How to Take Better Pictures

The Purpose

I’m a member of multiple local photography Meetups. They’re all a great chance to get out and meet new people, and take pictures of a variety of subjects. We all share the resulting photos after the Meetups, and I’ve been incredibly shocked at how many people have invested $2,000+ in camera equipment but have no concept of post processing. I feel if you’re passionate enough to drop some serious coinage on gear, you should be equally passionate about the outcome. Too many photographers will happily debate the merits of out-of-camera (OOC) jpeg images, but then miss the point that only takes them half way to a great image. So this post is my gentle guidance and encouragement on how to get the most from your efforts.

First, a couple caveats. I am not a Photoshop Jedi. I know people who are well paid to spend most their day doing amazing things in Photoshop. I use Photoshop to a tenth of its capabilities, but I’m continuously learning. Second, if your iPhone is your primary camera and Facebook is your distribution medium, please stop here. These are not the tips you’re looking for.

I’m going to cover the basics of gear, then talk about post processing tools which will help you produce incredible images. All this is based on my own travails in photography, spanning 30+ years, from the black-and-white darkroom to the joys of the digital age. First up, the gear.

The Gear

Photography gear is the crack cocaine of photographers. I’ll readily admit to getting caught up in the world of megapixels, lenses and everything else. I enjoy going down to my favorite local camera store, Competitive Cameras, chatting with Ramses about family, and checking out all the latest toys. But all this has nothing to do with creating great images. If you want to learn to take great pictures, your required shopping list is going to be pretty short, with a few optional items that will actually contribute to your success and not just the weight of the bag you carry around.

For the camera, don’t get caught up in the megapixel games. I was taking gorgeous pictures eight years ago with a Canon 20D. Pretty much any modern camera is going to have way more pixels than you’ll ever use, so don’t let the megapixel count drive your choice. Also, while it is convenient to have a zoom lens covering a huge range, I suggest steering clear of them if you want to take stellar shots. You will want two fixed-length lenses: a 35mm equivalent and an 85mm equivalent.

Yes, I just committed photography blasphemy by suggesting you don’t need a $2,000 70-200mm zoom lens, or that super-zoom covering from 24-200mm. There are a couple reason. First is the maximum aperture. Every camera brand out there offers reasonable priced lenses with f/1.8 apertures in these two sizes. You don’t need f/1.4, but you will want f/1.8. It will matter when it comes to depth of field in your people pictures. The second reason is size. Those 24-200mm lenses are monsters you are not going to want to carry around unless you really need it. You need to have your camera with you to take good pictures, so a DSLR with a monster zoom is something that will end up staying in the bag except for special occasions.

I’m going to take the blasphemy one step farther, especially here in the United States, by suggesting you pass on a normal DSLR and go with a mirrorless camera instead. I’ll explain this choice after I detail the three kits to start with.

The Way of Fuji

I’m now a Fuji shooter, so I’m a bit partial to this option. I also violated my own suggestion for f/1.8, but that’s because Fuji is only making faster primes at these focal lengths. All the current Fuji line-up is excellent, but I’m shooting and recommending the Fujifilm X-T1. I’ve used a lot of classic film SLR cameras, like the Nikon FM3A, so I have a soft spot for the analog feel of the X-T1.

For lens, the two to own are the Fujifilm XF 23mm F1.4 lens, a 35mm equivalent, and the Fujifilm XF 56mm F1.2 lens, for the 85mm equivalence. Both are compact and will produce incredible pictures.

The Way of Olympus

I used to shoot Olympus in the OM-2 film days. They were known then for being compact, reliable cameras. Their new mirrorless options with the OM-D series take that even a step farther. Olympus uses a micro 4/3rds sensor, which is a bit smaller than the APS-C sensor used in the Fuji. It won’t matter for your real world shooting, so don’t get hung up on it.

The camera to grab is the Olympus OM-D E-M1. I’ve handled two of them, and if I didn’t get the Fuji, this would be the one to get. It is a very compact camera, with great features and image quality. It also feels extremely well built.

The two lenses to put on this beast are also much more affordable than their Fuji counterparts since they are f/1.8. The 35mm equivalent is the Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f1.8 lens. For the 85mm equivalent, you have the Olympus M. Zuiko 45mm f1.8 lens.

The Way of Sony

I’m going more on 2nd hand experiences of people I trust for the Sony recommendation. I’m including it primarily because Sony will supplant either Nikon or Canon for the #2 spot within the next few years for digital photography, so it is a solid investment in the future. The weakness is a lack of lenses compared to the other systems.

If you’re going to invest in Sony, the Sony a7 camera is the way to go. It is a compact camera with a full-frame sensor, unlike the other two cameras above. There is also the more expensive a7r version, which gives more megapixels, but I’m not sold on the cost/performance ratio.

