Tips & Tricks: Back To School

Our Tips & Tricks series aims to give beginners, amateurs and professionals alike more ways to approach different aspects of photography and videography. For each installment, we’ve enlisted the expertise of our staff and have received their feedback on method and equipment.

We’re in the back to school spirit. Even if you’re not going back to school this autumn, that doesn’t mean you can’t take this opportunity to learn new things. Here are some tips and tricks for continuing your own photo education.

1. Train yourself to Always Be Shooting.

We love the motto “Always Be Shooting.” The only way to get better is to practice, practice, practice. Of course you probably don’t want to carry your entire gear bag with you everywhere, but that’s why getting a nice point & shoot like the Sony RX100 II or the upcoming Canon PowerShot G16 is never a bad idea. You can keep them in your pocket and still get a good photo. Your smartphone is also an option. Use Instagram or other photo apps to get yourself in the habit of shooting, while still practicing the basics like composition and ambient lighting. To see what you can do with a smartphone, check out our very own T.J.‘s excellent Instagram feed.

Photo by T.J. Hansen
Photo by T.J. Hansen

2. Challenge yourself.

The internet is filled with photo challenges. Check out or Digital Photography Review for weekly assignments, or follow along with me as I tackle the Photo Frosh Photo Challenge. Having a variety of assignments will push your creativity to its limits. Likewise, you can create your own 365 Photo Challenge where you take a photo a day. Remember: practice makes perfect (or more perfect, at least).

3. Go for the gold.

Photo contests are a great way to measure your own photos against others’ and inspire yourself to grow as a photographer. Again, the internet is a fantastic place to find out about contest opportunities. Enter our monthly photo contest or check out others from publications like Outdoor Photographer or I Heart Faces.

4. Practice with primes.

While we obviously love zoom lenses, we kind of love prime lenses even more. Prime lenses generally offer a better optical quality and faster aperture settings. They also limit what you can do from a focal length perspective, meaning in some situations they will force you to be more creative to get the shot you want. You learn by challenging yourself, and limiting yourself to a single focal length will certainly challenge you. Check out Digital Rev‘s recent video about why primes are better than zooms:

5. Make mental notes.

This tip comes courtesy of Kevin Deskins, our friend at LumoPro. At our recent Dynamic Lighting event, Kevin told our attendees that every time he enters a room, he looks around and practices evaluating the scene. What aperture would he use? What shutter speed? What ISO? How is the light falling? What color is the light? These are all great questions to ask yourself in any situation, especially when you don’t have a camera. It gets you in the habit of thinking that way, so that when you have a camera you are more prepared to shoot.

6. Fool around with film.

The digital era has made us really comfortable with just taking shots left and right. Obviously there are advantages to this (it’s cheaper to take shots, you can experiment more, etc.), but it also makes each shot less valuable. When you shoot with film, you have to try harder to make every shot count, and this will push you to take the shots that matter most to you.

Photo by Mike Emery
Photo by Mike Emery

7. Step outside your comfort zone.

Do you shoot mostly landscapes or architecture? Try snapping portraits or street photos, and vice versa. Stepping outside your comfort zone will make you switch up your shooting style and will show you where there might in your skill set, forcing you to improve.

8. Check out a show.

Photographing a concert will push you to your limits. That’s because the shooting conditions for concerts are usually abysmal. You have a very short time frame to get the photos you want and the lighting is generally terrible and constantly changing. You will be forced to really test your skills and make compromises, which is the cornerstone of photography. You’ll have to shoot at a wide aperture, which means a shallow depth of field, which means focusing will be tough. Plus, it’s dark, so your autofocus won’t necessarily be reliable, forcing you to practice manually focusing. You’ll have to bump up your ISO, but if your camera is older, your photo might be compromised by noise. That’s not to say that shooting at concerts is impossible. Check out our recent tips & tricks post on this very subject for some ways to navigate the concert photography game.

Photo by Tony Shumski
Photo by Tony Shumski

9. Do your homework.

Shooting constantly is obviously the best way to learn. But there are also a host of excellent educational photo blogs. Some of our favorites are Photofocus, Digital Camera World, Digital Photography School and, obviously, the Strobist. Just because you’re not shooting at the moment doesn’t mean you can’t learn something. Plus, check out blogs like Featureshoot and DeMilked for some artistic inspiration.

10. Sharing is caring.

What’s the point of taking photos if you aren’t going to share them? Get yourself a Flickr, 500px, or SmugMug account and ask for feedback. As an artist, receiving constructive criticism is an invaluable learning opportunity. And heck, the occasional praise is pretty motivational, too!

Midwest Photo

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