When people like your photos, this is one of the first questions they ask. They don’t want to know how you select your subjects and compositions, what settings you use in various light and environments, how much post-processing is involved, or even how many years of practice it took to know how to put all those things together.
If people are interested in photography and want to talk about it, I happily oblige. It’s the one thing I can talk about all day. Seriously, I’ve lost my voice talking about photography. And I’ve probably put several people to sleep in the process.
But I hate talking about cameras. At least, I hate talking about them in the context that the specific brand and model of camera is the key to taking better images. If you’re an experienced shooter and want to talk shop about gear, that’s fine. If you’re looking to buy a camera that can accommodate your specific needs, then let’s chat. But if you think I – or anyone else – can tell you what camera will make you a better photographer, it becomes a painful conversation, because we first need to talk about what photography actually is.
Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, a high-end camera makes a difference when it comes to handling and execution. Serious photographers use high-end gear because they need ruggedness, flexibility, speed, ergonomics and most of all, high image quality. A good photographer can still take great photos with a phone, but if it’s his or her intent to sell or display photos, then those images need to be of a high “commercial” standard. That’s where all that kit earns its place in the bag.
When it comes to improving your skill as a photographer, a fancy camera makes you a better photographer the same way a fancy microphone makes you a better singer. If you can’t carry a tune, then a spiffy microphone will just make a really high-quality recording of your bad voice.
Likewise, if you don’t understand the very basics of what turns the thing you see into a great photo, then a nice camera isn’t going to make your snaps happier. Your camera doesn’t choose your subjects for you. It doesn’t know what part of a scene you want to be in focus, and it doesn’t decide where to stand or when the moment is right. The best camera in the world has NO IDEA what you want to communicate with your image.
That comes from you.
So, let’s talk about you. What do you like? What are your passions? What makes you get out of bed when you don’t otherwise have to? This is where good photography starts. If you’re a people person or have kids, you might have a natural gift for portrait work or weddings. If you love the outdoors, maybe landscapes are more your thing. If you live in the city and love the urban vibe, then maybe street photography is up your alley (see what I did there?)
People are naturally better photographing things they care about, so this is where you start. Now that you’ve got something in mind, how do you turn that subject into great photographs? Well, shoot some. Then look at what others are doing. Compare. Now shoot some more. Compare yours, theirs, and your old ones.
Did you improve? Probably a little. If not, why not? Look close. Show them to other people – not just friends and family, because they won’t be honest with you. Get feedback from people who aren’t going to just tell you what you want to hear. Join a club, find other photographers with similar interests, even if just means going to online groups and forums: Flickr, DeviantArt, SmugMug, Picasa, and many more. Stay away from Facebook and Instagram if you want your photos to get better. Those are great places for you and your friends to share memories and LOLs, not for serious improvement to your craft.
It won’t take long before you’re looking at subject matter differently. You’ll start to see shape, line and texture everywhere. You’ll anticipate moments and read light. You’ll know how to communicate visually, whether that’s to tell a story or create a dialogue.
Notice we haven’t talked about your camera in a while? We don’t need to. Not yet. The best camera you can shoot with is the one in your hand. Use it. You’ll eventually find its limits. By the time that happens, you’ll know what you need to move to the next level. For now, learn to see, learn the craft, and just have fun with it.