Now that you've read this far let me give you some tips.
Lighting is absolutely the most important technical issue there is. Learn composition as well and you'll have just about everything you need to worry about solved.
First and foremost you need to develop a sensitivity to the way light feels while you are outdoors, and learn through experience how that will look on film. As you develop this sensitivity you will be able to understand when the light looks right to capture the look you want, and when to put away the camera and grab lunch. With this ability you also will learn to be able to modify light with simple reflectors and scrims to help create your look.
The smaller your subject, the easier it is to modify light. Portrait, bug and flower photographers do this all the time; landscape photographers usually have to wait for the right light.
A simple sheet of 8-1/2 x 11" paper can reflect enough sunlight to fill in shadows on a face.
To get the right light on a mountain you may need to wait for the right season, the right weather and the right time of day. This is how Ansel Adams was able to create such masterful works: he lived in Yosemite and only showed his works from when the lighting was fantastic. If you show up on vacation and snap away in whatever light is there you'll not likely get anything extraordinary.
Everyone has different tastes. This is art.
You either need to create your own lighting in a studio (or with ten tons of gear and generators as we do on movie sets), or you need to have the patience to wait for nature to supply the correct lighting.
As explained above, when photographing landscapes one needs patience to get the right light. Since you can't light up the whole outdoors, you just have to wait for the right light.
This is really important!
You may have to wait for hours or days or months or years to get the right light. You cannot have people waiting for you. If you rush you'll miss the good light.
With practice you'll learn what looks good in photographs.
No photograph is an exact reproduction. All photographs distort reality. As you become familiar with how your materials interpret reality you will learn to recognize under what conditions you get the results you want. Knowing that, you will start to photograph more under the right conditions, and also seek out those conditions.
You will learn what things need to look like to your eye to get the results you want in a photograph.
One hint is that the contrast needs to look very low to your eye to look OK in a photograph. Photographs pick up contrast.
You need to photograph often enough to see your results while you can still remember what the scene felt like when you were there. Polaroids are handy for this: you can see the results while you still are there!
Ideally you should develop your film and see the results the very next day while your memory is still fresh. If you wait around for months you'll never be able to correlate your results with what you were feeling when you made the image.
You need to know what results you are going to get when you are feeling something.
Only show your very strongest images.
Throw away most of what you shoot. I do. Most of my photos are awful!
Go through the few photos you save out of a roll, and then throw away all but the one strongest image.
Next time, go through the few you've saved from a few rolls, and throw more away.
This isn't painting. In photography it is a requirement to throw away most of what you do.
You'll see that if you only save or show your strongest images that your body of work will seem to improve. Guess what: as you show only the better images, your body of work as seen by others has improved!
Do you think I shoot a roll of film and get a roll loaded with the images you see in my galleries? Of course not. Most of what I shoot is crap. I'm just good enough to throw most of it away and only show the good stuff.
Ansel Adams said that if you can produce one strong image in a year that you are doing very well. Don't expect to turn out miracles every roll, or even every month. Ansel didn't, I don't, and I don't think anyone does.
I wrote a whole page here. Your choice of film is very important to your look.
Avoid print film, which is what 95% of amateur photographers shoot and gives inconsistent results. I shoot slides, which is what you see on this site.
Go read the film page for much more on this.
7.) EXPOSURE COMPENSATION: your Lighten/Darken control
Forget this if you are shooting print film since no matter how hard you try to get the correct exposure it's usually messed up at the photo lab when your negatives are made into the prints you see. This is why I strongly suggest digital or slide film on my film page.
If you shoot slides or digital or do your own printing then pay attention.
Shoot enough to learn under what conditions your images look too light or too dark. If you find some things always come out too light or too dark (or if the shot you just made on your digital just came out too light or dark) then here are the amounts to compensate.
Don't be bashful. No camera is perfect and one almost always needs to adjust the compensation for some shots. It took me a long time to learn this; I thought my camera was always smarter than I was. It usually is, but not always. It is these times when you need to adjust the exposure compensation.
There are no rules here, just guides. Do whatever looks right to you.
Ideally you should learn the Zone System, since when you do you'll get perfect exposures every time with no guessing or bracketing. Knowing the zone system will make this exposure compensation much clearer.
Here is what each setting does. This is not a replacement for the Zone System:
0: If your photos look fine, then no compensation is required.
