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5 Things you can do to Immediately Improve Your Images

We live in a culture of immediacy. The internet and wireless communications, with their ability to move an image file across the world as quickly as it is captured has given rise to a different set of expectations than we had as recently as 12 – 15 years ago.  We want it now.

The expectation (in large part, fostered by the manufacturers’ advertising campaigns) is that we can now go to any big box retail store, buy the “latest and greatest” offering from one of a handful of digital camera manufacturers (or in our wireless phone, for that matter) and immediately make Pulitzer-Prize winning photographs. Unfortunately, as I blogged about earlier this year (see my series, “Taking Your Photography To The Next Level) most of what it takes to create even a reasonably good photograph requires – like so many things in life that are worthwhile – hard work, study, and practice.

We want it now

While it may seem like my title and lead-in are disingenuous, what follows is not to suggest that someone who hasn’t done the “homework” part of the exercise is going to go out and use these 5 tools and miraculously become the next Adams, Steiglitz, or Weston. These “immediate” improvements presuppose that a sound fundamental foundation has been established (and while I am by no means a professional photography teacher, the series above, will at least create a roadmap to that foundation. I have suggested other “tools” for those who are serious, including works like Understanding Exposure, by Bryan Peterson, and Real World Camera Raw, by Jeff Schewe, which can be found on my Blog bookstore. I also suggest working with teaching professionals like James Moore, and exposing yourself in any way possible to working professionals, to try to absorb as much knowledge as possible. I have had the good fortune of getting to know a handful of pro photographers over the years and I find them to be very generous with their thoughts and advice. I seek and get good insight from them on many occasions.

“immediate” improvements presuppose that a sound fundamental foundation has been established

The inspiration for this blog follows my purchase of a very generous Christmas present for myself (as I told my wife: it is, after all, all about me). Someone whose advice (and work) I value highly made the comment that pro-quality lenses were one of a few things that were the “fast road” to better image quality. I decided that this year was the year to step up. And that got me thinking about what few items I personally believe could or would provide immediate, noticeable improvement to the technical quality of my images. Not wanting this to be a Letterman-style, “Top-Ten Things,” I rationalized it down to 5 things. Some of them are very expensive. So much so, that while they are on the list, they may be unobtainable for many. Others are so inexpensive, that it is hard to see any excuse for not using them.

