Ready to move beyond the basics? These tips can help you take your photographs to the next level. Think about how each technique has played a role in previous photos you’ve taken (whether you were aware of it then or not), and remember to use them next time you’re out in the field.
Use a Narrow Tonal Range
The photographic film can’t handle a wide tonal range. When you photograph very bright things and very dark things together (e.g., sunlight in water and shadows in trees) the film will lose all the detail, and you’ll end up with stark, overexposed whites and underexposed blacks. To avoid this, look for mid-tones with little difference between the brightest and darkest highlights, or wait for conditions, such as weather and time of day, that reduce the tonal range. Flowers and trees, for example, are often best photographed on overcast, drizzly days.
Your eye can handle a difference in brightness (a “dynamic range”) of about 2,000:1 (11 camera stops). Print film is limited to no more than 64:1 (5 stops), and slide film is even worse, at 8:1 (3 stops). Ansel Adams’ “Zone System” divided light levels into 11 zones and advised using a narrow zone (or tonal) range.
Work the Subject, Baby!
As film directors say, the film is cheap (although it’s not always their money!). Work the subject and take different shots from different angles. The more photographs you take, the more likely you are to get a good one. Don’t be afraid to take five shots and throw four away. Find different, unusual viewpoints. Shoot from high and from low. It’s often said that the only difference between a professional photographer and an amateur photographer is that the professional throws more shots away. National Geographic magazine uses only one out of every 1,000 shots taken.
Use Hyperfocal Focus
A popular pro technique is to capture great depth by combining a close foreground and deep background. Use a wide-angle lens (20-28mm), get a few inches from the foreground (often flowers), and put the horizon high in the frame. Using a small aperture (f22) keeps everything in focus (hyperfocal). Use a hyperfocal chart to correspond distance with aperture, or just use the smallest aperture (highest f-number) possible.
Expose for Highlights
When a scene has a mixture of very bright and very dark areas, the light meter in your camera will have difficulty finding the right exposure. In such high-contrast shots, try to expose for the highlights. To do this, walk up to, zoom in, or spot meter on the most important bright area (a face, sky, detail) and half-depress the shutter release button to hold the exposure (exposure lock). Then recompose and take the shot. To be on the safe side, take several bracketed (see below) shots.
Underexpose/Overexpose for Deeper Colors (SLRs only)
On slide film, a slightly underexposed image (on print film a slightly overexposed image) can give deeper, more saturated colors. The deeper color also makes the subject appear heavier. On a manual SLR camera, select the next shutter speed up (e.g., 1/250 when 1/125 is recommended by the meter). On automatic cameras, set the exposure compensation dial to -1/2 or -1. Similarly, you can underexpose for paler, lighter images. The degree of the effect depends upon your camera and film, so try some test runs to find the best combination.
Bracketing (SLRs only)
You should always expose for the most important highlight, but when in doubt about the correct exposure, take several bracketed shots. You bracket around a shot by taking one regular shot, then a second shot slightly darker (-1 stop), and a third shot slightly lighter (+1 stop). Some cameras offer this as an automatic feature.