Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography


Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Photography

Tropical and Coastal Stock Photography - Images by Paul Timpa

I’ve written several detailed articles on specific photography topics, but I thought it might be helpful to compile a “Top 10” list of ways to help you take your photography to the next level. This will help tie many of the concepts together and serve as a sort of “quick reference guide”. Feel free to print this out, fold it up, and stuff it in your pocket or camera bag for next time you’re out shooting. If you incorporate even a few of these techniques, you’ll come back with some amazing travel or landscape photos. If you were able to take pin-sharp shots every time, that were perfectly exposed, full of drama, with vibrant colors, and engaging composition, that would be a good thing! These tips will help get you there.

Note: This article is mainly for those using D-SLRs, but some of the tips apply to compact cameras as well. D-SLRs are very powerful cameras. Because of the large physical size of their lenses and sensors (“digital film”), they’re capable of taking photographs that a compact camera cannot take. Add to that the full manual control over the exposure settings, and you can take extremely creative images.

So, let’s get right into it. Try to use some of the items below on your next shoot, and I think you’ll see a tremendous improvement in your pictures.

1) Learn to use “Manual” or “M” mode on your camera, instead of Program Mode (P), Aperture Priority (Av), or Shutter Priority (Tv). It may seem complicated, but it's really easy. In fact, I personally find manual mode to be EASIER to use than the automatic modes! This is because I'm not always wondering what the camera is up to and trying to override the decisions it makes in automatic. Here's an analogy I like to use: Which is easier? --> driving a car where you control both the steering and the speed, or driving a car where you control the steering but a friend controls the speed, and if your friend doesn't get the speed right, you have to start telling him how to correct it, hoping he gets it right. For me, it's much easier just to control both. Trust me, with just a tiny bit of practice, you'll be very comfortable using manual mode, and may even like it better than the automatic modes too.

There are two main reasons for using manual mode. Firstly, it forces you to choose a specific shutter speed and aperture. Both items will need to be manually chosen by you, which is a good thing, because you then have to think about what you’re trying to achieve creatively and stylistically with those choices. Using any of the other modes mentioned above causes the camera to choose at least one of those two items (shutter speed or aperture) if not both. Because background blur / depth of field and the representation of movement in a photo are directly controlled by the aperture and shutter speed chosen, it’s critical to select exactly what they are so you get the effect you’re looking for. The second reason to use manual mode is because on any other mode, the camera is choosing the exposure for you, meaning how dark or bright the photo is. The camera uses a technique where it tries to “guess” the correct exposure, but it’s just a guess. Sometimes it’s correct, and sometimes it’s not. The only way to ensure a correct exposure is to set it yourself. For more detail on how the camera makes its guess at the exposure and a great example of when / why to use manual mode, feel free to see this separate article I wrote on the topic:

2) Incorporate “Long Exposures” into your photography. One of the greatest things about photography is its ability to convey motion in a still image, and one of the most creative ways to show this motion is through the use of long exposures (using a long shutter speed). From flowing water, to car trails and star trails, to just people walking, long exposures can create magic in your photography.

[The photo above of Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange was taken with a long shutter speed on a tripod to blur the people walking]

You’ll need a tripod or something steady to rest the camera on for this technique, because it’s not possible to physically hold the camera still for the duration of the long exposures. Moving the camera would result in blurry photos. Important: You should also use the 10-second self timer to take the shot, as touching the camera to press the shutter button will shake it enough to cause a blurry shot. Better yet, you can buy an inexpensive remote control to trigger the shutter, which allows you more control over when the shutter is clicked. To use this long exposure technique, set the camera up on a tripod or steady object, and choose a long exposure like 2 seconds, 5 seconds, or even 30 seconds. This shutter speed will result in a very bright shot, so set the aperture to something small (a big number) like F16 or F18, which will darken the picture and bring it back to normal brightness. If the photo is still too bright even with the smallest aperture, you can use a Neutral Density filter, which acts like “sunglasses” for your lens, and darkens the picture. Try this technique on water, cars at night, busy streets, etc. and you’ll see some amazing images. A great time to experiment with long exposures is at night, where you don’t have to concern yourself with the pictures coming out too bright. Some of the most stunningly beautiful photography is taken at night, and almost all requires the use of long exposures. At night, set your camera on a tripod or something steady, set your aperture to F5.6 and your shutter speed to around 5 seconds, and make sure to use the self-timer so that you don’t physically have to touch the shutter button. Experiment with the shutter speed to get the correct brightness. You’ll be amazed at the images you can produce with this simple technique.

