Beginner's Guide: Taking the First Steps of Photography

I’ve been asked a couple of times by some friends and some fellows on Instagram about how I take my street photos. I did a short compilation of tips a few weeks back and thought, I could explain it better with more details. 

From when I started taking photos early in 2017, I found myself experimenting with various techniques in both shooting and post-processing. I’ve learned a lot over the time I was taking photos—settings that I should keep, settings that I should avoid, and I thought it would be nice to share those tricks with everyone who wants to up their photo taking game.

The Camera 

The first rule of Photography is to try not to ask a Photographer what camera they’re using. Especially if that’s the first thing you’re asking. As a respect to the craft, you don’t really want to reduce the talents of Picasso or Van Gogh to the brands of the brushes and paints they’ve used. Tools are one thing, but technique and mastery—those are the parameters that you should ask about first. 

It’s okay to ask about gears—some models are better than others in some way, some process photos in different ways. Ask politely about framing, styles, techniques, etc. first before getting to know the camera that they used.

As an example, if you’d compare my photos from 2017 to my current ones, you’d see a great difference in how they look. I've been using the same gear (Fujifilm XT20) since 2017 but I’ve used totally different techniques and settings, hopefully properly. You can’t reduce the skills of a Photographer to the brand of camera he’s using alone.

2017

2017

2018

2018

2019

2019

The Golden Trio 

Behind every Photographer is the mastery of the Golden Trio of Photography. You only have to know by heart three things to fully master your gear. Sure, your camera is your tool, but these three are your best friends. Regardless of what camera brand you’re using, chances are, these three are there to help you take better photos: 

  • ISO Levels (for light sensitivity)

  • Shutter Speed (for blurriness)

  • Aperture (for depth) 

The basic gist is that, ISO controls your light exposure, Shutter Speed controls how fast the photo is taken, and Aperture controls depth. You can prioritize one over the two to maximize their strength or you can challenge yourself to find the perfect balance between the three for every shot. 

Keep ISO levels at the minimum

ISO defines your exposure and sensitivity to light. A dark surrounding needs a higher level of ISO to get a clearer image. For bright surroundings, you would want to limit the light entering your sensors with a lower ISO. 

200 ISO @ low light

200 ISO @ low light

1000 ISO @ low light

1000 ISO @ low light

Keeping the ISO at a relatively low level means you’re getting more of the sharpness than image noise and overexposed light sources when using higher levels. It is better to keep it at the minimum, i.e., 200 for day shoots, 1000 for well-lit night shoots. Sure, you can use up to the 3200 settings for low-light situations, but you’ll start to notice that light from dusts in the air, etc, will be picked up too.

Prioritize Shutter Speed

Once you’ve determined which ISO level to use, keep that level to be consistent with the sharpness and clarity. It would be better (and way easier) to just adjust the Shutter Speed knob when shooting than the ISO level. The speed of the shutter will determine how long it would let the camera to absorb light; longer time, more light, brighter photos.

1/250

1/250

1/20

1/20

With that said, it is better to be underexposed than overexposed. If you have to shoot at low light but high speed, prioritize the Shutter Speed as Shadows are easier to fix than overexposed Highlights in post-processing. 

Control depth through Aperture

Perhaps the most confusing out of the three, the Aperture controls the focus and depth of the image. The bigger the Aperture opening (smaller f-stop number, I know, confusing), the blurrier the background will become. With that said, f1.4 is a bigger Aperture than f5.6, and it will give a better Bokeh setting.

f1.2

f1.2

f4.0

f4.0

If you’re shooting landscape or street, better to keep it small, f5.6 to f8, to preserve all details of the frame. If shooting portraits or objects, use f1.4 to f2.0 to bring out the subject in front of the picture.  Note that bigger Aperture will let more light in so adjust your exposure accordingly. For long-exposure shots (those car light trails), smaller Aperture numbers are recommended. 

Post-Processing 

Your photography does not end with you pressing the shutter button. It continues over processing your photos in some image processing software like Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom. Traditionalists (the Photography’s version of vegans and anti-vaxxers) will argue that good photography is natural. 

While they are not wrong, they are not entirely right either. Hate to break it to you but most cameras are already processing the photos for you. Compare different camera makers while shooting the same image in the same setting and chances are, it will vary. The style and work done in post-processing are as important as the image itself for a Photographer. 

It gives another layer of distinct artistry in the image. There is nothing wrong with fixing lights, shadows, and colors that only post-processing can do. Your camera can only do so much with its built-in filters and settings. Post-processing is not cheating. 

My current workflow goes from editing my RAW photos on Lightroom, using Snapseed for Spot Healing (I’m more comfortable on Snapseed than LR for spot removal), then applying a preset I made using VSCO.

