Mike is a designer and photographer from Toronto. You can find him on Instagram: @tdot_mike
Hey there. It’s Mike with a few tips for you shooters out there. I wrote this article with beginner – intermediate photographers in mind. I’ve ben asked for tips for newer shooters and I have tried to summarize some of my ideas here. Some of this is my opinion – but a good chunk of it is established best practices with photography and editing.
I will confess to you that while I am a professional with design and media, I’ve always considered my photography a hobby. However I vow to seek to professionalize my approach and improve my skills this year. Let’s make 2022 the year of improvement!
I am a firm believer in continuous lifelong learning and making progress with your art. Not many people know this, but in 2009 I returned to school as a mature student and completed a diploma in Graphic Design – Media from college. I learned a lot and improved my design skills in the process.
As a curator, I look at a lot of images so I have a strong sense of what makes a good image. As a photographer I have learned how to apply general concepts to most scenarios and as a designer I’ve grown experienced visual art and design principles to photography and editing.
Without further ado here is the summary list of things you can do to improve your photography:
- Shoot with the best camera you have (real camera beats smartphone)
- Invest in accessories like tripods and fast SD cards
- Use the exposure and priority modes (PASM)
- Create interest with framing, foreground, reflections and composition
- Learn to edit (Straighten up and nail those tones)
Shoot with the Best Camera You Have (Consider a “Real Camera”)
We all know the expression “the best camera is the one in hand,” and while there’s a lot of merit in this, it could mean the difference between a good and great photo if the camera at hand is a little better.
Case in point is the situation with smartphones. While a new iPhone or Galaxy model is going to be technically marvellous and capture some amazing pics, it will not usually best a dedicated camera. By which I mean a real camera, sole purpose to take photos.
Consider moving to DSLR, mirrorless or compact
It would be terrific if you had a beast like a Sony, Nikon or Canon DSLR or mirrorless, but you can also use compacts, bridge cameras, APS-C crop sensor or micro four thirds systems, all cameras with slightly smaller sensors, and get some astonishing shots.
A real camera is going to have better optics, such as bigger sensor to take in light, higher quality glass (aka lens) and much better performance with RAW image capture and the like.
If I were purchasing a serious pro-level camera I’d consider smaller full frame or APS-C lens cameras in the $800-$1500 price range. I’m also a fan of the compacts in the $400-700 range and there are some very sweet compacts with features like 1 inch sensor and incredible zooms, in a small form factor.
If you are going to keep shooting with a smartphone at the very least learn how to switch to RAW capture for your photos. Also consider using tripods and any other stabilization or image quality increase.
Up your smartphone game
Smartphones reached a point where 2-3 years ago the flagship phones all had spectacular screens, good connectivity and strong overall speed and performance. Many people have slowed on the upgrade cycle.
However it seems worth pointing out, that if you are a dedicated smartphone shooter, you should make your next phone purchase a very good one. An iPhone Pro or Samsung Galaxy S-series phone would be advantageous as they all have excellent cameras in wide, ultra wide and zoom formats.
Buy second hand or refurbished / open box
It’s not for everyone, but there are benefits to buying a new but open box item or even a second hand product in good condition.
It’s a longstanding tradition for photographers to consider buying second hand cameras and lenses. If you buy from a reputable shop it’s a way to save lots of money and get a solid piece of gear. The shop cannot offer the same warranty as new but they should offer you 3 months or better.
For examples purposes I share two case studies:
Example 1: Used Nikon Z7 body only priced at $2,299.99 at Henry’s. New Nikon Z7 body only priced at $3,299 at BestBuy Canada. That’s a savings of $1000. Not too shabby!
Example 2: Open box Nikon P7800 priced at $325 at Amazon Warehouse. Regular price $500+. Amazing discount.
In either case you must consider factors like warranty. Do you need the reassurance of a full warranty from the manufacturer? Or will you go with a partial warranty from the seller for a used but heavily discounted item? in the cases above there is a 90 day warranty for the used item at Henry’s. But so far as I can tell the open box item sold by Amazon Warehouse does not have conventional warranty coverage and you should only expect to be able to return it for refund within 30 days.
