Photo taken with an enthusiast-grade digital camera made over ten years ago.
Think of what could be done-- by you, with the motivation and skill-- with a camera made today.
June 2014

Camera Selection

Again and again, I keep reading and hearing the sentiment that gear equates to good results. 

This is not true. 

In previous articles I've talked about camera selection.  And you're probably already familiar with this article.  Essential reading. 

If you don't have a camera yet, consider starting out with film.   Learn the basics of metering, aperture, shutter speed, and so on.  Use a notebook and keep track of your settings.  Color negative film is forgiving of exposure errors much more than digital.  It also has better tones.

If you want to start out with digital, I suggest an inexpensive DSLR such as a Canon T3 or a Nikon D3200.   Just for some variety, I also might consider a Sony Alpha 3000, though it's not technically a DSLR, and it has a smaller selection of lenses.  (You can get E-mount adapters to take some other lenses, though.)  What it lacks in user interface,  it more than makes up for in image quality.

I can't believe how much better all these cameras are than the expensive ones of ten years ago.  They're still not film, but they're pretty nice.

If your budget is lower than the cost of an entry-level DSLR, get a point-and-shoot that has at least some manual controls.  Mainly, you'll need the ability to set the exposure or adjust the aperture and shutter speeds.  A viewfinder is very helpful.  Finding both features on an inexpensive camera in 2014 is very difficult but it can be done, sort of.

Ability to set the exposure is more important than a viewfinder.  If you want a fairly inexpensive camera so you can just get out there and make nice pictures, just get one of these.  You could go for one of these which is better, but at its current price you're almost there to a Canon Rebel T3, which I'd get instead.

What Makes Good Art?

This is extremely subjective.  No one's art is objectively "good", because there is no absolute standard to which everyone agrees.   There are even people who don't like the work of Ansel Adams.  You could have the best (to you) photos on earth, and someone else might hate them.  Don't worry about that.   Sometimes you'll even have a photo that you don't care for, but later you'll decide you like it a lot. 

Artists often alternate between liking their own work and thinking it's garbage. 

All I know is that when I make a photo, it's "art" enough, as long as I want to look at it.  That's really the whole point.  If someone else likes it, great. 

Art has no rules, and yet there are some basic rules to getting a good photo.   That's because there are some basic elements that just "look right" to us... or not.  Here's an example.  If you take pictures of people, you want them to be in-focus and not have everyone crammed into one side of the picture.   (There might be some kinds of art that don't conform to that.)

And so, here are the two most important elements to making pictures that look good....

Composition and Lighting

A lot of people seem to think the camera will figure everything out for them.  They do not seem to know why some people take better pictures than others.  Mostly, it comes down to composition and lighting.   These are more important than megapixels, corner sharpness, or any other half-dozen things I can think of.  

Neither of these can be fixed later.   You have to get them right the first time.

Sometimes you will get asked to take someone's picture, and you might feel like there's a hurry.  So you'll be working in the harsh sunlight.  Doesn't matter how advanced you are, sooner or later you'll end up re-making the same old rookie mistake and taking pictures in harsh sun.

Harsh sun.  Use a fill flash for this.  Or move to another spot.
This could have been a good picture, but the sun... !!!

Don't be in a hurry.  Choose better lighting instead.

(Another photographer tells me there's an Instagram filter to simulate this effect....)

After a picture or three in the harsh sunlight, which I know is not going to work, usually I say "Hey, guys, let's find some better lighting."  So I politely convince everyone to move to the shade and take the pictures there.   (Do this from the start and you won't waste pictures or time.)

Another way to deal with harsh lighting is fill flash, but some cameras have weird flash metering.  Fill-flash in harsh sun is better than nothing.  Another way is just to go indoors and let the flash be the primary light source.  Here again, there might not be much time to think of how you're going to light the scene.   At least it's better than glaring sun.

There could have been ways to improve the lighting, even here.  But it's a lot better than the previous photo.

400-speed color negative film, by the way.

Once you compose some nice shots in decent lighting, how do you make them look good?    Well, they should already look basically good.  But maybe you want to fine tune them.  Maybe you have digital pictures and you don't want them to look flat.  In other words, maybe you want them to look a bit more like the film picture shown here.

RAW vs. JPG.  Again.

Some people get really ticked off about this.  They think you cannot be a photographer unless you shoot RAW.  (I just read an article that said that.)   I disagree. 

In this article I delve into the color depth of JPG vs. RAW exports (typically, TIFF or PNG files).  Yes, these have a lot more color depth than a JPG.  The question is whether you are genuinely making use of that extra color depth. 

After way too much pixel nitpicking, the conclusion I reached is that RAW is most useful for skies and other large expanses of color, and only when you have to move the curves, saturation, lightness, or that sort of thing.  You can also recover shadows and highlights, but only up to a point, and not as much as a lot of people would have you believe.

Want to see how useless RAW can be?  Go ahead and read Camera vs. Log, Part II

I prefer to have a camera with RAW, but mainly for a particular type of photography.  Mostly for large expanses of sky.  There I consider it not optional;  I shoot sky and sunset photos in RAW + JPG, almost always.

For everything else I probably shoot 98% JPG.   Every picture I've sold has been JPG, come to think of it... not a single RAW photo that I can recall.  Not that I wouldn't if asked;  just sayin'.  

