Is it the Photographer, or the Camera?

Here is one comment I have heard many times over from people at art shows:

“You take beautiful photos.  You must have an expensive camera.”

And I think to myself:


I think that because it’s just not true that great photos require expensive cameras.  Taking great photos boils down to just two things (in my opinion):

  1. The imagination and anticipation of the photographer
  2. Competency with the camera

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention the capabilities of the camera at all.  I did not say that you need a $2000 24 megapixel camera with a $1500 zoom lens.  I didn’t even say that you need an SLR. Artistic photos can be taken with the cheapest, simplest of cameras. Many artists produce unique and compelling photos with cheap film cameras, and many artists only shoot with their smartphones.

Now it is true that to take certain kinds of photos, such as any kind of wildlife photos, especially birds, you need a decent SLR and a good zoom lens.  And to take “grand” landscapes that retain their sharpness even when enlarged you would probably need a high resolution camera with a very good wide angle lens.

But if you are not intending on selling your photos to a particular market then an average SLR with and average lens is probably going to be OK most of the time. With good planning and execution, along with the understanding of the limitations of your cameras, you can easily produce very good photos that can be enlarged.

So what does this mean?  What can you do to improve your own photography?  Here is a list of things that I think are most important:

Avoid direct vertical light

Direct light coming from above, whether it is the sun or artificial light, is usually too strong, and creates too many shadows.  This usually produces the worst kind of photos.  If the light is “direct” then it should be mostly horizontal, either facing the front of the subject, facing the back (silhouette), or from the side.

If the light is diffused then you should be OK and may not have to take special precautions.

Compose level and off-center

Two aspects of a photo that can kill its impact are being out-of-level, and having the main subject directly in the center.  Out-of-level can usually be corrected when you get the photo printed, but you want to avoid this for a number of reasons.  A subject directly in the center often makes a photo look dull, without any tension.

I purposely set this owl off-center in the shot below, which make the photo much more interesting than if he was in the direct middle:
And the biggie …

Don’t overexpose

Most cameras are programmed to produce an “average” exposure, meaning that the shadows and the highlights are balanced.  Therefore in a “contrasty” image the darks can be fairly dark and the highlights can be blown out, which means they become completely white.  If the highlights are part of the main subject (like a person or animal) then the photo just looks bad.

The simplest way to avoid this is to set your cameras to underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 stop when you’re in direct sunlight (assuming you are shooting in “P” mode).  In the owl photo above I think I was underexposing by about 1 full stop.

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