The 10 best things you can learn TODAY to make you a better photographer (without buying a new camera)

As someone who has been taking pictures for a while, with various different cameras, I often hear the adage of “a better camera will take better pictures”, which is usually interchangeable with “a more expensive camera will take better pictures”

I realise this myth has been dispelled in various ways and by various people, but I’d like to set out my own soap box and try to articulate my feelings on the subject, but at the same time I want to be constructive.

I started shooting photography using a Sony a200, which was Sony’s entry level D-SLR in 2009. It’s a 10.2 megapixel camera but I have taken some stunning photos with it. I should mention that I have taken some terrible pictures with it as well, as with all the cameras I have owned. I shot with it for over four years before I outgrew the camera and bought a Sony a77. For example, the image below was shot in Rhodes:

a200 example

I like this image, I love the bluey green tones in the water and the shadows cast by the sun which had just risen. It’s a competent photograph, but one that didn’t need a DSLR to capture. This was the scene as it appeared to my eye, and as it would appear to any sensor, even a smartphone. Below are a few things that I like about a DSLR that makes it right for me, but these are mainly subjective:

1. I have big hands, so I like a large camera with a big grip. I even bought a vertical camera grip to make it larger and feel more natural in the hand, and also there’s usually bigger buttons and more space on the camera to hold it. This is something a lot of people would rather not have; it’s a lot of bulk and weight to be dragging around, compared to a camera phone or a small point-and-shoot.

2. Shutter lag. One of the things I hate the most about my iPhone 4 and the Sony point-and-shoot we own is the shutter lag. For the uninitiated, shutter lag is the time taken from pressing the trigger to the picture being taken. On a point-and-shoot or a phone, this seems to take for ever, and by the time it takes the picture, the moment is often gone. This can be very frustrating.

3. High firing rate. The Sony a200 wasn’t as quick as the a77, which is part of the reason I upgraded, but it would shoot 2.5 frames per second, which was quick enough for what I was doing (Landscapes). As I was moving into the weddings business, I wanted something with faster rate of fire, and the a77 does 12 frames per second which I love. Point and shoots don’t even begin to compare on this.

In my learning process, I started out thinking that if I just had more money, I could get a better camera and take better pictures. This is something that camera manufacturers would love you to think, as it lends itself to something colloquially known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome. This is the common thought that as soon as I have that next lens/camera/flashgun, then I’ll finally be able to take great pictures. Unfortunately, it just isn’t true.

So as I said, I want to be constructive, so here are the 10 biggest learning points that I think will make you a better photographer with the camera you have, along with some useful exercises:

1. Learn the exposure triangle. What I mean by that is the relationship between ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Then never shoot in auto mode again.

2. Read your camera’s instruction manual from back to front. You need to know every capability your camera has and how to access it. Especially you need to know how to set the three settings in point 1.

3. Try changing your settings on your camera in the dark, or blind folded. Changing settings quickly can be critical to getting a good picture.

4. Learn how light is changing your image. As an exercise, on a cloudless day try shooting someone’s portrait around midday, then try the same portrait in the same place no more than an hour before sunset. See which one you (and they) like best, and try and figure out why that is. Look especially at the shadows on the face.

5. Buy a flashgun (I would recommend the Yongnuo YN-560 II as a very reasonably priced flash gun) and learn how to use it. Take two portraits and compare them: one where you fire the flash directly at them, and another where you bounce it off the ceiling.

6. Learn the effect that aperture, focal length and distance to subject have on depth of field.

7. Get a tripod and use it. As an exercise, find a fountain (or you could do this with a tap) and take two pictures: one with a fast shutter speed (faster than 1/1000s) where you freeze the water droplets, and another with a slow shutter speed (slower than half a second) where the water is blurred.

8. Find out what a histogram is, where your camera (and software) displays it, and what makes a good histogram and a bad one.

9. Try and find some pictures you have taken in the snow and see if the snow looks grey, or see the image below. Next time you’re shooting in snow (or taking a picture of something predominantly white), use some exposure compensation to expose properly.

Grey snow

10. Take a picture indoors in the evening with artificial light, and see if the white wall background looks yellow. Figure out how to fix this with white balance.

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