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How to Improve Your Photography Without Buying New Gear

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It’s not the camera that makes good photography; it’s the photographer. How many times have you heard that? Probably a lot more times than you can count. It has become a bit of a cliché than anything, but it’s one that still rings true. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on brand new, state of the art camera systems and lenses, to be able to create great photos. You know that by now. There’s just one problem. All of those lenses and cameras are so, so shiny.

Most of that shininess is just a product of the camera manufacturers’ marketing departments churning out a constant onslaught of, “Buy me! Buy me! I’m so shiny! Buy me now!”

Shiny lenses are great, but are they the best investment for your photography right now?

Shiny new lenses are great, but are they the best investment for your photography right now?

The best advice? Ignore it as much as possible.

A bad photo made with a $5000 camera, is no better than a bad photo made with a $700 camera. It may be sharper and it may have a higher dynamic range, but it’s still a bad photo.

It’s okay to want new and better things, and depending on how fast you progress in your photography and what you want to achieve with it, you will eventually have to upgrade and buy new pieces of kit. There may be a few exceptions in genres like macro and wildlife photography; however, the chances are that you don’t need that several thousand dollar lens right now.

Grow out of your equipment

If you take the time to really learn and put into practice all of the various skill sets, you will eventually come to a wall you can’t pass with modest equipment. That’s when it’s time to upgrade. Take your time getting there though, and enjoy the experience. With well rounded skills, you will know that moment the instant it arrives.

Other ways to invest in your photography

However, there are places where you can invest your money that will not only help your photography, but also speed up the process quite a lot. These are education and experiences. Really, they’re both the same thing, but it’s easier to describe them in terms of two sub-categories.

Education

Everybody needs to learn. Constantly. Never stop learning; otherwise you’ll get left behind.

The Internet is full of free resources, and you should absolutely use every bit of it to your full advantage. To quickly rise to the top of the learning curve, however, you should consider adding things like books, online courses, and workshops to your shopping list.

Workshops can be great value for money and provide a boost to your skills.

Workshops can be great value for money and provide a boost to your skills as well as introduce you to new locations.

Photography books tend to be focused on a particular subject. They also tend to go much further in depth than other resources. Most importantly, they’re relatively cheap. Try to avoid books that try to encompass everything about photography, and stick to specific topics like lighting, portraits or food.

How big of a library can you put together for the cost a lens that you’ve been after?

In the same vein, workshops and seminars can deliver a huge amount of information in a very short period of time for a reasonable cost. They also have the benefit of giving you face to face tuition with someone who’s experienced in the field that they are teaching. This is often invaluable, particularly if you learn better with a hands-on approach.

When considering workshops, please do your research and be sure of what you’re buying. Just think, would you buy something from eBay without first checking a seller’s feedback?

Personally, I feel one of the most overlooked, yet one of the most valuable tools, to learn photography is monographs and coffee table books. Studying the work of accomplished photographers will show you all of the things you’ve learned in theory, put into practice. It can also help you discern your likes and dislikes and give you ideas on what to try for your own portfolios. Don’t just stick with the old masters like Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham; include contemporary photographers like Martin Parr and Mario Testino for a more thorough reference.

Experiences

Spending money on travel can help to force you to use the gear you have.

Spending money on travel can help to force you use the gear you have.

If education is learning, then experience is the actual doing. Do you want to be a travel photographer? Then don’t upgrade your lenses, buy a plane ticket instead. Do you want to be a fashion photographer? Hire experienced models and make-up artists. Wildlife photographer? Go photograph wolves on a workshop and rent the lens you need, rather than buying it.

If that’s a bit too expensive, then consider buying things to photograph. Food, toys, flowers, whatever fits in-line with your interests, and gets you up and using the camera you have now.

Purchasing things to photograph will help you build a portfolio which is far more important in the long run.

Purchasing things to photograph will help you build a portfolio which is far more important in the long run.

You can read all the theory in the world, but if you don’t put it into practice it just stays theory. The bonus here is that by actually working toward your goal, you will probably wind up earning a bit of money to put towards that fancy kit when you do need it.

It all comes back to the “grow out of your equipment” idea discussed earlier in this article.

You already have what you need. If you have read this article through, then the chances are that you already have everything you need to go out and make photos and develop your skills.

Now, I don’t presume to know every situation out there, and my experiences are only mine. I cannot, and will not, tell you what to do, but if you’re yearning for a new piece of gear I can only encourage you to honestly answer the question, “Do I really need this for my photography to progress or do I just want it?”

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

John McIntire is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is obsessive with photography and is always trying to learn something new. You can find him on Instagram and 500px

  • I’d suggest following good blogs and newsletters for education of photography. Also, looking at others people work is a good source of betterring. You can use newsletters for that where someone prepared the interesting links and photos for you like http://photographydigest.net/.

    For the experience there is a concept of daily shooting which is something that I highly suggest from my own experience. You will improve drastically. And if you are struggling with inspiration I recommend checking out http://photographyassignments.org/.

  • Candace McGee

    This is very timely for me. I was considering asking for my first DSLR for my birthday this month. Then I changed my mind for reasons mentioned in this article. My 6 year old 2 MP Sony Cybershot will work just fine for awhile. I’ve read up on techniques and playing with lighting and angles to get different outcomes. So far, so good! FYI – I’m not a pro – I mainly take pictures for personal use or my blog,

    http://www.thequirlife.com

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    Buying new gear can motivate you to shoot more and it’s exciting to buy things. But, as they say, it’s what’s behind the camera and not what’s in front of it that makes an image. But, I’ve found that moving to mirrorless cameras and the lighter load motivates me to shoot more.

  • walwit

    If you allow me I’d suggest you to consider this camera: Fujifilm X-T10.

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  • “M”

    You know …

    I’m sure I’m in the minority opinion on this. I’m not even one who likes to buy gear (I photograph sports and I’m always fretting about some mis-aimed ball breaking a lens (npi)).

    The people who are so frequently after me about my gear are the photographers from whom I sometimes seek out advice. It’s nearly always the first thing out of their mouths. “Buy a new lens.” “The glass isn’t fast enough.”

    And that’s before they even see the pictures.

    What I do find interesting is that once I show the pictures, I get a lot of “What did you shoot this with?” and surprised looks when I say I’ve taken the photo with a kit lens … with the express purpose of getting the maximum out of a piece of gear before I “outgrow” it.

    I have found that my photography has improved most by getting out and shooting, remembering what some kinder, more constructive photographer has said about composition in my past, looking at my shots, and saying “Oh, yes – *that’s* what s/he was talking about!” and then trying to put more of “that” – whatever it is – into my photographs going forward.

    Thank you for the article. very much appreciate the POV.

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