A famous photographer is out having dinner with some friends. During the meal the chef comes out and says, "Your pictures are great, you must have a good camera." The photographer nods and continues eating.
At the end of dinner, the photographer says to the chef, "This meal was great, you must have a good stove."
This is one of the fallacies of photography that I try to pound out of my students during every workshop. Because we are one of the few art forms that is wholly dependent on gear to craft an image, many get caught up in thinking that having the newest camera or biggest lens will make them a better photographer. They get what we photographers lovingly call GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome. So here are the first 5 tips I have for you that will better your photography without spending money on gear.
Know Your Camera
Take out your manual, go through it page by page, and find every feature on your camera and understand what it does. We touch on this in my workshops, and it still takes the majority of the morning because nobody has done it before.
The reason is simple: If you know what everything on you camera does and you can access it quickly, then you aren’t worrying about it when shooting. By the time you try and figure out where something is, you picture is gone. This allows you to focus on the image, not the camera.
The two pictures you see are of a stage performance in Thailand. Both are taken within minutes of each other, give completely different looks, and were shot with completely different settings on my camera. If I had to struggle to figure out how to do this, the performance would already be over.
Before you go someplace, find out as much as you can about it. There are plenty of reference material on the internet, in books and magazines. I have a pile of cutouts and numerous bookmarks with future ideas and places I want to photograph. It will also help you visualize different scenes and help you tackle logistics while there to get the picture you want.
The shot you see of the Taj Mahal was gotten only because I did my research. I was trying to find a new way to see it, since it’s considered the most photographed thing on earth. I read in a guidebook that a possible good spot to see the sunrise of the Taj was from Agra fort. I then checked out the sunrise time and direction using an iPhone app. After that I used the internet to find out when the Fort opened and mapped out my path to get a clean shot of it. It was worth it.
Study the Masters
Go to the library--or what people now think of as the book museum--and find photographers you like and pour through their body of work. Ask yourself what makes this picture great, what they did and how they did it. Also read what the photographer wrote in the book; understand their way of thinking regarding image crafting.
You can do this on the internet as well, but I prefer books. They are professionally laid out with intent and you don’t get the same quality and tactile feel like you do off the computer screen. 798 has some great bookstores, and Professional Photographer magazine has a great article on the 100 Most influential photographers of all time. Choose a few and look at their work.
I’m currently involved in some way on five different projects. The easiest one to see is the 365 project on my Google+ page. It is a great way to get you out taking pictures. Collaborating with other creative minds can get your juices flowing and also gives you a goal to shoot for.
The project can be about anything, as long as you love the idea and want to do it. Even if you don’t know where it will lead, just start it. One of my current projects is taking pictures of shoes in the hutongs (you see them everywhere). I don’t know where it will lead or what is the “deeper” meaning, but I know it is getting me out everyday taking pictures.
See the Light
I know it’s vague and kind of cheesy. But the next time you go out, don’t take your camera, just walk around and look at the light. Look at the quality of light that is around you, how it hits different objects, how it plays in the shadows, what effects it has on the things that pass through it. Look at it during different times of the day; see how the color and direction is different at sunrise than noon. The shot of Agra Fort you see would not be possible during midday, the light would not be coming across the room like it was, and it was taken right after the one of the Taj.
When you learn how light works, you can apply it better in your photographs. After all, we are painting with it.
Next week’s topic: Composition tips
Five Things You Should Know About Your Camera
HDR Photography: The Future, Not a Fad
Mitchell Masilun is a Beijing-based freelance photographer and educator. He is a contributor to Getty Images and has been published in various magazines and newspapers both inside and outside of China. Before coming to China, he was a photojournalist working in the Chicagoland and Central Ohio areas, with images circulated nationwide through the Associated Press, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution and other newspapers. His images have also been published in four books and he is currently working on a documentary about Kashgar’s Old City and the geographical line that separates China’s East and West Territories. You can follow him on Twitter, and see his photo a day project on Google+