As mentioned in the Introduction, you don’t need a high-end camera to take pictures. If we want to get really basic, all you need is a box with a hole in it and some film; the rest is icing on the cake. Now that we have that out of the way, how do we get the best results with what is in our hands right now?

Read the manual!

The first thing you need to do to improve your photography is read your camera manual. If you understand how it works, you will be able to use the settings to the best advantage. Having said that, when I first started shooting in digital I really wished for some simple instructions that were easier to follow than taking out the manual every time. My Camera Settings and What They Mean: What Does Tv and Av Do? was my first article and is part of this Photo Basics series. For now, we’re going to talk about the basic equipment.

Do you need special photo equipment to take great pictures?

No, you don’t need anything more than your camera to start. By focusing on your camera’s capabilities rather than its limitations, you can take excellent photos with just about anything. The other things on your list are ‘wants’ and they will certainly open up more possibilities for you.

The first thing I would put on this list is a decent tripod. If you are trying to be inconspicuous, a monopod is good. A good tripod is essential for panoramas and HDR images (the good ones, not those nasty black velvet painting things). Get one with a separate ballhead so you can move your camera around without aggravation. Yes, it costs a little more but it’s worth it!

NOTE: A tripod is just as important for point-and-shoot cameras as it is for DSLRs.

Lenses are also on the wish list. Most DSLRs come with a standard 18-55mm which is great for most everyday shots, and a telephoto lens in the 75-300mm range. So why aren’t your photos sharp? It’s in the glass! These are very inexpensive lenses and no matter what you do they will not be able to capture certain shots the way you want. The 55mm kit lens will handle most everyday shots well but the telephoto is a different story. Sports and wildlife photography are two areas where you need a telephoto lens of much better quality in order to avoid disappointment. Lighting is an issue with the kit telephotos too, unless you are shooting with full sun falling on your subject perfectly to illuminate it from the front or from a 45 ̊ angle for that Rembrandt lighting look. If you find that your main interest falls into these categories, save your pennies and invest in a quality lens before you drive yourself mad trying to do the impossible with a lens that can’t live up to it. Meanwhile, practice, practice, practice! There is a lot you can do with what you have in your hands right now.

Another good item to have on hand is a cable release. This will keep your camera steady and your photos sharp. If you don’t have a cable release, use the self-timer for those long exposures or telephoto shots. You avoid camera shake completely that way.

What if you have a point-and-shoot or just a phone? Can you still take great pictures?

Absolutely! Work with what you have right now. In fact, learning how to use a point-and-shoot or a phone camera first can be a blessing in disguise. You have camera settings to use that may be pre-programmed but work the same as on a DSLR. You can’t change lenses or have quite as much control as in the DSLR, although this is changing for some phones, but you can still make it do tricks. In the app store, check out some camera apps that can expand your phone’s capabilities.

The Digital Darkroom

Do all photos need to be tweaked once they are loaded on your computer?

Yes! At this point, you may already take great pictures but no matter how perfect they are in camera, just moving them to your computer causes some degradation and we need to adjust the image. Levels – Curves – Sharpen. These need to be checked and tweaked every time.

Do you need expensive software for this?

No. There are some good alternatives. GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is excellent open source software that mimics Photoshop. It works on both Windows and Mac and is available in several languages. Best of all, it’s free and the link is at the end of this article. All imaging software is pretty similar. Once you understand the basics, you can translate it to any software that has editing capabilities. Another outstanding program for Windows is Paint.NET. It’s opensource software and completely free. There are also a variety of plugins and filters available on the forum that expand the capabilities, even one that allows you to import and save Photoshop format PSD files with layers intact. You can find them here.

Best for your digital darkroom

—is Lightroom. In my opinion, this is the best program out there for photographers who want darkroom digital processing and nothing more. Well, there is a bit more with the new plugins.

I use both Photoshop and Affinity for photo restoration, special effects, and digital art in combination with other programs. If you are venturing into these areas, then by all means pick up a copy of Affinity or subscribe to Photoshop. If you are strictly concerned about your photography on your digital camera, Lightroom will do everything exceptionally well if not better. After all, this is what it was designed to do – nothing more and nothing less. Need to hold on to your money right now? Try GIMP. It’s free.

You are on your way now. It’s time to take great pictures!s

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