10 Steps to improving your photography with the Swanage Photographic Society


Whether you have used a camera for many years or you've just bought a shiny new digital camera, producing interesting and creative photographs can be difficult and is often quite daunting.  Simply putting your camera onto ‘Auto’ mode will not always produce colourful & creative images, but fortunately there are some simple steps to help you to steadily learn how to turn your photographs into those you see in glossy magazines.

Gaining confidence in using your camera is vital to great photography because it will motivate and help you to get the best results at each stage of your development.  To help you improve and to get the best from your camera, the Swanage Photographic Society have identified 10 steps you can use to gain confidence with your camera and excel in your photography.

Step 1. Master Your Camera Settings

If you want great results from your camera it is best to know how it works inside out. Learn how the functions on your camera such as Manual mode, Aperture priority or Shutter priority can help you to make creative images.  Before using your camera think about the subject, the lighting conditions and how you want the final image to appear.  A combination of ISO, shutter speed and aperture, often called the ‘exposure triangle’, will make a correct exposure.

What ISO do I set?

The ISO is the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor (or film) to the light that has passed through the lens. Digital sensors can typically operate from 50 to 6400 ISO or even higher. ISO 100 might be used for a strong, brightly lit scene and 6400 ISO for dark or dimly lit scenes.  Choosing the correct ISO comes with practice and knowledge of your camera. It’s worth knowing that digital camera sensors have a base ISO and that increasing the ISO does not increase the sensor’s sensitivity to light, it merely amplifies the signal from the sensor.  An unfortunate part of a digital sensor is the ‘noise’ often seen on images as speckles or dots.  At ISO 100 the noise is low and rarely visible but when you increase the ISO the signal is amplified and so too is the noise.

Always keep your ISO set as low as possible and manipulate the aperture and shutter speed for a correct exposure.  If, for example, you want to keep your aperture setting but need a faster shutter speed you can adjust the ISO but generally the ISO remains at a set value because each time you increase the ISO you’re actually doubling the signal.


Set your DSLR onto Manual mode with a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second and your camera’s widest aperture typically f3.5. Now take images and adjust the ISO each time to see how the ISO affects the image.


What Aperture (f-stop) should I set?

The f-stop is a term used to identify the aperture (the size of the opening formed by the diaphragm blades inside the lens) and we typically use a scale f-2.8, f-4, f-5.6, f-8, f-11, f-16, and f-22.  But there are lenses that offer increments between, above and below this range.  A ‘stop’ is the ratio of the aperture diameter to the focal length of the lens.  For each f-stop from f-2.8 up to f-22, the amount of light passing through the lens to the sensor is halved and, from f-22 down to f-2.8 the amount of light is doubled.  In simple terms it means no matter what lens you use, the amount of light passing through a particular f-stop will be the same.

Note: the higher the f-stop number (f-8, f-11, f-16, and f-22) the smaller the aperture and so less light passes through, but the smaller the f-stop number (f-5.6, f-4, f-2.8, and f-1.4) the larger the aperture so more light passes through.  It appears counterintuitive but that’s the way it works and it is worth remembering.

Setting your lens to its widest aperture, say f-3.5, the diaphragm will be fully open allowing the maximum amount of light to reach the sensor.  At f-22 the aperture is significantly smaller reducing the amount of light reaching the sensor.  The f-stop therefore allows you to control the amount of light reaching the sensor.

To summarise: The f-stop marked on the side of a lens relates to the physical size of the aperture and its ratio to the lens focal length.  A low f-stop (f-1.4) allows the maximum amount of light to pass through the lens whereas a high f-stop (f-22) reduces the amount of light passing through the lens.  We need to control the amount of light reaching the sensor because too much light will lead to an over exposure but too little light will lead to an underexposure.

Changing the aperture also allows us to manipulate the Depth of Field (DOF). When you focus on a subject, there is a zone in front and behind that will also be in focus.  This zone is called the Depth of Field and it varies according to the size of the aperture. The higher the f-stop (f-22), the greater the DOF which means more of a subject’s surroundings will be in focus. The smaller the f-stop (f-2.8), the shallower the DOF, and less of your subject‘s surroundings will be in focus.

For example when photographing a beach scene, f-22 will give a good DOF, and subsequently more of the beach, people, shops, hills and sea will be in focus.

Using f-2.8 or lower will give you a shallow DOF and less of your subject’s surroundings will be in focus.


Set your DSLR to f-3.5 and take an image of a scene with multiple objects focusing on one particular subject preferably central to the image.  Now set the aperture to f-22 and take an identical image.  View the images to compare how the brightness varies between f-3.5 & f-22 and, which objects in front & behind your subject go in and out of sharp focus.


What Shutter Speed should I use?

We have discussed the use of ISO and Aperture as a means to controlling light in the camera leading to a correct exposure.  The third part that makes up the exposure triangle is the shutter speed.

