I read a blog post from a highly regarded “filmmaker, photographer, and writer, with a passion for kinetic storytelling.” It was about “how to take good photos for under $1000.” It surprised me how wrong it was.
Making images is not about the equipment (though I guess if you run a business which makes equipment and sells software, you might be motivated to propagandize otherwise). Repeat after me: making images is not about the equipment. Alfred Stieglitz used a giant view camera on a tripod. Robert Capa used 35mm Leica and Contax. Chase Jarvis put together a book or two with an iPhone. David Alan Harvey uses whatever is in his hand to make amazing images. (Harvey’s Instagram feed is nothing short of incredible, and all shot on the iPhone.) It’s not the tool that makes the image.
Making good images is about how you see. If you want to take better pictures, the first step is to quit blaming your equipment and start working on your mind.
(Yes, better equipment can help—but only at the margins. Better equipment allows the creator more flexibility and possibly more options. But it doesn’t create the image. Only the photographer’s mind can do that. And there’s no point in spending money on tools you can’t maximize.)
Here’s how to take better pictures without spending any money.
Do these without a camera of any kind:
1) Fill your mind and become more aware
Making better images comes from understanding why some images are good, and some are not. There are certain things to which the mind is drawn, as well as forms and designs in nature which are pleasing to us humans. Learning the details of those things requires time and effort.
But lucky you, there’s a short cut. Start by filling your mind with quality examples. Look at some art. Whether online, in a book, or in a gallery, find an artist you like and just enjoy the work. Also, look at good photographers. Not Flickr. Not Google Images. Find some tried and true artists in the categories which interest you, be it landscapes or street pictures. You’ll not only get an idea of what’s possible, but your mind will absorb the features that make the images good and you will be able to spot those patterns when you see them.
2) Observe your own environment
Look at the people and places around you in an active and objective way. When people are talking, watch them and watch the patterns of the conversation. Pay attention to the highs and lows, the peaks and valleys. Observe how people move. As you watch more, you’ll start to see the patterns of social conduct. Knowing these things in the active part of your mind will help you time the moments you want to capture.
As you more actively observe your environment, participate in it more. Move around. See things from other angles. Watch the backgrounds. Find out where people’s zone’s of personal space are. Discover how easily (or not) you can move into and out of situations.
Think about the things you care about. Think about what it is you want to capture. Think about why it interests you. In that process, also think about how you would share it. Are the things that engage you singular events, or are they part of a larger story? Will you make a print, or a book?
Do these with a camera in hand:
3) Make use of what you already have
Whether it’s an iPhone or a DSLR, the first step is learning about the tools you already have. Whatever you have will work. Any image-making device will meet our needs if it’s (say it with me) able to make an image. The problem isn’t with the tools.
So get out whatever you have and get to know it. Find the manual. Read it. Play with it. Use it. See what the buttons do. Get comfortable with it. The goal is to move your use of the tool from your active consciousness to the muscle memory of your mind. Most people get frustrated in learning new tools, blame the tool, and seek a new one. That’s not only wrong and misguided, it’s also foolish. You don’t need to invest in another tool you’re just as unlikely to make the effort to understand. Break the chain of self abuse by studying up on what you have.
4) Framing and timing
Now it’s time to start applying all that fresh information bouncing around in your head. Start using your image-making device. With your new found appreciation for art, you’ll start not only putting the subject in an interesting part of the frame, but you’ll also be watching the backgrounds for clutter and distraction. With your new found appreciation for personal space, you’ll be able to place yourself so that your subject has a contextual background so that the image will tell more of a story. You’ll also be timing the shutter to capture the moments you want to capture. (“Spray and pray,” as it’s called, is not only a very poor approach to making good images, but it’s disrespectful to yourself. If you aren’t looking for specific moments, why are you bothering to take pictures in the first place? If you’re looking for specific moments, then you don’t need pray, and you certainly shouldn’t ever spray.)
5) Developing the image
As Cartier-Bresson said, taking the picture is only the first step. Afterwards, you must develop it so that it matches the mood, emotion, and intention you had when you took the picture. With today’s devices, this isn’t hard. The Camera app on the iPhone has built-in filters. Camera+ is a few bucks. On a computer, there are any number of free applications which will let you develop the image. (iPhoto has a ton of options. I’m sure the Windows equivalent does, too.) Accept that you will learn and grow as you engage in the development process. For now, the most important thing is to spend the time to learn what software you already have and maximize it. There’s no point in buying new software. (See above about buying equipment.)
6) Share your images
If you don’t intend to share your images, you don’t need a camera—your memory will do just fine. If you do intend to share them, then it helps to have options in mind. Tumblr is free. So is Flickr. So is Gmail. Sharing the images you make provides a purpose, and to be creative you must have a purpose. So share your images!
As you take more images over a period of time, also consider other options, such as printing individual images or making books. For personal purposes, I do both. For instance, for the past decade I’ve done an annual collection of pictures for family and friends. I’ll also have prints or canvases made of images that I’d like to share as gifts. Few things are as satisfying as a truly appreciative audience who wants to hang your work in their house!
So save your $1,000. Start making better images right now by investing in yourself. For that, all you need is a little time and some interest. You will immediately reap the rewards.
Bonus tip (for Free!!): turn off the flash. Always. Other than Weegee, there hasn’t been a decent image taken with an on-camera flash. It’s harsh, directionally awful, distorts the sensation of space by over-lighting the foreground, and will invariably make any image worse. (Yes, yes, if you’re shooting fill from an X100s, there is some argument to be made for on-camera flash. But that’s an advanced topic. For now, just turn the damned thing off.)