What I've Learned From Taking A Photography Class

Beautiful house with trees
I've loved photography for a long time now but I always still felt like an amateur because I was just going with my gut with everything. I owned a DSLR but I had no idea how to properly use it, I was still shooting in auto mode for crying out loud - I really had no idea what I was doing! When I found out my uni offered a photography course I knew this was my chance to finally actually learn how to take amazing pictures. I also had the best time in that class! Here are 10 things I've learned from taking a photography class.

Disclaimer: Many pictures in this post were taken as part of a group project and are used with permission from the other group members.

Note: The class was focused on photography with a DSLR, system or bridge camera so this post features a few lessons that are specific to those kinds of cameras (especially the first three). However, this does not mean that you cannot take amazing pictures with a phone or compact camera. If you want to go about photography more professionally though a professional camera (mostly DSLR, system, or bridge cameras) is a natural first step.

Shoot Raw

This was the first (and by far the most important thing) I've learned in this class. I didn't even know what a raw format was before. It´s a file format just like .jpeg but it comes with a lot of benefits - especially when it comes to white balance. White balance basically defines what is a true white in your picture. Imagine looking at a white wall. The wall might be slightly blue or orange depending on the light source. Yet your brain can interpret that light source and you still see the wall as being white, not orange or blue. The white balance tells your picture what colour (or temperature) your light source is and therefore defines a true white. When you shoot in jpeg your camera already assumes what is a true white, when you shoot in raw you can later define the exact white balance you want. Similarly, in jpeg you define the colour spectrum beforehand whereas in raw you can change it up later again. For example, even if you shoot in grayscale with raw the picture still has all the colours embedded.

Here's an example. I shot this picture on a cloudy day which naturally has about a temperature of 6000 Kelvin. I intentionally set my camera´s white balance to artificial light which sets it around 3200 Kelvin. Here's (from top left to bottom right) the jpeg file, the jpeg file edited by trying to adjust the colour, the raw picture transformed into jpeg without editing, and finally the raw picture edited with an adjusted white balance.


jpeg image
jpeg image with "adjusted" white balance
raw image
raw image with adjusted white balance

The downside to shooting in raw is the file size - it´s so much bigger! But with a good SD card that should be a really small problem for the better quality. Plus, you need some way to transform the raw file into a jpeg later. There is lots of software for this though - you might just have to experiment a little as to which software is best for you. I highly suggest switching to the raw format in your camera! It will possibly be in your menu under "Picture Quality". I usually shoot in raw + JPEG Fine and with the white balance set to automatic. I then try to adjust the white balance by eye. I really want to stress though that you don't have to use the perfect white balance for a shot. Photography is creative and if you'd rather have the picture transfer a certain mood a "wrong" white balance can work amazingly!

bright red leaves in front of street

Shoot Manually

Another really big point is the mode in your camera. As I said before, I was shooting in auto mode before taking this class which usually gave me good results. The auto mode basically adjust the exposure of your picture as the camera defines as best for the lighting situation. There are some ways to enhance the auto mode but I'm not going to go into these as I personally find the manual mode much better!

In the manual mode you adjust iso, aperture and shutter speed yourself. Granted this is much harder to get right and takes a bit more time but it also makes for greater results as you have more control over your pictures. I'm going to to into the parameters that define exposure in the next point, don't worry. For now it´s important to know that manual shooting is a big point that separates amateurs from professionals. The shooting mode is usually to be found on the small wheel on top of your camera. The M defines the manual mode. But don't worry even in manual mode your camera doesn't leave you out in the rain - there's a little scale in the bottom right corner of your pictures (in live view as well as by looking through the camera) that shows you if the camera defines the exposure as good (0), too dark (left) or too light (right).

Macro of crumbled rainbow highlighter on yellow background

Get Your Exposure Right

As promised, here's your explanation of how to get your exposure right when shooting manually. Three parameters define the amount of light that is captured by the sensor of your camera. The shutter speed defines how long the shutter opens and lets light hit the sensor. The longer your shutter speed the more light will hit your sensor. A long shutter speed comes with the side effect of motion blurring - meaning that if something moves while taking the picture it will be blurred. You can protect the image from your own/the photographer´s movement by choosing an maximum shutter speed that's the part of a second that your lenses focal distance is. For example, my lens has a focal distance of 55mm, so the maximum shutter speed I use for shooting out of my hand is 1/50 of a second.
Here is the difference between shooting the same picture with the shutter speed at 1/50 (left) and 1/125 (right) with all other parameters staying the same:

