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How to Go From a Beginner to an Advanced User With Your Camera

skier banking on snowy slope
Harry Guinness

If you’ve practiced the basics of taking photographs, you’re probably wondering how to take things to the next level and start to master your camera. Let’s look at how to go from a beginner to an expert photographer.

Know What’s Going to Happen When You Press the Shutter Button

When you understand your camera, you should never be surprised by what happens when you push the shutter button. A lot of amateurs just click and pray—they don’t know exactly how the photo they’re about to take will look, but they hope it will be good. Experts, on the other hand, do a lot of previsualizing: they picture in their head exactly how the final image will look before they even take it.

The ability to previsualize properly comes from two things:

  • Experience.
  • Deliberately doing it.

Experience is the easiest thing to get; just go out and shoot. Over time, you’ll automatically develop a deeper understanding of what results you can expect in different situations.

Deliberately previsualizing your shots is one of the keys to developing a better eye for photography. To do it, you have to slow down and spend more time taking fewer photos. Instead of just shooting and shooting and shooting, and relying on volume to get good pictures, step back and try and just take a few good pictures. I’ve gone from shooting hundreds of photos a session to less than 30.

Learn to Make the Most of Autofocus

A big part of becoming an expert photographer is learning how your camera’s automatic systems work, and understanding how you can control and direct them. One of the most essential automatic systems you’ll rely on is autofocus. There are a time and place for manually focusing your shots, but in most situations, you’ll use autofocus.

autofocus
Canon

With your camera, you’ll be able to control:

You’ll want to use different settings for different situations. For example, a common technique when shooting portraits is to use a single autofocus point you place over the subject’s eye so that they’re always super sharp. For sports photography, it’s common to use big groups of autofocus points, so it doesn’t matter where in the frame the subject is.

Over on How-To Geek, I’ve dug deep into this with:

Check out those three articles, and you’ll be well on your way to using autofocus like a pro.

Understand How Your Camera’s Light Meter Works

In our getting started with photography article, I didn’t recommend always shooting in manual mode. Instead, I explained that I’m a huge fan of aperture priority mode: the camera mode where you select the aperture and ISO while letting the camera select the appropriate shutter speed. It’s the most flexible camera mode and hits a great balance between control and ease of use.

When you use aperture priority mode—or any other semi-automatic or automatic mode—your camera’s built-in light meter analyzes the scene and decides what settings to use. It does this by making a simple assumption: that on the whole, most photos balance out to a sort of middle gray.

solid gray background

This is a surprisingly good assumption in most situations. It’s why your camera normally gets in the right ballpark with the photos it takes.

However, now that you understand the assumption your camera is making, you can start to control things more. In darker situations, the light levels in the scene will average out to a darker gray. Likewise, in bright scenes, they’ll average out to a color closer to white.

You can control how your camera meters the scene using exposure compensation. If you think things are darker than average, increase the exposure compensation by a stop, and your camera will take a more accurate photo. On the other hand, if things are really bright, decrease the exposure compensation by a stop, and you’ll get a better image. For more on using exposure compensation, check out our full guide at How-To Geek.

With your camera, you don’t just have the option to control the exposure compensation; you can also decide what area of the frame your camera is metering from. There are three main modes:

  • Center-weighted average, which takes an average of the whole frame but places extra emphasis on what’s in the center.
  • Spot and partial, which only measure a small circle in the center of the scene. They’re best for when your background is really dark or white, and you want to get the exposure right on the subject in the middle.
  • Evaluative, pattern, and matrix are like center-weighted average, but they also take into account things like where you’ve placed the focus point. They’re the best modes for most situations.

For the full rundown on the different metering modes, check out this article on How-To Geek.

Get More Deliberate About Composition

Composition is one of the most important skills in photography. It’s how you decide what actually goes in your images. An understanding of composition is what turns snapshots into works of art.

composed photo
Harry Guinness

A big part of getting better at composition is just a matter of shooting lots—and then analyzing your photos to see what works and doesn’t. Over time, you’ll start to internalize things.

There are also some compositional techniques, like the rule of thirds, leading lines, and balance that have their foundations in art theory. Check out those linked articles, and you’ll be on your way.

Go Deeper Into the Kinds of Photography That Interest You

When you first start with photography, you almost certainly took photos of pretty much everything you encountered. I played around with portraits, nature photography, street photography, landscapes, time-lapses, and pretty much every other kind I came across. It was fun experimenting, but as I got better, I started to spend more time on the type that interested me: landscapes.

Now that you’ve played around with your camera lots, it’s a good time to start exploring one or two areas a lot deeper. Read a bit of the theory, look at the works of photographers you love, and find out what the tricks and techniques of that particular field are. Over at How-To Geek, we’ve got guides to some of the main ones:

By specializing, your work will start to get a lot better. There are very few professional photographers who shoot every different kind of image to the same standard.


One of my favorite things about photography is how I’m able to learn and develop my skills continually. Now you know how to take yours to the next level.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »

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