[The photo above of the Brooklyn Bridge at Night, NYC, was taken with a long exposure] 

3) Use wide apertures. A wide aperture is what creates that beautiful background blur and makes your subject “pop”. There is just something special about a photo taken with a really wide aperture that makes it stand out. Whenever you see a portrait and the person is pin sharp, but the background is just a creamy wash of color, it just looks “professional”. This is also one of the things that a compact camera simply cannot do, because it’s a physical limitation of the size of compact cameras. On a D-SLR it’s possible to get beautiful background blur when you use a wide aperture. To further increase the amount of blur, use a longer focal length (zoom in) because longer focal lengths provide more background blur than wide-angle focal lengths. Standing close to your subject also increases the effect. The next time you’re out, set your camera to an aperture of F4 or wider (smaller number like F2.8 for F1.8), zoom all the way in, and try taking some creative portraits or landscapes.

[The photo above of a Pina Colada on a Caribbean beach was taken with a wide aperture to blur the background]

4) Keep horizons level and verticals straight. This one is easy, but it can make such a huge difference in the perception of your pictures. You could take the most amazing landscape photo, perfectly in focus with a great exposure, but if the horizon is crooked and slanted, the photo will look amateur. Always do your best to make sure the horizon is level when you take a shot. If it’s not, it’s a relatively easy correction in most editing software, and it takes less than 10 seconds to fix. It may sound silly, but it makes a huge difference. (Of course if you’re intentionally slanting the horizon for some kind of creative effect, that’s something different). As for “verticals”, that’s something that’s a little more difficult to control. When I say verticals, I’m just referring to any perfectly vertical lines in a photo like the sides of buildings, or walls, or lampposts, or anything that runs straight up and down. You get slanted verticals when you point the camera up or down, versus keeping it pointed straight ahead. This is why it’s so common in photos of buildings and architecture… you tilt the camera upward to include the top of the building in the photo and this causes the sides of the building to tilt inward. So how do you fix it? There are a couple of ways. Firstly, try not to tilt the camera. If you don’t think you’ll be printing the picture at a large size, then you can keep the camera level and zoom out wide with your lens to include the top of the building. Then you can just crop out the foreground later which will have the “effect of zooming back in”, except the final picture will have nice straight verticals. If the widest focal length still doesn’t capture the top of the building, you can try to see if you can take the photo from a higher spot like a nearby stairway. This way you might be able to get the top without tilting the camera upward. If none of those works, you can correct it in your editing software using the perspective control features. (For some situations, this may be the easiest way). Lastly, if you take a lot of architecture photos, you can invest in a Tilt / Shift lens (a.k.a. perspective control or PC lens), which allows you take photos of tall buildings without tilting the camera (I have one and I use it all the time). Level horizons and straight verticals really add a level of professionalism to your photos.

5) Rule of Thirds. The “Rule of Thirds” is a guideline to help with the composition of your photos – that is, where you place objects within the picture. The basic principle of this guideline is that you should avoid putting the subject of your photo directly in the center of the picture. For example, if you’re taking a picture of an ocean scene, rather than putting the horizon directly in the middle of the picture with the top half of the photo consisting of sky and the bottom half consisting of the land/ocean, think about putting the horizon in a different spot. The Rule of Thirds suggests that it’s more visibly pleasing to have main objects in your picture 1/3rd of the way from the top or bottom, or 1/3rd from the left and right, rather than splitting the picture in half. For instance, for the ocean shot, if the waves of the ocean are especially captivating, you can fill the bottom 2/3rds of the frame with the ocean and the top 1/3rd of the frame with the sky. This tells the viewer that the main point of interest is the ocean and its waves. On the other hand, if the sky is very dramatic, you could do the opposite and fill the top 2/3rds of the photo with the sky and clouds, and the bottom 1/3rd with the ocean. For people shots, consider putting the person 1/3rd in from the left or right, rather than right in the middle. For a sunset, rather than placing the sun directly in the middle of the photo, try placing it 1/3rd from the top and 1/3rd from the left. You’ll see that your pictures actually feel more “balanced” that way because the subject is not cutting your photo in half, leaving your eye bouncing around both halves not knowing which is more important.

