I'm sure every one of us has spent at least a four-figure amount in gear that was supposed to make our images and videos better, but in the end, it didn't. Here are a few tips that could save you a few thousand dollars.
Do You Know How the Camera Works?
Yes? Proceed to the next question. You might have a misconception of what this small box does. It is not as smart as they have told you it is. It just records the image you point it at. There are three basic settings that control how light or dark the image is. They are the aperture, the shutter speed, and the sensor sensitivity called ISO. The combination of these three helps make your image properly exposed. In order to have full control over your photographs switch your camera to manual mode, which is usually the M on your dial.
There are side effects from changing these three settings. One of the most famous effects is the blurred background. This happens when you set the aperture to a smaller number, like f/4.0, and get closer to your subject. The higher the number the less blurred the background is. You usually need a less blurred background when shooting landscapes or architecture which means you have to use a higher number for the aperture, like f/9.0 or above. Technically speaking the aperture numbers are fractions like "1/9.0," but to save space on the display, the manufacturer usually shows just the "9.0" part. Choosing your aperture is usually your first guess based on the amount of blur you want on your background.
If your photograph is too bright or too dark you can set a higher speed for your shutter. A side effect of that setting is the amount of motion blur when photographing a non-still subject or the camera is being moved. The speed of your shutter is set in seconds or fractions of a second such as 1/250 or 1/50. The slower the shutter speed, like 1/50, the more prominent any motion would be. If you want to "freeze" a faster moving subject set the shutter to a higher speed like 1/250 and above.
If your aperture and shutter speed settings are optimal for the shot but the image still needs adjusting the exposure, the last resort is changing your ISO. The higher the number is, the brighter the image, but also the more noise it will introduce. It's better to have a noisy but sharp image, instead of a clean and a blurred one. One of the reasons to buy a newer camera is that sometimes they might have less noise when shooting at high ISO values. This is especially needed when frequently shooting in low light situations. The good news is that many lower end cameras today are better at higher ISO than expensive cameras in the past. So is the software that cleans the noise up.
This advice is a good start, but if you want to get the most out of your current camera, be sure to check Fstoppers' Photography 101 tutorial.
Do You Know What The Lens Does to The Image?
Yes? Proceed to the next question. Some people buy a new camera because they want a blurred background in their images. That's not the right direction. The blurred background is a property of the lens and the modern cameras control that setting from dials on the body. There are lenses that have a ring that controls that, but most of the time you control it from buttons on the camera body. The setting that controls the amount of blurred background is the aperture and it is that funky number such as "f/2.8." No, "f" doesn't stand for "funky," but "focal." Such number is also printed on the lens and tells you how big the aperture of this lens can be opened. It can take other values but this is the end of the aperture range on that lens. The smaller the number, the bigger the maximum opening can be and the more blurred the background can be. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 can produce a more blurred background than a lens with an f/4.0. Lenses have many other optical properties such as barrel distortion, variable zoom, vignetting, sharpness that have to be taken into consideration. In my portfolio, I rarely use a very blurred background. If you happen to shoot mostly landscapes and interiors, you don't need a lens with a wide aperture and certainly, you don't need a new camera.
Are You Experienced with Shaping Natural and Artificial Light?
Yes? Proceed to the next question. If you point your camera to a subject that is back-lit by the sun, do not expect a side-lit result. Remember that the camera and lens combination simply makes the image darker or brighter. This means if your subject is not lit well your camera will record a poorly lit image. Poorly lit scenes can't be saved even by the most expensive cameras. The professional photographers don't take pictures in every situation. The amateurs usually rely on imaginary magic skills of the expensive box to turn a bad situation into a masterpiece. It doesn't work this way. Don't buy a new camera. Learn how to use light.
Do You Know How to Calibrate Your Monitor and How Color Charts Work?
Yes? Proceed to the next question. If you think it's your camera's fault for your green, blue, or orange looking images that's partially true. The good news is that you don't have to buy a new camera or switch to a different camera system. They all have the same problem: cameras are not that good of understanding light color. They can try to guess it, but they are not always spot-on. This is the reason color charts were invented. Professional photographers don't buy new cameras to produce accurate color. They buy a color chart. If you need to have a perfect color for print, you need to buy a color chart and calibrate your monitor. Then you will find that your camera can produce beautiful realistic colors.
Do You Know What Raw Files Are?
Yes? Proceed to the next question. Cameras are not good at scenes where there's a lot of contrast like photographing a subject at sunset with the sun behind them. This is the case where you might need to use camera's raw files format. They will give you plenty of detail to work with even if the shot was slightly darker or lighter. Of course, raw files are not the silver bullet for masterpieces, but they will give you much more latitude than shooting in JPEG mode and you'd be able to bring information from the slightly overexposed highlights and darker shadows without sacrificing the image quality.
Do You Know How to Get the Maximum from Your Raw Files?
Yes? Proceed to the next question. The easiest way to squeeze the information from the raw files is using a raw file editor. Applications such as Adobe Lightroom, Capture One Pro, ACDSee, Affinity Photo will help you understand how much potential your current camera has.
Are You Experienced with Retouching?
Yes? Proceed to the next question. If you are experienced in retouching you will know that it's hard to fix a badly photographed picture. If you're not into retouching you might think that post processing is what makes the snapshot a masterpiece. While there are brilliant retouchers you can learn from, it's good to know what the limits of your camera and its files are. Most modern cameras provide more file information than many professional cameras 10 years before. This means you can do a lot with the current gear on the market, even with the lower end one. Retouching has to be your last resort for crafting a masterpiece, although it can help improve a good image and make it look great.
Are You Going to Use This Camera Frequently?
Yes? Proceed to the next question. Many beginners or amateur photographers are trying to photograph everything that happens to be interesting. This makes them bump into the walls of technical limitations because sometimes there are cameras better for something but not suitable for a different type of images. For example, one might get fascinated with astrophotography but just because they wanted to make one or two cool images it's not justified to get a camera that has low-noise images at high ISO. In this case you can work that around with a few retouching techniques. Every time you think of buying a new camera ask yourself how frequently you'd use the features of this camera that are the main reason to buy it. Remember that you can always rent one and do your job.
Do You Know That Full-Frame Cameras Won't Turn Your Photographs into Masterpieces?
Yes. Proceed to the next question. Many beginners buy a crop-sensor camera and start dreaming of the day they will get that full-frame machine that will immediately make them pro overnight. That is very far from the truth because the only thing that will change is your retouching habits, your wallet, and your hard drives. Nobody else will see the difference. At the time I'm writing this article, I am still shooting with a crop-sensor camera. I am renting a full-frame when I need it, but in 99% a crop sensor is fine. Read my article on justifying the use of a crop sensor for my business.
Can You Point Three Images You Want but You Can't Take with Your Current Camera?
Yes. Proceed to the next question. If your answer is "I'm not sure" then you have to be absolutely sure you surely don't need a new camera. I'm sure about it. Buying a new camera, because you don't think you can take an image with yours is shooting in the dark. In this situation simply ask the photographer if you can use your current gear to create a similar picture. This can save you a lot of money and you can make a new friend.
Do You Have the Money?
Yes? Well, this article didn't manage to stop you. What if I didn't have the money? My advice is to work on a few personal projects and attract paying clients with them. That's what I do in this case.
Buying a new camera is surely exciting, but it has to be motivated by sound reasons especially if you don't print your own money.