The shutter is an assembly inside the camera body or sometimes the lens.  The shutter type varies for different makes of camera and can be a solid component or a fabric.  Its job is to prevent light that has passed through the aperture getting to the sensor.  The button we press to take an image is generally called the ‘shutter button’.  When we press the shutter button it flips the shutter open or slides out of the way, permitting light through.  At a set aperture, the time that the shutter is open determines how much light can pass onto the sensor.  Shutter speeds typically range from 1/2000th of a second to ‘B’ or bulb which permit’s the shutter to remain open for as long as we wish.

Some modern cameras and camera phones have an electronic shutter instead of a physical one but its purpose is the same.

Fast shutter speed - A fast shutter speed such as 1/1000th of a second is extremely fast and only permits a flash of light to hit the sensor.  An example would be photographing birds in flight.

Slow shutter speed - A slow shutter speed such as 1/60th of a second is in photography terms relatively slow and will therefore allow a large amount of light to hit the sensor.  An example would be landscape photography.

Long shutter speed - This is often measured from 1/8th a second to full seconds and is most often used for long exposure photography such as at night or low light conditions.

The shutter speed will also help you be creative with your photography. Assume that we set an ISO & aperture and do not wish to alter them.  Then for example when someone is riding a bicycle you want to freeze the action so that the person’s image is sharp and clear.  A slow shutter speed such as 1/60th of a second might not freeze the action of the cyclist and this may produce a blurred image.  A fast shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second will freeze the movement thereby giving you a sharp image.

Another example would be capturing an image of street decorations at night.  A fast shutter speed will limit the amount of light hitting the sensor which will give you a dark image.  A solution would be to slow the shutter speed down and permit more of the available light to hit the sensor giving a correctly exposed image.

The shutter speed is an extremely useful tool because you can freeze action, create blur, provide long exposures for night or dimly lit locations or even make your subject stand out from a blurred background.


Position your camera so you can safely photograph vehicles, moving across your field of view.  Set your camera to shutter priority with a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second.  Reduce your shutter speed progressively from 1/1000th of a second down to ‘1’ second. You should observe that at 1/1000th of a second your subject is sharp and clear whereas at ‘1’ second the subject is completely blurred.


Step 2. Practice and Understand

You should now have a better understanding of how ISO, shutter speed and aperture work together to give you a properly exposed image and by seeing the effects you achieve by altering either one of them.

Reading books on photography will further enhance your knowledge BUT, the most important book to read and understand is your camera manual!  You must be able to manipulate your camera settings therefore a sound knowledge of your camera is essential.  Each manufacturer designs their camera to assist you in taking perfect images.  Often however we press a button, turn a dial or choose a setting from the menu which changes our images into something we hadn’t expected.  This is often very confusing!

In addition to DVDs and books there are also plenty of great options for taking courses.  You can find local community college or art schools that offer photography courses.  There are a lot of different areas of photography that you can specialize in, and there are courses and books on a wide variety of those specialities.

Members of the Swanage Photographic Society own and use a multitude of different cameras and during our regular evening events we can discuss problems or benefits we have found with our cameras.  Frequently someone will know where to find the information we need or how to adjust a setting etc.  If you want to learn how to master portraits and studio lighting we have members who can give you advice, if you want to master landscapes or Macro we have many members who can help you there too.  Whatever part of photography you want to learn about the Swanage Photographic Society will have someone who can help and advise you.


Step 3. Don’t Compare Your Work to Others

There are many photographers with different levels of knowledge and experience and they can make photography appear easy.  If you are just getting started don’t be discouraged because you believe that your photos are not as good as someone else’s.  Everyone has to learn and grow, so it’s not very useful to compare yourself to other photographers.  Learn how to 'read their photographs' and see how they have composed the image, where the light is coming from, how the light affects the subject and environment and then focus on using this to improve your own photographs.

If you are improving you are moving in the right direction and you should be encouraged by this.  But if you’re finding it difficult, why not come along and speak to members of the Swanage Photographic Society?  You can enter your images into a wide variety of themed and non-themed competitions and because we use only experienced Judges you can get positive and useful feedback on your work.  This is the easiest way to get real advice on how to improve your photography and best of all you will get encouragement from other members.


Step 4. Stepping Outside Of Your Comfort Zone

As you develop your photography skills there will be challenges that push you outside of your comfort zone. These may be difficult to deal with.  However, by stepping outside your comfort zone you can learn new techniques and ways to improve your photographs.  Some ways of pushing yourself would be to ask others to judge your work or perhaps by photographing people instead of landscapes or ask friends if they'll let you take their portrait.  When using your camera you could use Manual mode rather than one of the Auto settings or put your photographs onto a web site, Facebook or similar media sites to allow friends or the general public to voice their opinion.  But best of all you could become a member of the Swanage Photographic Society and get strong support and impartial advice on how to improve your photography.  We've all had our images assessed by judges in front of other members.  Sometimes we're told things that we didn't want to hear but that's the great thing about being a member because you get told about the areas which let your image down and then you get advice on how to improve your image.  It’s a win win situation.


Step 5. Fill Flash or Reflector

Often we’re told to photograph people with your back to the sun but this is not the best way to photograph people as they tend to squint or screw their faces up.  It’s far better to have your subject with their back to the sun and to use a little fill flash or something to reflect light back onto them. Photographing people who are in the shade but against a brightly lit background is another bad idea as the background can be overexposed.  In this case you can set your camera to expose for the background which will make your subject dark, and then pop some fill flash to lighten your subject.

