I put together a list of tips to help beginners get better images when not using a flash or tripod.
Tips to Improve Your Images
1. Shoot either Shutter or Aperture Priority, but always consider your shutter speed first in determining your settings. Otherwise your images may not be sharp (unless you want your images blurred for creative effect).
–The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should be 1/the focal length of your lens. If your lens is a zoom, use the focal length at its longest point. For example, if you are using a 70-200mm lens, your shutter speed should be 1/200 or faster. If your camera is not full frame, take the crop factor into account. If the crop factor is 1.5, a 200mm lens becomes a 300 mm lens. Despite the rule of thumb, I try not to shoot slower than 1/100.
–If you have a hard time keeping your camera steady, shoot at a faster shutter speed than the rule of thumb. Don’t depend on vibration reduction (image stabilization) unless conditions are so bad you have to, to get the right exposure. I learned this lesson the hard way.
2. Shoot Shutter Priority the minute you or your subject start moving, you walk inside a building, or the day becomes dull and very dark with no sun.
–By doing this quickly, if you had been shooting Aperture Priority, you won’t forget to make necessary changes plus you’ll be ready for the first shot.
–Adjust your ISO to maintain your preferred f-stop, unless your camera performs poorly at higher ISO’s (in which case adjust the f-stop).
–If you are photographing from a moving vehicle or shooting a fast moving subject (intending to “freeze” the subject), you should increase your shutter speed based upon how fast you, or the subject, are moving. For subjects moving directly at me I start shooting at 1/250, unless I need to go faster based on the lens I am using. Otherwise I usually start at 1/1000. In all instances I keep checking the image and adjust my settings as necessary.
–Change your settings back the second you walk outside, the sun comes out, or you or your subject stop moving.
3. Check your histogram. Use your exposure compensation dial to make necessary adjustments. Keep highlights to the right, without clipping them. (The histogram shouldn’t creep up the right side. If it is creeping, decrease exposure until it stops.)
4. Leave your white balance on “Auto” if you generally don’t remember to change it when your lighting circumstances change.
5. General guidelines when shooting aperture preferred: use f/5.6 if you are shooting one person; f/8 if shooting 2 people; f/11 if shooting a group, and f/11 for landscapes and cityscapes.
6. For people, focus on their eyes. For landscapes or cityscapes, focus 1/3 into the scene for maximum depth of field.
7. Look for a clean and uncluttered background.
8. Fill the frame.
9. Before you trash your bad images, study them and learn from your mistakes.
10. Practice and experiment before you leave on a trip. Get comfortable with your settings and how to quickly make appropriate adjustments.
If you remember only one tip, consider your shutter speed. Photoshop can work miracles on underexposed and noisy images, but it can’t fix blurry ones.