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

6) Take sharp shots. It’s so common to capture what could have been a great image, but it’s ruined because it’s blurry. I’ve written an article dedicated to the topic of taking sharp shots, and I’ll include the link below. To summarize, the most important thing to remember is to use a shutter speed that is fast enough to combat the camera shake that causes blurry photos. My rule, which is conservative, is to double the focal length to determine my minimum shutter speed. This is especially true at longer focal lengths. So for instance, for a shot with the lens zoomed to 100mm, the shutter speed has to be at least 1/200th second. For a focal length at 200mm, the shutter has to be at least 1/400th second, and so on. If you do this, you’ll get a lot more “keepers”. If you have a lens with Image Stabilization or Anti-Shake, you have a little more freedom. Even so, I then shoot at a shutter speed equal to the focal length, so for an image-stabilized lens at 150mm, I’d shoot at 1/150th a second or faster. If you’re in a situation where you need a longer shutter speed than the guideline above allows, because the photo is too dark at faster shutter speeds, it’s simple: use a tripod or rest the camera on something steady. Alternatively, for “snapshots” you can try raising the ISO, but for important pictures, I wouldn’t recommend going above ISO 400 or 800 if using a tripod is an option. The other way to help ensure sharp pictures is to make sure the camera is focused properly. I recommend using only the center focus point, because if you use all the focus points, it’s much easier for the camera to accidentally focus on something you didn’t intend. I’d say more otherwise good photos are ruined because of lack of sharpness than any other technical problem. If you concentrate on getting this right, you’ll be well on your way to taking many more great images. More detail on getting sharp photos can be found in my article on this topic:

7) Get creative with Flash. It’s all too easy to just use the flash only at night, by setting the camera to program mode and popping the flash to illuminate your subject. This will get you decent-to-mediocre results, but with a just a small bit of effort, you can take your flash pictures to a whole new level of creativity. Here are a few tips.

Firstly, learn to use Flash Exposure Compensation. This simply controls how powerful the light from the flash is, making it brighter or darker as necessary. This is probably the easiest technique to use, and can greatly improve flash results. In your camera’s settings, there will be a setting for Flash Exposure Compensation. You can change the flash exposure, usually in a range from about -2 to +2 stops. When you do this, the camera adjusts the power of the flash accordingly. It can be very useful in many situations. You may have seen or taken photographs where the flash power is just way too bright. This sometimes happens with portraits when you take pictures from close up. Because you’re close to the subject, the flash power is too bright, making faces appear white or washed out. In this case, simply set FEC (Flash Exposure Compensation) to a negative number like -1 or -2, and take the shot again. You’ll see the lower flash output produces a much more natural result. Similarly, if your subject is very far away, you may want to increase the flash output so that it reaches your subject. You can do this by changing the FEC to +1 or +2 or any number that works for you.

Another important time to use flash is during the day when there is bright sunlight. The bright sun can produce harsh shadows on your subject. The shadows are even darker and more pronounced if the sun is behind your subject. In these cases, it can really help to use flash. Pop the flash and set the Flash Exposure Compensation to -1 (so that it provides just a hint of fill-light) and you’ll see how much better your outdoor photos will look. I often use flash outside during the day.

Finally, you can start to use flash along with your camera’s Manual exposure mode, to capture amazing night images and portraits. For example, for a photo of a person in front of a nighttime city skyline, you can follow these steps: turn off the flash and set the exposure manually for the background, in this case the nighttime city skyline. Once you have the city skyline correctly exposed in Manual Mode, pop the flash to illuminate your subject. You will get a perfectly exposed subject as well as a perfectly exposed background. Use Flash Exposure Compensation to tweak the brightness of the flash if necessary.

8) Shoot in RAW mode, instead of JPEGs. Shooting your pictures using your camera’s RAW mode, vs. shooting JPEGs, will greatly affect the final look of your pictures for the better. You may have already seen my detailed article on this topic (I’ll put the link below), but to summarize: Shooting in RAW gives you the flexibility to adjust the contrast, saturation, sharpness, and white balance “after” the photo is taken. These elements are absolutely critical to the final look of your photo. When you take a photo using your camera’s JPEG mode, the settings for saturation, sharpness, contrast, and white balance are “burned into” the picture permanently and cannot be changed. The only way to adjust these after the fact is if you tried to manipulate the image in Photoshop or some other editing program, which could severely degrade the quality of your photo. Further, shooting in RAW provides a higher-quality picture because the photo is not “compressed” to make the file size smaller, like it is with JPEGs. If you want to take your photography to the next level, you really should be shooting in RAW. I often get asked about the vibrant colors in my photos – it’s from shooting in RAW. More detail on shooting in RAW can be found in my article on RAW vs. JPEG:

