Make Every Frame Count

Wanna know the fastest way to improve your photography skills? Pretend you’re shooting with film on your digital camera, whether it’s a dslr, a mirrorless camera, or a smartphone. Shoot deliberately.

woman in black long sleeved shirt using camera
Photo by Hamann La on

Say What?

Back in the dark ages of photography, photographers were limited to 12, 24, or 36 frames of a 35mm film. There was no snapping willy-nilly, hoping that you nailed the shot. You had to know what camera settings you needed. You had to plan ahead by choosing the right film ISO. You had to understand how to compose your image, and how to figure out how to determine what the light levels were so that you could pick the right aperture and shutter speed.

film canister on yellow background

If you didn’t, you wasted a precious frame.

There’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for a week for a photo printing lab to make your prints only to find out you’d ruined half of a roll because you forgot to change one of the settings.

How Does Pretending Help Me Improve?

By pretending that you’re shooting with film and have limited frames to work with, the idea is you’ll be forced to put more thought into your photography. There’s no “spray and pray” in green mode (auto) crutch. You have to put thought into getting a good shot.

That means learning about your camera, how it works, and applying that knowledge.

With time and practice, this will become instinctive.

How Does This Work?

Start by Limiting Your “Frames”

If you’re disciplined, you can just pretend that you have an arbitrary number of frames available to you.

If you need a little help: instead of using a SD card with a huge memory capacity, find a small SD card, say 2GB or so.

Set your camera’s jpeg file size (it may be called “quality”) to the best possible setting. If you already shoot in RAW, continue to photograph in RAW format.

As an example, for my camera, at its highest jpeg quality setting, I can take 134 frames with a 2GB SD card. If I shoot in RAW, which I do, a 2GB SD card would allot me 58 frames.

Learn About Your Camera

Grab your camera manual and learn what the different dials on your camera means. Figure out the answers to these questions:

  • Which dial does what?
  • How do you change the aperture, ISO, and Shutter speed?
  • How do you put your camera into Manual mode?
  • When do you use the other modes (AV, TV, etc)?

If you lost your camera manual, most camera companies have pdf versions of the manuals online.

Grab a copy of this very excellent book, as well: Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. Peterson does a great job of explaining the basics in layman terms. Highly recommend.

Learn by Doing

Limit yourself to an arbitrary, but low number — let’s say 50. Decide what subject you want to photograph, and, well, go do it. For example…

fog lingers around massive red rocks

Do you like landscapes? Go find a scenic spot. But before you whip out your camera, take a beat and think about it. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Is the sky interesting?
  • Are there distracting things in the foreground? Cars, a road, fence, ugly trashcan, weeds
  • Could this photograph be improved by moving over a few feet? Moving over many more feet? Getting higher or lower?
    • It may be helpful to take an empty frame to help you visualize what the image will look like.
  • Could this photograph be improved by shooting a different time of day?
  • Should this picture be under exposed? Or over exposed? Which will result in a more interesting picture?
  • What kind of depth of field do you want? Do you want some of the foreground out of focus, or should it be entirely in focus?

If you prefer portraits, consider questions like:

  • Is the light flattering?
    • Would it be better if the light came from a different direction? Could the model turn to/from it?
  • Are the shadows harsh or distracting?
    • Would diffused light be better? What can I do to diffuse it?
  • Can I see the eyes clearly, or are they too shaded?
  • How is my model’s pose? Is s/he relaxed or stiff?
  • Can I see their neck or are they hunched up?
  • If shooting outdoors, are there any background distractions like telephone poles or trees?

With time and practice, you’ll be able to evaluate your photography scene/subject on an instinctive level. It’ll be automatic, and you won’t have to put conscious, deliberate thought into it.

To develop that kind of innate knowledge and skill doesn’t happen without practice. You have to put deliberate effort into it.

Make every single frame count.

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