I enjoy photography. I think I’m pretty good at it. I’m not the greatest photographer out there, but I think I’ve taken more decent shots than random luck would account for. People ask me all the time “how do you take pictures like that” or “I wish I could take those kinds of pictures.” I’m here to tell you today that you can take pictures every bit as good as mine if not better. There is no technical reason you can’t. There is no great secret to taking a good photograph – but there are some rules. Below are a few of mine to help you take your work to the next level.
Light is everything: All a camera does is record light. That’s it. Light comes in, hits the film or a sensor, light gets recorded. If the light is great, the pictures are a long way to being great. If the light is dull, flat, harsh, ugly, etc …then you have some work cut out for you. Great light can make ordinary scenes magical. Bad light can make the Grand Canyon look like a big hole in the ground. Watch how sunlight changes every day and you will start to see when it looks best. It’s not great mystery – any photographer will tell you it’s the time around sunrise and sunset. If you can shoot then, odds are already in your favor.
OK Light is ALMOST everything: Everything I just said is true, and if we lived in a perfect world, we would only shoot during those “golden hours.” Unfortunately, life isn’t perfect and sometimes..most of the time..I have to shoot when my schedule allows, not when the sun is optimal. You can take great shots at noon under blinding bright light. You can. Time of day is not an excuse to not shoot. Look around for things that look cool with the harsh contrast. Find things in the shade. Learn how the light looks and you can use it to your advantage.
It’s not the camera…unless it is: I’ve never owned a professional level camera. I work for a living and spending several thousand dollars for a camera is way outside of my budget. I started with an entry level Nikon D40 and have moved up over the years to a new Nikon D7000. It’s a fantastic camera but it’s not a pro-level camera. It does, however, produce pro-level images. How do I know that? I have eyes. I can see that the images I take are fantastic - at the camera level at least. My ability to take a great shot is not held back by my consumer level camera. It sounds trite, but the best camera in the world is the one you have with you when you need it.
That said, sometimes the camera DOES make a difference, but only if you are shooting certain things. If you shoot in real low lighting or if you want to shoot sports and capture super fast imagery then yeah the camera can matter. It may be worth saving up a bit more to get a camera that does what you need. However if you are shooting landscapes, street scenes, portraits, macro etc etc – you don’t need to spend the money.
Lenses are more important than the camera: A great lens on a good camera is better than a good lens on a great camera. Photography is about light, and lenses are what bring that light to your sensor. If the lens isn’t great, your photos will struggle to be. Does that mean you need to spend $10,000.00 on a lens? No (though you certainly can). I don’t mean your lens has to be “THE BEST LENS EVER” either. If you shoot landscapes on a tripod you probably don’t need to spend the money on some really “fast” expensive lens. You aren’t trying to take those kinds of shots. You do however want to buy the best lens you can AFFORD to meet your needs. You won’t go wrong.
There is such a thing as too much glass: I own 5 or 6 lenses. That’s not a lot compared to a working pro, but it’s still a fair investment in money. Do you know how many I use day in and day out? Two. Are they really expensive lenses? Nope. One is the Nikon 28-300 lens which I shoot with more than anything because it’s so good and is almost criminally cheap for the quality (if $1000.00 can ever be considered cheap) and the other is a Tokina 11-16 mm wide-angle lens. That’s pretty much it. I always toy with buying a 70-200mm 2.8 lens etc but then I remember my rule from above…I don’t take those kinds of shots! Why waste money on a lens I don’t need. If I shot weddings, or sports or concerts then sure, I’d buy it but I don’t so I keep my money in my pocket. That’s really important because…
Great gear is less important that a great subject
: I heard Scott Kelby
say “if you want a great image you need a great subject” the other day and it struck home. I don’t care how talented you are, you can only make boring look so good. If you spend all of your money on gear – what are you going to use it for? For example, like most Nikon shooters I know, I’m lusting after then new D800. It’s about $3000.00. I could save up the money and buy it OR I could a 3/day 2 night trip to Manhattan, a 4 day trip to the Bay Area AND a long weekend in Chicago for the same price. Nothing against the new camera, but which will give me a better chance to take a great shot – a fancy sensor or three trips to fantastic locations? Which is more fun? Think about it.
Great pictures don’t Just happen: So you have a great spot, you have the right gear, you must be all set to take a great photo right? Not quite. Great pictures don’t just happen. Think about what you are wanting to show people Before you press the button. Look around you. Take note of what’s interesting, and what isn’t. If it isn’t interesting, DON’T TAKE A PICTURE of it. Leave it out of your frame. Move around to get a better angle. Get lower, climb higher, zoom in. Boring pictures often contain to much stuff, not too little.
Pay attention to little “detractors” like branches or signs. Keep them out of the photo (or learn how to clean them up in Photoshop). Spending a few minutes thinking about what you are doing can mean more to creating a beautiful image than all the gear in your bag combined.
Study great images:
This is becoming clearer to me the more I shoot. I’ve read every “how too” book out there. I subscribe to more photo magazines than I can read in a month. All are interesting and help on a technical level but NONE of them help as much as actually LOOKING at photos that make my jaw drop. I challenge you to spend 10 minutes looking at the popular photos on 500px
and then 10 minutes looking at your own shots and see if you can’t spot the difference. When you can see what made a great photo great, you’ll see opportunities in the field to make your own work better.
Take a class of workshop:
This may seem a bit self-serving since I’m now teaching classes for The Digital Photo Academy
but it’s true. Taking a class or workshop can be a great way to quickly improve your skill. I learned more in a week seminar with Rick Sammon
than I dreamed possible. Some of that was Rick, some of it was spending time talking to the other participants and sharing our work. Throw in that the locations are often excellent and you can see why this is a fast track to getting better.
Take pictures of what you like: If you like landscapes, don’t worry about weddings. If you like models, don’t worry about birds. If you shoot what you like, you’ll like what you shoot (eventually). I like architecture, landscapes, and nature. I don’t want to be a wedding photographer. I don’t want to shoot models. I enjoy SEEING those shots, but they are not for me. I want to hike out into the wilderness and see the sunrise over a lake. It inspires ME. If I’m enjoying what I do, it will show in my work.
My final bit of advice is simple. Shoot more. If you want to get better, practice. I said in the beginning it wasn’t a great secret. I didn’t say it was effortless. Shoot every chance you get and you’ll start to see the difference in your work. This should have been #1, but hey, I wanted you to keep reading
So there you have it. None of the above should be a great surprise to anyone out there.