Top 5 tips to improve your photography without upgrading your camera

If you are new parents or someone about to take a special trip, you wonder how you can up your game to take better pictures.  You have used your smart phone, point and shoot, or even upgraded to DSLR, but just haven’t been able to produce the same photos that you see from other photographers.  You assume upgrading to a new camera will certainly improve your photos.

That’s not always the case.

Today I’d like to share my top 5 tips to improve your photography.  None of these 5 involves changing a camera!

These tips apply to all types of photos, no matter if you like to shoot babies or landscape.

1 - know your subject’s best hours

You want your subject to look their best.  Selecting the best time is the first step you can see big change in your photos.

If you want to photograph landscape, try to photograph during sunrise or sunset, when the colors are generally the best.  (see How To Master Timing To Capture The Best Landscape Photos)

The following two images were shot by my first DSLR, an entry level 10-mega-pixel Canon Rebel XTi, more than 10 years ago. They are certainly not my best landscape shots, but the photos would have looked much more boring if they were not taken during sunset with striking colors.

Captured with a 10-mega-pixel DSLR, Canon Rebel XTi, handheld on a moving boat.

Captured with a 10-mega-pixel DSLR, Canon Rebel XTi, handheld on a moving boat.

“But my photos came out too dark”.

“My landscape does not look sharp”.

If the above speaks for you, I’m not surprised.  Trust me, changing to an expensive camera, or lens, doesn’t guarantee you to solve the above problems.  It’s about how you use your equipment and the settings.  (see 10 Steps Workflow & Camera Setting For Best Landscape Photos)

Captured with a 10-mega-pixel DSLR, Canon Rebel XTi, handheld.

Captured with a 10-mega-pixel DSLR, Canon Rebel XTi, handheld.

Similarly, if you’d like to photograph children or babies, you first need to find the best hours for them.  Avoid by all means to photograph them when they are hungry or sleepy or cranky.  This is so crucial as it doesn’t matter how sophisticated your camera is, if your subject isn’t cooperating, your chances to get stellar shots could be zero. (See Top Tips For Busy Parents – How To Photograph Your Baby)

I can tell from my own experience - even I have one of the highly raved cameras that is equipped with great sensor for low light performance, a pretty revolutionary eye auto focus technology, and so on so forth, when my kids aren’t in the mood, I won’t get the shot. A good camera is almost irrelevant and won’t help.

2 - Highlight your subject

For many people, the only purpose to take a picture is to freeze a moment. A moment with a nice smile, or a scene you want to remember. However, more often than not, when you capture the image, you also include something else not even relevant or important.

Having a clean foreground and background oftentimes can instantly improve your photo and help you highlight your subject.  To achieve this, you don’t need a new camera.

Get rid of the cluttered foreground by walking closer to your subject. 

 
Captured with a 10-mega-pixel DSLR, Canon Rebel XTi, handheld.

Captured with a 10-mega-pixel DSLR, Canon Rebel XTi, handheld.

 

Find a background with a single color, simple texture or pattern. Leaves, fences, walls could all work, but just don’t mix too many into your background.

With this “clean” technique, which is mostly achieved by walking, turning your camera to a different direction, you have emphasized your subject in your composition, and thus bring your audience’s attention to the focal point of your photo.

Of course, you might disagree as some of the top photo works you see might look far more complicated. In fact a great photo has to convey certain message and evoke certain feelings. It’s not about how much blank space you leave in your photo, it’s about how well you can capture your audience’s attention and tell a story. Imagine if you don’t have a main subject, or there is too much distraction, how do you expect viewers to understand your story?

See Less Is More - 7 Approaches To Create Simple Yet Strong Composition

3 - find out what your camera can do best

Earlier last year when a friend showed me her baby’s closeup portrait with shallow depth of field, I immediately assumed she took it with a DSLR and a fast lens.  When she revealed it was from iPhone X, I was pleasantly surprised.  The latest iPhone can achieve a whopping shallow depth of field of f1.4 and can produce beautiful blurry background for a portrait image.