Original

Original

Color Grading (Lightroom)

Color Grading (Lightroom)

Final Preset (VSCO)

Final Preset (VSCO)

I tend to use Lightroom CC Mobile because of the tactile process. I’m more flexible on it that the traditional mouse and laptop screen. On Lightroom, I also made a color grade preset that I apply in the beginning. The brown tone mood de-saturates my photos, pulling the warm tones up and cool tones down. I then proceed to individually correcting the exposure through highlights, contrasts, blacks, and whites—to be further explained down below.

I then use Snapseed to correct imperfections. I prefer Snapseed’s Spot Healing function over Lightroom’s because of the simplicity and its responsiveness. Lightroom is fine for intensive correction—I guess, to each his own.

Snapseed also is great for beginners because it's 100% free and you're getting most of the features that you'd normally pay for in Lightroom or Affinity Pro.

I then made a preset on VSCO using the Chromatic Collection presets (C4-C9) which I apply on my photos. This is the heart of my process-- I tend to go for the "sunset look" by mixing in warm orange and pinks (HSL - Hue, Saturation, Lightness) with blue shadows to offset. I tend to lower the saturation of greens and blues to focus more on the temperature contrast.

Pro-tip: When using VSCO presets, limit the intensity to 5.0 - 7.0 so you can mix and match without over filtering. Export the photo and re-import to apply another preset at a lower intensity. Unfortunately, with VSCO, this process reduces the photo to JPEG quality, which is almost always enough for posting on social networks. These presets are also available for Lightroom and can work just the same, for those high quality prints. 

Shadows and Contrast

Like I said above, underexposed photos are easier to fix than overexposed ones. The trick is that, in shooting in RAW format, you’re getting most of the details “behind the light” which you could then expose through adjustment of the Shadows. RAW captures mores than regular JPEG’s.  

Low-light profile

Low-light profile

Shadow rescue attempt

Shadow rescue attempt

While fixing the shadows to reveal the image in low light, don’t forget to adjust the Contrast accordingly. I would suggest a step of each at a time. Blacks with adjusted shadows can be faded and gray. Adjust to a higher contrast to keep the clarity. 

Highlights and Brightness 

As for situations where you really have to choose between an underexposed subject and an overexposed background, you might have to fix the highlights. When adjusting the highlights to a lower setting to “dim” the light, the edges will be too rigid. You can fix this by adjusting the brightness accordingly to keep consistency.

Bloated exposure

Bloated exposure

Highlight rescue attempt

Highlight rescue attempt

Shoot in Brackets 

For Shadows and Highlights, I'd suggest shooting in Brackets (multiple frames in different settings.) I usually take three photos of the same frame at a time in different ISO settings. I keep it at a step above my chosen ISO level, the original, and another at a step below it. Then merge these images in post-processing. The idea is that you can get a better grip of the Shadows and Highlights by getting the best one out of the three in different parts of the image.

Don’t Over-Vignette

We all love to put a little black Vignette border. It’s cool; it brings out the focus of the image. But please, keep it at a reasonable level of 20-30%. Enough Vignettes can already do so much. Too much and it will look like a poorly done high school poster project. The aim of post-processing is to fix details and bring out the subject more, not to destroy the natural look. 

0%

0%

20%

20%

40%

40%

Lastly, Keep on Shooting

Take as many photos as possible. Photography is an opportunity. The timing of the shot is just as important as the techniques you will be using. Speeding cars, flying birds, running people-- those are the moments that you want to capture at the exact moment. You won't get those in 2 shots. Mind you, some of my photos even took me at least 10 shots to get the best frame that I want. 

And if we're applying statistics, I usually take 10 to 20 shots of a single frame. The taxi photos I took over the course of a year took me at least 20 minute each to wait for the perfect timing— for the yellow taxi. Photography is patience.

Out of these outtakes, I process maybe less than half. And out of these, I publish 1 or 2. Because at the end of the day, there will just be ugly photos. And that's okay. Especially for street photography where everything is about opportunity. Don't waste the window by just taking three shots max-- and then publishing all of them at the same time on your networks. More is less. But also less is more. 

Take a lot, but only choose the best one/s. No one really wants a buffet, when they're already full.

These techniques are not rules. You don’t have to follow them to take amazing photos. You don’t have to follow the rule of thirds. The most important take away is that you know how to use your camera, your techniques, and when to apply them in various situations. Explore how you would want to shoot. Great Photographers take time and practice, like most forms of art. Once you find the setting that you’re comfortable with, framing the next great picture will just come naturally. Happy shooting!   

Let me know down below if you have additional questions! And if you have tips to share as well!