  • Bubble Level – These little yellow-green plastic gadgets can be purchase for anywhere from $1.99 on eBay, all the way up to $30 at photo outlets, depending on brand name and other characteristics. I have a couple that I bought on eBay (I bought 4 because the cost of shipping was more than the cost of one of them, and the shipping cost didn’t increase). I think I paid $0.99 each. I have read that some people have experienced the cheaper ones not working (not being truly level). But I have also read reviews on Amazon and B&H saying the expensive ones aren’t level. They are manufactured by humans and it is possible that a number of them miss on quality control. At $0.99, it was worth taking a chance, and I have verified that mine read level. It is easy enough to do with a basic shop tool. A year or so back, my good friend Al Utzig was looking at one of my photos and commented that the horizon was slightly crooked. I thought he was wrong. But I pulled the image up in Photoshop and dragged a guide down to the horizon point and, as he is most of the time, Al was dead-on! I had been shooting for years, using the lines in my viewfinder and thought I had a pretty good sense of what was level. I bought the bubble level and have been surprised at just how often, my “eye” disagrees with the level. Being mechanical, the level is always the right one.
  • Raw – For some, this may end up being very expensive, because most of the P&S cameras on the market do not offer this option. But if your camera offers it, shoot with it. You have already purchased it, so consider it “free.” The raw format is, essentially, the digital data captured by the sensor. Any other format is “post-processed.” In other words, the raw data is interpreted by a micro-computer in the camera and “baked in” to the particular format (most often jpeg). Why would a master chef bring pre-cooked ingredients into the kitchen? You have so, much control and latitude with a raw file that means your final image can be post-processed using solid technique and the way you envisioned it.
  • Tripod – I know I sound like a skipping record (for those old enough to even appreciate that metaphor), but single most important thing you can do to improve your images is to shoot from a solid base. And in most instances, that means a tripod. Tripod-head combinations can range from $35 at a big box electronics retailer to upwards of $1,000 from a photographic specialist. You don’t need to spend $1,000 to improve your images, but you will be disappointed in the $35 kit. One pro acquaintance of mine uses a tag-line on posts, “the best camera is the one you have with you.” I will borrow from him and say the best tripod is the one you have – and use! If you have a $35 tripod, in most cases I would rather see you use it than none. The reality, though, is that these cheap models should be avoided. They are generally flimsy (remember, I defined it as a “solid base”). More importantly, the cheaper lines are not generally well-manufactured, which means they do not hold up to continual use (and continual use is what this is all about), and are often difficult to use and manipulate. For 25 years, I used a couple different Bogen 3021 aluminum tripod legsets. They were versatile, durable, easy to use, and reasonably priced. In more recent years some manufacturers who were more known for the cheaper models, (like Slik and Velbon), stepped up and built essentially comparable tripod legsets. Comparable set-ups are available new today for between $150 – $250. Tripods definitely are in the “you get what you pay for, category,” so spend as much as your budget will allow. Photographer and writer, Thom Hogan has an article called “Tripod 101” in which he somewhat humorously covers what so many of us have personally experienced with photo gear of all types. We buy several models over time, continuing to trade “up.” The cumulative effect is that we often spend more on the series than we would have on the right quality the first time. But when on a budget, we sometimes have to play with the cards we were dealt. My point is you don’t have to go ultra-expensive to get good support; but you do not want to go too cheap, either. There is a fairly robust used market at places like KEH for legsets. As a general rule the well-built ones last and last and there should really be no problem with a used set, other than that they may look cosmetically “used.” I am not buying my tripods for their looks, but for their utility. You can probably find a much higher quality used setup for the same price as that shiny new one.
  • Cable Release – Why would anyone go through all the angst of selecting and parting with their hard-earned money for a decent tripod and then basically ignore the primary reason for getting it – to provide a solid base in order to have the camera be absolutely still? The most common culprit of unsharp images due to camera movement is us. Yet in most of the instances where I have been around other shooters, the majority of them using tripods, are still tripping the shutter with their hand on the camera! We humans are a collection of moving atoms. We are never still. So we isolate the camera from ourselves (and hopefully other factors contributing to camera movement), get everything all set up, and then we touch the camera again, introducing that very movement back into the equation. That just doesn’t make sense in most cases (there are exceptions, of course). Cable releases come in different flavors. The traditional release screwed into the camera’s shutter release button. Back in the day, before these buttons also activated things like auto-focus and metering patterns, this worked just fine. Today? Not so much. Most modern electronic SLRL/DSLR cameras have a dedicated plug in spot for electronic shutter releases. Unfortunately this means more expensive. There are, however, a number of less expensive alternatives. I carry the simplest one-button release for my Nikon that is offered for it. I use it 99% of the time. I have a “Vivitar” branded wireless remote that I use occasionally. I have found that it does erratic things with my camera electronics, sometimes causing me to have to turn the camera on and off again to “reset.” So I generally use it only when I have a need to remotely trip the shutter like those group portraits where you don’t want to look like you just ran to get into the picture. I also often read advice not to “waste your money on a shutter release; just use the camera’s self-timer.” To me, that is just not a workable solution. There are too many times (again probably about 99.9%) where I want to control the instant the shutter is tripped.
  • Pro-Quality Glass – This is my 2012 “immediate improvement.” Over the past several years, I have compared my images with others out there on the world-wide-web. In many ways, I think the quality of my images are as good as most others out there. But there is a small group that just stands out. I look at them and marvel that they are so sharp, across the entire image, have such great depth of field, and have such snappy, consistent color. It has been a slow realization, but it has become clear to me that with identical technique, conditions and camera body, the so-called “pro” lens glass yields a just plain superior result. I have read this and “known” it for years. But “seeing is believing,” in this case. And this is an improvement that most of us are just not going to ever be able to make. Companies like Canon, Nikon, Zuiko (for the Olympus branded cameras), and Zeiss (probably universally agreed to be “the best”), are companies known for their high quality optics. The designs, grinding, coatings, materials, and quality control are all very high for these manufactures. Some (mostly Nikon and Canon today) also make so-called “consumer-grade” optics. They still maintain their high manufacturing standards, but the materials and designs are often less “optimal.” The tradeoff is, most obviously, cost, and perhaps less obviously, size and utility. The main difference for most of us is going to be cost. These pro lenses range from just under $2,000 to $10,000 and more a copy! For working professionals, they are tools of need and most often the pro wants the best quality tool. For us hobbyists, it is a much more difficult rationalization. At the end of the day, for me, it is a very expensive “toy.” And not everybody will prioritize things or indeed ever have the financial ability to buy such toys. But if you can, and if you are willing to put in the “homework” time, they will yield results.