Lenses are a harder problem. Since it has a full-frame sensor, there is no equivalence calculation necessary. The Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 lens gives you the wide angle lens and the Sony SEL55F18Z Sonnar T* FE 55mm F1.8 lens gives you your portrait lens. Note the 35mm is only f/2.8. Sony doesn’t make a f/1.8 35mm lens (yet?).

Why Mirrorless?

I used to shoot with a full-frame Nikon D600 and have now gone mirrorless, with the setup I detailed above. While technically the Nikon will capture a better image, it is also over twice the size and weight. To take better pictures, you need to take more pictures. A lightweight camera which you can easily sling over your shoulder when heading out-and-about is way more valuable than the full-sized DSLR you left at home. I have a laptop backpack I uses for work that also carries my full Fuji setup, so I always have my camera with me. And my full Fuji kit feels lighter than my D600 with the 24-120mm f/4 zoom lens.

Mirrorless is also going to be the future. My biggest criticism of mirrorless cameras has been the electronic view finder (EVF). We’re past that problem with the three cameras I listed above, and it is only going to get better. Any of these setups above will be a solid investment in the future rather than the past.

Why Only Two?

I’m sure some of you are shocked that I’m recommending only two lenses in your kit. You may be used to those wide range super zooms that cover every focal length. The truth is you don’t need them. First, unless you’re spending $2,000+ for a zoom, it will not touch the quality of the less expensive 35mm and 85mm prime lenses I’m recommending. Second, to really take advantage of depth-of-field, you need a faster lens than an f/5.6 wonder-zoom.

I shoot with the 35mm lens as my general walk-about lens, and I put on the 85mm any time I’m taking pictures of a single person. Having a fixed-length lens will force you to think more about composition since you can’t just stand there and “turret” with your zoom. The prime lenses force you to move around more, which will cause you to think more about the angles. Finally, these two lens are much smaller and lighter than the super zooms, leading to the use-it-more because you carry-it-more philosophy.

Make it RAW!

One of the most important things you can to to get better pictures is shoot in RAW mode. You can also grab jpegs if it makes your preview life easy, but you will want to use RAW files for post processing because they contain all the detail the sensor can capture, not just the data the jpeg converter chooses to uses. You will also want to use the Adobe RGB color space for the same reason. Using a color space other than sRGB leads to extra steps in your workflow, but it is all about getting the maximum quality of pixels in to Photoshop or Lightroom.

More Gear

The above kits will easily get you out of the gate and shooting great pics. You’ll eventually want to pick up a few more pieces of gear, depending on your shooting style.

First, get a decent flash. You’ll want to be able to do fill-flash in poor lighting, and a decent TTL flash unit fits the bill. The Fuji X-T1 comes with an excellent little flash, but you can easily buy a good flash for any of them. Just follow the keep-it-compact mindset so the flash stays with you and not gathering dust on a shelf.

Second, consider a third lens based on your shooting style. Either go with a wide-angle or telephoto lens to match your style. A zoom will work in this case. For example, I’m not a sports photographer, but I do like landscapes, so I picked up the Fujifilm XF 10-24mm F4 lens. Your third lens should be chosen to cover your primary area of interest.

Third, if you do landscape or HDR, get a good tripod. I’m partial to American-made quality, so check out Really Right Stuff. Yes, a good carbon fiber tripod and ball head will set you back over a thousand dollars, but you’ll only ever make that investment once.

Finally, get a strap and bag to make hauling your kit around easy. My hands-down favorite strap is the Dsptch sling. The standard sling is perfect for mirrorless cameras, and it makes carrying the camera around effortless. For the bag, I use a Timbuk2 Sleuth camera backpack for work, since it carries my whole camera kit as well as my work laptop. For camera-only carry, I’m partial to the Think Tank Retrospective 5. It carries my X-T1 will all three lenses, plus a spare battery, flash and cleaning clothes.

Photoshop and Lightroom

If you’re willing to invest in a good camera, you have to be willing to invest in the software to get good results. That means signing up for Adobe’s Photography Program. For about $10/month, you get access to Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, the two best tools available to digital photographers. If you’re new to these tools, pick one to use to start with and get proficient at before using the other. I’m partial to Photoshop, so I rarely use Lightroom, but it is nice too.

You also have to invest in learning the tools. There are a lot of books out there on both of these tools, but I’ve learned the most from quality video training. The best training I have found for Photoshop is Phlean. They have a whole YouTube cannel of cool, free tutorials, and for the aspiring Photoshop Jedi, they have the Photoshop 101 and Photoshop 201 PRO Tutorials which are only $25 each. This is a trivial investment for the amount of frustration both of these courses will save you.

