5 Ways to Create Better Images Without Buying More Gear

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You are a photographer. You love getting out there and doing your best to create great images. Photographers also love something else. Camera equipment. Sometimes you may find that you spend more time searching for a new lens, filter or accessory than actually photographing with it. When you meet other photographers you will hear them talking about the latest piece of equipment that has just launched.

Why is this? Why are some photographers obsessed with equipment. My personal opinion is that we fall into the marketing trap. Sometimes we really do think that a new lens, or new camera body, will improve our images simply because it is a better piece of equipment. That might be true, but it’s only half true. A new lens might make your images a little sharper or have better bokeh, but the best way to get better images is to improve your ability as a photographer. Here are some thoughts that may help you create better images.

The key ingredient in any image is light

The key ingredient in any image is light

1. Become a light snob

Light is the key to every image you make. If you want a good image, shoot in good light, if you want a dramatic image, shoot in dramatic light. There really is no such thing as bad light, there is simply better light for creating images.

Light is the all important component of great photography. You may feel that shooting in the middle of the day is best because it is bright, and all the light you need is in that shot. Yes, there may be lots of light, but there is also a lot of contrast (bright highlights and dark shadows). The resulting shot may be unappealing because the light is flat or uninteresting.

How do you overcome this tendency to photograph at any time? Become a light snob. What does that mean? I mean in a good way, try this next time you go out with your camera. Make a point of shooting in the golden hours. Think about the light you are shooting in, go out in the early morning or early evening. Choose your subject carefully, compose your scene purposefully and shoot it with intention. Don’t shoot the same scene twice, work with the light, make sure you think about the exposure, try your best to get the shot and walk away from the scene. Make sure you expose for the light the results will speak for themselves.

2. Become more flexible – in more ways than one

POV2

How often do you photograph from your standing height and mostly in landscape orientation? I know I do, it is natural to do that, we shoot they way we feel comfortable. Change this up a little. Look for unusual angles and vantage points. We have all seen the photographs of children looking up at the camera. Change that, kneel down or even lie down in front of a child you are photographing. Turn your camera to portrait orientation, that changes the scene immediately. If you are photographing a street scene, maybe get to a higher vantage point on a balcony. If you are in a city, shoot straight up! The key thing here is, change your viewing angle and you will change the view of your image. You will give your viewers a unique perspective on a familiar topic and that can make for some very dramatic images.

A unique point of view can make for dramatic images

A unique point of view can make for dramatic images

3. Time it right

You have probably heard this about many things, particularly sports:  “its all about the timing”. This is true in certain genres of photography too. In street photography, timing can be crucial to making or breaking the image. The famed street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke about “The Decisive Moment”. What he was saying was this, if you take the shot a moment too soon, the scene has not yet unfolded, if you are a moment too late, the scene has passed, you have to release the shutter at the precise moment.

This is not easy to get right. It requires lots of practice and the ability to sense or anticipate what will happen next. With practice you will get better and better, and in time, you will find that you will “time” the shot better. When is the right moment? It is different for every photographer and every photograph. It might be the moment before a smile, or the moment the first tear appears, the moment of surprise or elation. Each moment is different and each photographer will shoot it differently. You will know when you get that moment captured because the image will be memorable. The moment will come, but you have to be ready and you may have to be patient.

Photographing fireworks is often about timing.

Photographing fireworks is often about timing.

4. Get your exposure right

We all know this one, it’s an old one, but exposure is all important. How do you affect exposure? You take control of your aperture and your shutter speed. This alone is a topic for another article, but what is important is that you, as the photographer, need to take control of your image exposure and not let the camera do that. If you still shoot on Auto and hope for the best, now might be a good time to start venturing into the world of shooting on manual or even aperture priority. Learning how the aperture and shutter speed affect your images will help you make stronger images in just about any light. This is what makes the difference between a good image and a spectacular image, the exposure.

Mastering exposure will make a big difference in your images

Mastering exposure will make a big difference in your images

5. Use what you have

You have a great camera, seriously, you do! If your camera is less than five years old, it is perfect for taking astounding images. A new camera body will take pictures with more megapixels or better noise reduction, but I am pretty sure, in fact I am CERTAIN, that you can get some amazing images on your current camera. One key element in getting great images is choosing the right lens for the scene. The lens is the eye to the camera. If you are going to invest in any equipment, save up and buy good lenses. Buy some prime lenses and see the results.

