Tips for taking award-winning photos
Photography is the recording of light reflecting off a selected subject. The same outdoor scene may appear differently under different lighting conditions. Many pros and amateurs prefer early morning or evening light for the rich colors and textures the sun's low-angled rays create, and avoid the flat light of midday. Overcast days offer a softer light that may be good for taking close-up, or macro shots. Storms can develop into dramatic skies with unusual lighting. Recent rains or fresh snow provide opportunities to capture sparkling water drops or ice crystals.
With time and practice you will develop a sense of what light is best for different subjects. Although natural light works well, adding a flash for fill light is often desirable to soften harsh shadows. Use a flash with adjustable output and reduce the light by one-half of a stop or more to provide just enough light to open dark areas of your image without overpowering the natural light. Experiment to see what degree of fill light works best for your purposes. A reflector such as LiteDisc by Photoflex may be used to bounce soft light into the scene as well.
A flash may also be used to freeze action, such as the motion of a bird's wings or the movement of insects. Specialized ring flashes may be needed in close-up photography.
The single most essential tool that you can add to your camera gear to improve your images is a tripod. Tripods allow the use of slower shutter speeds and smaller apertures, affording a greater depth of field for your images and thus increased sharpness throughout. Tripods also eliminate camera shake, which is especially noticeable with long lenses that not only magnify the subject, but also magnify the slightest camera movement.
Select a tripod that is versatile and can achieve a height suitable to your needs while being adaptable for use with subjects that are low to the ground. Choose a tripod head that will allow you to quickly frame and compose your subject either as a horizontal or a vertical image. As a rule of thumb, use a tripod for every shot unless you have a good reason to shoot without one.
Wonderful images may be taken with basic equipment. You need nothing more than a camera and lens mounted to a sturdy tripod and control over your shutter speed and aperture to get started taking contest-winning photographs. Carefully meter the scene and make exposures that will retain detail in the brightest highlights. You may have to allow details in the darkest areas of the scene to be lost, but using fill flash, or bounced lighting, can help define detail.
Use small apertures and slow shutter speeds to gain depth of field, making the image appear sharp. Note that while you will increase the sharpness of stationary objects, elements such as wind-blown grass or leaves or flowing water may appear blurred if you are using long exposures. This effect can be attractive in some compositions, but it can also ruin shots that are meant to be razor sharp.
Wide-angle lenses are good for taking broad scenes such as landscapes. They also afford opportunities to create dramatic perspectives by positioning a subject near the camera in the lower portion of a vertical frame and placing the horizon near the top. Doing this creates a feeling of great depth within a photograph. Leading lines, such as a garden path or branches of a tree, can help invite the viewer into the composition.
While not commonly thought of as a landscape lens, a telephoto lens can be used to create compositions that may not be apparent at a glance. Magnifying the subject compresses the image, resulting in endless design opportunities. Telephoto lenses also allow you to isolate a subject against the background by shooting at larger apertures while maintaining sharp focus on the subject and producing soft-focus backgrounds.
There is an amazing world that can best be seen only when magnified. Moss may become a forest of exotic trees, and insects take on monstrous proportions and reveal magnificent beauty in design and color. To get started taking macro images you will need a point-and-shoot camera with a macro setting, or better still, an SLR (single lens reflex camera, either digital or film, with interchangeable lenses) and a macro lens that will allow you to focus at a one-to-one ratio. Macro lenses typically come in focal lengths varying from 50mm to 200mm, with the longer lenses offering more working distance between you and your subject. Accessories such as extension tubes and diopters may be added to most lenses to magnify the subject and allow close-up photography, etc.
Wild creatures are often skittish and may flee in the presence of people, requiring research and much patience in your photographic approach. You will likely need to use a long lens and a tripod. You could position yourself in a blind or behind vegetation. The use of camouflage netting can allow you to get close to your subject while outside. Do not make any sudden movements or sounds, as birds and other wildlife are easily frightened away. Become acquainted with the behavior of birds and animals you wish to photograph. Observe and make notes: What time of day or night do animals visit certain areas; What food sources do they prefer.
When viewing images of animals, people are naturally drawn to the eyes, so it is crucial that your subjects eyes be in focus. If the eyes are out of focus, the image may be less appealing overall. Mammals present their own challenges to the photographer. Rabbits, squirrels, and larger mammals may appear cute and innocent, but remember that wild animals may bite or, in the case of larger mammals like deer, bears, and moose there may be very dangerous interaction if they feel threatened. Maintain your distance and use long lenses to record their natural behavior.
Many potentially great shots are ruined by poor composition. Avoid always centering your subject in the frame. Just because the manufacturer puts the camera's meter and focusing sensors in the center of the viewfinder doesn?t mean your subject has to be there. If you need to place your subject in the middle of the frame for measuring the light and distance, go ahead; meter and focus, then compose the image with the subject off-center. It is best to have animals looking or moving into the shot. Also, be careful not to have critical elements of the subject touching the edge of the frame, so as not to destroy the integrity of the composition.
If you are shooting a landscape and want everything in the image to be tack sharp, choose a small aperture to gain the greatest depth of field (f/16, f/22, etc.) But if you are shooting birds or wildlife, you may want just the subject to be in focus. Here you will need to use a larger aperture (f/5.6 or lower) for a shallow depth of field. Be sure to check your depth of field preview button to be certain all parts of your subject are in focus and unwanted elements dissolve into a soft blur. Take a look around the viewfinder and consider your background: does anything distract from the subject.
Finally, try shifting the camera left or right, up or down, to frame a balanced composition. When you are sure you have the best shot possible, go ahead and capture that award-winning image!
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