I strive always to improve, and I recognize that no matter how experienced I become – no matter how many tips and tidbits I pick up – there is always room for improvement.
I saw marked improvement in this last year, and I chalk it up to these eight things:
I upgraded my camera
I will insist a thousand times over that the equipment doesn’t make the photographer. I have seen amazing people do incredible things with little more than an iPhone. I have had others just starting out ask me what camera and lenses I use, hoping to reproduce the kinds of photographs I publish. However, I have been shooting my entire life; I’ve loved it since the days of 110 film cartridges. I’ve long since established my personal style, and no equipment changes will fundamentally derail that.
That being said, equipment upgrades are a necessary part of growing as a photographer. Your handy dandy Instamatic might work great, but it can be limiting in this fast-paced world, especially if you hope to compete with other stunning photos out there. Someone once told me: never buy something new until you feel restricted by what you have. Wise advice. By waiting, you have a much better understanding of your needs and never have any equipment you don’t use. But it also means you need to recognize when you are limited and when the benefits of upgrading outweigh the cost.
I’ve been shooting with a Canon Rebel XT for years and years. I loved it. I still love it. But it wasn’t until I got the 7D that I realized how small the screen was, how poor the quality was, and how many nifty features I was missing out on. The new camera augmented my techniques, both producing better pictures overall and allowing for easier immediate review to hone my pictures on the spot – invaluable feedback.
You might think, “if you didn’t know what you were missing, how were you limited?” Well, I wasn’t limited by the quality of my camera; I was limited by having just one camera. Which is why…
I got a second camera
One of my favorite types of photography is event photography. I shoot for conventions several times a year, and I love the fast action that candids require. However, this need for speed can prove frustrating in situations where multiple lenses are needed. You’re in a small venue shooting a concert. Do you attach the 75-300 for the headshots and guitar-strumming details, or do you go with the 50 prime to combat the low light and get more of the artists in the frame? What if you have your telephoto and you’re shooting the lead singer from across the stage, and he comes toward you to sing directly into your lens? You might get a good shot of his nose hairs.
With only one camera body, you can choose only one lens at a time. Changing lenses is a time-expensive task, and you’re likely to miss some amazing moments in the meantime.
Enter the second camera body.
I got my 7D just before an anime convention, but I didn’t ditch the Rebel. Instead, I promoted my primary shooting to the 7D and kept the Rebel on hand for the secondary lens. During the Lolita fashion show, I could quickly shoot the full costume with the telephoto when they came onto the stage, and I could get the close-up facial portraits at the end of the runway. This flexibility means I don’t miss the shot. Unfortunately, now I want a third lens at the ready. If you give a mouse a cookie…..
I went RAW
Countless resources out there tout the benefits of shooting in RAW, but I could never quite understand the point. I kept seeing arguments that you have so much control over white balance, but with sophisticated editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom, I already felt I could reasonably control the color balance.
Going out to shoot the sakura along the Waterfront in spring, I decided, “what the hey? I’ll try this RAW thing.” When I got home and imported the images from my SD card, the first thing I noticed was a drastic improvement in quality. Each picture was five times the size of the JPGs I was used to shooting, the detail was impeccable, and I loved every single shot. I was hooked, and I’ve been shooting exclusively in RAW ever since.
I recently had to edit JPGs, and I discovered how much control I actually did lose in the white balance. I suppose it just took knowing the other side.
I made use of custom modes
These little things are unsung heroes. On Canon cameras, your mode dial includes the standard aperture-priority mode, shutter-priority mode, manual, bulb, etc. But it also includes “C1,” “C2,” and “C3.” These are custom modes.
The beauty with these: set your ISO, shutter speed, white balance, meter mode, and anything else, and save it to one of these “C” presets. I did this at Kumoricon. C1 was for the horribly lit panel rooms, C2 was the oddly-illuminated stage lights, and C3 was the harsh, sunny park outside. As I moved from one area to another, I could just rotate the dial, and I knew my camera was instantly ready to go.
I switched my camera to focus with my thumb
On Canon cameras (sorry, I can’t speak to Nikon or Sony), it is standard to hold the shutter button halfway for the autofocus to engage. I could then frame the shot and compress the button the rest of the way to take the picture. I was so used to doing that, it was difficult to break the habit, but it was so worth it.
On most cameras, there is an option in your menu to activate a button on the back of the camera to serve as the focusing mechanism. But isn’t having the focus on the shutter button faster? Not really. By using two fingers (your thumb and your index finger) to focus and shoot, getting the shot is just as efficient. But in making this one modification, you gain a lot of flexibility.
First, you can now focus on one point and take many pictures without your focal point changing between shots (or needing to refocus with each shot). This is very useful if your focal point is stationary. Additionally, you can hold the button while in AI servo focus mode to maintain continuous focus – amazingly useful in action shots!
I discovered AI servo focus mode
Standard “one shot” focusing mode will focus only once each time you hold the button. It will then remain focused on your chosen point until you release the button and press it again.
AI servo, on the other hand, is a continuous focus. This performs spectacularly in an action setting, as you won’t have time to continually release and press the button while your subject is darting back and forth on stage. AI servo allows your camera to keep focusing so as your subject moves, so does your focus. This was incredibly valuable during concerts, and I found my percentage of in-focus shots improved dramatically.
I joined a local photography group
In any field, you should surround yourself with those more experienced than you. This pushes you to improve and exposes you to new techniques and experiments you may have never before considered.
This group had me out shooting astrophotography, artistic food, bokeh, and obscure beach nooks. Nothing helps you improve more than sheer practice, and this group pushed me to get out and shoot far more than I had before.
I started a photography blog
This forced me to look at my photos. This may seem really basic, but how frequently do people take a hundred shots of a weekend beach trip and then let them collect digital dust on their hard drive? If you never look at what you’re shooting, you can’t possibly know what you need to do to improve.
By regularly maintaining a blog, I forced myself to keep up on my pictures. This visibility was important to see what I was actually capturing, recognize my flaws, and improve upon them the next time I went out.
There is always more to learn, and I’m excited to see what new tricks I pick up in 2016. I’ll keep reading others’ tips and experimenting, and I encourage you to do the same.
So, do you have any advice of your own? What have you recently learned that has improved your photography? I would love to hear your stories of discovery!