+1 Stop: This is a good start for things that usually turn out too dark, like white things on a overcast day. +1 stop will lighten a medium gray to a medium light gray. This is a common setting I'd often use on older cameras without modern matrix or evaluative meters. Use this setting if the subject is mostly light granite or California stucco, for instance. A subject that is completely yellow and fills your screen might need +2/3.
+2 Stops: This is a severe correction for something that would come out way too dark. If something came out a medium gray and you added +2 stops you will get white. On old cameras or with manual light meters you would use this much compensation to make sand or snow look white.
-1 Stop: I don't usually use this. This will take a medium gray and make it a dark gray.
-2 Stops: never used except with a broken camera. This will take a medium gray and lower everything to a very dark, almost black, gray. You'd only use this with a spot meter to set shadows here as part of the Zone System, not as a setting on a camera's exposure compensation dial.
8.) ALL ABOUT USING FLASH
WHEN TO USE FLASH
Most amateur photographers and all snapshooters use flash exactly at the wrong times, ensuring amateur-looking images. Proper use of flash is far more important than what kind of camera you have. Any point-and-shoot used properly will give far better results than any Leica, Canon or Nikon used the way most amateurs do.
Most people incorrectly leave the flash OFF in daylight which leads to harsh, ugly sunlight on their friends' faces. Turning the flash ON in bright sunlight will help lighten the shadows to make them look much more natural. On a P/S camera just push the flash button a few times until the little flash icon appears, on a Nikon just turn on the flash. Also in backlit photos you'll be able to see your friends instead of just getting silhouettes.
Most people incorrectly use flash indoors or in low light at night. Using the flash with the usual default sync mode indoors leads to the nasty black backgrounds and washed out people indoors. What's worse, those nasty black backgrounds confuse printing machines into making the prints too light, and then these poor photographers blame the camera for over exposing their flash shots!
If you are doing studio strobe work or macro photography lit only by the flash of course it's OK to use fast sync. This just isn't what most ordinary people photograph.
With disposable cameras this is your only choice. With most point-and-shoots and all Nikons you should either turn the flash OFF and shoot by available light if your subject is reasonably still, or for photographing people or moving objects use the flash in the SLOW REAR or SLOW sync mode.
These SLOW sync modes are also in many P/S cameras. In a P/S camera one typically pushes the flash button until a little moon and city icon ("Night Mode" in Japanese) appears.
The SLOW sync modes allow the camera to make a long enough exposure of the background (ambient) light for it to look natural. Otherwise it always looks way too dark at the usual 1/60 sync speed people use. Really stupid photographers use the 1/250 sync speed for indoor photos and make the effect even worse. Best to try the slowest speed you can, like 1/30, if you're setting the shutter manually.
Both SLOW and SLOW REAR give the same exposure and f/stops. SLOW pops the flash at the beginning of the exposure, and SLOW REAR pops it at the end.
This matters if you have an exposure long enough to blur anything. If you do, the effect of the flash popping at the start of the exposure makes the subject appear to streak backwards from the ghost image frozen by the flash. You see the ghost and the streak moves forwards from it, showing the ghost at the back of the streak. Bad. SLOW REAR reverses this effect and gives the illusion of the subject moving forward from the ghost. This is because you see a streak, and then the flash pops at the end (front) of the streak. It might make more sense to rename SLOW REAR to "front" sync, but that's another story.
Since SLOW REAR mode fires the flash at the end of the long exposure it serves another purpose: people think the photo is taken when the flash fires, so having the flash fire at the end (rear) of the exposure keeps them still and smiling the whole time the shutter is open waiting for your camera to go off. This trick goes away for digital and newer SLR cameras since most of them fire very visible preflashes before the exposure. (The camera companies lie about them being invisible.) Thus you'll get a double flash effect.
Of course if you are trying to freeze moving things you won't with SLOW sync. You'll get the blurry streaks behind people that you see all the time in National Geographic Magazine. These streaks convey a sense of motion and I like them.
Flash on the camera is the nastiest looking light you can get. For use as fill this is usually fine, however you'll get more natural results by using a cheap diffuser if your subject is close enough. Even many professionals don't realize this, and you'll often see famous photographers suggest turning the flash fill level down a stop or two. They have to do this because the harsh on-camera fill flash may look unnatural. If you diffuse the flash (as simple as bouncing it off a big white card) then you can let the camera use the normal amount of fill flash and it will both look natural due to the diffusion, and be more effective because it can be at the correct level and not turned down a stop or two.
