Sometimes, as a beginner photographer, you're in a rush to simply produce photographs that don't suck. Fair enough. You want to take photographs of something specific and you recognize that your skills just aren't there quite yet. What is the quickest way to get between sucking and having a respectable photograph to show? Well, here's how we would go about it.
Remember that a “crash course” is never going to give you the quality of learning that you need to know a subject well. Long term study and practice will always win, but sometimes that's just not practical for specific situations. With that aside, let's kickstart a few good photography sessions quickly!
1) Get Specific – Look, there's just very little chance that you can “know photography” in a short period of time – many people spend a lifetime on it and still struggle. So what you need to do is define exactly what it is that you want to shoot and get good at that small part of photography very quickly. Don't be lazy with this part, because you want to be as specific as humanly possible.
For example, “Car photography” is not specific enough for this exercise. You need to get as specific as “indoor car photography with a single off-camera flash”. Your knowledge of photographs you like, the environment you want to be shooting in, as well as your own available equipment should guide you here.
What is the exact image in your mind that you want to shoot? Start from that and work backwards.
2) Look for Similar Examples – Sites like Flickr and 500px have a fantastic search system and tag system that allow you to find pretty much any type of photograph in any shooting situation that you can think of. You just have to find them! Try to make your own collection (use the favoriting system on those sites) of photographs that you love and want to emulate. But it is important at this step to remain very specific.
There is no use finding a photograph of a black truck taken in the midday sun and another of a red corvette shot in a dark studio with soft boxes and backdrops. The images you collect at this stage should all be very close to the specific and exact result you are trying to emulate yourself. Make a collection of them (Pinterest is great for this).
This collection of photographs will help your research (in step 3 and 4)
Note: If you are a true beginner, then you might want to favour shots taken in natural light (or the Golden Hour) for this step as shooting in these conditions can produce great results and is generally easier than learning how to shoot with strobes.
3) Know the Lighting Conditions – Again, if you have done step two specifically and correctly, then you should have a group of photographs that are taken in a specific lighting condition. Your job now is to find out what that is.
Sylights is an amazing resource to search for similar images and then see diagrams of the lighting setups that led to the results. It is heavily slanted towards artificial lighting and people photography, but it is still a site that you should have bookmarked.
There is also an amazingly useful site called Lighting Diagram Creator that you can further your research with. You can find specific shots (just like on Flickr and 500px) and then also find a corresponding lighting diagram (similar to Sylights)to help you see what setup the photographer used to capture the image. Very, very useful.
Note: Natural lighting situations in ideal lighting (early morning or late afternoon) offer the most forgiving lighting for beginners. If possible, try to make step 2 about finding the photographs that fit this type of light. If that's not possible, then try to get specific information about the type of lighting that is used in your small, specific collection of images).
4) General Camera Settings – If you have done step two properly, you should find that in images with similar effects, shot in similar conditions, the range of camera settings in one of the shots **should** be reasonably close to the others. (Make sure you know your exposure triangle for that theory which should take about 20 minutes to learn and a lifetime to master). You now have a baseline to work from.
Camera settings used are often in the EXIF data available on Flickr or under the shot on 500px or clearly described on Lighting Diagram Creator or Sylights. Look at it. If it's not there, leave a comment and ask the photographer (some are more forthcoming than others).
5) Study Your Specific Lighting Condition – This is where you really need to niche. You can use Google to search the terms of your lighting setup. And you should also carefully study the lighting setups you found on Sylights and Lighting Diagram Creator. Hopefully you have a very specific scenario to shoot in so the lighting setup should be easy enough to learn (though maybe not so easy to master). Here are a few specific tutorials to get you started.
Natural Lighting Tutorials
- 5 Tips for Golden Hour Photography
- Portraits in the Golden Hour
- Backlit Portraits in the Golden Hour
- Shooting at First Light
- Shooting at Second Light
- Shooting at Last Light
- Shooting in the Midday Sun
Artificial Lighting Tutorials
- Understanding Artificial Light
- Studio Lighting Essentials
- These Lighting Patterns Will Make Your Portrait Photographs Rock
- 7 Incredible Tutorials on Strobe Lighting for Portraits
- How to Use Continuous Lighting
Now these are by no means an exhaustive list of lighting tutorials, so turn to Google if you're still stuck for a specific lighting setup (there are an infinite amount, but there are also a lot of specific tutorials out there so chances are that you will find what you need).
Hopefully, the research on your specific shooting needs is really specific and can be managed in a few hours. This isn't the way to become an Ansel Adams, but you can get respectable shots fairly quickly by narrowing down your research and making it very specific.
Only thing left is to get out and shoot!