shutter speed 1/125
shutter speed 1/50

Aperture defines the size of the hole in your lens that allows light to hit the sensor. Imagine the aperture as the pupil of your camera that can adjust its size. The bigger your aperture (aka the smaller the number/f-stop - I know, this is confusing) the more light can hit your sensor - aka the bigger the hole is. Your aperture also defines the depth of field in your pictures. The smaller number your aperture (aka the bigger the hole) the smaller the part of your picture that is sharp. Usually the best focus is found with an aperture between 5.6 to 8. The maximal wideness of your aperture is defined by your lens. The little f defines the smallest f-stop your lens can achieve. As you zoom into a picture the maximum aperture gets smaller though (aka a bigger f-stop). Personally, I love blurry backgrounds so I try to keep my f-stop as low as possible.
Here is the difference between shooting with an f-stop of 16(left) and 5.6 (right) with all other parameters staying the same:

f-stop 16
f-stop 5.6

The Iso is the easiest part of exposure. Iso defines the general sensitivity to light of your sensor. The higher your iso the lighter your picture will be. However, turning up your iso has the side effect of adding more noise or grains to your picture - meaning your pictures just won't look as sharp. Therefore it´s best to keep your iso as low as possible. However, it´s better to have a grainy picture than a blurred one - so when shooting out of your hand rather turn you iso up than your shutter speed.
Here is the difference between shooting with an iso of 100 (left) and 1000 (right) with all other parameters staying the same.

iso 100
iso 1000

The three parameters are inherently related to each other. For example, in a good lighting situation you can turn your iso down and up your shutter speed and still get the same exposure. There are rules as to how much turning a parameter up or down changes the light that hits your sensor but in all honesty, I've kind of forgotten those. With my usual shoots I don't need to be able to mathematically define how much I´d have to change a parameter as I can just do it by trial and error. However, it is super useful to know that these three are related!

pink flowers in front of house

Know Your Light Source

I've talked about exposure a lot now and there's obviously another big factor in how bright your picture is: your light source. Here's also where a bit creative part can come in; you can work with different coloured lights, with natural light, with flashes, with studio lights and with different angles of light hitting your object.

I've really taken away two things in the part of light sources. One, the wider the angle from your object to the size of your light source the lighter and softer your picture will be - no hard shadows to be found. If you choose a smaller angle (aka a smaller light source or one farther away) the shadows will be more pronounced and therefore seem a lot harder. The angle of the light source can truly change your whole picture. Another way of getting softer light is using a diffusor on your light source. The diffusor makes the light source seem bigger in relation to the object. That's why you get hard shadows with direct sunlight but soft shadows with a cloudy sky - the clouds are your diffusor. Second, when shooting with flash choose a really short shutter speed. The flash will only be there for a millisecond so using a longer shutter speed will actually make your light darker because more dark light hits the sensor than actual flash.

I really do want to get a flash and big studio lights as they make taking pictures so easy and so much fun. But realistically you don't need either to take good pictures!

White rose in front of background of bottles and pink light
White Rose in Bottles with Background of Bottles and pink light

Good Editing Is Everything

Now, I've never been someone to not edit my pictures. I really enjoy the different effects I can get out of a certain picture. One thing I've definitely learned though is that no matter how awesome the picture is when you shoot it it won't look stunning until you've edited it. We were lucky enough to experiment with studio lights and amazing tools to get pretty great shots. I've taken some of them to show you the difference good exigent can make. Unedited they're all good pictures but the editing really makes them stand out. I find that even more pronounced with my blog pictures when I don't have perfect lighting!

Portrait with colourful prism
Portrait With Colourful Prism
Jo Malone Perfume Bottle In Different Coloured Lights
Jo Malone Perfume Bottle In Different Coloured Lights
colourful portrait
colourful portrait
colourful portrait

On a sidenote here I personally found out that expensive editing software might actually be worth its money. Adobe´s Photoshop and Lightroom are the industry standard for editing so I went ahead and tried both of them (Adobe allows you a 7-Day free trial). I can definitely see Photoshop´s benefits and it´s amazing how much you can do with it. You can erase under eye circles with basically three clicks! However, I cannot really imagine using it for my everyday editing. Lightroom, on the other hand, is a software I´ve absolutely fallen in love with. I truly cannot wait until I own this software. It´s so easy and intuitive to use and has so much more tools than the free editing software I've been using until now.

People in front of bokeh

Bokeh Forever

Bokeh are completely unsharp elements of your picture - usually it´s those blurry light dots in the background. I thought they were a cool effect before but now I'm absolutely in love with them - they make every picture 100x more beautiful! Plus, I totally smile much more when I'm taking pictures with bokeh - just ask my other group members... I must've looked like an absolute idiot! I've also started yelling "bokeh!" whenever they appear in films or tv shows - it might be even more annoying to watch anything with me now.

