5 digital photography tips only the pros know

You know the cliche “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but it doesn’t specify if those words are from Shakespeare or Stephanie Meyer. That’s because the quality of a photo is up to you, the photographer.

Just like with anything else, good photography requires a solid grounding in the basics. If you’re just getting started and need some direction, check out my Essential Guide to Taking Great Photos.

Still, maybe you’re comparing your photos to a professional photographer’s work and wondering why yours don’t look quite as good. Or maybe the photographer has a technique you want to try but don’t know where to start.

I’m going to give some behind-the-scenes info on the tricks pro photographers use to take their pictures to the next level, or create jaw-dropping effects. So grab your camera and read on.

High-dynamic-range photos became very popular in the last few years thanks to computer programs that make them easy to make. Basically, an HDR image combines images of the same scene with different exposure levels into a single image.

Usually you use three images, one overexposed, one underexposed and one with normal exposure. This gives the image a higher range of light levels than you can get from a single image. For a winter scene, especially at night, this can produce amazing results.

Of course, you need to plan ahead. Take your picture with a tripod so you get the same exact scene each time. Unless you know exactly what you’re after, take more than just three shots and cover a wide range of exposures. Then you can play around to see which image combinations give you the best results.

If you have an image you’ve already taken that you want to make HDR, you can use the Exposure adjustment in Pixlr or other editors to create three or more images, but it might not come out as well. Pixlr also has a Mimic HDR filter, but I didn’t have much success with it.

Once you have your multiple images at various exposure levels, you can use a free program like Luminance HDR or Fotor to turn them into an HDR image.

When you’re taking pictures, there’s the tendency to want to get the most “bang for your buck” with each shot. So you try to squeeze in that gorgeous landscape, get every inch of that gorgeous building or cram everyone into the frame.

While that’s not bad, it also isn’t always artistic. To get really memorable shots, you want to focus on details. What makes that landscape or building unique?

Instead of capturing a meadow full of flowers, shoot one or two close up. Ignore the wall full of stained glass windows in that church and capture one from an interesting angle, or even just a part of it.

With digital photography, you don’t have to worry about wasting film, so shoot hundreds of photos at various ranges. As you look at them later, you’ll get a sense of what worked and what didn’t.

In the last point, I mentioned angles. I’m sure if you review the photos you take, you’ll find that you tend to take most shots standing, which means they’re from the same height. So low objects are going to be shot from above, and tall objects are going to be shot from below.

Instead, try changing things up. Get a chair or ladder and shoot something tall straight on, or even from above. For low objects, get down to its level. In the case of babies and children, get all the way down to the floor. This changes the lighting and the backdrop, and can give you some excellent framing or effects you wouldn’t otherwise have gotten.

Or go more extreme with your typical angle. If you’re shooting something low, get even higher. For really tall objects, lie on your back to stretch the distance even more.

Shutter speed is a really big deal because it controls how much light hits your image sensor. A fast shutter speed is essential for catching action shots without blurring. Slow shutter speed is needed for good low-light photography without a flash.

Normally, cameras try to avoid slow shutter speed because it’s easy to get blurry images. However, if you put your camera on a tripod for stability and choose “shutter priority” mode, you can pull off some cool tricks.

Note: On a DSLR, shutter priority mode will be the options on the dial labeled “S” or “Tv.” It lets you choose the shutter speed and the camera will choose a good aperture to avoid overexposure or underexposure. In some cases, you’ll want to experiment with going full manual and choosing a slow shutter speed with a wider aperture. On smartphones, you’ll find the shutter and aperture settings in the camera settings.

If you set your shutter speed to stay open for a few seconds, you can point your camera at a city and get the “light blur” effect. You see the buildings perfectly sharp, but the car headlights and taillights turn into light streaks.

If you set your shutter speed from a few seconds to a minute, you can use a light source like a flashlight or glow stick for “light painting.” Anything that’s stationary in front of the camera will stay sharp, but the light will blur so it looks like lines of light in the air.

You can even jump in front of the camera and write words, draw images or just create patterns. As long as you don’t stay in one spot for too long, you’ll blur out of the photo, leaving just the background and light.

If you want to slow down your shutter speed to an hour or more, you can point it at the sky and get star trail pictures. You just want to make sure there are few sources of light around or it will wash out the sky.

So, get away from the city and shoot when the moon isn’t out. Also, don’t use any artificial light while shooting. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is and what kind of great shots you can get.

Black-and-white photography is a quick way to make a classy portrait photo or atmospheric cityscape. However, the black-and-white mode on your camera is not the way to do it.

In that mode, the camera sensor only captures a fraction of the information that it can. Plus, if you want a color version of the photo later, or want to pop a single color, you can’t. Instead, take a color picture and then change it to a black-and-white photo in a photo editor.

In Photoshop, load your image and copy it to a new layer. Then go to Layer>>New Adjustment Layer>>Channel Mixer. In the free GIMP, go to Colors>>Components>>Channel Mixer.

At the bottom of the Channel Mixer dialog, click “Monochrome.” Now your image is black and white. However, you can adjust the Red, Green and Blue sliders to bring out various parts of the photo.

Dragging the slider to the right for a color will make the parts of the image that were originally that color lighter. Dragging to the left will make them darker. Experiment to create a more dynamic image than you would have gotten otherwise.