras.
Understanding ISO – Simply put, ISO determines the brightness or darkness of a photo. In low-light conditions, you can increase the ISO making the sensor more light-sensitive. In bright lighting, you may choose to lower ISO to 100 or 200 to expose the photo correctly.
Be aware – However, just like the rest of the settings, there’s a trade-off. The higher ISO can result in more noise and a grainy picture. In analog photography, this effect is often used as a stylistic technique. Digital photos (think of party photos) will simply look awful and without details. Luckily, this can be handled with post-processing tools like Lightroom. Smartphones are also getting better as well, and you might get away with it.
Remember the triangle – Getting just the right kind of lighting conditions and depth of field is all about balancing these three settings. If you increase your ISO, you can achieve an overall balanced exposure only if you adjust another parameter at the same time. The question is now which one to adjust to deliver a photo's message in the best way.
Photography Techniques – Shooting Modes
You may have already wondered when we finally get to te more creative part. Also called exposure modes, shooting modes give you more creative control over your camera, allowing specific parameters for specific situations.
Cameras typically come with four main modes, namely, auto mode, aperture-priority mode, shutter-priority mode, and manual mode, abbreviated on a rotary dial as P, A, S, and M. Most modern cameras and premium apps offer additional modes, including portrait mode, macro mode, sports mode, landscape mode, and more. For now, let’s focus on the main modes.
1. Automatic Mode
Automatic mode is also called Program mode (P). As you might expect, when the automatic mode is selected, the camera automatically adjusts the aperture and shutter speed according to lighting conditions. This mode is most suitable for ‘point and shoot' photography or when you want a quick snap.
Automatic mode works by adjusting the parameters that control the overall exposure of the shot. If you’re using your camera outdoors with a bright light surrounding the subject matter, auto mode will make the aperture smaller and shutter speed faster. Similarly, using the auto mode in a dim-lit situation will render the aperture bigger and shutter speed slower.
2. Shutter-Priority Mode
Shutter-priority mode lets you control the shutter speed while the camera controls the aperture for you. It lets you control the duration of time for which the shutter stays open, which could be less or more. If the lighting is too bright, the camera will adjust the aperture to a higher number. Conversely, if the area is dim-lit, the aperture will automatically decrease to a lower number for more light to pass through the lens.
When to use – This mode is ideal when you either wish to freeze a fast-moving action or intentionally blur and capture the movement. Sports or wildlife photographers looking to freeze the action are more likely to use the shutter-priority mode. Alternatively, you may have seen those pictures when water seems to keep flowing or fog keeps rising.
Effects – A longer shutter speed can also make car lights look blurred and stretched, which can be seen in many amazing night-time street shots. Finally, setting the speed to minutes and people or moving objects will actually disappear from the photo or create an exciting blurred mix of dancing or celebrating people at a party or concert.
Recap – Use shutter speed if you want to highlight or freeze the action of an event, situation or location. A short speed requires brighter light conditions, a longer one a tripod to balance handshaking or unsteady grounds.
3. Aperture-Priority Mode
Aperture-priority mode is the opposite of the shutter-priority mode. It lets the photographer manually control the lens aperture while the camera assigns the shutter speed to match it.
Usage – I already mentioned some of the usages such as depth of field and to create a blurry background or bokeh for portrait photography. One of the most exciting usages of the aperture-priority mode is to separate the main object or message from its surroundings.
This works best when using a larger aperture. Remember, for taking a picture overlooking a wide canyon or rolling hills you would use a smaller aperture to keep the focus on the whole scenery. However, as soon as you want to concentrate on a single object or motif, you can use a larger aperture to highlight a detail, i.e., the blossom of a flower, a face in the crowd or a particular message that needs particular attention.
Implications – Knowing this, it is easier to understand how pictures can also manipulate our thoughts or emotions depending on how shutter speed and aperture are being used. Applied in the right way, it allows you to communicate your message much clearer and gives you enormous power to mislead your audience by separating objects and messages out of their natural and original context. It is a fascinating topic that comes with great responsibility.
Recap – Aperture-priority allows you to choose the aperture, whereas ISO and shutter speed will be set automatically. The main use is to separate an object from its surroundings. This mode is faster to use than manual mode, where you spend a substantial amount of time carefully adjusting all the parameters to get the desired results.
4. Manual Mode
Manual mode allows you to fully control both aperture and shutter speed. You can manually set the aperture and shutter speed to get the optimal camera settings in a specific lighting condition and also to strengthen or even weaken the message of your photo or work.
Usage – This mode is most commonly used in conditions where the camera is prone to guess the exposure incorrectly. For instance, if you are shooting in extreme lighting conditions, the other modes might render certain elements in your shot either underexposed or overexposed. Manual mode allows you to manually adjust the parameters to appropriate numbers and get the desired consistency.
How to get started – I recommend experimenting with manual mode as soon as you feel comfortable with your camera. It can be tricky for beginners to get the hang of it. But don't give up. Use a motif of your choice at home, ideally in fairly good light conditions and play around with the settings to understand which parameter influences which outcome.
Light measuring – This is more of an advanced topic, but I want to mention it and refer to a good tutorial for those interested. The camera can measure incoming light in four ways: matrix, center-weighted, partial metering and spot metering. This is a good introduction.
10 Photography Tips To Apply Immediately
Once you’ve understood the basics, mastering them can only come with constant practice. To further improve your photography, here are some additional tips and techniques.
