What will HELP you improve your photography?

Johan van Zyl All Authors, Johan 4 Comments

In modern day life we look for hacks, quick fixes and want results immediately.  Think of any hobby/career where as soon as you start you immediately get results.  I can’t think of any!  Whether its exercise, drumming lessons, any sport…  It all takes time, practice and hard work.  Photography is no different.

There are some elements to photography that you need to understand to be able to take your photography to the next level.  Here is how I break down HELP, which certainly helped me personally with my photographic journey


It is vital that you understand what your Histogram is telling you.  It will show you what your exposure is across the scene and whether you have lost detail in your blacks or whites.  Once that detail is lost, it is very difficult to retrieve it, even in post processing.

As you can see in the graph above, tonal values are arranged across the bottom of the graph from left to right with left being the darkest, or pure black and right being the lightest, or pure white.  The vertical axes, or height of the points in the graph shows how much of your image is found at any particular brightness.

Once these points peak against the left corner, it means you have lost details in your blacks, and if its peaks and touches the right corner, you’ve lost details in your whites.

Here is the Histogram that goes with the above image.  Notice how it peaks in the darks which is from the foliage in the back, but overall it is evenly exposed.  The line is touching on the right (whites) which is from the white you can see on the Lioness’s face and chest.  It is however not peaking on the right so the whites will be able to be retrieved in post processing.

Here is the Histogram that goes with the above image.  Notice the massive peak on the left, even touching the sides.  This means I have lost detail in the blacks.  Does it matter in this particular image?  No because this Leopard was photographed at night, I only wanted enough detail in the Leopard.  The fact that it is dark around the Leopard in this case doesn’t matter.  Your Histogram will often look like this if you are creating rim lit image where all you want is the outline of your subject.  At the end of the day it is all about what you would like to create.


A game changer when it comes to your Photography.  Exposure allows you to control the exposure of your scene.  You can make the dark areas darker, and the bright areas brighter, but why would you want to do that?

Remember your camera doesn’t see colour.  Your camera sees Black (on the left of the Histogram) Grey (Middle of the Histogram) and White (right of the Histogram).  In any particular scene your camera will try and balance the exposure for you automatically.  If the majority of your scene is bright skies, your camera will try and make it darker to ensure that it is not overexposed.  If the majority of your scene is dark, your camera will lighten it so it is not overexposed.

Have your ever Photographed a Bird against a bright sky?  You will find the sky is correctly exposed but the bird is just a black blob right?  Remember you camera sees what takes a reading on the majority of your scene (in evaluative or matrix metering) which in this case is the bright sky, and will try and darken it.  Your bird in this case is darker than the sky so will also be darkened, thus loosing detail.  In this case you want to override what your camera is trying to do by overexposing the scene.  Does it matter that your sky is then totally blown out?  If it means getting detail in your bird then no.

Here is an image of a Purple Roller as shot.  Notice how the Exposure in the sky is good, but there is no detail in the bird.

Here is the same image, but in this case I overexposed by +1 and 1/3.  See how the detail in the bird comes out?  Does it matter that the sky is blown out?  No, the story here is about the bird and there are no details in the sky that add any significance to the image.

The same goes for having a light subject against a dark background.  Think of your Big Cats, Lion, Leopard, Cheetahs.  They are all light in colour.  Especially during the rainy season when the vegetation is lush and green, they will more often than not be brighter than the background.  Remember you camera doesn’t see colour, it sees the green as dark and tries to make it lighter.  What happens to your Big Cat?  Jip it also gets lighter which means it might be overexposed.

See how the overall scene is quite dark with the green foliage, your camera tries to lighten it up.

By underexposing just a little bit -2/3 your Leopard just stands out a bit more and the green colours also become more apparent.

Something to always keep in mind is that exposure compensation also affects your shutter speed.  Think of it this way, if you’re making the image brighter (overexpose) your shutter will have to stay open longer to allow more light in (slower shutter speed).  If you’re making an image darker (underexpose) your shutter doesn’t need to stay open as long (faster shutter speed).

If ever you’re in doubt whether to over or underexpose, always take one image of your scene on neutral or zero exposure compensation and go from there.

Need More help with this?

Check out this post on exposure compensation in wildlife photography...

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Post processing has become a big part in Digital Photography.  Knowing how to use Lightroom to its optimum will not only help you bring your images to life, but will also arrange your files in a neat and organised way.  With the new option of the creative cloud, you can also update new versions at no additional cost.

To get more comfortable with your Lightroom why not do a Private Lightroom course at our Wild Eye office in Johannesburg or follow Andrew Beck’s series of Behind the Frame to get more familiar with your post processing.

Knowing and understanding Lightroom will also help you shoot with post processing in mind.


As I mentioned, with any hobby or life in general, practice makes perfect.  There are many way that you can practice various techniques at the comfort of your  home.  If you have any pets, practice panning whilst they are running.  If you want to practice backlit images, ask someone to shine a torch for you whilst photographing something at home or in the garden.  The opportunities are endless.  You can even photograph water and sprinklers, trying different shutter speeds to see what different results you can achieve.

These four parts will definitely help you take your photography to the next level and help you understand your photography so much better.

If you have any questions, I would love to hear from you.

Till next time…


About the Author

Johan van Zyl


The opportunity of visiting some of the wildest, undisturbed areas and sharing my passion for wildlife, conservation and photography with like minded people is a privilege that I am forever grateful.

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Comments 4

  1. Carol Bell

    Hi Johan. .a super article and well explained. I need to practice more with exposure to “get it right”…also cannot wait for you to have the time to have that private lesson….wether it be in Nelspruit or in Marloth. ..please let me know

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  2. Carol Bell

    Johan l am trying to catch up on the blogs. ..do not know if my question would fall into this blog. ..bringing in my shot 1.1..I see what I think is a lot of noise…or is my shot out of focus. …could it have something to do with my exposure level being too low.

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