25 Pro Tips

Try these tips from some of OP’s top professionals to get your best shots ever!

We polled a number of professionals for some of their best photo tips, and in the spirit of our 25th Anniversary issue, we’ve come up with a list of 25 that are sure to help you make better photographs. There have been some astounding innovations in photography over the past 25 years, and several of these tips apply to digital technology, but it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Some of our pros’ thoughts apply just as much to shooting with a DSLR today as they would have if you had been standing next to Ansel Adams on the roof of his car with a wooden 8x10 view camera and emulsions coated onto glass plates. Give these tips a try. We guarantee results.

1 Set Up For A Complex Shot Ahead Of Time
Make sure your camera’s complicated menu is set ahead of time to accommodate the anticipated conditions (thinking of the Milky Way shot here, where all settings were tilted to long exposures). Long exposure, low noise, mirror lock, manual focusing were all done in advance. —Jack Dykinga

2 Try Predictive Autofocus For Birds In Flight
I’m not the fastest kid on the block, so when it came to photographing birds in flight, I had a challenge getting sharp images of these avian critters winging toward me. But with the amazing technology of predictive autofocus, the camera does the job with a little help from me. By locking one of the focusing brackets in the viewfinder on the bird and depressing the shutter button ever so slightly, the camera locks onto the subject and tracks its movement across the viewfinder. I’ve even been able to focus-lock on birds that are mere dots in the viewfinder. —Jim Clark

3 People In The Landscape
Adding a small person to a landscape image can provide both a focal point for the eye and perspective to the overall composition. Often, without a person, it may be difficult to grasp the scale of a scene, such as a swirling sandstone slot canyon. By adding a person to the scene, the brain immediately recognizes the scale and tells you what you’re looking at. If I have an assistant with me, I’ll often capture a landscape image both ways, one with and one without a person. Also, a scene including a person may be easier to sell. —James Kay

4 "F8 And Be There!"
For years, this was the cry of the photojournalist. It meant that 90% of a great photo was being in the right place at the right time. True, it was simplistic, but in the Age of Photoshop, this maxim is too often forgotten. No matter how much you play with the bits and bytes, the best images always start out with a great vision, clearly and cleanly seen. Be in the right place at the right time, set your camera to “Program” and get the shot. In the film days, some pros would joke that the “P”, which ostensibly stood for Program, really stood for Pro Mode. Being where you need to be is more important than micromanaging your camera’s controls. —Dewitt Jones

5 Dial Down Exposure By A Half-Stop
To Give Colors A Boost The magical ingredient of great color! The simple addition of -.05 exposure compensation brings color to life. Next, that underexposure takes the shadows down so those blacks are really black. That’s important because our vision seeks certain colors like black, and when it finds them, the mind then goes out and says if that’s black, then that’s red or green or yellow, so those colors already pumped up now become more alive. Lastly, those blacker blacks give a fine line to many elements in the photograph and that tricks the mind into seeing things as sharper. So with one simple setting, you can bring life to your photographs that others will just scratch their head and ask, “How’d you do that?” It’s a powerful tool! —Moose Peterson


6 Details At Your Feet
When I’m out in the field looking for one of those large, sweeping landscape compositions, I always try to be on the lookout for small detail shots right at my feet. Many times, the small, intricate abstract patterns right under my nose will turn out to be the best shots I’ll return with from a landscape shoot. Paying attention to these small details is part of the process of slowing down and not becoming too fixated on trying to find what I think I’m after. I could end up missing the best shot of the day if I only take in the big view. —James Kay

7 Stack NDs For Detail In The Clouds
When I’m photographing hikers or other activities on an overcast stormy day, I’ll often stack two split neutral-density filters. Using my Singh-Ray 2-stop and 3-stop split ND filters, I can make a 5-stop filter. This stacked ND filter gives more detail in the clouds for what would otherwise be overexposed sky. The trick is to stagger the darkened areas of the filter to make a natural and more gradual transition from the sky to the non-sky areas of the photo. This prevents the dark area forming on the boundary where the bright sky meets the normally exposed areas of the photo. This photo is taken in Iceland where cloudy days are common. —Bill Hatcher

8 Less Is More
Compose simply. Remove all nonessential elements. Zoom in, move in or otherwise find a position for your camera that gets around the fluff. The process of simplifying your composition will require you to decide what’s most important in a given composition. The process also requires that you look carefully in your viewfinder for extraneous information behind, in front of and around your subject. The edges of your frame are easy to neglect, but when you’re in the habit of looking along the edges, your compositions will be much cleaner. In this photograph, I’ve isolated a small part of the cliffs of Glacier Point in Yosemite. —William Neill

