I suspect if asked the question “Would you rather be editing your images, or out there photographing that what you love?” only a select few of us photographers will raise our hands for the former! Photography is an incredibly creative art form and as artists, we want to be able to create beautiful imagery every time we click the shutter. For the most part, we want to spend more time creating and less time editing our images. There are several simple steps we can take to try and get the images as close to perfect (as we imagine it), right in camera a.k.a SOOC (straight out of camera).
#1 Pre-visualize the shot you want to achieve
Having an idea of what you want to shoot and planning for the shot can go a long way in helping you achieve the right results the first time around. Like anything else in life, have a plan of when you want to shoot, where you want to shoot, and what kind of image you want to create.
A golden hour shoot where I knew the kind of image I wanted this to be – this is SOOC and a little bit cool but I liked the halo effect on her hair and the framing with the tall grass.
With a few simple edits of temperature, contrast, tint and spot removal for some rogue blades of grass, I got the image that I envisioned when I clicked the shutter.
Do you want an image that is light and bright? Then plan on shooting during the day in a wide open space with lots of sunlight. Do you want to create an image that is dark and moody? Then look for locations that are not in direct sunlight, ones that have texture and tones that are on the darker side.
Resist the temptation to arrive at a location and immediately start clicking the shutter just because you want to take a picture of something. This does take some discipline but it can save you a lot of time and effort in the long run. Not to mention the hassle of storing images that really don’t convey a story and are really random in nature.
#2 Limit yourself to a select number of frames
This is a concept that transfers over from film days and I strongly encourage you to go out and shoot a roll or two of film (even a small disposable point and shoot camera). Challenge yourself to really tell a story in a limited amount of frames (typically 24 to 36 for 35mm cameras and even less for medium format cameras). You will immediately feel restricted and limit yourself to only shooting that which is interesting. And you will find yourself paying more attention to composition, lighting ,and technique when you limit yourself to a small number of frames like 16, 24 or 36.
#3 Go into Single Shot drive mode on your camera
If your DSLR has a burst mode capability, deactivate that functionality or change it to Single Shot. When you press the shutter, only one shot will be taken. The ability to hold down the shutter and fire away 5-6 frames is deactivated. Again this will help you focus on technique, technical
The image of the horse jumping the poles is soft as I missed the focus on the moving horse.
But the next rider was caught at the right moment of the jump. And by tracking the previous rider, I knew the general path of the jump and was able to get a sharp image.
Again this will help you focus on technique, technical aspects, and composition of each shot which in turn forces you to slow down and be more intentional with what you shoot. Yes, you may run the risk go having a blurry image, especially if your subject is moving. But after a few tries, you will learn to anticipate and track your subject at exactly the right time to get a sharp image (as seen below).
#4 Utilize the full capabilities of your camera
Most DSLRs today are sophisticated pieces of equipment with advanced computing technology built-in. They are built to read, analyze the scene, and make decisions based on what they have been programmed to do. But at the end of the day, they can still make mistakes by making incorrect decisions. You can avoid these errors by taking control of your camera.
A) Learn to shoot in Manual mode
By shooting in Program or Auto mode, you are relinquishing control to the camera and allowing it to make all the decisions. Shooting in Manual mode gives you, the user, the most amount of control and forces you to think about all the aspects of a good image like light sensitivity, depth of field, and movement before you click the shutter.
Over time, shooting in Manual mode where all the core elements like ISO, f-stop and shutter speed are adjusted by you the photographer and not the camera, will lead to images that are (almost) perfect right out of the camera. The histogram is a great way to validate if the image is structurally correct (subjective to your shooting style).
B) Use the preview function (LCD screen)
If your camera has a preview function (also known as the playback function), use that to view and analyze the image you have just taken. Is it sharp and in focus? is the properly litm, or is it too dark? If the composition is incorrect, the image is blurry, or the exposure is completely off, you can fix the problem, delete the image and retake the shot. The more you practice fixing the image right then and there, the fewer bad images you will take back with you to try and edit and salvage later in post-processing.
C) Use the histogram
You can take the review functionality up a notch by checking the histogram (if your camera has that information available) via the LCD screen. The histogram shares information like the quality of the shadows and highlights of the scene.
This image was intentionally shot this way – overexposed – because I was almost shooting into the sun and I really wanted that lens flare in the bottom right of the image.
I will throw out one caveat here – make sure you practice the art of reading and reviewing the histogram when you are shooting just for yourself or during test shoots, not during paid client gigs. On a client shoot, if you are messing with histograms and excessive review of the LCD, you may appear very unprofessional to your clients. They may perceive it as you don’t know what you are doing and that you lack confidence in your technical abilities. The good news is that by practicing enough on your own time, you will be confident to nail the shot right on the first go!
D) Get out of the mental mindset of, “I will fix it in post-production”
This is one of the worst dialogues you can have with yourself (I too have done this in the past). It encourages a mentality of laziness and the attitude of “spray and pray”. Firing away what appears to be hundreds of shots in the hope that at least a few will be worthwhile. Let post-processing be only for any artistic touches and not as a fix for basic things like exposure, color temperature (white balance), and tonality.
I absolutely love this image and the use of negative space. This is how I saw the scene in front of me and I had less than three seconds to take the shot. This is almost SOOC. I only cleaned out some traffic signs and brightened the highlights, an easy 2-second edit in Lightroom.
The basic premise of this article is actually quite simple. If you want to have a perfect or near-to-perfect image right out of the camera, learn how your camera works and behaves. And learn to use it to create images that you envision as representing your true artistic abilities.