Fill flash is a weak pop of light from your ‘on camera’ flash or off camera flash sufficient to light your subject.  Typically it’s not very effective if your subject is more than six to eight feet away,

A reflector can be something as simple as a white plastic bag, a white shirt or a white wall opposite your subject.  Basically anything which can reflect light back onto your subject without making them squint.  Remember to choose something white because if you use a coloured surface the colours will reflect onto your subject.


Step 6. Shoot Often - 7 Day Challenge

Digital cameras allow you to take as many images as you like and then delete what you don’t want to use so make use of this by taking images every day.

Day 1 - Get yourself into a shaded area and practice adjusting your camera’s aperture to create a correctly exposed image.

Day 2 - Stand in a safe place where you can photograph cars, bicycles, lorries etc. Adjust your camera’s shutter speed from 1/30th up to 1,000th of a second to see how the subject & background are affected.

Day 3 - Choose a landscape location and select your lowest f/stop. Now take images and increase your f/stop until you reach your camera’s highest f/stop.  This can be done in wet, windy or bright days.

Day 4 - Shoot indoors with and without flash. What happens to the shadows created by the flash? How can you improve this?

Day 5 - Photograph people from all angles. Take images from each side of your subject making sure they stand in the same place.  Notice how the light effects your image but more importantly how it lights the facial features.

Day 6 - Take photographs in both landscape and portrait positions.  See how a portrait image makes a landscape scene different to a landscape image.

Day 7 - Photograph close up - flowers, insects, toys, everyday items.  They all appear different in close up.  How does the light affect the image?


Step 7. Draw the Viewer into Your Image

Find ways to lead the viewer into the image.  If you watch TV you’ll often see a broad view of perhaps a town in the countryside and the next sequence will be outside of a house and the shot will then move closer into the doorway or into a room where the action begins.  And so it is with your photographs; learn to move yourself around the scene until there is a pathway, road, trees or fence line that leads you into the main image, then choose a suitable centre piece to complete the photograph.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the ‘Rule of Thirds’ where your image has an imaginary grid of nine squares placed over it.  You then design your image so that your main subject is positioned onto one of the sections where the grid lines cross.  By doing this you’re leaving space for the eye to move around the image and you’re making the image more interesting.


Step 8. People who will Inspire You

Inspiration can come from many sources whether it be fellow photographers, books, films or magazines.  They can all have something to contribute toward your inspiration and creativity.  Your work mustn’t go stale or become ordinary so you need to look for your inspiration to keep your creativity flowing.

Look through books & magazines, Facebook or well known web sites to find images that inspire you.  Follow a particular photographer’s work to see how they develop startling images. You’ll quickly see that some photographers follow a theme which they frequently use to create interest in their images. They become adept at creating their photography in a particular way with known methods, lenses, lighting and visual direction.  There are many photography groups on Facebook which are designed to give you inspiration.

Find that inspirational photographer who will take you out of the routine and plant you firmly into a world of creativity.


Step 9. Create a Style of Your Own

By reading books and watching DVDs you’re learning how to create and develop images in someone else’s style.  This is excellent if you want to follow someone else’s lead but why not create your own style.  See people and landscapes from a different viewpoint and try to manipulate the subject(s) into a style you feel comfortable with.  Developing your own style will help you to stand out from the crowd and turn relatively simple compositions into masterpieces.

For example; if you enjoy photographing flowers, concentrate on making images in a way that satisfies you and produce an image that tells the viewer about that particular flower.  How it stands, leans with the breeze, its colours, shape, leaves, height, patterns etc.  Develop your way of capturing images of flowers and present them in a mindful and truly representative way.  Once you’ve mastered the technique of photographing flowers in your own particular way and presented your images how you want others to see them then, you’ve found your style!


Step 10. Learn from Your Previous Work

It is very easy to look at an image you’ve taken and decide to delete it because you feel its not good enough.  STOP.  Before you delete it, READ your photograph and UNDERSTAND what you dont like about it.  Simply write down all the things which you feel didnt work and be sure you know WHY.  If the lighting is wrong explain why.  Were you on the wrong setting, the wrong ISO, shutter speed or aperture?  Understand why it went wrong before you click delete.  Shutter speed, aperture and ISO when blended together lead to a correctly exposed image so what should you have done to correct it?


If you have been a photographer for a long time its always advisable to go back through your previous work and see how your work looked and how youve improved. Are you happy with it?  If yes, understand why and if no, you now have the knowledge to understand why!


You’ve come a long way from step 1 and hopefully you now understand your camera, its settings and how you can manipulate them to make better images.  Visitors and new members are always welcomed at the Swanage Photographic Society.  We love to chat about our cameras and our photographs.  Each member will bring their own unique style of photography and we can all benefit from this.


Why not come and join us at the Rectory Classroom, Church Hill, Swanage.  The club meets on the 1st and 3rd Fridays in the month at 7:30pm September to May.