Ads for the latest and greatest lenses, filters, and cameras bombard us each and every day. Their promise is clear: give them our money and they will give us better photos.
It’s easy to fall into an obsession with equipment.
Talk to any amateur photographer and likely you’ll hear them ramble over their equipment choices, wish list, and technical jargon.
But is better equipment really necessary to take better photos?
I’m sure you already know the answer.
I know, before I purchased my first full-frame DSLR, I told myself that a better camera wouldn’t help me take better pictures.
Nevertheless, it didn’t stop me.
Deep down, unconsciously or through some other force, I wanted a better DSLR. No matter how much I tried rationalizing that I didn’t need it, I still ended up getting it.
The desire for better equipment is strong. Especially for the photography fanatics.
Truthfully, better equipment can help you. It can give you:
- A sharper image
- A better bokeh
- A larger image size
- A quicker exposure
All of these improvements won’t, however, magically transform you into a better photographer.
What will make a difference in your photography doesn’t cost a penny. All it takes is consistent effort, passion, and a willingness to adapt.
The following are six techniques to help you take better pictures – without having to buy more equipment.
#1. Don’t Settle – Experiment First
When you see what appears to be a great scene, it’s only natural to get there and shoot away.
The thing is, when we set our feet (or tripod) in place and start firing, we lock ourselves in.
We can move our camera around an inch to the left. We can bend our knees and move our camera down a couple inches or feet down.
But we’re anchored into that spot.
Before you anchor, take a few steps around your subject.
Is there a better point of view to capture the scene?
#2. Obsess Over Light
Photography is literally the art and science of recording light. While better camera equipment can help you render light more easily, people have been capturing light since Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s first photograph back around 1826.
Far more beneficial to your growth as a photographer is taking time to really obsess over light.
Taking pictures during early sunrise or sunset are easy ways to put yourself in front of what’s known as ‘great’ light.
During these times, the sun is at a lower position in the sky. This makes for more angled light. As sunlight comes from a lower angle, its color changes to a more orangish-red hue.
Light, however, is all around us – even in the dead of night.
Become more aware of the light around you and you’ll surely notice the difference in your photography.
Ask yourself, where is the strongest light source? How does it spread? Is it a harsh, direct light that comes from a spotlight? Or is it diffused and softened through lamp coverings, window curtains, or other translucent mediums?
Question the light around you. Note the different colors of light.
See how the transition from light to darkness occurs.
Light itself is the source of any and all photographs you take.
The more you understand how light is working in front of you, the better you can adapt your composition and exposure to truly capture what’s in front of you.
#3. Know Your Subject
Here’s a common scenario. A new photographer loves birds. So much so that, after careful research, he goes out and buys a $4,719 telephoto lens- a favorite for professional bird photographers.
When he takes it out to shoot, however, he finds that his photos haven’t changed much.
Simple – he may have a better lens, but his knowledge of birds is exactly the same as it was before he dropped 5k.
Intimate knowledge of your subject will have a substantial benefit to your photography.
Check out the lesson here for a quick overview of how to find subjects.
If you love birds, read a couple books on birds. If you love flowers, read a few books on them.
More important, go out and just observe the subjects you love most.
The more interested and involved you are with a particular subject, the more knowledge you have of their characteristics.
As you continue to shoot certain subjects, you’ll develop an intuition into which angles and light work best.
This knowledge is priceless. It’s also something you can gain simply by going out and shooting. No expensive equipment necessary.
#4. Use Exposure to Compose
When I took my first photography class, I was taught that exposure is a required step to take an image. Naturally, I treated exposure as a necessity.
It wasn’t something I actually enjoyed.
Rather, it was something I had to get done to finalize the image I wanted to capture.
This mindset is a recipe for limitation.
It’s the final process of taking light and converting it into a photograph.
You can, for example, under expose a scene to bring out the bright areas and let the darkness fall to black.
Or you can overexpose a scene, creating an ethereal, dream-like world.
Don’t just expose to get a ‘correct’ image. Use exposure as another tool for sharing your vision.
#5. Know Your Equipment Strengths and Limitations
While I love telling new photographers that equipment isn’t nearly as important as developing their photo eye, let’s face it.
Not all cameras are equal.
If you shoot with a mobile phone – as advanced as they are getting – you will face limitations.
The same goes for any DSLR.
If you’re out shooting with only a 12-24mm lens, a telephoto shot just isn’t something you will be able to capture.
Rather than see the limitations of your gear as a weakness, take the optimistic perspective.
Our minds are powerful instruments when guided.
Focus on the strengths of your equipment and use this knowledge to open your eyes to opportunities around you.
If you’re limited to a wide angle lens, look around for opportunities to expand visual space. Or try to find subjects that would look interesting when visually morphed up-close with a wider lens.
#6. Know Yourself
It’s alluring to rush out and buy a bigger, more powerful lens or camera.
You go out and shoot several times a week. You read articles and try to use what you learn in the field. And yet you still find yourself hitting a brick wall – struggling to capture images that look the way you want.
When you reach this place, it’s easy to fall for the ‘equipment trap’.
Better equipment promises better imagery.
Avoid the hype.
The only thing that will improve how you take pictures is you.
Know yourself. Why do you take the pictures you take? Why do you gravitate towards some subjects and not others?
Why do you compose images the way you do? Expose your subjects the way you do?
Essentially, the way you view the world is entirely unique.
Nobody sees like you do.
The question is, are you sharing your intimate personal vision with others through your photography? Or are you short changing it?
The answers to all of these questions are not found in a photography guide or through an instructor.
All these sources of knowledge can do is guide you what’s most important: yourself.
The next step towards improvement – towards the mastery of your personal vision – is one only you can take. But the more steps you take, the farther you will go.