I had an interesting conversation with someone the other day, one that I felt was worth recounting here. I was at a bookstore, perusing photography books for possible review here on the website. (I don’t buy many printed books these days, but the ones that I do buy are almost entirely art or photography-related.)

It was clearly a very slow day at the bookstore, and while I was at the register, the checkout dude murmured something like, “these look interesting…I’d really like to take better pictures.”

We had a short conversation about whether these books might help, and he then asked me if I was a photographer. I told him yes, but that I was really more of an editorial guy who published a website about photography.

Without missing a beat, he said, “I really need a better camera. Which one should I buy?”

To which I replied, “Which phone do you have?”

“An iPhone 7,” he said.

“Then you don’t need a new camera; you’ve got a pretty awesome one right there with you,” I replied.

He shook his head and said that his photos “just sucked.”

I stopped and showed him a photo that my wife—who admittedly will not call herself a photographer—took with her iPhone 6 this past spring, while we were in Death Valley with our friend (and ace photographer) Hudson Henry. It was the best shot of that whole trip, not just because she was in the right place, but because she has been interested enough in improving her photos that she knew what to do in the situation she was in, and thought about her shot. He looked at it and said, “wow—that’s pretty sweet.”

Hudson Henry, atop Ubehebe Peak, Death Valley. (© Susan LePage)

I told him how this shot came about, how she tried a few different compositions, thinking about leading lines through the frame, and what to do with focus and exposure. I told him that none of these were earth-shattering or difficult to understand; it was just a matter of knowing what to do in the situation, and thinking about those elements as you take the shot.

We then had a very long discussion about what it means “to take better pictures,” the gist of which follows:

  • Most modern cameras and cell phones are capable of taking great images. They all have limitations, but unless you have very specific photo needs (night, macro or wildlife photography, for example), they won’t get in the way of you taking good photos.
  • Learn how to use your camera. Understand the basics beyond the Auto mode of your camera or phone. For my friend, I showed him how to lock focus and exposure, apply a little bit of exposure compensation, and how to use the rule of thirds grid. I’ve found that mastering these simple things helps people get better than anything else, especially with a phone.
  • Differentiate between snapshots and photographs. I mention this frequently to people who tell me that they want to take better photos. Snapshots to me are moments in time that I want to remember. Photographs are images that I actually think about, in the sense that I stop and pay attention to light, composition, time of day, focus and other artistic photographic guidelines. There is nothing wrong with snapshots, but I’ve found that if you stop and think about taking a photograph instead, you’ll start to understand how to improve your work. Don’t obsess about it though; snapshots really are fine.
  • It takes time to grow as a photographer; don’t worry about it. I’ve struggled over the years with my progress as a photographer, but I know that I grab a camera and shoot because I love the process, the camaraderie of my own little photographers’ community, and the sheer joy I get when I produce something beautiful. Sometimes, though, it also means that you put the camera down and go do something else for a while.
  • Learn from the great photographers. I was fortunate to come of age in Boston the 1970s and ’80s, when used bookstores were plentiful. Wandering among the stacks, I discovered Beaumont Newhall’s wonderful The History of Photography: From 1839 to Present (the ‘present’ being 1935, when it was published), which remains to this day in the library in my small, space-constrained apartment. I also found a ragged copy of Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man, a retrospective of his landmark survey of contemporary photography at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955.
    Reading Newhall’s book led me to Berenice Abbott, Eugène Atget and Carleton Watkins, among others. Steichen’s book led to Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank and so many more, each photographer then leading me to other great ones.
    This doesn’t mean that you have to take a master class in photographic history, but borrow books from the library—or buy used or remaindered copies at the bookstores that are left—go see photo exhibitions, and follow the trail of great photographers up to the present day. Learn to tell what makes a great photograph, and learn which masters you like the best, because you won’t love them all.
  • And, from all of that, what you need to realize is that “better” is really in the context of you, and you alone. Understand what that means to you. I don’t want to be thought of in the context of the great photographers in history, nor do I want to be an imitator, but I would like to take photos that others react to, and for which I can feel a sense of pride. I know that not everyone will be touched by my work, and I’m ok with that.

For 15 minutes or so, we had this lively, interesting conversation about photography, photographers and inspiration. Then, another customer came up, and I took leave of my thankful friend. Whether I made a real impression on him or not, I couldn’t say. In the end, what you need more than anything else is a real desire to take better photographs, with the discipline to work actively towards that goal.

The question of “which camera do I buy” comes up all the time for Ben and me, and, most of the time it is the wrong question for a young photographer to be asking. It’s hard not to, with the pixel-peeping and spec-centric world of the web that constantly cries out “LOOK! NEW! BETTER!”, and the gorgeous, but often over-processed, photos that cry out to so many of us from 500px and Flickr and Instagram (and which will be the topic of another post soon).

Can a camera really make you a better photographer? As a general rule, no (note the phrase ‘general rule’ before you write to me, please). It is better to put the time in yourself: learn how to use the camera you have, understand the basic principles of composition and light, and know who came before you. Shoot, shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. That will help more than investing in gear; I promise you that.