In a nutshell, for the last few years my day job has been doing Lighting and Compositing work for Animated Features like Bolt and Arthur Christmas (if you're looking for a Lighter in LA, give me a call. :) No, really. I'm looking.) and have some background in software, so I might tend to approach some things from a technical angle. While I've used a camera for many years, I think I only really started taking photography seriously starting around 2007. I've never even done darkroom(though that's not a source of pride). I'm just sayin... I'm not a pro or anything.
I like swing dancing so it seemed like a natural thing to start shooting. I've been shooting mostly competitions like Camp Hollywood for a few years now. You can see in some of my early posts here that some of my early stuff wasn't really very good, but I've been trying to learn and improve, and honestly a lot of this is summarizing/explaining/interpreting what I've heard in various podcasts and classes.
So here goes... I'll start with a couple simple ideas and try to get more specific later.
The first idea is: Shoot Manual and shoot with intent.
Put your camera in manual mode. In a Canon SLR, that's the "M" on the main dial. For consumer cameras, it's a lot harder to find - you'll have to explore the menus or read the manual. In an iPhone, you probably need to find a specific app. But you should try to get independent control of the shutter/exposure, the f-stop, and the ISO/ASA/speed. In a consumer camera, you may only get access to two or even one of these. But the point is to get out of automatic mode, and start making decisions for yourself.
I really suggest getting an SLR because it's easier to get into manual mode. I use the Canon 30D and 5Dmark2. If you're starting out, the 20D, 30D, 40D, and 50D are an excellent starting point. The Rebel line shares much of the same electronics, but the Rebels have more plastic, are a little lighter(I think this makes them less stable), and I don't like their controls on the back. But that's personal preference. The Rebel line is more affordable, and has pretty much the same functionality as the 20D-50D line. I've heard rumors that the 60D is closer to the Rebel line than the 50D line, and some have indicated it's a step back from the 50D, but haven't checked it out for myself.
Any number of books, classes, and websites can describe the relationship between shutter, f-stop, and ISO, and you should start experimenting and learning the tradeoffs.
Next idea: Shoot a LOT of photos
Use a giant memory card (I have several 32 Gig), and shoot in RAW - this will give you more flexibility later. Shoot multiple shots of anything you consider interesting.
- Try the rapid-fire mode. Even if you're just taking candids at a birthday party or something, inevitably someone blinks or looks off to the side or something. Hold the shutter down for 2 or 3 shots. You can immediately check on the back display and delete the bad ones.
- Try a different focal length if you're using a zoom. Try some alternate framings. Specifically, try to get some more closeups. Most consumer cameras are targeted at going too wide to make sure you get something. But try getting in closer to get something good. Even with a prime lens, try taking a couple steps closer to your subject.
- Shoot from a different angle. Are all of your shots shot from about 5 to 5.5 feet off the ground? (like where a standing person's eye would be) Try crouching down. Try standing on a chair. Try lying down on the floor. With dance shots, the low angles are often more dramatic. Though it's a tradeoff - the lower you go, the more you're limited to not being able to see past the first one or two couples.
To put some numbers to this, at the US Open 2010, I shot roughly 10,000 photos. At Camp Hollywood 2011, I shot around 7900 photos. Not all of them are good though, which brings me to...
The last idea for this post: Delete a lot of photos - at least, don't post everything.
This goes back to the first concept of shooting with intent. I think pros probably display about 1 in 10 of what they shot. I'm not picky enough yet, so I'm around 1 in 4 or 1 in 5. At a sporting event, the pros are probably shooting thousands of shots, and maybe a dozen get published in a magazine. (Yeah, maybe I'm dating myself with the idea of magazines printed on paper and the idea of staff photographers.) For the US Open, I think I shared around 560 photos out of 10,000.
Sometimes, looking through various galleries, like when they're at the same event as me and think(not say), "You know, there are some great shots in there - like some better than mine, or some moments that I just plain missed. But there's a lot of mediocre ones too. If they had just only posted the gems, I would have thought they were a better photographer." I don't intend to be mean about it - I certainly have my share of mediocre and crappy shots. We all do. And honestly, I still get attached to some shots and post too many too.
I think though that deciding what to share or delete is an important step in growth. If you were limited to only show 1 in 4(or 1 in 10 if you're more advanced...) of your shots, how would you decide? In later posts, I'll discuss what I look for in my shots, and make a few suggestions. But for starters, try the exercise of looking through your own photos from an event and pick your favorite 25%, any criteria you want. Just try to come up with a reason why you chose one over another. This is harder than it sounds, and for something like Camp Hollywood, it takes me days, if not weeks to do.
Once you've chosen, try looking at the "favorites" set as a whole, and try to figure out if there was a common theme. Try to figure out what your criteria was, and it may even teach you a little something about yourself and your ideas. If you can articulate why your top 25% made the cut, try to apply those ideas to the next time you go out shooting.
Okay, okay, one more idea, kind of running with the analysis idea:
Look at some other people's photos, especially at the same event. If you can find some shots that you like better than others, try to figure out why and try to figure out how your favorite shots were done. Then try to do that too the next time you go out shooting. If you can't figure out how they did it, try email/PMing them, or the next time you run into them at a dance, ask them. I've found most photographers I've talked to and asked for tips are pretty receptive to sharing techniques.