First though, use the current lenses you have, make sure you know how each lens affects a scene. A wide angle lens has the effect of making everything in the scene seem far away and spread out, a telephoto lens (say a 200mm) has the effect of compressing everything in the scene (bringing the elements closer together). If you were to photograph a mountain scene with a wide angle lens and switch to a long (or telephoto) lens and shoot the same scene, the elements in that scene would look really different. The perspective and viewing angle changes on each lens, so make sure that you use your lenses and understand the effect that they have on your scene.

Exposure2

Putting it all together

By using these techniques with light, composition, timing, exposure and current equipment, your images will improve. You need to practice, constantly. Keep pushing the boundaries, do the weekly challenges that dPS puts out, try different techniques. Only buy new equipment if your current setup is limiting your photography. The best way to create better images is by practicing and spending hours and hours behind the camera.

I heard a story that a professional golfer who was one of the top three golfers in the world used a very unique way of practicing. Before playing a golf course in an upcoming tournament, he would book the whole course for a week. He would then take 300 golf balls and set up on the first tee. He would tee off from there, hitting each ball from that tee. He would then play each ball from where it landed. He did this on every hole of the golf course. By the end of the week he knew every inch of that course and he knew exactly which clubs he could use from where on the course. Try this in photography. Shoot 100 shots on aperture priority or shoot 100 shots with your 50mm only. Don’t change lenses until you have 100 shots with that lens. Then move to your next lens and do the same. Try each lens with different subject, use a 500mm and shoot some sports, landscapes and macro photos. Mix it up, but learn how that lens works and learn how your camera works and pretty soon, you will be making great images with all your equipment and that shiny new camera will not seem so tempting!

Look for the light, work with the scene and practice, practice, practice.

Look for the light, work with the scene and practice, practice, practice.

I will end off with a quote from the actor Will Smith, which sums it up in a good way:  “The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.” – True enough!

Have you put in the hours? Do you have any other additional tips? Please share in the comments section below.

Further Reading: Barry has since written a followup post to this one with 5 MORE ways to improve your photography without buying more gear.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Barry J Brady

is a Fine Art Landscape and commercial photographer based in Vancouver, BC. He is also an addicted traveller and loves travelling to far off places and capturing their essence. Barry is an entertaining and experienced photography teacher and public speaker. He loves nothing more than being behind his camera or showing other photographers how to get the most out of their camera. To see more of his work, visit his site here. You can also join Barry on a photography workshop in Canada. Click here to find out more.

  • It’s true that the temptation of buying new gear, specially when you are about to travel to a new, exciting destination, is very powerful: you wanna try a new lens/camera in your long awaited trip as it will surely grant you pictures that will be better than the ones you would have taken with your old gear.
    I can only see one advantage in this approach: new gear impulses you to shoot more, which is good. But there are no more pros, and definitely not better image quality unless you were shooting with a prehistoric device before.
    So, discipline yourself to shoot more with your old gear, keep the flame of the romance longer, and the more you know and understand a camera, the better images you will get.
    That was my approach in my last holidays in Myanmar, no new purchases allowed, only my 2 trusted cameras and 2 lenses, and it paid off! See my pictures in my blog here: http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com.es/2014/07/streets-of-yangon-i-monochrome-scenes.html

  • chinadukes

    Pick the best light: yes, but the comments in “Be a Light Snob” are questionable. Light is everywhere, and unless you’re in a box of a room with no windows or lights, most of it can be taken advantage of.
    Especially for a traveler, the notion of “waiting for the light” is ill-advised: better to learn how to use it. You may never pass this way again.
    For instance, the harsh light of midday can light up the interiors of markets in Thailand, the narrow hutong of Beijing or the interior of an abandoned building in the American West. A point of midday light can spotlight a flower in a forest or illuminate a fish in a mountain stream.
    In Beijing, at certain times of the year, the “magic hour” lasts far longer than an hour; you can easily shoot from before sunrise until 10 a.m. and get going again as early as 2 p.m. And if it’s cloudy or raining, you can shoot all day long and never run out of good light or opportunities.
    Go ahead and be a light snob if you wish, but realize the time of day has little or nothing to do with this. If you don’t know how to use the light, or if the conditions are not right, you can take dull and uninteresting photographs during the magic hour too.
    Waiting on perfect light is a luxury that few traveler/photographers can afford.
    Otherwise, I agree: Go with what you’ve got.

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Gonzalo, you are right, use the gear you have and you may be surprised!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Chinadukes. Yes, you are right, we should be able to shoot in any light. What I was suggesting was, if you have the time, shoot at the best times of the day for the best light, soft light. That way, you will get good results by simply being in the right light.