9) Use filters. There is still a place for filters in your camera bag, even in the digital age where images can be edited in Photoshop. Photoshop will never be able to blur a waterfall (not realistically, anyway) or remove glare from the ocean. This is where filters come in, and they can make a wonderful impact on your photos. The #1 filter that every photographer should have is the polarizer. It’s easy to use and can have a great impact on your photos. A polarizer reduces reflections, which has a couple of beneficial effects on your photos. For daytime shots, blue skies get deep blue and beautifully saturated, and clouds really pop. For distant objects, a polarizer cuts through the haze. On water, a polarizer reduces reflections on the surface of the water, allowing you to see what’s beneath the surface.

[The photo above of a woman snorkeling in Tahiti was taken with a polarizer to remove reflections from the surface of the ocean]

It also reduces reflections of water droplets on leaves and foliage, increasing saturation. For glass and other reflective objects, reflections are removed allowing you to see through the object. I use it especially in tropical locations with gorgeous turquoise water, to cut the glare, allowing you to see the coral and ocean life below.

Another type of filter is the Neutral Density filter. “ND” filters reduce the amount of light that goes through the lens (much like a pair of sunglasses reduces light getting to your eye), effectively darkening the photo. This allows you to use long shutter speeds during the day or at night, without the picture getting too bright. The long shutter speeds will allow for fantastic motion blur effects, and are necessary to blur moving water and waterfall photos that are taken during the day.

[The photo above of a waterfall in Costa Rica was taken with a Neutral Density filter to allow for a long exposure during bright daylight conditions]

A twist on the ND filter is the Graduated ND filter, which reduces the amount of light going through the lens, but only for a portion of the picture (for example, just the top half). This is useful for sunrises / sunsets or any scene where half the picture is very bright and the other half is darker. You simply place the dark half of the filter over the bright part of the scene to even up the lighting for a perfect exposure. For more info on filters and how to use them, I wrote a more detailed article here:

10) Shoot in the right light. This is one of the most important, though “abstract” tips. Truly understanding this principle is possibly the single most fundamental technique that will improve your photography. Shoot in the right light. Think about it – you’re not “really” photographing an object. You’re photographing light. Here’s a very oversimplified example that will illustrate what I’m talking about. Go on a beach and take a picture at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Return at midnight to the same spot and take the same picture at night. Do they look the same? Of course not. The beach itself is exactly the same, but the “light” is different. Yet you have two wildly, drastically different photographs, even though the location and the subject is identical. It is critical to think about that and understand that as a photographer. Whenever you’re shooting travel or landscape photography, think about the fact that you are shooting the light, and not “just” the object. Decide on the quality of light you want to shoot, that is, how bright, how dark, is it sunlit, moonlit, from what direction, etc. Then go take your photographs when the light is right. You may have heard the term “golden hour” used by photographers. This refers to the light you get outdoors just before/after sunrise and just before/after sunset. This is generally some of the best light to shoot in, because you get beautiful golden sunlight cast on your subject from an angle (which brings out texture), the scene is not too bright so you don’t have harsh shadows, and the sky is deep and saturated with a multitude of colors from golden yellows, reds, and oranges to deep blues and purples. Shooting in the right light can transform an ordinary photo into something special.

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

Taking properly exposed, pin-sharp photos that are full of drama, with vibrant colors and engaging composition can be possible if you just keep in mind these few simple tips the next time you’re out shooting. Have fun, and as always, please feel free to let me know if you have any questions.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app


Please feel free to share this tutorial with your Facebook friends:


To keep up-to-date with the latest photo additions and other topics, you can also become a fan at my Photography Facebook page at:

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

If you'd like to purchase prints or stock photography licenses for my photos (for advertising and editorial use), please visit:

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


New York City Stock Photos - Images by Paul Timpa

Photos used in this posting:

Wall Street and New York Stock Exchange, New York Stock Photos:

Brooklyn Bridge at Night, New York Stock Photos:

Pina Colada on Caribbean Beach, Tropical Stock Photos:

Tahiti, Snorkeling in Lagoon, Tropical Stock Photos:

Costa Rica Waterfall, Tropical Stock Photos:

Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Trackbacks are disabled.