10 ways to improve your photography skills

Chris Rutter delivers a crash course in photography basics to take your images to the next level.

Whether you have an interest in photography for professional or hobbyist reasons, it's an extremely useful skill to have within your creative arsenal. At the very least, you'll be able to take better portfolio pictures of your own work – and you might well find your client work being enhanced too.

But where do you start? What are the basics? And how can you take your photography to the next level? We've teamed up with our sister title, Digital Camera magazine, to bring you this essential crash course in camera skills.

From focusing and composition to white balance and lighting, this straightforward guide will cement your basic shooting skills, rid you of bad habits and leave you to concentrate on getting better images.

Whatever your skill level, here are 10 core skills that every photographer should master…

01. Take control of focus

Use individual AF points to focus on off-centre subjects

Leave your camera to its own devices and it will focus using the central focus point. While this will produce sharp images in many situations, for more creative photography it's better to take some control over the focus point. Your chosen subject won't always be in the centre of the frame, after all.

So the first skill you need to master is how to get your camera to focus on exactly the point that you want to be sharp. Your camera has a number of focus points spread across the frame – you can see them through the viewfinder – and these offer an excellent solution for focusing on off-centre subjects. You'll need to set your camera to its single-point autofocus mode, rather than the multiple or automatic selection.

The exact procedure for selecting individual focus points (and the number available) varies according to your camera, but generally on Canon models you have to press the AF point selection button, then rotate the input dial or use the selector on the rear of the camera. Look through the viewfinder as you do so, and you'll see the active AF point (in red) move around the frame.

Here we selected the focus point on the lower left to focus on the most dominant leaf

On most Nikon SLRs, once you've selected single-point autofocus you simply use the four-way controller on the back of the camera to highlight a different AF point.

The main downside to using the outer focus points on many cameras is that they aren't as sensitive as those in the centre of the frame. This means that they can struggle to focus in low light, if the subject is low contrast or you are using a lens with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or narrower. You may also find that there isn't a focus point exactly where you want the camera to focus.

In both cases you can manually focus the lens, or use a technique known as focus lock, where you highlight the subject with the active AF point and then half-press the shutter release to lock the focus distance before reframing the shot.

02. Focus on moving subjects

Learn which focus mode you need to use – Continuous autofocus is good for tracking moving subjects

Focusing on a static subject is all well and good, but not everything will wait patiently for you while you compose and capture your shot. For this reason, you need to master the art of focusing on moving subjects.

To do this, change the autofocus mode from Single Shot (Nikon) or One Shot (Canon), to Continuous or AI Servo mode. Now, once you've locked focus on your subject by half-pressing the shutter-release button, the camera will continue to refocus as the subject moves, until Below Use Continuous autofocus to track moving subjects you fully press the button to capture your shot.

You can choose from all of the focus points for off-centre subjects, but when shooting in low light, shooting low-contrast subjects or if using lenses with a maximum aperture narrower than f/5.6, you will find these outer points will struggle to focus.

Super tip: Why is my shot blurred?

When it comes to mastering focus, you also need to know why your shots aren't sharp. This can be down to focusing, but it may also be due to camera shake or the subject moving. You'll need to spot the cause, fix the problem, then try again.

  • Incorrect focusingIf the softness is due to incorrect focusing, you may find that areas in front or behind the subject are sharp. if you can't see any sharp areas, incorrect focusing will give a uniform blur all around each area of the image.
  • MovementYou can easily spot blur caused by camera shake by the characteristic 'streaking' of highlight areas. These indicate that the camera (or possibly the subject) has moved at some point during the exposure.

03. Get white balance right

Selecting the daylight white balance preset gives a good balance of warm foliage and cool blue skies here

You might forget all about setting the right white balance – especially if you shoot in raw, as then you can change it when you process your images later. However, you'll need to get the right white balance in-camera to be able to assess the exposure and colours of your shots and achieve the best results.

Your camera's Automatic White Balance setting generally does a pretty good job of capturing colours correctly in most lighting conditions, but it's not infallible.

The main situation in which you'll get better results by using one of the manual preset values is when your subject is dominated by a single colour or tone, such as a blue sky, orange sunset or even a large expanse of green grass.

The Automatic setting removes some of the warmth, while the Cloudy preset over-emphasises it

In these situations Automatic White Balance can set a value to counteract this strong colour, so you will get better results by selecting a white balance setting that suits the lighting conditions, such as Sunlight or Shade.

The actual white balance of the light at sunrise or sunset is close to the Tungsten or Artificial Light setting (3,200K). But if you set this preset you will lose much of the warmth that you want to capture in your shot. Instead, try setting the white balance to Daylight, or even Cloudy, to capture the orange glow in all its beauty.

Super tip: set a custom white balance

Take a shot of a white or grey subject that fills the entire frame (a piece of card is ideal) and is in the same position as the subject you want to shoot. Now select your camera’s Custom or Preset Manual white balance setting.

Next page: exposure compensation, high-contrast lighting and composition tips