KelbyOne is also decent. It’s a bit more expensive at an ongoing $25/month, but you get access to a lot of tutorials on Lightroom and Photoshop, as well as a subscription to Photoshop User magazine. The tutorials are hit-or-miss, but the ones on Lightroom 5 are excellent, so it is worth it for a month-or-two to get through those.

Plugins and Presets

A real man would dive into Photoshop and learn how to do every complicated edit himself. I have a real job though, so I’m more than willing to invest in time saving tools that make the limited time I have with Photoshop more productive. This is an area where a lot of photographers miss out on how to make their lives easier. There are three tools I’m going to recommend. Using any one of them alone will dramatically improve the potential quality of your photos, even more so than spending on another fancy lens. For a basis of comparison, here is an image of the beautiful Ashley I took this weekend. This is a jpeg straight from the camera, cropped for 8×10. Click on the image to see a larger version — the downscaled versions shown below aren’t good examples.

Ashley (Base)

Nik Collection

First up is the Nik Collection from Google. For $149, you get an extensive suite of Photoshop filters that cover adjustments, sharpening and even HDR. Color Efex Pro is one of my favorite filters. It allows you to easily do a large number of image adjustments. Here is Ashley’s photo again, except I’ve run Dfine 2, Color Efex Pro and Sharpener Pro 3. The adjustments are subtle, but can make a big difference.

nik

The Nik Collection also includes Analog Efex 2, which allows you to easily apply retro film effects to images. Here is Ashley with one of the classic film effects. This isn’t something you would use on every shot, and is a bit strong for my taste, but it gives you easy options.

Ashley (Analog)

VSCO Film

The VSCO Film Presets have gotten a bit of a bad rep in the photography world, mostly because they are so widely used. They are the Twitter Bootstrap of post processing. VSCO provides Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) presets that quickly adjust images to look like classic films. For example, here’s Ashley with the Fuji Astia 100F preset, as well as some exposure tweaks and sharpening in Lightroom.

Ashley (VSC)

I’ve found VSCO can work well for a lot of images, but it can often be too much of a hammer. If your workflow involves processing a couple hundred images for a wedding, VSCO can be a Godsend in time savings for quickly processing a batch of files and making them look decent.

Greater Than Gatsby

My final recommendation are the Photoshop actions from Greater Than Gatsby, with the Innocence Collection in particular. This collection allows for a very fine-grained application of effects through layers, layer masks and transparency in Photoshop.

Here is a version of the Ashley photo which has had a lot of subtle edits applied with the Innocence Collection.

Ashley (Gatsby)

Recommendations

Any of these tools can dramatically improve the quality of your final photos. You still need to learn Photoshop or Lightroom to handle basic retouching and correction, but these tools will take you the extra mile quickly. I’ve landed on the Photoshop filters from Greater Than Gatsby as my preferred tool for workflow. Even running the Clean Edit Color Base from their Free Photoshop Collection will probably improve your image 100%. Combine that with the Facebook Resize and Sharpen action, and you’re well down the path to producing beautiful images in Photoshop.

I actually started with the Nik Collection, and then VSCO, so I know you can also get good results with them. Greater Than Gatsby handily beats either of them for the price though. What I’ve found is once I was comfortable with layers, layer masks and transparency in Photoshop, the Greater Than Gatsby actions were a much stronger tool suite. Also, I would recommend only getting the Innocence Collection. It is their ultimate collection for portrait retouching.

Other Tools

One of the weaknesses of the Fuji cameras is they use an X-Trans sensor. It is capable of capturing incredible images, but Adobe has weak support for RAW files shot on Fuji cameras. If you really want the best quality possible shooting RAW with Fuji cameras, you’ll need to pickup Iridient Developer. You can easily open RAW image files from Adobe Bridge into Iridient Developer, tune the conversion, then save them as PSD files and open them automatically in Photoshop CC. The quality difference between ACR and Iridient Developer is huge, and it is well worth the investment.

Another tool to consider is Photomatix Pro for HDR photography. This will be you go-to tool for combining bracketed images to create a single HDR image. If you are into HDR Photography, I highly recommend checking out Stuck in Customs. Trey Ratcliff shoots some incredibly beautiful HDR photographs, and even has an excellent Complete HDR Tutorial with videos which I highly recommend.

In Closing

I’ve gotten a lot off my chest here. The TL:DR to taking good pictures is put together a simple kit you’ll actually carry with you, get Photoshop or Lightroom, learn it using Phlearn, and use tools like Greater Than Gatsby to streamline your workflow. And don’t forget the most important part: take more pictures. You’ll be amazed at your results and will enjoy photography a lot more.

Also, you can keep up with my growing portfolio over on 500px. It has my more recent photos, as well as a lot of shots with the Fuji X-T1.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*