9 Use Exposure Compensation To Be Efficient In The Field
I primarily use Aperture priority as my exposure mode: I adjust the aperture setting while the camera automatically sets the shutter speed. If I need to make slight adjustments to the exposure, I simply press the exposure compensation button and dial an adjustment. The degree of compensation can be adjusted in increments of 1/3 (½ stops on other camera models). This makes for faster adjustments in the field. —Jim Clark

10 Moon Phases
Incorporating the moon into a photograph just after sunset can add another element of interest to a composition. When I schedule my landscape photography trips, I always check the phases of the moon on the calendar first and then try to be in a location that will best take advantage of the full moon. Actually, the night before the full moon may be the best night to capture it because it will be higher above the horizon than the actual night of the full moon, and may be in a better position for your shot as the daylight fades. —James Kay

11 Experiment With Long Low-Light Exposures And Your DSLR
In the soft predawn glow, your eyes don’t see colors very well, so a scene usually will just look dim. Using a long exposure on your DSLR, however, lets the image sensor pick up colors that aren’t discernible to your eye. The muted glow on Mount Moran in Wyoming resulted from a six-second exposure. You can’t get this mood at any other time of the day. —Mark Lissick

12 Increase Your Portable Flash Output
When using flash photography in bright daylight, your portable flash is often underpowered. You can increase the power of your flash by using the zoom head function found on many portable flashes. You can direct the narrow beam of light creatively for portraits or other spot lighting effects. This photo at Castle Hill, New Zealand, was taken with a Nikon D3, an off-camera flash, an SB-900 with a ½ CTO warming filter and triggered with an SU-800 remote from the camera. —Bill Hatcher

13 Use Flash When Shooting At Sunset
You can get the most out of a dramatic and colorful sunset by having another element in the foreground. Then, to keep that foreground element from becoming just a silhouette, turn on your flash! Today’s cameras do a great job of combining flash with the overall sunset exposure. They fill in and brighten shadows, and give a wonderful look of a bright subject against the sunset. If you have an interesting subject to light, this look can offer more of the setting in the photo than a silhouette would give. Many cameras do this well by using Aperture priority and your flash on automatic. However, you’ll have to check your instruction manual to see how your camera works. In manual mode, set the sunset exposure so the colors and tones look good, then leave your flash on automatic. —Rob Sheppard

14 Take Your Time
This is the essential ingredient in every photograph, and we’re not talking shutter speed. Photography is the art of stopping time, recording time, expressing time, so photographers must give themselves time to master this art. Folks give up on themselves and their art way too early, and if they just took a deep breath and keep on shooting a little longer (which, in reality, could be years), they would find that this magical ingredient, time, works on their side. —Moose Peterson

15 Lose The “I’ll Fix It In Photoshop” Attitude
Never photograph under the assumption that Photoshop will save you from sloppy work. Always think of Photoshop as a way to optimize the best image you can come back with. The better the content, composition and quality in the capture, the better the final result. Good photography hasn’t changed; we just process it differently in the age of digital. —George Lepp

16 Simple Flash Reflector
You can’t always bring every lighting accessory into the field. Because of this, I try to think of multiple uses for everything in my camera bag. The model release cards I carry often work as a portable bounce reflector when I’m using a flash (you could use almost any other light-colored item). If one 3x5 card isn’t big enough, I’ll tape several together with gaffers tape that I also always carry (four cards will suffice for portrait photography). One 3x5 card delivered the perfect fill for this photo of a blue mushroom on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The flash, triggered by a Nikon SU-800, is located just out of view in the upper left of the frame, with my 3x5 model release card acting as a flash reflector to the right of the frame. —Bill Hatcher

17 Pay Attention To Your Surroundings
Have you ever tried to get a macro photo of a flower while the wind is blowing, or stopped photographing because it begins to rain or snow? These elements can provide unique and powerful images if you use them to your advantage. Don’t fight the wind or retreat from the rain. —Jay Goodrich

18 Use Mid-Range Telezooms To Isolate A Subject In A Landscape
When photographing landscapes in my home state of West Virginia, I often discover that using a wide-angle lens to capture the image just doesn’t do it. There’s too much information. But by using a mid-range telephoto zoom, I can isolate a portion of the scene, resulting in a composition that’s much more powerful. You also can better define and simplify the composition, and also highlight texture and patterns. —Jim Clark

