New cameras, lenses, and accessories open up the possibility of fresh adventures in photography. In reality, though, most of us have to make do with what we’ve got, upgrading to new camera kit as and when we can afford it. With that in mind, here are 15 suggestions to help beginning and intermediate photographers improve your photography without splashing out on new gear.
1. Concentrate on What You Can Photograph Rather Than What You Can’t
It’s easy to walk away from a photo opportunity because you don’t feel your lens is long enough or wide enough, or you believe your camera’s continuous shooting speed is slow or its autofocus sluggish.
But learning to think around any potential barriers is how original photos are made. Instead of wishing for a 600mm lens for wildlife photography, see how you can frame an impactful shot with a wide-angle.
Rather than cursing your lack of an ultra-wide lens when photographing a sweeping coastal shot, take a series of frames and stitch them together later.
No fast f/1.2 portrait lens in your line-up?
Find a location where the foreground and background will be so far from your portrait-sitter that it’s easy to make them stand out, even at f/5.6.
2. Read the Camera Manual
Reading your DSLR’s manual won’t help you improve your photography per se, but a bit of technical camera knowledge will make a difference to the aesthetic quality of your pictures in the long term.
You’ll learn how to customize the controls of your camera so that you can react to situations faster.
You’ll understand which of the many autofocus options and AF point set-ups will suit different subjects. You’ll know how the camera will handle flash exposures in different shooting modes.
3. Use Your Gear Every Day
You don’t have to head out in pursuit of an award-winning shot seven days a week, but the more you use your camera, the more instinctively you’ll be able to use it.
Being able to press the correct button to adjust the aperture or ISO without taking your eye from the viewfinder, or to know which direction to rotate the camera’s dial to make the next shot brighter or darker can increase your chances of capturing spontaneous photographs.
4. DIY Photography Hacks and Camera Mods
Making your own DIY camera accessories is an easy way to add to your creative photography arsenal.
Instead of buying a commercial flash diffuser, why not create your own with a DIY light modifier?
Try cutting up a clear plastic milk bottle or using bubble wrap in front of your flashgun to soften the light.
Kitchen foil makes a cheap and cheerful reflector for portraits and macro photography, while an iPad or laptop screen can be used as a constant light source for still-life set-ups.
You can get more ambitious with DIY photography hacks too, such as turning your DSLR into a pinhole camera, making your own ring flash and building a bicycle camera mount.
5. Start a Photography Project
Setting yourself a goal and parameters to work within is a great way to sharpen your eye for a picture, and by starting a photography project you’ll force yourself to make the best of your current camera gear.
You could try the classic 365 photo project, taking one photo a day for a year. Perhaps restrict yourself to a single lens or focal length on a zoom.
How about choosing a theme: a specific color, emotion, location or camera effect?
Having a project in mind when you’re out with your camera will give your photography focus.
6. Study the Photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson
It’s a cliché to bring up Henri Cartier-Bresson when talking about how to make the most of minimal camera kit, but there’s no escaping the fact that the ‘father of photojournalism’ created some the most iconic images of the 20th century using just one 35mm camera and a single 50mm lens.
Too much equipment can be a distraction, and studying the way Cartier-Bresson constructed his images and developed a sense of when to press the shutter when all the elements moved into place, well, that can make a bigger difference to the progression of your photography than an armful of new lenses.
7. Follow Photographers You Admire
By following the best photographers on Facebook, regularly checking in on their blogs and learning the stories behind their best photos, you’ll develop your eye for a picture and ultimately improve your own photography while you’re commuting on the train or sitting at your desk at work.
8. Read the Best Photography Books
As many as 880 billion photos will be taken in 2014, reports Popular Photography.
And you can bet that most of those will end up being shared online. Few photography websites bother with quality control, while fewer still are able to curate such a volume of pictures into a meaningful selection worth looking at.
So why not treat your eyes to a photography book where every picture has to count?
We’re not talking practical how-to photography guides, but ‘coffee tables’ photo books, such as Life(Frans Lanting), Water Light Time (David Doubilet), Street Photography Now (Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren) and We English (Simon Roberts).
Although some photo books are expensive, there’s usually a deal to be found on eBay.
9. Avoid Camera Review Websites
Or should that be ‘avoid temptation’? Anyway, it’s easy to become disillusioned with the camera gear you own if you spend too much time visiting dedicated camera review websites and forums.
But the launch of a new DSLR doesn’t make the previous model a dog. Review forums can also be quite disheartening places, with comments descending into blow-trading between camera tribes.
Stick with more positive influences. Photography websites like PetaPixel and Digital Camera World get the balance between inspiration and insight right.
10. Watch TV and Pay Attention
Yes, really. The TV gets a bad press, but you can learn an awful lot about composition by unwinding in front of a good movie or TV drama.
Look at how a scene has been lit and how it’s been framed, where the elements fall and how it’s been cropped.
Chances are, cinematographers and lighting cameraman have more than a passing interest in photography — in fact, shooting stills is probably how most of them got started — and by actively watching their work, you’ll develop your eye for composition.
11. Spend the Money on a Photography Trip
Many of us would love to upgrade our slow f/5.6 lenses for faster f/2.8 ones, but would that money be better spent on traveling to a location with great photo potential?
You’ll feel motivated to shoot when you visit somewhere new. It’s only by putting in the hours and making mistakes that you’ll improve your photography.
And wouldn’t you rather do that somewhere stimulating with a bunch of cheaper lenses and accessories, rather than sit at home with expensive camera gear?
12. Use a Tripod
How often have you heard that pearl of advice? We’d guess at least 320 times. But a tripod can be seriously good for the health of your photography.
We’re not talking technically here — supporting your camera during exposure is naturally going to give you sharper photos — but rather the way that a tripod slows down the art of picture taking.
The fiddly process of setting up a tripod encourages you to pay more attention to the camera position, what elements you’ll include and exclude in the photo and fine-tune the framing.
13. Shoot JPEG rather than RAW files
It’s easy to treat RAW files as a safety net, allowing you to apply for exposure compensation, change the white balance or opt for a different Picture Style after taking the shot.
Shoot JPEGs though, and there’s less room for error. You can, of course, correct a JPEG’s brightness and colors later in photo software, but it takes longer and the end result won’t be as high quality as if you were starting with a RAW file.
Select JPEG in-camera and you’ll find yourself paying closer attention to the histogram and considering the lighting and mood you want to create before setting the white balance, choosing a Picture Style or applying a Creative Filter.
14. Use a Small Capacity Memory Card
By keeping a small capacity card — or a larger capacity card, which is half full — in your camera, you’ll be forced to be more selective when it comes to pressing the shutter release.
Without the freedom to ‘spray and pray’ or to make countless in-camera duplicates, you’ll soon start making each frame count.
15. Shoot in Live View Mode
When you take pictures using the viewfinder, you feel more intimately involved with the picture-taking process.
Use Live View, however, and you can, literally, take a step back and see the image in a more detached way.
The larger picture displayed on your camera’s Live View screen can give you a better feel for the size of the subject in relation to the rest of the frame (not all viewfinders show 100% of the image), makes it easier to spot distractions and precisely set both the focus and exposure.