If you shoot just for fun and really are not serious about your photography you can do pretty much whatever you like. If your pictures do not “come out” you really haven’t lost anything. BTW, when someone says “I can’t wait to see how they come out” I really wonder about why the spent a small fortune on a camera they can’t drive.
For you serious photographers here are a few tips I consider to be among the most important things you can do to improve your photography:
1. Shoot Raw. I see this on the top of every list of best practices recommended by top photographers. Even if you absolutely nail an exposure, the range of information available to you in a raw file far exceed jpgs and the processing in modern software is just not a big deal. When digital started everyone wanted a simple dialog for processing files. Raw is about as close as you can get to that and why it frightens people is beyond me.
2. Get a meter. In-camera (TTL) metering is too easily fooled, despite fancy matrix metering systems. Most of the time it simply hands you a bad result unless you are smart enough to work around what the camera wants to do. Mostly it wants to underexpose your images, and the more complex the lighting the greater the chances are that the in-camera meter will fail you. Exposure is really a simple process once you understand that the incident light on the primary subject is the best you can do, or at least the best starting place for a creative modification.
3. Shoot in Manual Mode. Yes, there are times when aperture priority is a solution to a problem. However, the vast majority of pros shoot manual exposure. This is because lighting is usually fairly consistent within a given space and not letting the camera make decisions for you will increases your percentage of good shots. In any situation a quick test shot will show you if corrections need to be made. After that, you will only need to rethink your exposure if your situation or lighting changes. If the light on the subject is the same, the exposure is the same. The background doesn’t count.
4. Learn to Use the Histogram. While the histogram is a representation of the jpg converted file, it is still a fairly close representation of the captured values in the file. A histogram that “climbs the walls” on either end of the exposure spectrum should have a logical explanation for doing so. Otherwise, it is usually a good indication of a bad exposure.
5. Shoot Hot. Known as “exposing to the right” in digital speak, favoring a slightly brighter exposure when in doubt will get you a better file. There are more values per stop of exposure in the linear capture at the bright end of the exposure range than at the bottom. Underexposed images “fixed” in post processing will be noisy. Driving slightly high values down is not a big deal and will result in greater shadow detail without noise. Obviously, that will not work with jpgs. See hint #1.
6. Use a Tripod. There are times when hand holding the camera is just how it has to be done. Whenever there is an option, a tripod under your camera will result in sharper images, period. This is especially true if you like long lenses as the longer the focal length the more likely the image will suffer from camera movement. Trust me, 1/250 second sounds fast, but it isn’t fast enough.
7. Choose Your Aperture First. Depth of field (DOF), making sure that all of your subject is in focus is your first concern. Or, it may be that limiting the DOF is what you intend to do. In either case, the aperture setting is the most important factor. The shutter speed is then adjusted for a correct exposure or otherwise controlling the ambient light that is captured in the file.
8. Learn File Formats. Jpgs are good files for emails and the web. They are not good files for storage or re-editing. Tifs are the best storage files as they retain full image quality. PSD files are also good if you like to store your layered file processing for possible review and changes.