Empty Bottles in front of bokeh

You can achieve bokeh by having the object placed pretty far away from a small light source (mainly fairy lights), then you zoom in as far as you can and open up your aperture as far as possible (small number). Now there's still a lot of trial and error involved but that's the basic way to go. Bokeh are absolutely much easier to achieve if the smallest f-stop of your lens is very small. The following picture was taken with a ball of steel wool that we dragged apart so that there was a nice hole inside. Then we attached a colourful flash that lit the steel wool directly and took a picture with the steel wool directly in front of the lens - again it was a lot of trial and error but steel wool definitely makes for amazing bokeh!

Portrait with Bokeh

Know Your Camera

Have you ever tried shooting with a camera you don't really know? I have and it truly sucks! But that's a good sign as it means that I'm so comfortable with my own camera and can work it effortless. It´s definitely useful to know all the software aspects of your camera. There are so many things your camera can already show you about a picture you took. You should explore the camera menu and see what your camera can do and what might be useful to you. However, it´s much more important to know your way around the buttons on your camera. I think every camera has shortcuts to adjust iso, aperture and shutter speed so you don't have to go into the menu to change them. Here's how it works on my Nikon D5200:
Shutter Speed Shortcut Nikon D5200
Aperture Shortcut Nikon D5200
Iso Shortcut Nikon D5200
(from left to right: shutter speed, aperture, iso)

I've also found it really interesting to see that in the live view (aka seeing the picture your about to take on the little screen) you can actually zoom into the picture while shooting and adjust the focus perfectly (if you work with manual focus). Knowing your camera can only be achieved by working with your camera and really getting to know it but it definitely works wonders. It cuts down the time it takes to shoot and I find it much more creative to work fast and be able to do everything within seconds. Also then I don't have to think about my settings so much and can just focus on the creative aspect.

Black & White Portrait

Creating A Great Background

I love clear and mainly white pictures - especially a white or general calming background is often key for me. However, being a student it can be tough - I don't have a spare room that I can furnish so it´s perfect for shooting, I have to focus my room mainly on living in it. But there's actually quite an easy trick on how you can achieve a great background: Position a big blanket (I get mine mostly from Primark as they are so cosy and affordable) in your background. You can either tape them to a colourful wall or drape them over something. Personally, I build a wall of pillows on the edge of my bed and then put a blanket over them. In the photography class we taped big black blankets on the walls.

When you take pictures now you already have a unicolored background. However, you'll most likely still see the texture of the blanket which makes it look a little bit weird in my opinion. I've talked about the aperture and depth of field before and here's a nifty trick on how to make use of that. If you move your object far enough away from the blanket  (the actual distance depends on your chosen f-stop) it suddenly will look completely smooth and like an actual wall in the colour of your blanket. The reason all portraits look like they were taken in front of a black wall is because we were standing far enough away from the black blankets hanging on the wall. If you look at the pictures in my last post (where I talk about loneliness, independency, and everything in between) it looks like they were taken in front of a white wall - in truth that's just a blanket draped over pillows and I achieved the wall-like look with this exact trick. Awesome, isn't it?!

Paiting A Colourful Background with Lights Empty Perfume Bottles

Leave Hands Out Of The Picture

Here's a very fun point I've learned: Our hands look so weird. They're probably the hardest part of a body to photograph. so unless you find a very relaxed and non-weird looking position for them try to leave them out of the picture. That's why I stopped photographing swatches on the back of my hand and now rather do them on my arm - it looks way more natural! If you've ever tried to take pictures of the back of your hand you know how ridiculously hard it is to find a position that looks natural! There are some lucky shots though - but have to be very lucky or know exactly how to position them. So the easiest solution is to leave them out completely.

Empty bottles and Fairy Lights with Person in Background

Change, Change, Change

Even if you have a vision of your perfect shot don't just stick to that. I find the best pictures are usually those that were born out of the moment. Whenever I shoot something I try to switch up things as much as I can - I´ll adjust my camera settings, I´ll add new probs or lose some others, I change the angle completely, etc. That way I can feel completely creative and often get the best results. That's why it´s best for me to use this little cheap Ikea table as my base - it´s so light and I can easily turn it around, walk around it and just generally move to the best light spot.