Probably what's happening with the RAW vs. JPG thing is that people have gotten their whole sense of legitimacy tangled up in the tools and methods they use.  Don't sweat it, people.  Use RAW if you like, or JPG if not.  Adopt the attitude that you don't care whether anyone else likes your work, and sooner or later, someone will.  I'm not trying to sound arrogant here.  It's just being practical.  A lot of artists are so desperate for validation that they will throw their work under the feet of passerby, just hoping they get noticed.  Save your nerves.  Those people aren't going to like you any better.  Many great artists do not get recognized until decades after they pass on.  In the meantime, just have fun doing what you love.

What's All This About "Post"??

I've said that artists don't display straight-from-camera images.  That's only a generalization.  And here's why I said it.  You may have seen those newbie photographers who hand their customers a CD of flat, harsh, cold images.  If you're trying to earn money with your pictures and you don't have time to make those pictures look better than that... consider raising your prices so you can make the time.   I'm not saying this to be flippant.  The fact is, customers aren't going to sit there and fix a bunch of flat pictures.  They're going to show other people those photos, just the way they are on that CD.   You will get known by the quality of pictures you offer.

(That's another compelling reason to use film.  Good scans require little or no post-processing.)

What is post-processing, anyway?   Really, it's almost anything done to a picture after you take it.  So, if you crop an image, that's post-processing.  If you run de-noising software, that's also a type of post-processing.   Brightness and contrast?  That's a type of post-processing, too. 

Make no mistake:  post processing or "post" cannot turn a poorly-composed image into a good one.  Neither can RAW.  That's where a lot of people go wrong.  They start with bad lighting and composition, then they think they can fix it on their computer.  Post-processing is for making basically-good images into better good images.   (If you remove dust spots or adjust the brightness / contrast after the picture was taken, those are types of post processing.)

Many DSLR's can be set up to give nicer-looking images than you typically see from these newbie photogs.  The thing is, DSLR's do not instantly decide the right color balance for a photo.  Every scene is a little different.  The color temperature varies, the light intensity varies, and the subjects vary.  You can spend time at the site adjusting the white balance, color, and contrast.  Or, you can take the pictures and spend time on it later.  Six of one, half-dozen of the other.   Neither way is wrong.  

Either is better than doing nothing.  Tweak the colors and stuff beforehand, or do it later, but do it.  Or, shoot slide film and you don't have to worry about it at all.

If you have a camera with Custom or User modes (like a Canon 60D or a Nikon D7000), you can tweak everything to your liking and save it in a custom slot.  This does save time.   (The Canon SX50 also happens to have this feature.)

You might have been able to crank out 37 pictures in 3.1 seconds on your 1D X, but I got one picture that mattered...
with a camera that cost about 1/20th that amount.  And it's not even a DSLR or a "system compact".

By the way, newbies like to use high shutter speeds to freeze motion on everything.
They'll go to a race track and photograph the cars at 1/2000th of a second. 

When there's movement, try some motion blur.  It looks better.

Specific Techniques

With skill comes the ability to adjust photos quickly.  You don't have to spend all day working on one picture, unless you're just starting out and trying to learn it.   The main point is to learn your software.   Some people will claim you need to have a particular piece of software to be taken seriously.  I disagree there, too.  It's better to learn the fundamentals of image editing, so you can apply those things on any software.  From my own experience, 99% of post-processing can be accomplished with just a few editing tools that are found in almost any good piece of software.  A lot of the fancy "actions" and scripts are really just automated ways of invoking these same few editing tools. 

I could fill up this page with tons and tons of intructions and maybe even some computer screenshots, but that's better reserved for a book (which I may do at some point). 

Right now, here's the most valuable tip for post processing.  First, do what looks good to you.  Then, more important.... take a break. 

Come back to the picture later and ask yourself if it still looks good. 

During that intervening time, here's the most valuable thing you can do with post processing.  Don't post process... instead, read photography books.  Visit art galleries.  Do some workshops with skilled photographers.  Look at film pictures, look at digital pictures.  See what looks good, and ask yourself why it looks good. 

Then, when you come back to that photo, you can ask yourself whether you've done "not enough adjustments"... or "too many".

Want a few specific tips?  OK, how about this....

1.  Saturation... there is a fine line between "looks awesome" and "looks like a fake radioactive saturation accident".  I can't describe exactly where this line is, and probably it varies from picture to picture.  I'm kind of a saturation junkie, though, so my idea of "looks awesome" might not be yours.  I know when I set the Saturation higher in Landscape mode on a Canon DSLR, it looks beautiful for some things, but really bad for others. 

2.  Hue... be careful with hue adjustments.  They can cause color blotching that looks hideous.

3.  Contrast... this can look good, but too much contrast looks bad.   It also loses tone detail.  Up the contrast a little bit if your photos look flat, but don't overdo it.  

4.  Noise... all digital photos have some noise, but the question is whether it looks noticeable or not.  There are specific de-noising programs.  Some of them are Photoshop plugins.  Others can be used stand-alone.  I have decided that noise is not always bad, as long as it looks like film grain.  I shoot negative film at ISO 3200 and it's grainy, but I love it.   However, some digital noise looks horrid.   This is one area where I would recommend a new camera:  if ugly noise is consistently a problem in your digital photos, you may want to upgrade to something with a bigger sensor. 

(If you're curious as to what, I've found that the king of low-noise, high-ISO photography is this camera.  But most any current-production DSLR including this one will give pretty good high ISO performance.)

This has been a quick look at making pictures look good.  In (maybe) a future article in this (possible) series, we'll look at more aspects of this art.

Until then, I wish you many hours, days, and years of happy photographing.   If this article was helpful to you, please help me out by purchasing your stuff through these links.  Much appreciated!

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