Only one of the following three images were taken by DSLR, the other two were from iPhone. Can you tell the difference? (Read on to see the answer)

With the improvement of technology, even smart phones nowadays can take great portraits with a blurry background.  If this is the advantage of your phone, by all means make full use of it and take lots of portraits.

Do not always look at the dark side - what your camera can’t do. In fact, none of the cameras sold at thousands of dollars in the market can do everything perfectly.

I’m constantly amazed at how much my iPhone can do - time lapse, panorama etc. None of these can be achieved by DSLR alone. Typically you need additional equipment and accessories. For example for panorama photography, you not only need a tripod, but also a 360 panorama tripod head that can ensure your camera is rotating parallel to the horizon, you also need software to stitch all your shots together in post processing. For time lapse, you at least need a tripod, an intervalometer during the shoot, and need to post process your images to make a time lapse movie.

I’m not suggesting you should be an iPhone photographer, and not embrace changes.

My point is that make sure you don’t buy a new camera or other photography gear for the wrong reason.

Find out first why your photos are not good enough. Perhaps it’s not because of the camera, but the lack of skills and knowledge to bring the best out of your camera. This brings to my next tip.

4. Practice, practice and practice

Once you focus on what your camera “can” do, all you need is to practice.

You’ll be surprised how your photos look better over the time with your diligent trials and errors.

Perhaps you find out certain light condition works the best with your camera and subject.

Perhaps a different angle and composition changes everything. See below two images for example, instead of taking the photo at a standing position (left), I put the camera at the ground level (right). It’s a different angle, and makes me look at things from a child’s perspective.

Or perhaps a different style you have never tried. See below two examples. The focused subject is on the corner (left image). I photographed the dancing baby (right image) on a narrow bridge instead of a more open field with clean background. These two photos were not my typical styles, but I love them!

On the other hand, each time you adopt new gear, you inevitably will experience a steep learning curve. Staying at the bottom of the learning curve at the beginning means lots of errors and bad photos. If you don’t practice enough to breakthrough your learning curve, you won’t get better photos.

5. critique Photos

Do this exercise on your photos and others, on regular basis.

You do this exercise for two purposes - know what a great photo is, and know your gap to get there.

There are many online sources to find great photos. My favorite is 500px. It seems to give me more consistent high quality, professional photos than Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr or random Google search. Type in the key words to search for the photo topics that might interest you. I usually do this before a trip, and type in my destination or key point of interest. I get a rough idea what kind of photos I might be able to get. Sometimes this exercise even helps me narrow down where I’d like to go for my next vacation. But don’t stop at just rolling your eyes over nice photos, pick 10 of your favorite photos, and start analyzing why you like them - is it because of the colors, the simple patterns, the mood, the angles of the composition etc. Now think how you can do differently with your own photo next time.

After this exercise, typically you go back to #4 tip to practice. After each photo exercise or photo trip, you select your own favorite photos, and critique what you did well, and what could be done better.

Repeat the above cycle every 6 months, if not more frequent. If you notice some of photos you used to be most proud of no longer seem to look great anymore, congratulations! You’ve just improved your quality standard and reached a different level.


Last but not least, do you ever need to upgrade gear?

Of course. If you are interested in photographing sports, wild life, you will most likely need a camera that can burst images fast. Plus, you possibly need a telescope lens because your subject might be far.

If you photograph mostly indoors with dim light situation, for babies, or band, or in restaurants for example, you might want to first consider a fast prime lens, which is small and easy to carry, and perform well in low light. Camera is secondary but if you can afford a full frame camera that produces less noise at high ISO, by all means go for it.

If astrophotography topics such as starry sky, milky way, northern light interest you, you do need more sophisticated equipment. A tripod, a full frame DSLR, and a fast wide angle lens are almost must. You can still try with cropped sensor DSLR and possibly rely on post processing software to fix some of the problems, just bear in mind that your image qualities might not be optimal.

Oops, I almost forgot, the answer to my question above. The image taken by the DSLR was the middle one.

 

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