In our class we usually worked in 5 stations and switched every half hour. That way we got to experiment a lot with different lights or probs. It did make us look at shoots more creatively and find new angles to different situations. I try to use this also in my own shoots. Whatever isn't set in stone in my shoot I try to switch it up to maybe find the perfect shot by accident.

painting with light "Love" in the background of a rose and a bottle on a mirror

Have Fun

In the end, photography is a very creative discipline. Of course there are some technical things to know but nobody can really tell you that you shot something wrong if this was exactly your intention. Personally, I find it insanely hard to be creative when I'm in a serious mindset or feel stressed. That´s why I make a point in having fun with all of my shoots - there's always in the background and I might be singing or dancing around (whether I'm shooting people or products). I always try to plan in enough time for every shoot (at least an hour for each blog post). That way even if I'm done faster I cannot really feel stressed about it.

Portrait with flying hair

It does depend on how your work as a creative person though. I always feel like photography is important (especially if you're a blogger) but it´s something I used to enjoy way before I knew about blogs and I never want it to feel like a strenuous task and therefore I make it as much fun as I can. I mean look at those pictures with my hair flying around, me making a grimace - are they perfect? No. Did we intend to shoot these when we started? No. They are something that was born out of the creative moment and some giggles we had and they ended up being pretty amazing and I love them. Similarly, you can have fun with product shoots as well - I like to try ridiculous positions for products (like flowers inside a lamp) to see if they make for good pictures. It´s a lot of fun!

Portrait with Grimace

Phew, this was quite a long post! And This is by no means all that I've learned in that class but it´s definitely the basics that I find are the most important for how much my photography has improved since starting the class. It might not be always directly visible in my pictures but I know it feels a lot different! I finally don't feel like a complete amateur anymore! I really do hope this was helpful for you too - I'm by no means an expert in photography now but if you have any questions feel free to ask me. I´ll do my best to answer them from my own experience (or additional research if I have no clue either). These are pretty much general photography tips, photography for blogging is sometimes a little bit special. But as I said before photography is a creative discipline so don't let anyone tell you that you did something wrong. Every picture is a statement and if someone doesn't understand that, it´s their fault.

What's your best photography tip? Do you have a photography routine?

17 comments

  1. This is amazing! I always try to improve my photography but never actually thought of attending a photography class. I should really search for some near me. Thank you for sharing your experiences. x

    Antonia || Sweet Passions

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    1. I had the thought so many times but often photography classes can be really expensive. I was so happy when I found out my uni offered one for free. It truly was an amazing experience!
      xx Lisa

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  2. I love this post! It's so good, such good tips! I really want to do a photography course because I think it would be super helpful! I always try and remember to shoot in raw, but always forget and then I get so bored with editing endless photos, but your shots are beautiful! Abi | ramblingsofablonde.co.uk

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    1. Thank you so much! I've found it really helpful to finally learn more about photography. Following my gut was a good first step but there's a point at which it didn´t get me any further anymore.
      Yes, the editing can be a lot of work. I kind of have to be in the right mood to do it too but then it´s a lot of fun!
      xx Lisa

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  3. This is such an amazing post! especially for those who are trying to learn to get better at taking pictures!!

    Sophia xo //https://sophiaaaxo.com

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    1. Thank you so much, Sophia!
      xx Lisa

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  4. This is such an interesting post and so helpful, I'll definitely be taking all of these tips on board so thank you, also your photos look amazing! X

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    1. Thank you, Mollie! I'm glad I could help!
      xx Lisa

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  5. This is a brilliant post, so helpful! I can't wait to try some of your tips out with my camera!

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    1. Thank you so much! Let me know how you get on with them :)
      xx Lisa

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  6. What a lovely post Lisa! I love how in-depth you went with your tips and advice, you clearly learnt lots from your classes. I don't have an advanced camera at all, but I'll keep some of these simple tips in mind for future! I love your photos they look fab.

    Fiona xx

    The traffic jam of life

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    1. Thank you so much! I still have a compact camera as well as I really need to invest in a good lens to take my swatches with (I can only stretch my arms up to a certain point :D) - they can be super helpful too and create such pretty pictures! I do love working and experiment with my DSLR though, it makes me feel much more professional.
      xx Lisa

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  7. This was a great read. I took a photography course a year ago and I fell out of the habit of using manual again....what I mean is I got lazy. This gave me a nice wee shake! I need to spend more time. Really great tips, nice reminders too :) Thank you! Excellent photos too.

    Honestly Aine

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    1. Thank you. I'm glad I could help out. I really hope my excitement for the manual mode stays. For now I don't find it too difficult though, especially since I learned the shortcuts on my camera and don't have to go back and forth between the menu and shooting!
      xx Lisa

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  8. This is such a great post, super informative and easy to read. I'm hoping that I can take a photography class sometime soon once I get my DSLR camera. Your photos are gorgeous too!

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If you enjoyed my little ramble, why don´t you leave me a comment with your thoughts on it? Every little comment makes me really happy and I will try to reply to all of you.