I prefer the $20 Lumiquest reflector gizmo that folds flat in my case and attaches with Velcro. Note that the area of the reflector is much bigger than the lens of the flash itself, giving a much softer quality to the light.
GREAT FILL FLASH INDOORS
Here's how to get great, natural looking fill indoors with most SLR cameras:
a.) Set the camera to SLOW sync
b.) Point camera-mounted flash up at the ceiling
c.) Pull out a built-in little white card or rubber-band one behind the flash so a little bit of light will bounce forward off the card. This light from the card will give a nice catchlight to their eyes while most of the light goes up to the ceiling to fill the room with soft, natural fill light. (Hint: if the room light is too dark to give a reasonably short exposure time in SLOW sync you can try the regular sync mode, in which case the entire shot is lit only by the flash bouncing off the ceiling and the little off the little white card. In this case forget bothering with color compensation filters mentioned in e.) below.)
d.) Set flash to TTL exposure mode. This will vary with camera brand. You want the mode that will blend the levels of ambient and flash light automatically.
e.) Filter or gel the flash to match the color of the existing room light, and filter your camera to match it. This way both the ambient room light and flash fill match. With a digital camera of course you set the camera's white balance to match room lighting and then get a colored gel to put over the flash for tungsten or fluorescent. You can get these gel filters in sheets for a few dollars at theatrical stage and lighting stores found in every decent sized city.
9.) TIME EXPOSURES FOR WATER
1/500 shutter speed freezes anything. This does not look as it does to our eyes. This is usually what you see in surfing magazines where every wonderful drop of spray is frozen.
1/30 makes moving water look about natural, if that's the effect you seek.
1/8 gives a nice blur.
1 second starts to get really smooth like this.
Several seconds or minutes starts to make all the whitewater flow into what looks like a fog. Here's an example.
In these examples the usual waves continuously came in and crashed on the rocks.
10.) TRICKS FOR GREAT B/W PHOTOS
A yellow filter (K2, #8, Y48 etc.) is REQUIRED outdoors for B/W film, otherwise blue skies will be completely washed out. See also the filter page. A yellow filter is required to give natural results outdoors, since film has much more sensitivity to blue than our eyes do. The yellow filter makes film's response to color match our eyes, and thus prevents the darker blue sky from looking as bright as the clouds as it would without the filter.
Go read the tips about b/w film, exposure and processing and printing about halfway down my film page here. If you don't want to take the time for great results as explained on the film page, here are some basic suggestions:
1.) Set your camera for one stop more exposure than the film is rated. Most film ratings lead to a stop of underexposure and dull shadows. In other words, either set the camera manually to an ISO speed one-half of what the box says, or set the exposure compensation to +1.
2.) If you are finishing in digital, instead just shoot color film normally (no filters) and convert to B/W in Photoshop because A.) ICE (the dust and scratch removal feature of better scanners) works with color film but not b/w and B.) you can choose the mixing of the color channels in Photoshop to select filter effects after the fact without having to use a filter for the original photograph! In the old days you had to shoot b/w film through a filter, today color film effectively shoots the color layers with various filters and you may pick and choose (and even mix) later in your computer instead. In the old days I would sometimes shoot several images with different filters; today I just shoot it once on color film if my output is to be B/W digital.
The expression on your subject is everything. Want to see great examples of photos where the gesture makes the photo? Go look on the walls of any Buca di Beppo chain restaurant.
12.) Simplify and get closer
The simpler, the better. Anything that isn't directly contributing to a stronger image is weakening it.
When I happen upon a scene, each shot I make usually gets closer and closer, with fewer distractions and more of what's the most important element.
As photographers improve, their work usually has less and less in it, and what is in it, is far stronger. It's a little like the progress of painter Piet Mondrian's work throughout his life. His early paintings were ordinary paintings. They became simpler and more abstract as the years wore on. Eventually his work became became nothing but a few lines and colored squares, for which he now is remembered.
13.) Close one eye
Trees, flowers and bushes look great, but that's because we see in three dimensions.
As you look at a tree you're about to photograph, close one eye. The magic goes away, but that's the only way our cameras see!
To make a good photo of anything three-dimensional, like a tree, be sure to walk around with only one eye open as you look for a good angle. Often you'll discover that there isn't any way to capture what we see with both eyes open.
