If you pursue photography as a hobby, chances are you've ended up in a creative rut at one point or another. If you're interested in taking more than basic family snapshots and vacation photos, you can spend a little time experimenting with different approaches to capturing images.
These five techniques can help you capture images that stand out from the crowd, and will hopefully stir your creative juices.
When shooting with a standard lens, your focus plane is fixed and parallel to your image sensor. But by tilting the lens in a different direction the focal plane changes as well. This can be used for different effects, but has seen a common resurgence in creating images that display the miniature effect.
These photos, generally taken at a distance, blur areas outside of a small strip of the frame, giving the impression that the photograph is a close-up view of a diorama or model.
But that's only one application. Tilting the lens can be used to create a composition with a sharp diagonal focal plane, or to isolate a subject from others that are the same distance from the camera as with the shot of the headstone below. The shift function is often used by architectural photographers. It allows you to move the lens up, down, left, or right, without introducing tilt. This is useful if you'd like to extend the height of your camera, but are limited by your tripod. You can get a straight-on shot of a building without introducing keystone distortion that occurs when you tilt the camera up to get all of it in frame.
Many modern digital cameras have a miniature mode if that tickles your fancy. But if you really want to take control over perspective, you can invest in a perspective control lens like the Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8; remember that these are specialised tools that are anything but cheap. Budget-minded shooters who want to adjust tilt can look into the Lensbaby Composer Pro, Muse, or Spark – each will let you adjust tilt. If you shoot with a mirrorless camera like the Olympus PEN E-PL5 or Sony Alpha NEX-3N you can add an EzFoto tilt adapter, which adds that ability to older, manual focus SLR lenses.
You'll need a tripod to do this one right. You can get some very interesting images by keeping the shutter open for long periods of time. If you're in an urban environment it's easiest to do this at night – take the camera out and find an interesting frame. Stop the lens down a bit, set your camera to the lowest ISO possible, and set the self-timer to avoid camera shake. You can play around with exposure time – sometimes you can go for as long as a minute for a night-time street scene, and if you want to capture star trails, exposures can last much longer.
If you're more of a landscape shooter, you'll find that it's a neat way to get a smooth look from running water in streams and waterfalls. If you work during daylight hours you may want to invest in some neutral density filters for your go-to lenses. These filters block out a good portion of light, which is necessary for long exposures during daylight hours.
It's possible to capture images without the use of a lens. Pinhole photography has a long history, and serious enthusiasts still build their own analogue pinhole cameras. But if you want the instant gratification of digital, consider a pinhole body cap for your SLR – they're readily available for sale on eBay. They capture images with a soft, dreamy look. Nothing is really in focus, and photos are prone to odd colour shifts. It's a neat way to capture images with a serious aesthetic without spending hours in Photoshop.
Pinhole lenses have very, very narrow apertures, so don't expect to see anything when you look through the viewfinder of your SLR. It's best to use your camera on a tripod and in live view mode to set up your shot. Most models for SLRs deliver a 50mm field of view, but Micro Four Thirds shooters can opt for the Wanderlust Pinwide, which has a wide-angle design.
There are times when you want a wider perspective on a subject. You can always use a wide-angle lens and crop a panoramic viewpoint, but that comes at the cost of a lot of detail. I prefer to frame my shot so that the right amount of sky and land are in the image, and take a series of exposures from left to right. A tripod is helpful to get an even stitch, as it helps you keep the camera level as you pan, but it's not essential. Make sure you get a good amount of overlap in each shot, and do leave yourself a bit of room for cropping at the top and bottom of the frame, just in case you're not totally level.
It's best to set the camera to manual mode for the series; you don't want the exposure changing from shot to shot. Once you've captured a sequence of images for stitching, you can use software to combine them into a single photo. I used Photoshop CS6 to stitch the view of San Francisco together, but there is also an open source application, Hugin, available. You'll be impressed with the amount of detail that a stitched shot can capture – the full San Francisco photo is 64 megapixels in size.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging
Images snapped using this technique capture details in shadows and highlights that would not be possible in a single exposure. To do this you'll need to capture at least three photos – one underexposed, one properly exposed, and one overexposed. Some cameras have an option for exposure bracketing, which will let you do this automatically, while others have the ability to blend an image.
Take these photos into software – Photoshop, Nik HDR Efex Pro, and Photomatix are popular options – and it will combine them into an image that shows details in the shadows and highlights alike.
You can adjust the intensity of the effect. When done subtly, images show a bit more texture and life than a standard exposure would on its own. But some folks prefer a very intense HDR look. You'll only know which you prefer with some experimentation.
Just a starting point
One or more of these approaches to photography may appeal to you, but the key to get the most out of your hobby is to hone your skills to capture images that you are happy with. There are dozens of things you can try if you want to stretch your limits. You can invest in off-camera lighting in order to take control over the way your subjects are illuminated, or go analogue and shoot a bit with an older manual film camera or a modern Lomo toy camera like the Diana F+. The possibilities might not be endless, but they certainly aren't scant.
For more photography advice, see our guide to getting the best photos from your point-and-shoot camera.