WhenI'm out shooting, people often ask me about the equipment I use. I'm happy to talk equipment, but at some point it's necessary to talk photography. Painting with light. It doesn't matter how expensive your equipment, or how much you have, if you don't understand the very definition of the word photography, you will never achieve images with which you'll be satisfied, or better yet, of which you will be proud. So here's my 10-cents worth for better photography.
Buy a hand-held light meter. The tried-and-true Weston is an excellent start, and comes with an Invercone (more on that momentarily). Why a light meter? Your in-camera meter, the one your highly automated camera uses to calculate the exposure, will often mislead you. If you're working on transparency film you have only three F-stops (say F5.6 to F11) to play with or your exposure is useless. With color negative you'll have five F-stops, and with black-and-white film you'll have seven F-stops. As you'll recall, Ansel Adams did beautiful B&W photography - he had the whole seven stops with which to play!
There are several ways to take an exposure reading:
Use a Kodak Gray Card. The reflects the ambient light at 17%, average light, and you can use your camera meter (which measures reflection from the card), or a hand-held reflective meter. The quickest way is to put the Invercone (there it is again) on the Weston; the Invercone, a semi-hemispherical disc, collects and averages incident light (that is, light falling on the subject being photographed) to the same 17%. What this does is put all flesh tones at the center of the exposure curve, and you have a perfect exposure.
Now, if you don't want to spring for meter, use this professional trick. At the position where your subject will be, take an in- camera meter reading of the palm of your hand. If your are white-skinned the reading will be one F-stop smaller than the required exposure, because light skin reflects about 22% of light. All you need to do is open your F-stop to the next
level (F16 to F11) and your exposure will be on the money. If you have dark skin, practice till you know what adjustment you need too make.
Next, refine your viewing technique. I used a 2.5" x 2.5" transparency holder. It's black, so cuts out extraneous light. Hold it about four inches from you shooting eye and you will see what a standard leans will capture (35mm camera, 50mm lens; medium-format camera, 2.5" x 2.5" negative, 80mm lens. By moving the frame towards you, or away, you can gauge what size and type of lens you should use for the effect you're seeking.
Be aware! Always, always be looking around you, looking for framings that will excite you.
If you're serious about being a better photographer, study every photographic image you see. Keep a journal; paste the photograph inside and describe what you like and don't like. This will help you build a knowledge of the type of pictures you want to take, and how to do it.
Always carry your camera where possible - you never know when an incredible image will present itself.
Take your camera out in the rain, fog, and snow. Look for unusual effects - boats in the fog present a great opportunity. By varying exposure you can increase the density of the fog, effectively separating the boats from whatever background the fog is hiding. Be creative!
Visit churches of all sizes. There are many beautiful pictures to be made if you just walk around and look.
Although you may not believe it, the same is true of cemeteries!
Be a people watcher, and be really interested in each individual. They'll say something that suggests an image, all you have to do is capture it.
Don't become an "I'll fix it in Photoshop" photographer. Photoshop is intended to add effects to images, or to combine images, not to correct the red-eye in last night's party shots.
Learn to get everything right in the camera. When I started making product photographs I had an idea for a wine company: red and white wine coming from the neck of the same bottle. No Photoshop then; I had to cut the bottom off the bottle, place two five-gallon tubs filled with red and white liquid on a step- ladder, above the level of the bottle, then insert two syphon tubes into the bottle. By judicious use of lighting, the dark- green glass was opaque; I opened the syphons and got my image. The client was extremely happy.
Join a camera club, or class. Talk photography with you fellow- members, it's amazing how much knowledge they have. It'll also provide competition, forcing you to sharpen your skills. And it's good fun!
When you download your images, be ruthless! Delete anything that doesn't grab your attention - become a critic.
Learn to CROP, both in the view-finder and on the light table. Cropping can change an image dramatically by changing perspective and point-of-view. There are several good books on the subject, available from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Invest in a couple.
I know the above seems a lot, but it isn't, realy. And don't worry if you have what seems to be inferior equipment to your peers. A camera is a tool, a box that collects and focusses light onto the film or digital target. I started with a Kodak Box Brownie when I was seven - it's what YOU do that makes the images memorable, not the camera.
I know the title said "15"; this is a freebie. Just remember to have fun. Also remember that there's a lot of nice folks there - you may meet the person of your dreams!