Photography is about so much more than the latest and greatest camera model. If you wish to take consistently better photos, it’s the mind—not the machine—that will make all the difference. Here are 8 ways to take better photographs without buying a new camera.
1) Experiment and try something new: Imagine a world where Picasso never attempted his cubism technique, or where Ben Franklin was too tired or busy to fly his kite in a lightning storm. Perhaps there is a photographic process that you can define through creative thinking. Francis Ford Coppola who famously directed such classic films as the Godfather 1 and 2 said, “If you don’t take a risk, how are you going to make something really beautiful that hasn’t been seen before?” This can be extreme like moving the camera mid-exposure while twisting the lens in and out, or more subtle approaches.
2) Find your passion: Perhaps it’s pet photography, or exploring distant places through your lens. Maybe the magic light of sunset moves you, or the incredible details we find in nature. I believe an all-around zoom lens is ideal for this initial pursuit. With a versatile focal range of 28-200mm, you can explore a wide variety of photographic opportunities. Why limit yourself? Over time, you’ll begin to hone in on your specialties and build your lens kit accordingly.
3) Take a weekly photo walk: Find a local park that can act as your home base to work on your techniques. By frequenting the same place, you will start to observe the subtle changes of nature, and also the weekly improvements in your overall photography skills. This area does not need to be an expansive national park, but simply a quiet area where you can walk for a few miles, think about your craft, and practice. To keep things interesting, you can even give yourself themed assignments like the color green, or limit yourself to one lens at a constant aperture of f/1.8 the whole day. By approaching familiar places with different parameters, you are making room for creative growth. As Ferris Bueller’s character famously observed, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”
4) Learn the rules, so you can purposely break them: Take for example, the world’s most expensive photo, “Rhein 2” by Andreas Gursky, recently auctioned for over 4.3 million dollars. The artist defiantly placed the horizon line straight across the middle of the frame. He didn’t punch up the vibrancy or shoot in HDR to make the sky more dramatic. There were no filters or off-camera flash, and nothing remarkable to anchor the foreground. Essentially, Gursky took every rule splashed across most photography magazines in bold print, and created an image that makes you feel. The exact emotions evoked are up to the individual viewer. Emptiness, expansive reach, and the balance of nature are all terms that come to my mind.
5) Research: The Photo Ephemeris is a strange name, but it’s a tremendously useful tool to plan your next shoot. Not only does it provide accurate sunrise and sunset times, but it actually illustrates the precise direction of the sun in relation to your location. It also works with the moon, allowing you to pinpoint when it will be full, and where it will rise. With this knowledge, I start to craft a shot list before departing for any travel adventures.
6) Share images for feedback: The autumn harvest is not limited to pumpkins and apples, but photographs too. Each October and November I start to cull my favorite images from the year to assemble into a calendar for family and friends. They make great holiday gifts and are a wonderful way to share past adventures. Ansel Adams believed that “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Ironically enough, that’s the exact amount you’ll need to fill each month. I also view this exercise as a measuring stick for growth. What did I do better this year than last, and how can I make improvements for the days and months ahead? If you want to expand your reach beyond family and friends, you can tap into a massive network online with the PicsArt community. Another great option is to create a slideshow of your favorites from a recent trip and share them on YouTube as a video.
7) Less is more: Many photographers mistakenly believe that a large body of work is necessary to show that you’ve been active in the field. The opposite is actually true, as quality, not quantity, will determine how your images are perceived. At all of the publications I’ve worked for, the photo editors were incredibly short on time, racing to meet print deadlines. Rather than sifting through hundreds of images, they task the photographer with this, typically limiting submission to the top ten selects. This is challenging for photographers, all of whom have a personal connection to their work. While this might sound harsh, these editors understand that all it takes are a few powerful images to effectively tell a story. Anything more is just going to water down the piece. The same is true with the photos you share on your website, blog, or portfolio.
I start by eliminating anything with technical problems such as focus or exposure. Next, I rule out the mundane frames where the drama is lacking. Ultimately I’m looking for one peak moment of action, or the frame where all of the elements come together to create a splendid scene. This is my lead photo and the one that goes into the portfolio. The rest are either designed to support the story, set the location, or reveal a subtle detail that may have gone by unnoticed.
8) Get organized: It’s not uncommon for photographers to have tens of thousands of images weighing down their catalog. If you’re not careful, this can quickly unravel into an unmanageable disaster, but there are a lot of programs out there to help you manage your images. I find the words of the French novelist Gustave Flaubert fitting for our craft. He said, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be…original in your work.”
In order to back up all important business data, you’ll want a redundant system of external hard drives. Not only will these protect your files in case of catastrophic computer failure, but they offer an extension on your hard drive storage space. These drives are quite reasonably priced and typically plug directly into the extra USB ports on the computer. They would be compatible with a desktop and laptop to protect all of your important files. These drives are small, lightweight, and portable should you need extra storage when traveling.
For the ultimate protection, you will also want to add a selection of important documents to some sort of cloud-based storage. This will allow you to access uploaded files from any computer with internet access, and some also have a mobile app for the phone. You can share documents with clients this way, or just use it for extra protection in case all of your hard drives were damaged or stolen.