If you want to take your photos to another level, camera equipment is a natural place to look. It’s a very tangible part of photography; we work with our gear constantly. In fact, new equipment often does help you capture certain photos more easily, or it improves the technical quality of the images you take. However, it’s easy to get swept away in this marketing message and forget that there are other, better ways to improve your photos — techniques that don’t require new equipment to put into practice, and tips that are applicable to every photographer.
1) Learn Composition
Composition is all about getting your photos to say what you want them to say. It’s how you draw attention to your primary subject, making it as noteworthy as possible and excluding any unimportant details from your frame.
If you give Nikon’s cheapest DSLR to a professional photographer and force them to use automatic mode, they’ll still be able to capture fantastic photos. If you give a non-photographer the Nikon D5, even assuming that its settings are perfect, they probably won’t get anything that is nearly as good.
The reason should be obvious: The professional photographer knows how to get their point across. They can stand at a beautiful overlook and capture the essence of the scene; they can photograph someone’s wedding and paint a detailed story in a single frame.
If you want to do the same, most of it comes down to practice, along with ruthlessly critiquing your own work. Any time that there’s a problem with one of your photos — light, camera settings, composition, or something that’s harder to quantify — pay attention. What could you have done to avoid that mistake? Would the image be better if you had captured it at a different time of day, or from a different perspective? Be very tough on all your photos; even your best ones aren’t perfect.
It can be hard to critique your work harshly, even if you want to do so. But, if your goal is to learn the intricacies of light and composition, you need to be honest with yourself — what doesn’t work about a photo, even your good ones? When you’ve identified the negatives of a photo, that information will stick with you. Next time you’re in the field, you’ll correct those mistakes.
Photography is about constant self-improvement. After you look through your photos and find areas to work on, that should be your priority — be it light, color, composition, technical settings, or anything else. Gear should be the last thing on your mind.
2) Get to Know Your Gear
I tend to believe that you’ll often get better photos by using a single piece of camera equipment for a long time rather than constantly upgrading to the best new model. Why? Simple: As you get to know your equipment, it becomes easier and easier to coax out the photos that you want. If you’re a portrait photographer who understands all the intricacies of a decades-old manual flash and an old light-modifying kit, you’ll get better results than if someone handed you Nikon’s new $600 SB-5000 and top-of-the-line lighting accessories. Sure, you can learn how to use the new kit over time, but — short term — your photos from the “inferior” equipment will be better.
As I’ve switched around my camera kit over the years, this has been very true in my experience. When I upgraded from the Nikon D7000 to the D800e, it definitely took me some time to adjust. After using the D7000 for years, I intuitively understood everything about it — the button locations, the autofocus behavior, the metering system, and so on. No, the D800e wasn’t some alien camera, but it still me took several months before I really understood it to the same degree as I understood the D7000. If I had jumped to a different DSLR brand, or from the D7000 to a mirrorless camera, I’m sure it would have been an even longer process.
Rather than upgrading to the newest equipment, then, you’ll be surprised how much better your photos will be if you truly get to know the gear you already have. Even if you already have a pretty good understanding, there’s always room to improve. Can you set the camera with your eyes closed — or, more realistically, with your eye to the viewfinder? How quickly can you switch from manual mode to aperture-priority, then change your camera’s minimum shutter speed settings? The more you practice, the faster you’ll be.
From what I’ve seen, the most important part of your camera equipment is not the equipment at all. Instead, what matters is how familiar you are with your kit. If there’s something spectacular happening in front of you, and you’re about to take the perfect photo, your reaction time is what makes the difference — not whether you upgraded to the highest-resolution camera on the market.
Simply by practicing with your current kit, you’ll be able to solidify your skills in a way that wouldn’t be possible if you constantly upgraded. That’s not to say you should never get a new camera, but that it isn’t the only way to take higher-quality photos. By learning your current gear at the deepest possible level, you’ll make more progress than if you had “upgraded” to a marginally-better camera that you don’t yet know how to use.
3) It’s Possible with Any Equipment
Whenever I feel the urge to buy a new piece of gear, there’s a simple question I like to ask myself: Does anyone use the equipment that I already have (or, perhaps, worse equipment) to take the types of photos that I want? Almost always, the answer is yes — and if the answer is yes, I don’t need to buy anything new.
If you’re disappointed that you still use a crop-sensor camera from six years ago, just search online; you’ll find people who use that camera to take spectacular images, no matter the genre. Are you a landscape photographer using the Nikon D7000? Google “Nikon D7000 landscape photos,” and you’ll surely be impressed by the results.
You’ll find that other photographers already have a lot of secrets figured out — which is great, because you can learn from them. Although new cameras may indeed provide tangible benefits, typically in terms of image quality or ease of use, you can capture great photos with any equipment. It is very rare that a photo you want to take will be impossible to capture, no matter the gear you have. (Exceptions include things like underwater photography that require very specific equipment in the first place, of course, but you’ll know if that applies to you.)
4) Understand Visualization
The real secret to great photos isn’t really a “secret” at all — and it’s something you can do regardless of your gear.
Visualize everything; picture the final result in your head. Imagine the best possible photo of the scene in front of you, then do everything you can to make that photo a reality.
Visualization is the trick to taking successful photos, from landscapes to portraits. It is important regardless of the type of photography that you do.
Some photographers think of visualization as a very abstract tool that isn’t easy to implement in the real world, so I always like to provide an example of what I mean. Here’s a photo of the Eiffel Tower that I captured a few years ago:
Notice something interesting about this photo? It looks as though a spotlight on top of the Eiffel Tower is pointing straight up in the air, illuminating a cloud like a beacon over the city of Paris.
In fact, that’s not what’s happening (and this isn’t a Photoshop trick, either). Instead, this photo is a result of some very clever visualization that I did in the field, where I had a distinct goal in mind: I wanted to take a photo that looked almost exactly like this! So, how was it done?
If you’ve been to Paris, you may remember that there’s a large spotlight on top of the Eiffel Tower that turns on at night. It spins 360 degrees across the city, pointing mostly straight out, but tilted slightly upwards. Can you guess how I took this photo, now? I took advantage of the slight upward tilt of the spotlight. I waited for it to shine perfectly in my direction, and then I quickly took a photo when it did. An optical illusion makes it look like it’s pointing straight up!
It’s also worth mentioning that it took several tries to capture a believable illusion in this case, since the spotlight moves rather quickly. However, because I had visualized this exact result, I knew that I’d be able to capture a good photo in the end!
Your visualization efforts won’t always be this extreme; this is the clearest example I can think of from my own photography. However, visualization matters even for casual photos. Every time you look at a scene, think about the ideal photo, then work towards making it a reality. In almost every situation, you’ll be able to do something to make the image match your goal.
Even if your photos aren’t good enough, your gear probably is. There are countless ways to improve your images without purchasing new equipment, and this article only scratches the surface.
The essence is simple: Focus on improving your technique, and great photos will fall in line naturally. A new piece of equipment won’t improve your composition or lighting skills. Short term, before you really understand how to use it, you may even end up with worse results!
Right now, people are out there capturing the photos you want using exactly the equipment you already have, if not something significantly worse. If you want to be like them, buying more gear won’t help.
I’m not trying to disparage new equipment — I love it, too. New cameras and lenses make certain photos easier to capture, and they can improve the resolution and detail of the images that you take.
However, if your photos are lacking, gear isn’t the solution. In order to improve the true quality of a photograph, you need to focus on things like light, subject, and composition. These aren’t factors your equipment can fix; you’re the only one who has that power.