1. Control the focus
While the camera’s autofocus setting can also get you some fairly decent pictures, not all of them will be exceptional, especially if you want to be creative. Understand and practice manually adjusting the focus to get your camera to sharply capture exactly the elements in the scene that you want in focus.
2. Use a tripod to eliminate shake
Handheld shooting can oftentimes result in shaky camera and blurred photos. Your camera will stay steady on a tripod and churn out razor-sharp photos without a blur. If no tripod is available, turn to the left or right and use your shoulder to place the camera on. Always breathe out before you release the shutter.
3. Adjust shutter speed to fix blurry shots
Blurry shots are not always the result of a shaky camera. A slow speed that allows the shutter to stay open for a long period of time can also give you blurred photos. Go for a faster speed to fix this problem. Remember the rule to match at least your lenses' focal length, e.g. a 50mm lens requires a speed of at least 1/50th or faster.
4. Focus on moving objects
Capturing a still object is not difficult but focusing on a moving object, let’s say a bird or a car, can be tricky. The autofocus mode is not likely to work here. Changing it to ‘continuous mode’ instead will let you lock focus on your target by pressing the shutter button halfway. As long as your finger is half-pressing the shutter button, the camera will continue to refocus as the object moves and capture your shot without blurring it when you press it fully.
5. Get the right white balance
Although you can fix the white balance in post-processing, getting it right from the get-go will help you achieve the perfect colors. When you’re capturing scenes dominated by a single tone, for instance, the sky or a cluster of lush green trees, try using the cloudy or daylight white balance settings to capture the scene in all its beauty.
6. Be attentive to your background
Backgrounds can make or break a photo. They play a powerful role in defining the overall composition of your shot. Photos with busy backgrounds seem cluttered and fail to draw attention to the main subject.
Aim to isolate the subject from the background to add meaning and depth to it. Be aware of that sneaky pole growing out of someone's head. If the background is your subject, try using the above-mentioned composition techniques, such as the leading lines or diagonals.
7. Pay attention to symmetry
The key to achieving a beautiful composition is paying attention to symmetry. Pay attention and examine the scene you’re about to photograph. Look for symmetries and alignments between the elements and point your camera in a way to capture that symmetry perfectly.
8. Study photos and look for inspiration
The internet provides you with a huge treasure trove of extraordinary photos of all kinds. Everything from nature and wildlife to food and fashion is at your disposal. Make use of it. Study the photos. Look at the angles and the lighting and learn from them. They will also give you heaps of inspiration for your own photography.
9. Take a course
If you think internet research is not doing much for you, don’t hesitate to take a photography course. The research you do on your own can quickly get too random or overwhelming. A photography course is carefully curated, covering all the essentials without distracting you. Whether you take one virtually or in person, the sense of community and interaction with like-minded people can also serve to motivate you further.
10. Study famous photographers’ work
Have a curious mind to not only examine famous photographers’ work but also study beyond photography. Dive into the subjects of filmmaking or storytelling, for, after all, photography is all about capturing a feeling and conveying a message without words.
How To Improve Your Photography – Summary
Photography is a process of trial and error, but that’s how you master it. It’s an art that calls for customized photography techniques and a lot of practice. From composition to exposure and focus to camera modes, learning the concepts and basic photography techniques will cement the skills of budding shutterbugs.
Know the rules, cover all your bases, and you are in for a ride that’s not only fun but also creatively rewarding. You can then shine on your Instagram account and it will be your followers who will be marveling at your glossy photos.
Good luck! Don't forget: Practice, practice, practice aka take a lot of photos. Look at a lot of photos and learn from them.
Aperture – Opening in the lens through which light passes to the sensor. Set in f-stops.
Bokeh – Usually a blurred background with colorful orbs
Exposure compensation – Modify shutter speed or aperture based on set exposure
Exposure – Determines how bright or dark an image gets.
F-stop – Unit to measure the opening in the lens or aperture, e.g. F1.8, F2.8.
Focal length – Distance between lens and image on the sensor. Measured in mm.
Focus – Which objects are in focus, which ones are blurred.
Depth of field – How many of an image's objects are in focus.
Metering – Measuring light parameters to choose correct exposure settings.
ISO – The sensitivity of a sensor/film to incoming or available light.
Shutter speed – The time the shutter is open to allow light fall on to the sensor.
Zoom lens – A lens offering a range of continuously adjustable focal lengths, e.g. 17-80mm.
Prime lens – Usually a fixed lens without zoom, e.g. 50mm or 60mm.
Macro lens – Capture a sharp closeup of an object; usually within mm.
Wide-angle lens – Capture a wider view of scenery; usually a landscape.
Camera resolution – How large an image can be. Measured in megapixel.
Camera modes – Which exposure settings are set automatically or manually,
White balance – Setting and adjustment to display the color white as white.
Blue hour – Also golden hour. The time before sunset. Usually comes with a blue tone.
Topics to follow up – This tutorial aims to help you get started taking better photos. To continuously improve your photography skills we recommend looking into the technology behind camera lenses, and advanced camera settings, and, deepening your knowledge of the many styles and genres of photography.
Landscape, portrait or black and white photography are among the most exciting genres here but also the ones that require great photography techniques, experience, training, patience and the right technical equipment. Find your style, and keep practicing. Enjoy the journey.
How to improve photography? What are your favorite photography techniques? Let us know in the comments below.
Image credits (in order): Lisa Fotios Pexels | Gabriela Palai Pexels | Toa Heftiba Şinca Pexels | Susanne Jutzeler Pexels | Valeria Boltneva Pexels | Christian Heitz Pexels | Chevanon Photography Pexels | Ivy Son Pexels