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Tips for Improving #RangeDayFriday Firearm Photography

Man shooting a long gun under a blue sky

Whoever said “a picture is worth a thousand words” obviously hasn’t spent much time perusing the plethora of questionable gun photos on Instagram. From bad lighting and obstructed views to blurriness and weird angles, it seems like some of these photos were taken using first generation camera phone.

Fortunately, we’re here to help. In honor of our monthly #RangeDayFriday gun giveaways, we put together some tips to help your photos stand out from the crowd. Whether you’re looking to increase your number of likes or simply want a little help improving the gun and range photos you take with your smartphone, here’s what you need to know. Digital cameras have certainly made photography much easier than shooting film, but basic skills are still needed to get good pictures. Here’s a few tips to improve your photography.

before and after photos showing editing effects
Modifying a photo’s shadows, highlights, cropping and vignette in a photo editing application can make a photo more dramatic.

For those who take pictures with their cell phone rather than a DSLR camera, download a photography app that allows manual control of the phone’s camera. This way you can have the same control over your ISO, exposure, shutter speed, aperture, and focus as you would have on a traditional camera.

The primary advice that professional photographers offer is to turn off “Auto” and learn to use the manual camera controls. Your camera’s auto exposure feature guesses what the subject is and how it should look in the finished photograph. It takes the one-size-fits-all approach which, in reality, is better defined as one-size-rarely-fits-all. While many great pictures have been taken with the auto setting, the camera can be easily fooled by light or dark subjects and unusual lighting. The three primary camera controls are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO or ASA.

The ISO or ASA settings control how sensitive the camera is to light. The lower the setting is, the better your pictures will be. Higher sensitivity allows you to take pictures in lower light, but increasing it too much will add noise to the finished image, which degrades it. Keep it as low as you can, based on your subject.

Man shooting a long gun under a blue sky
Face your subject so that the sun is to the side, not directly in their face. This keeps them from squinting and puts sun on the gun as well.

The Shutter Speed controls how long the shutter is open. The longer is it open, the more light reaches the sensor. This allows shooting in lower light. The faster shutter speeds offer the ability to photograph moving objects.

If you are working with slow shutter speeds, I suggest using a tripod under 1/100 of a second. Even slight movement of the camera during exposure will show in the finished photo.

The Aperture, denoted in F-Stops, controls how much light enters the camera while the shutter is open. The larger the number, the smaller the aperture. Wider apertures allows more light to enter the camera, making it good for shooting in low light, but reduces depth of field (DOF).

DOF is the amount of the subject that is in focus. A large depth of field means the subject, both close and far, are in focus. A small, or shallow, DOF means that either the far, middle or close subjects are in focus.

photo studio lighting setup
Having a primary light off to the side in front of the camera and a second light near the camera as a fill light gives a nice effect for increasing detail.

I like to equate the combination of the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to filling a bathtub. The shutter speed is speed of the water that is filling the tub, falling gently or under pressure. The aperture is how much water is falling at the time—trickle or deluge. And the ISO is the size of the bathtub. Carefully balancing the combination of those three controls will enable you to control the brightness of your photographs, as well as how much is in focus. This short article can’t teach you all that you need to know, but there are lots of free resources online to learn more. I suggest to aspiring photographers that they take one shot on auto, then try to improve it using manual controls.

While exposure controls the effect the brightness of the finished image, lighting controls the mood, quality, and the ability to see detail. If outdoors, don’t place your subject in both sun and shade—pick one. If you are photographing in the sun, it is best to have the sun at your back, rather than the side or from the front.

If photographing a person, don’t face your subject directly into the sun, as that will cause them to squint. Turn them slightly sideways to the sun so they are not looking directly into the sun. If your subject is in shade with a bright area behind, ensure the exposure is determined in the shade. This is a great example of how manual exposure control is better, since auto exposure usually reads the bright areas, which would make your shaded subject too dark.

If you are working inside using photo lights, place your lights to the side of the camera rather than at the camera. This increases the reflectivity of the subject and shows more detail.

Woman wearing pink earphones shooting at an indoor range
The brass in the foreground adds as much to the picture as the shooter.

Like the other controls, manual control of focus is better than auto focus, because what the camera thinks should be the sharpest point may not be the same as what you want.

Photo editing can often improve a photo, even when taken with proper exposure. Adobe Photoshop is king of photo editors, but it’s expensive and can be hard to learn. There are numerous free or low-cost alternatives available. The most valuable tool in photo editing is the Level control, which allows you to change how dark the dark areas are and how bright the lighter areas appear. Adjusting those two points will make a good photograph great.

Unlike film photography that costs money with every shot and it took a week to process your picture, additional digital camera clicks don’t cost extra and you can instantly see your results. Play around and experiment with the camera’s controls and lighting. You will be amazed at what you can do!

Do you have a favorite photo editing app or a tip for better photos? Share your tips in the photo section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

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