Another new feature is Amazon allowing you to pay in 12 installments with no interest. There are lots of cameras that can be purchased this way. Nice way to upgrade inexpensively.
Elevate with Essential Accessory Upgrades (Fast SD Cards and Tripods)
The benefits of small investments in gear cannot be underestimated. Some small purchases in the way of accessories could totally transform your photography process.
- Get a fast SD card
- Buy a good tripod
SD Card comparison
I tend to use SanDisk cards and find them reliable and quick. But over the years I’ve learned that within this group there are good cards and blazingly fast cards. I used to use the standard pro card and then I dscovered the “Extreme” branded cards are way faster.
I know because I tested them with my current everyday camera (compact Nikon). With the regular SD card I could take 10 raw images in a minute, but with the Extreme version I was able to press the shutter a shocking 19 times. That’s nearly DOUBLE the write speed. Get a fast card – you won’t regret it.
Note that the format called SDHC is slower than SDXC. So a 64 GB SDXC is probably a better value for most people than the 32 GB counterpart because the write speeds are 170 MB/s vs 95 MB/s. Indeed, 64 GB seems the sweet spot for many.
Regardless of card form factor (SD, compact flash or XQD) do your research and find out which one is fastest. Buying the fastest version is a good investment as these cards should last a long time.
Years back I invested in a low cost but quality tripod from Manfrotto. I spent only $100 but I have never regretted the purchase. This camera usually supports my compact or DSLR, both in the $500-700 price category. This tripod can get my camera up to about 60 inches or be used at about 18 inches in smallest form factor. The tripod has come in handy for shooting in low light, whether a pre-sunrise shoot at the waterfront or a long exposure shoot at night.
This is one area where it is inarguable that the accessory can have a serious impact on your image capture performance. Avoid bargain tripods in the sub $50 category though as they are often flimsy and lack stability. And it should be said that if you have cameras and lenses in the $2000 and over category a suitable tripod may set you back around $300-400.
Use Priority and Exposure Modes (PASM)
If you are looking to grow and learn more about how your camera works, gettng to grips with the settings is a must. One handy way to go about this is to start getting a feel for the mechanics of your camera by using the priority modes and exposure modes.
Exposure Modes / PASM
PASM stands for Program, Aperture Priority (Referred to as Av on Canon), Shutter Priority (Referred to as Tv on Canon), and Manual. These exposure modes, especially the first three, are a great way to explore how exposure variables interact.
- Shutter priority
- Aperture priority
Learning to edit with manual settings is the goal but switching the camera into shutter or aperture priority mode can be a lifesaver for quick setups.
There is a great article on exposure modes at itsjustlight.com. Check it out.
Case Study: Shutter Priority
You can go into the street and see some results shooting with fast shutter or slow shutter. Try shutter priority of 1/2 second or 1/4 second and stay super steady to get some hand-held motion blur (or use tripod). At the same time try 1/160 or faster and see what kind of action you can freeze as people or vehicles move around you.
Case Study: Aperture Priority
One cool thing to do is to capture star bursts from the sun flare when pointing your camera in the direction of the setting or rising sun. If a tree or building or person or other object partially obstructs the sun, you can see and capture a multi pronged star burst. You only need to use the smallest aperature settings on your camera. f22 might be useful. On my compact camera I can only go to f11 but it still yields a decent result.
Using these settings is a real bonus when learning photography or wanting quick results without a fuss. And the beautiful thing is your camera will generally speaking always seek to compensate with the lowest possible ISO settings that will hopefully allow your shots to be relatively noise free.
Create interesting Framing and Foregrounds
A lot of shots taken at regular height or in an open space lack visual interest at the edges or frames, or in the foreground area. Unless your subject is a highly interesting one or the scene is breathtaking on its own, you will definitely need the advantage of interesting composition.
Try getting a low point of view (POV) by squatting down or getting a higher POV by elevating yourself. Getting low can allow you to take a shot between a passerby’s legs, or capture a reflection off a puddle in a street.
