No matter what your photography knowledge level or equipment are, you can take better photos today than you did yesterday without spending a dime. Every one of my suggestions can be applied whether you’ve had professional training or not, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re using a $100 point-and-shoot or an expensive DSLR. Geared primarily towards amateur hobbyists, perhaps those of you with more experience can get some ideas as well. Here are some suggestions that are independent of gear.
Learn a composition technique and use it every time. For a more complex one, try the Golden Spiral, but if you’re new to the idea try first working with the Rule of Thirds. There are many others out there so choose one that makes sense to you, but any one of them will improve the look of your photos.
2. Eliminate the Unnecessary
If you’re taking a photo of your friend, no one needs to see that McDonalds sign in the background. Can you move yourself a few feet, move your subject a few feet or zoom in a bit and get rid of it? If so, do it.
For both 1 and 2—really try to make these decisions in camera instead of relying on post-production cropping.
3. Avoid Direct Light
It’s a common misconception that a sunny day or a flash create better photos. In fact, cloud covered days and indirect light create a softer more pleasing image in most cases. You can’t control the weather, but you can look for places the light is naturally diffused. If you do want strong shadows or can’t avoid it, at least take the flash off camera or position yourself so that the sun is not directly behind you.
The photo above was shot using Chris’s Beauty Dish hack. It provides a great example of what can be done with indirect light.
4. Break Your Habits
So you only shoot with primes? Fine, but switch up to a zoom for a bit. You really like zooms? Put on a prime. If you don’t have equipment that you don’t usually use, chances are you know someone that does – offer to swap lenses with them for a day. If you normally shoot in the studio, take a walk with your camera, while if you only shoot with natural light practice your flash or lighting techniques. Whether you shoot people, nature or whatever else try shooting a completely different subject matter.
I regularly go out to shoot something completely different from my norm or switch up my gear to a piece of equipment I don’t normally use. It doesn’t mean I’m going to change my focus and usually I don’t even share those photos with anyone but it keeps my eyes open and assures versatility.
Essentially, break out of your rut and exercise your creative freedom.
5. Ask for Critique From Someone You Respect
Look for someone that does better work than you in your genre, and ask them to take a look at your work and give you some suggestions. Make it clear that you’re not looking for “this is great”, but for ways to improve your work. Many professionals love helping others grow.
You can always ask us.
6. Ask for Critique From Someone That Knows Nothing About Photography
Your clients, or potential clients, will usually know little or nothing about photography – yet they’re the ones you need to please. Find someone in this category, preferably someone with less emotional attachment than a friend or family member, and ask them the same. Again, make it clear you’re looking for constructive criticism.
7. Practice Immediately
Take the things that you learned from 5 and 6 and go out and work on them immediately, before the memory fades. After a successful photographer looked at my fashion work he suggested I go to a park on a Saturday and photograph people on the streets where the “real fashion” is. I hate taking photos of strangers on the street – nonetheless the following Saturday I was out in Union Square doing exactly that. If you don’t want to do step 7, whatever it is, then 5 and 6 are pointless.
8. Take Photos Without Your Camera
This sounds a bit silly, but really it isn’t. I always say I take photos all day long – but I only use my camera when I want to share them. When I first started doing this I would poise my fingers in the shape and size of a viewfinder and move it around to frame a potential photograph. As I got used to it I didn’t need the fingers any more and can now see exactly how I’d frame a photo. Similarly, you may see me walking around looking at the palm of my hand – I’m watching how the light falls in various places. These things help me find and take photos better and faster when I do have my camera. I can often tell you what settings I would use with my camera before picking it up and be right within a stop – if I’m somewhere where I’ll only have a second to grab the shot I’ll look down at my camera and dial those in. Then when I put the camera to my eye I only have to move the dial one or two notches to fine tune the exposure.
9. Maintain Your Gear
Clean your lenses, viewfinders and even the body, and the sensor if needed. Discharge and recharge batteries. Format your memory cards. Organize it all so it can be easily found and won’t damage each other. I love my Pelican 1510 Case with Padded Dividers for this, but any sturdy divided case will do. I cringe when I see people throwing all their gear into one bag with nothing to protect them from each other. Don’t miss a shot because of dead batteries, failed memory cards, dirty glass or because you can’t find your flash fast enough. If you don’t have a good cleaning kit, consider an inexpensive one like the Giottos Kit. If you want a sensor cleaner as well, consider the Arctic Butterfly Travel Kit – make sure you get the right one for your sensor size. We reviewed the arctic butterfly here.
10. Take Some Time to Learn Every Function of Your Equipment
Start with your camera, then your flash, then every other piece of equipment you have. Find those hidden menu items and modes, try that button you usually ignore. Then go out and take some shots using this new option and with the settings your used to. Even if you don’t end up using it you’ll still learn something.
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