The above 5 items are tried and true

I purposely limited myself to 5 things. I wanted to try to think of the 5 thinks that I would want to be sure I would have in order to insure the highest technical quality of my images. There are certainly others. Perhaps I could have “cheated” and grouped the Tripod and Cable Release items together and added the best quality camera sensor (the main reason for my own purchase of the D700). But the sensor and other technology are a proverbial “moving target.” The above 5 items are tried and true and really haven’t changed much over the years I have been shooting. Try your own 5. I would be interested to see in comments how much agreement and what variety we see out there.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy and prosperous New Year to everyone out there and as always, thank for reading . . . . . .


4 Responses

  1. Hmmmm… let’s start with this. You left out the king of all 35mm glass – Leitz. 🙂 Zeiss comes close, but…

    That said, the next thing you can do to improve quality now is go back to primes and when you are shooting in low light, lock up your mirror. Mirror slap is a killer of quality. Since you are buying stuff, the next thing you can do is either move to a full frame sensor or a bigger file in your camera body.

    As far as investing in tripods goes, that’s fine as long as you realize it limits your style or how you shoot. For some images, they are essential, But,learning to brace yourself might be just as essential. It might do you well to read Joe McNally’s blog about proper hand holding techniques which he says — and he is correct — will gain about two stops.

    All of that said, the best way to get better “now’ is to practice. Think of it in sports terms. Michael Jordon was probably the most talented player ever to step on a basketball court. But do you know what his coaches still talk about? His work ethic.

    You don’t have to travel to shoot. You live some place. Plenty of pictures wherever that might be.

    Happy Christmas.

    • Ray: Spoken like the true professional you are. Anybody who reads here and does not already know Ray, give yourself a treat and go look at some of his work on his website, http://www.laskowitzpictures.com; and at his blog, http://newmexicopictureaday.blogspot.com/. His images are uniformly compelling and always from his unique vision. He will modestly tell you he just shoots — but I wish I shot like he does :-). I glad to call him a friend, flattered that he reads here, and always learn from his photographic wisdom.

      And, yeah, I thought about Leitz. Couldn’t remember if it was still being manufactured, and completely forgot to go back and research it. Guess I don’t have to now :-).

      Merry Christmas, Ray and best to you and your family!

  2. Andy, I couldn’t agree more with your top five, especially number 1. : )

    Here are some other “free” ideas. They may be for the less experience photographer but here they are: 1. Shoot using Manual mode. Shooting in manual requires the photographer to think about what is to be accomplished and what shutter speed, aperture and ISO will work best for the particular photo. That assumes the photographer knows what the impact these settings will have on the photo. If the photographer doesn’t know, it needs to be learned.

    2. Learn the features of your camera and use them. For example, my camera has the “live view” feature. I rarely use it, but there have been times when it has been indispensable. When I was shooting Shoshone Falls, I wasn’t tall enough for a particular composition but I was able to extend my tripod and use the live view feature to get the shot I wanted. The histogram is an enormously valuable tool and the camera will record one for every shot. The digital photographer needs to know how to use it, and once learned, he can use it to immediately improve his images.

    3. Learn how to clean your sensor and then do it. I recently bought a used Canon 40D body. Although it automatically shakes the sensor when turned on and off, the sensor was still very dirty. The post processing required to fix the dirt problem would be way to much.

    Hope the free ideas help some of your readers.

    Merry Christmas.

    • Thanks, Al. I especially agree with the histogram. Kind of forgot that one. It would definitely be high on the list. As far as knowing what the manual settings mean and do, that is what I meant by doing the “homework” part. If the photographer doesn’t know what impact these things have on the photo, s/he might just as well be using a fixed feature P&S.

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