Some photographers seek out vegetation to frame their photos, using tree branches, flowers, grass or any other plant life to create a compelling image. Certainly flowers or tree branches framing an urban cityscape shot can help balance the gritty concrete aesthetic and remind the viewer that there is some element of nature along the city streets.
Learn to Edit (straighten your images and get the tones and colours right!)
I hate to say it but many people can’t edit. Editing is half or more of the battle in presenting a good photo and making it great! It might even be fairer to say people tend to over edit – too much vignette, too much saturation… sometimes you can kill an image with too much editing.
Even with pros and top amateurs I see crooked horizons and plenty of mistakes like over saturation – the latter a problem compounded as people seek infamy on Instagram. Here are a few tips.
Straighten your horizons (and buildings)
The basics are the place to start. Use presets like auto straighten and some manual tweaks to get the scene straight. There only a handful of instances where a crooked image is ideal and mostly they are action shots on the street, artistic architectural images and similar. 99% of all the rest should be perfectly straight.
One issue many people overlook is straightening buildings. With the use of lenses in the 10-28 mm range there can be lots of distortion. People seem to accept the curved building look when it isn’t always necessary or effective.
If your goal is to do architectural or cityscape photographer objects like skyscrapers or towers like CN Tower often deserve to be presented accurately. Tools like Lightroom or Camera Raw have geometry straightening settings – use them! The auto modes are usually spot on and can fix bent buildings in a matter of seconds.
Get shadows, mids and highlight tones right
Learn how to get your tones right, including highlights and shadows. Some daytime street photography benefits from edits that blow out highlights and darken shadows to create a strong contrast look, but most other photos require seeking to ehance and lift all the areas equally.
Your histogram and image should show more detail in the mids or overall exposure, probably some increased detail in the shadows and reduced intensity in highlights.
Don’t overdo colour with filtered / oversaturated looks
Regarding colour and intensity, I find many people approach editing in a bizarre manner, applying what looks like an overall filter to their images. Aside from the teal and orange approach or selective colour editing which are both split tone style and useful approaches, there is a tendency among some photographers to apply what I call the “orange dip” to their images.
This is a situation where the photo simply looks like a warming preset was added. It doesn’t matter whether you use the “warmth” slider or some kind of colour preset that is tilting toward yellow, orange or pink / red, in most cases it makes no sense to apply a uniform colour to your image.
Same goes for night or winter scenes where there may be a temptation to reduce the colour palette to blues. Resist this impulse. In some cases it can look great but it can aslo be easily overdone.
Though I wrote this article for beginners I do think some advanced photographers neglect or abuse some of these basic principles. Anyone can stand to improve their gear, approach to shooting or editing techniques.
Personally speaking I have resolved to continue to get to know my camera and settings better, and to use my DSLR instead of my compact on more occasions. Recently I considered shooting more video and learning more about video production. There are many areas I can improve, so I’m with you on this topic.
Consider also other improvements such as playing with new tools or formats such as video, or checking out new software, or learning more with what you already have.
Perhaps this means trying some new genre of photography to get out of your comfort zone and expand your experience and knowledge. Portraits and the importance of lighting comes to mind. A good portrait photographer probably employs a flash to get additional lighting on their subjects. a street photographer is challenged to create unqieu compisitons on the spot, in a manner that relies on speed and flexibility,
If you have not yet tried to advance your editing or digital media knowledge generally, please consider joining my class Photo Video Workshop. It will challenge you to consider editing with Photoshop, using photos in graphic design, and learning a few things about basic video editing with DaVinci Resolve.
Good luck on your photography journey and let me know how your experiments with technique, gear and software go. I look forward to seeing your work.
Thanks for Reading
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About the Author
Mike Simpson is an experienced and passionate creator / educator, and the owner of Tdot.com, a design agency specializing in e-learning and website development. Mike’s love for photography and blogging led him to establish tdotshots.com (@tdot_shots), a GTA area photography and creative community with 20k+ Instagram followers. He designs and teaches courses at Tdot Studio and Toronto-area schools including George Brown and Centennial College.