Habits are the foundation of our successes and our failures. That is why, as a photographer, it is important to develop good habits. When it comes to photography, there is such a thing as “a happy accident” but you cannot grow as a photographer if all your strongest images come as a result of things that are out of your control.
By looking at my mistakes, I’ve discovered five things I need to pay attention to that would have made the difference between a good photograph and an image that is not usable. The idea was to create a checklist of things I need to pay attention each time I am making pictures.
Shooting in Raw
I can count on one hand the number of times I have photographed only in JPG before I developed the habit of making sure my camera was set to shoot at a minimum in Raw or Raw and JPG. If you always shoot in Raw the chances of your camera being set to shoot in JPG are slim but it is better to be safe than sorry so I always check my settings. Raw files are the digital equivalent of a film negative. The files hold all the information you need to work with your images in post-production in order for you to get the final image you see in your head. JPG files do not keep all the information and while you can work with them to make changes, you simply will not have the creative flexibility you have working with Raw files.
One third of the exposure triangle, ISO can often be overlooked. It is easy to set it to Auto and to let the camera do the work for you. However the camera does not concern itself with the quality of your image and there may be instances where you need to control the ISO to control the noise in your pictures. If you are photographing at night and using a tripod, to improve image quality, you can adjust your ISO down instead of relying on Auto ISO. Whenever I head out, I check my ISO setting and usually reset it to the default ISO 200 or if photographing at night, the maximum ISO I would consider using e.g. 2400 or 3200 depending on the camera I’m using. On more sophisticated cameras, you can program your default settings and include ISO so that with the press of one button, you know what you have used for your ISO.
I often use spot metering. On my Nikon D700 I have a function button I can use as I am shooting to switch quickly between matrix metering and spot metering. Not all cameras have function buttons that can be programmed in this way and if you have set your metering to spot metering and forget to change it back, you might wonder why your photographs are not properly exposed. You might miss that decisive moment before you realize you are on the wrong metering mode so always check your metering mode before heading out or use the programmable default settings to bring you back to your normal settings.
Unless I am looking for a shutter speed for creative purposes such as panning where I set the shutter speed depending on what moving object I wish to photograph or painting with my camera where I want a longer exposure, I photograph in Aperture Priority mode. (For more tricky exposure situations I do shoot manual and set my own aperture and shutter speed.) When I use Aperture Priority, the camera will decide on the shutter speed. However it cannot decide if the shutter speed is fast enough to keep the image sharp. The general rule is if you are shooting at a focal length of say 50mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/50 seconds to ensure your image will be sharp. If your focal length is 300mm, your minimum shutter speed is 1/300 sec. I have lost too many potentially good photographs because the shutter speed has been just a few fractions of a second too slow. All it takes is a quick check of the focal length you are using and keeping an eye on your shutter speed.
Corners and Edges
I’m not a purist by any stretch of the imagination but I like to “get it right in-camera” as much as I can. I do crop in post-production but I am very happy when I look at an image and see that I have everything within the frame that should be there. Not all camera viewfinders cover 100% of what is recorded when you press the shutter. If you check your camera specifications, you can find your camera’s coverage. For example, my Nikon D700 has 95% coverage and that means I will sometimes include things in the corners and along the edges of my image that I had not intended to include. The Nikon D4S on the other hand has 100% coverage and what you see is what will be recorded on your sensor. Even if your camera viewfinder has 100% coverage it is a good idea to pay attention to the corners and edges as your frame your images.
Making good photographs and developing good habits go hand in hand. Incorporate them into the way you make pictures so you don’t give them a second thought and you will be one step closer to consistently making better photographs.
Do you have any good habits you can add to the list? We’d love to hear them!