Doing this will save you the embarrassment of making photos that aren't going to turn out.
14.) Know when to say no
Much of photography is the ability to look at something scenic everyone else is shooting and say "Boring!"
Peak lighting and weather are just that: optimum peaks. Most of the time, things aren't very photogenic by comparison.
Anyone can take pictures today. Some things are simply boring. You can spend a lot of effort trying to make them look otherwise, or you can relax and go find better things to photograph.
As they say in ranching, "don't beat a dead horse."
15.) Shut up when things get good
Stop the BS session and shoot when the light gets good.
All too often I see guys want to chit-chat about Canon versus Nikon or whatever, just as peak conditions are arriving.
Shut up and go shoot.
16.) Don't bunch up; spread out!
The worst photographers are the blind ones who can't see for themselves.
You find these guys all bunched up in one spot, as if the first guy found the only good spot.
The best photos come from the spots no one else has found. If you get stuck in the pile-up, you'll all get the worst shots.
The good photographers are always out by themselves finding the best shots from the best angles.
17.) Forget photo backpacks
Why do so many amateurs carry heavy photo backpacks loaded with all their junk?
Not only is it a pain to carry everything, but they can't get to any of it unless they find a stable place to set it down and deal with it.
Use a photo vest, loaded with pockets, or better, only carry as much as will fit in your pants or jacket pocket. If you must use a bag, use a waist pack into which you can get while it's still around your waist.
18.) Amateurs care what you think. Artists only shoot to impress themselves.
Self explanatory: shoot what you love and forget what anyone else thinks.
19.) Don't worry, be happy
Don't worry if you miss a shot or aren't prepared. You can always come back again some other time, and if its a scenic location, probably will.
By not worrying, you'll be more relaxed and make far better pictures.
20.) Carry Less
Trying to be prepared for everything makes you prepared for nothing.
Carry less and you'll be more relaxed and have better time, again leading to more fun and better pictures. See Carry Less.
21.) Avoid Caffeine
Caffeine is an addictive narcotic, just like morphine and cocaine. The only difference is that caffeine isn't that dangerous, so it's still legal in most places since it's been grandfathered-in for so many decades.
The bad news is that coffee and soda companies love to keep you addicted to needing a jolt in the morning just to get up, and all day to stay alert.
This would be fine if you never needed sleep, but since you do, your morning jolt is still preventing you from getting to sleep fast and sleeping well.
I've never drank coffee, but I love colas.
When I finally got off the cola at lunch, I was amazed at how well I slept, and even more importantly, how much more alert I was all day since I had slept well the night before.
Taking caffeine screws up your body's natural rhythms. It hurts your sleep and makes you dependant on it. Sign off the drugs, and you'll look forward to getting to sleep when you want and getting up before dawn all excited and relaxed for making great photos.
You may have some headaches when you first try to give it up, but in a few days, you'll be much better off.
22.) Don't worry about offending strangers
Any photo that says something is bound to offend someone somewhere. Especially with the Internet's universal audience, it's almost a given that every photo that isn't completely boring will offend someone.
The only way to avoid offending anyone is to be sure your photos are bland and say nothing. That's why motel, office and corporate art is so boring: it has to be that way if the secretary who picks it out wants to be sure that it can't possibly offend anyone.
If someone finds your images disturbing or offensive, maybe they are, or maybe they're just good. There are a lot of weirdoes out there who take offense at anything. If you don't know them personally, ignore them unless you want your photos to bore everyone else.
Don't Think; Just Shoot
I walked by and shot. I don't even know why: I feel and I respond.
Later I realized I was seeing the balance between the tan and teal, toilet and bag. If you're not seeing it; walk back five feet and see if you see the positive/negative space, the yin and yang.
This isn't a photo of a toilet; this work is all about color and balance.
Our subconscious minds perceive this far faster than our conscious minds can explain it. Don't think; just shoot.
Vary Your Shooting Volume with Conditions
I usually shoot as much all the time, whether things are boring or fantastic. I get into a rhythm, and shoot at about the same speed regardless of what's going on.
It s far better to put away the camera when things are boring, and to shoot like there's no tomorrow when light and conditions get exciting.
This way, in for the same amount of photos, a larger percentage of them will be exciting.
You need to be lightly loaded so you'll be happy moving to the best location instead of getting lazy and staying put.
Shoot only one camera; don't try to shoot everything on two formats for each shot.
See Carry Less.
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