19 Your Feet Make The Best Zoom
When setting up your camera, don’t get locked into one position. It’s easy to get lazy when using zoom lenses. Instead, try moving your camera left or right, forward and back, up or down to create good spacing between important objects in your composition. To truly explore any location thoroughly, I often make dozens of images as I try various camera positions. In this winter forest scene, I worked hard to find a position that created interesting spacing between trunks and shadows. —William Neill

20 Carry Neutral-Density Filters
With digital capture, I don’t use many filters, but one that’s always with me is the Vari-ND from Singh-Ray. The Vari-ND allows 2 to 8 stops of variable neutral density. This comes in handy to blur water by controlling both the shutter speed and ƒ-stop. I want to be able to choose a shutter speed for effect, the ƒ-stop needed for depth of field and the ISO for maximum quality. The Vari-ND allows this. If you have a simple ND filter, you can still get the blurred water effect by lengthening your exposure, but your additional options are limited to ISO adjustments, which can affect quality. —George Lepp

21 Quality And The Tripod
We now have image stabilization and vibration reduction to allow handholding of the camera at fairly slow shutter speeds. No matter how good you think you are at handholding, your quality and percentage of keepers will improve when you use a good tripod and head. I learned this from John Shaw years ago, and it still holds true in today’s digital capture. Not only will the tripod steady the camera, but it makes the photographer more deliberate in the framing of the scene. We need to slow down in this rapid-fire, pixels-are-cheap digital era. —George Lepp

Editor’s Note: You might be interested to know that although it only appears in this collection of advice once, almost every one of the pros we asked to contribute to this article suggested using a tripod. No kidding. Almost all of them. So you might want to think twice the next time you decide to leave yours in the car.

22 Use A Polarizer And Graduated ND Filter For Landscapes
Although HDR is becoming a mainstay for nature photography, I still prefer to use my polarizer and graduated neutral-density filters at sunrise and sunset whenever I can. This allows me to spend less time indoors at the computer and more time out in the field enjoying the environment. —Jay Goodrich

23 Lines Leading In
To give your images more depth and structure, try to incorporate natural contours and lines into the foreground of your compositions so they draw your eye into the image and lead it toward the main subject. Without these lines leading into the body of your image, it may appear flat and uninteresting because the eye won’t know where to focus its attention. —James Kay

24 Keep The Camera Level
I love the new virtual horizon display that appears on the LCD of my Nikon D300S and D700 cameras. The display looks just like an aircraft-style horizontal indicator. I find that using a level helps me keep a level horizon in my composition. If your camera doesn’t have this technology, a good old reliable double bubble level attached to the camera’s hot-shoe works fine as well. —Jim Clark

25 Use Low Angles For Close-Ups
When you get a camera down low and point it up at a close-up subject, you often get dramatic views of the world and your subject in it. You can use the sky not just as sky, but as background. You can include clouds, trees and even the sun in the composition. This image was shot with the camera literally on the ground, pointing up. I used what’s known as a full-frame fisheye (it fills the full frame or image with the scene) a few inches from these six-inch-high paintbrush plants. I used an Olympus E-3 because it allowed me to put the camera on the ground and still easily see what the lens saw by using the camera’s live-view, tilting LCD. All major camera manufacturers now make cameras with this feature. —Rob Sheppard

8 Comments

    Lose The ???I?۪ll Fix It In Photoshop?۝ Attitude this a great statement, one i try to teach because I come from the film days and we had to shoot to final photograph with little flexabilty. I always shoot to the final product and only tweak to final product

    Wow pro’s saying it’s ok to be off Manual mode?? I’ve been in situations where Manual mode has caused me to miss shots. There suggestions make sense and still allow you to use your knowledge & control over the camera.

    This is the most stunningly helpful photography tips piece I have ever ever read! Thumbs up for your effort, it is an amazing dose of condensed wisdom!

    Here’s a tip for O.P.
    Don’t spam your subscribers and customers with a DVD full of unsolicited software and media content, then demand payment for the unwelcome shit. I’m talking about O.P.’s ‘Ultimate Guide’ DVD that was sent to thousands this April.

    Another tip, this one for subscribers:
    NEVER enter your photos in OP’s contests unless you are happy with the Image Grab terms of use. (You DID read the terms of use, didn’t you?)

    In short, your best ‘tip’ is to tell OP to fuck off and die!

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