When it comes to taking pictures the first thing I would say is take them. If you start thinking too much then the moment will be gone. The best picture is the one you have not yet taken. I would also say that you must know your camera. If you know your camera then you will understand its limitations and how to work around them.
To take a picture, a camera only needs to things, light and a light sensitive material. In the past this was film and chemicals painted on glass, now it is most commonly a digital chip in your camera. When you take a picture light comes through the lens hitting the light sensitive material where the image is recoded.
The photographic triangle
For me there is a triangle of what you need to control on your camera to take a good picture. Understanding this triangle means you will understand the relationship between each element
The shutter speed allows you to control the amount of time light is exposed to the sensor or the light sensitive material.
The aperture controls the amount of light that comes through the lens. A large aperture like F2 is nearly wide open whereas F16 will be only open a small amount.
The ISO determines the sensitivity of the sensor or the light sensitive material. ISO 100 is less sensitive as ISO 3200.
All three elements are interrelated and a change in one will mean a change in all settings or just one.
If you have a low ISO this means that you will need a longer exposure or a large aperture, to let enough light through the lens.
With a smaller aperture you will have to have a longer exposure compared to when using a large aperture.
The bucket analogy
A good analogy is a bucket. If we were to say that the size of the bucket was the ISO. ISO 100 would be a big bucket that would need a lot of water to fill it. To fill the water you need a tap. The spout being the aperture and the time it takes to fill the bucket the shutter speed.
If we were to use an aperture of F2 then the water would gush out of the spout filling the bucket quickly. If we were to use the aperture of F16 then the water would just drip from the spout taking a longer time to fill the bucket.
To fill the bucket quicker we can make the bucket smaller by raising the ISO to 400 or 800, also we could open the aperture on the spout wider.
Argh the noise
Although in changing the ISO can produce quicker exposure times there is an added factor you will need to consider. Noise. Digital noise is the digital version of grain in high speeds film. The higher the ISO the more noise will occur in your image. Although newer cameras are combating noise well it is still a hindrance to your image. Noise can be quietened in post processing of your image (Photoshop ect) but hard noise reduction can make an image seem blocky.
The modes of your camera
Most cameras have a selection of modes. In understanding these modes can open up more doors to using your camera. The first thing I will say is that to take good photographs you don’t need to use the manual mode. There are modes on the camera that in some situations will be a better option than fumbling with manual controls.
Auto mode is a good mode for those who just want to point and shoot and not worry about anything. Auto mode normally automates everything, meaning you just think about what you are trying to capture but at the same time it can hinder you. You may not want to use flash but the camera has decided that this is what you need and fires the flash.
Although auto modes are using very complex calculations and some pretty smart computing power it is nothing compared to your eye. The camera is not always the smartest person in the room.
Program mode differs from manufacture to manufacture and model to model but generally the program mode is a more friendly version of Auto.
The program mode will allow you to override some of the cameras auto settings, by manually adjusting them to suit your needs. You can choose to turn off the flash or set the shutter speed to a lower setting. All these can help to create quick images.
Shutter Speed Priority
The shutter speed Priority setting is a great setting for many situations.
Using this setting you choose the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture for a good exposure. This setting is best for when you need/want to control movement. I normally use this setting at weddings. I can check before had what is the best speed as long as it is not below 1/60 of a second (Hypothetically you cannot such an image under 1/60 without camera shake.). And shoot. This means that I do not have to worry about the exposure. I know I will normally be shooting with a tight depth of field so my mind is concentrating on the image composition and focus.
AP or aperture priority acts in a similar way to Shutter Speed Priority. You set the aperture and the camera calculates the exposure and the correct shutter speed. Such a mode is great when you are looking for a series of images with a certain depth of focus (depth of field). I use this a lot when I am taking urban images. I either want a shallow depth of field when the subject to what it to stand out in the image. I usually want a deep depth of field when taking a cityscape or an image where the focus is not one object but several. AP is also good for portraits when you have a busy background making this background blurry while the face of your subject is sharp.
Holding the camera.
If you are using a DSLR, holding a camera can be quite natural. With an obvious grip and shutter release on the right and the lens for your left hand (which on manual cameras you focus with). One of the best things to use is the viewfinder not the LCD screen. The LCD screen is useful when looking at your pictures and evaluating the shot on the spot but to hold your camera and compose your shot it is not ideal. Looking through the LCD screen you can accurately gage what is going to be in the shot, also in holding the camera close to you it will be held steadier than holding it away from you. LCD screens that can tilt are useful when you need to shoot above your head of course.
If you have a point a shoot , then you will need to use the LCD screen but still hold the camera close to you with both hands. I still out of habit still hold my left hand under the body of the camera and the lens.
These are obviously not a cardinal rules for photography. Some great shots can be taken by holding the camera inconspicuously. When I was in San Francisco walking through Height and Ashbury I did not want to advertise my camera so I took some pictures holding the camera and shooting from the hip.
Move, because you can.
When you are taking a picture the best thing to do is move. We walk around seeing the world at the eye level but what does the world look like from the point of view of a child or a giant. These are the perspectives that create interesting images as well as solving many problems.
I was at a wedding inside the church taking pictures of the wedding party. The image had a lot of people in it and at my position I could not fit them in the frame. If I went back I could fit them but I would have a large foreground with the front row being mainly heads. If I moved closer then I would not have the people in the image. My only option was to go up. Moving high meant I had the backwards distance to fit everybody in the frame.
When I am taking a picture I gather images and scout the subject. Mainly starting from a distance and then slowly moving forward focusing on details and moving around. Pixels are free so there is not cost in shooting to many images. Doing this means that I get to see a subject from different perspectives in different light. There may be only one image I take from it or there could be five, all of which can be used in different situations. This is the same for portraits, landscapes and still lives.
When photographing animals or children go down to their level. When I take full body portraits the best images are when I am on one knee. I bring the camera down to the centre of the subject with their feet at the bottom and head at the top of the frame. If I was to take the same picture from my eye level I may need to use a wider lens or tilt the camera down in both cases distorting the subject.
The best picture is the one I have not taken
In the end my only advice to those wanting to take pictures is to take them. Don’t worry about the rules of composition, if the image looks good to you then go for it. In time you will understand and learn what works and what does not. You may not become the next Adams, Baily, or Bresson over night but photography is a craft that needs time to grow and mature. Looking back at the images I first took, I do cringe a little. Then again I cringe and some of those I took yesterday.
Be critical of yourself but don’t berate yourself. If there is something wrong ask yourself why and then try again. My panorama work is now only ripening after nearly three years of making them. With each time I learn something new.
If you ask for criticism listen to it. My first teacher was a hard teacher. Now I appreciate his stern words, especially when he once asked me, “What the hell is this crap?”. It was a shock that woke me from my delusions of grandeur. In the end I went back to the drawing board and started again.
My final thoughts are best summed up by miss quoting Dory from “Finding Nemo”; “Just keep shooting, shooting shooting, all you have got to do is, shoot shoot shoot.”