  • Doug Stringer

    I consider myself out of the ‘honeymoon’ stage of digital photography(you know, when you get so excited with every image you capture you want to show the world and in retrospect a lot of those images you would now consider most to be ‘sucky’). Now, after moving up from a Nikon D70 just two years ago and into both a D700 , a D3, and even a Coolpix P7700 (all used equipment, due to budget) I’ve learned a lot by using the same principles that you’ve laid out Barry. Everyday, I go out with just one camera body and just one lens and shoot mostly the same subjects, but with different equipment, at different times of the day, and from different perspectives. I think I’ve also read all of the books on photography from my local library in the past three years.
    I always marvel at the great photos taken by other professionals (and now know that they also busted their rumps to get where they are) and hope to one day break out into my own piece of the creative world of photography.
    Thanks to all of the professionals, like you Barry, for sharing your passion.

  • chinadukes

    I appreciate your effort, but I felt you were straying into Ken Rockwell territory here.

    All the best,

    Charles J. Dukes
    Writer-Editor-Photographer
    6 Cottage Street
    Rockland, Maine 04841
    Tel: 207.593.7139
    E-Mail: chinadukes@krakenreports.com
    E-Mail: cjd@charlesjdukes.com

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Doug. It is a long road to getting to the point where you feel that you can make a great image. When I first started shooting, I used to get excited when I got a good shot, but was never sure how I did it hehehe. It takes years of working on your craft and doing the thing you mentioned to start mastering the camera and the light. My only “rule” in photography is “keep shooting”!

  • barryjbrady

    Hehehe, thanks for the compliment Charles 😉 Not sure about the reference, Ken Rockwell does mostly gear reviews and gives insights into buying new gear, which is the opposite of what I am suggesting 🙂

  • Will

    I still have a Rebel XS and no lens that cost over $200. I feel that I have made some good images with my limited gear. I have rented L glass and what a difference good glass makes! I can’t wait to get some one day.

  • barryjbrady

    That is great Will. Lenses can make a big difference, so save all those pennies for good glass, they are worth the investment!

  • walwit

    “Any light…no bad light…best light…soft light…right light” that seems to be Ken Rockwell´s style but I have to say that I enjoy a lot his reviews and with some precautions I find them to be very helpful.

  • Subro Sengupta

    Thank you Barry for posting this. I’m a beginner and I used to get drawn to various lenses, especially the 55-200mm lens. However, I have controlled the temptation. I realized that I can take really good photographs using my 18-55mm lens and I’m slowing exploiting it.

    Your tips are noteworthy. I will be using these tips in practical terms, and hopefully churn better photographs. I’m currently saving for a 35mm standard lens which I absolutely love!

    Thank you.

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Subro, practice is the key. Get out there and make photographs as often as you can.

  • Jgettle

    i’m using a D200 and really want to upgrade but life keeps getting in the way. Just a hobbyist possibly looking to advance and make a few bucks. oh well

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks for sharing Jgettle, you can still make great images with the D200, shoot what you love and the rest will follow!

  • Cutie2b

    I thank you for this piece. It makes perfect sense even to a professional photographer like me. I did upgrade my equipment and do feel that what you advise is good for the amateur and professional alike, but when you reach a certain level, you realize that the equipment you have can hold you back, specifically in the FX format and the very highly coveted prime lenses, thus the need to “upgrade” when you’ve reached that level. But for the beginning photographer, hobbiest, or even the professional, your advice reminds us all that we must put in the work and practice the eye in order to really be a good photographer. It’s not about the equipment at this point, it’s about the talent behind the lens and then the higher level of equipment definitely comes later! You are spot on also about buying the best prime lenses, they truly broadened my experience as a photographer to the max and when I can’t afford the super expensive primes, I rent them!

  • Thanks cutie2b, you have summed up the article perfectly. Yes, we do need to upgrade our equipment at some point, but we need to beware not to fall into the marketing trap of the equipment vendors. Push your gear to its limit before buying the next piece of gear, learn your equipment and make it work for you, don’t assume that a new piece of gear will make your images better. That will make us all better at our craft!

  • Rubee Lu

    Useful article .thumbs up!

  • Thank you for reading Rubee

  • Texitech

    Well that’s a pretty good article. Will keep in my mind especially the Quote.

