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Shoot better Photographs Now - 25 Quick and Dirty Tips

1. Don’t fret about the camera gear. You’ve already got a camera and maybe a few lenses so get out there and make photographs happen. Often on professional shoots we get thrown into situations where we just have to make the gear and conditions that we have work for us. Think creatively and make it work. (Check out the camera gear we use)

2. Always have a camera with you. And no, it doesn’t always have to be that massive, full frame, DSLR with a whole range of lenses. I often carry a tiny Lumix GM5 around with me - it’s capable of some wonderful images and full HD video and best of all you don’t look like a “pro” photographer while using it. Don’t forget your smartphone - many of them shoot wonderful RAW images and 4k video, and you can edit stills and video on the fly…

3. RTM - read the manual. There’s a huge amount of info in the camera manual (you may have to download it) and keep a copy on your smartphone for reference in the field.

4. Use your camera every day. Well, use it as often as you can so that you can build up your “muscle memory” and not have to think about what you are doing. It should become invisible to the creative process so that all you think about is the creative side of the image and not the technical side.

You don’t always have to go in tight on your subject. Sometimes a wide shot tells you more about the animal and its character.

5. Check your settings. Make sure that the camera settings are “correct” for the situation before you head out on a shoot. Even after years of taking photographs we have on occasion gone out on an early morning shoot, come across some action happening and we’ve still got the settings dialled in from the long exposure of the night sky from the evening before. Not good!

Remember the acronym: MIFFED (that’s what happens when you get the settings wrong)

M - Mode - generally AV or Program - whichever works for you

I - ISO - As low as possible but generally about 400 when shooting wildlife.

F - Focus Mode - single shot or continuous focus.

F- Focus Point - in the centre is a good place to start - adjust as necessary.

E - Exposure compensation - a good starting point is -⅔ - adjust as necessary.

D- Drive mode - usually on continuous high.

6. Change your perspective. Try something different - get down low. Look from above or shoot through the foliage.

7. Study Photographs. Keep an eye on what your favourite photographers are doing and learn from them. Don’t copy, but get inspiration from them. Instagram is a wonderful source of motivation and it’s free.

When shooting the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti I had photographed a number of river crossings and had got to the “what else can I do” stage. I decided to play with long exposures and shot a lot of pics - some worked, many didn’t.

8. Search for free photographic tutorials. The internet is full of free stuff - check out YouTube and all the wonderful podcasts on iTunes and Mac’s Podcast App.

9. Shoot Raw. Yes, it does mean some work has to be done in post but really, this is the way to get better looking images.

10. Attend a workshop. Spend some time with your favourite photographer and learn how he/she works and thinks. It will be money well spent.

11. Study composition from the old masters. For the most part the “rules” of composition will make for better photographs and, once you get the idea of good composition, it will happen instinctively. These so-called rules work most of the time but if they don’t, do something that does.

12. Keep an eye on the edges of the frame. This is where distracting elements creep in - branches, leaves, parts of objects etc.

13. Edit your images. All of the photographs we shoot go through some form of post production. Often, not much work needs to be done - setting the black and white points, some minor sharpening and noise reduction and that’s about it. Other pics need a little more help but it has to be done. There are many editing apps (we use Adobe Lightroom) and some are free and some cost. Learn how to use them - it will make a difference to your images. (Check out our Lightroom tutorials and be sure to like and subscribe).

Shoot into the light. Try to keep the sunlight off the front element of the lens, although sometimes that’s just not possible and you’ll get a bit of flare creeping in. This can add to the mood of the image.

14. Work the subject. Don’t shoot just one aspect of the subject, work it. And when you think it’s done and dusted, it’s not. Work it some more. Figure out how else it can be done…

15. Watch the background. It’s so easy to be so fixated on the subject that you fail to see distracting elements in the background. The trick is to look at the image in your viewfinder or LCD screen as if it were an actual photograph, rather than simply viewing your subject through the viewfinder. A subtle difference, but if you look at it like a photo you will see the distracting elements.

16. Keep the camera steady. Use a tripod or beanbag. For the most part the camera has to be steady to avoid blur through camera movement and this is especially true when using long lenses or shutter speeds.

17. Don’t keep the camera steady. Go mad, knock yourself out, give it horns… Throw that camera around and keep those shutter speeds long so you deliberately blur the image. You’re going to get a lot of rubbish,  but every now and then you’ll get an absolute cracker!

Watch and wait… We’d been with a small herd of giraffe for a while and I knew something was going to happen when this youngster walked with determination towards an acacia. Mother’s milk is one thing but…

18. Make pics happen. For the most part, wonderful images don’t just pop up from nowhere - you have to create them. Position, composition, angle of view, lens choice, aperture and many other factors come into play. You need to combine all these factors in creating your images.

19. Don't rush. It’s not always the case that there is a huge urgency to shoot a pic. Sure, when the action happens, you better get shooting but otherwise, think about what you’re doing. Plan, compose and create beautiful images.

20. Shadows are your friends. The shadows from side lighting give your subjects shape and form. Use them…

21. Know your lenses and what they do. Wide angle lenses create space in an image, telephoto lenses compress the scene and make things secretive. Use these characteristics to get your message across.

Shoot the light. When the light comes on, shoot whatever there is and make it gorgeous, rather than trying to find something specific to shoot.

22. Learn about your subject. Learn about animal behaviour so that, as far as possible, you can anticipate what’s going to happen next - try to put yourself into the animal’s head. Know that, in the evenings, when a lions starts to lick and groom, it will soon yawn…

23. Evaluate your images. Take a good, hard look at the images you have shot and tear them to bits. Figure out what works and what doesn't. Ask someone you trust for an honest evaluation. What you want to hear is the hard stuff. “These are great”, doesn’t help at all.

24. Improve yourself. A new camera won’t make you a better photographer, but learning, reading, thought and study will.

25. Have fun. If photography becomes a grind it will show up in your images. It has to be fun and you have to be passionate about it. If you start to get stale, take a break until you get your mojo back.

As always, if you have any questions or suggestions for future articles, write to me at roger@rogerandpatdelaharpe.com. Hook up with us on Instagram (@RogerdelaHarpe), YouTube (Roger and Pat de la Harpe Photography) and Facebook (Roger and Pat de la Harpe Photography).

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