  • Ms Payal

    Really nice and informative article to read! But sir why are my images becoming blur? i know about focusing and i do focus let’s say i focused on the eye of a the subject at a distance, then the rest of the face example hair look blur. I own canon 550D

  • Sweetish Honie

    i love Photoshot And want to buy a Camera Can You Suggest me a GOod Camera ?

  • Rodrigo Balest

    Have you tried lowering aperture and/or changing your distance from subject? Wider apertures and closer distances gives you lower depths of field.
    Hope it helps!

  • Jake Tenenbaum

    Well, I’m working with a 10 yr old 30D (and trying to do night sky shots with it!), so I’m fairly certain that my impulse to upgrade to ANYTHING in the fast lens and 1D/5D area is well-founded, but I get your point.

  • Sandy

    Excellent thinking Gonzalo! I have my trusty Nikon D40 6 mpx camera which has never failed to let me take great photos in over 9 years. I recently acquired a Sony A7 FF 24mpx camera, which also takes great photos but it’s much harder to manage all the settings and many images have disappointed me. There is no doubt great potential in the camera, but I find myself going back to my D40 if I want to be sure of getting a good result first time.

    Worth mentioning though that my main reason for getting the FF Sony was so that I could use all my 35 year old Konica Hexanon 35mm film lenses again!

  • Exactly what we all should do instead of trying to always get the latest and ditch our trusty, old friend!!

  • Thanks Texitech

  • Ms Payal, I think Rodrigo has some good tips below, watch your aperture, that determines what is in focus and what is out of focus. If you are focusing from a distance, it can be difficult to get the person in focus if they move slightly, so be aware of that

  • Sweetish, this is a very tough question to answer in this space. We have a few articles on how to go about buying a new camera, here are some links: https://digital-photography-school.com/?s=buying+camera

  • For sure Jake, once your current equipment is limiting you, then it is time to look at upgrading!

  • Anj

    I find this article and useful for a person like who loves to capture images. Photography has been my passion (but I don’t think I have the talent) and a hobby, too. I haven’t bought a good camera yet (I meant for DSLR) coz i am still novice. In other words I just have here a Nikon COOLPIX 7900 and been using it manually for me to practice more..below are my sample photos, let me know if they are bad or not and which part I should improve. Thanks and keep up the good work, Sir! 🙂

  • Tyrone Daroca

    Thanks for this article. No.5 really got me. I’ve been shooting with my phone for more than a year because I couldn’t afford a DSLR. I feel sad every time I see people hanging their DSLRS on their necks and only use it to take selfies. Or people with entry level cameras saying; “If only I have this gear!”. Like they haven’t even shooting with their cameras for a considerable time and produce good photos, and yet they’re already complaining, believing buying a better camera will give them better image.

    I took these photos a year ago with my iphone, they’re not in their final process since I can’t upload more than 2mb file size here. I’m no expert so any comment will help me. Thank you my co-shooters. Have a good light!

    Oh and every time I feel discouraged when my phone’s camera can’t keep up anymore with what I see, this quote from Arthur Ashe is what keeps me pressing the shutter button. “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can”.
    Feel free to visit my blog if you have time. Thanks.
    tinyrurouni.tumblr.com

  • Anas Zm

    Invaluable tips…Thanks Barry!

  • maxwave

    The funniest thing happened while I was reading this… I kept noticing the use of the 10mm prime and thought to myself, “If I had that lens I could take that same shot!” I am definitely on a shopping freeze right now… thanks for helping me get off the internet shopping sites and go shoot!

  • Feenix

    If you want to take a new lens on your trip, rent it! You can even get it delivered to your hotel when you get there.

  • That is a good option as well but, unfortunately, in many parts of the world there are no rental shops, such as in the country I live in, which makes me more careful upon purchasing new gear.

  • mariska

    Great article, thank you! I’m keeping this one close to me for my daily inspiration.

  • Feenix

    Good point. The company I use only ships within the US. Are there any online sources where you live?

  • Excellent article. I freely admit I love camera gear, all the more so since I’ve taken up film shooting again and can find so many fabulous cameras and lenses at rock-bottom prices in the resale market. I have to bring myself down to earth from time to time and remind myself that what I am collecting is a tool for artistry and not an end in itself. One thing I did shake off a very long time ago was the assumption that getting the latest, greatest (and most expensive) was the only way forward into artistic excellence. Obviously, the camera marketing industry wants you to believe that, and it works hard to ingrain that assumption but it’s a complete fallacy. It’s not what you have that makes you into an artist, it’s what you do with it.

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