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Photo 101: Your Smartphone Photos Suck

I’m not a professional photographer and would never claim to be one. But chances are you aren’t one either. But maybe you want to get better at making images, and you don’t know where to start. This is for you, fam.

One day, you woke up and decided the photos from your smartphone weren’t good enough anymore. You immediately started thinking about getting a fancy new camera—actually, I hope you had breakfast first—because who’s photos aren’t better when they’re taken with a professional looking piece of equipment?

But, as with most things, it’s more than just the equipment. It’s about how you use it, and more importantly, how you think about using it. There’s no better time to do all that thinking than before you spend a paycheck on new gear.

Now, you might be tempted to think, “I already take nice photos on my phone, I just need higher quality.” That line of thinking is mostly true, but it’s also incredibly limiting. Yes, a dedicated camera will yield some improvements in image quality, and yes, you very well might take really nice photos with your phone.

However, phone cameras are absolutely limited by their hardware, and frequently their operation is simplified for ease of use. Who wants to stand around fidgeting with dials and menu settings when all you’re really after is proof that you had the dopest brunch?

Those factors tend to constrain how you use them—there are definitely well-defined conditions under which phone cameras produce the best images. Because of that, you’ve likely formed some habits around how you use cameras.

With a dedicated camera, there’s a whole new world of capability that allows you to work outside those habits. But that capability comes with the cost of complexity, so there’s definitely some work to be done in order to master that complexity and to work through those habits. The result is that you have more control over the images you produce, and paradoxically, that means you have more creative freedom.

Admittedly, photography is a vast discipline, and that vastness can be overwhelming. But for people just taking that first step beyond casual photography, here’s how you can start.

Use your words. There’s a lot of jargon and vocabulary, and just knowing what you’re dealing with is immensely helpful. If you’re strapped for time, just make sure you know what these terms mean:

  • Exposure
  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO
  • Focal length
  • Depth of field

Each of those terms has very real implications for the technical part of taking photographs. (I’ll touch on those in another post.) Here’s another great, simple primer: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2138676/guide.png

Open your eyes. You no doubt have Instagram accounts and Pinterest boards you follow. That’s great. Keep it up. But instead of just clicking “Like” and moving on, take a moment to break down why you enjoy a particular visual. It could be anything from the use of color, to composition, to the mood or vibe you get. It doesn’t have to be a sophisticated analysis. Recognizing a good image can be instinctive, but we want to get beyond that instinct.

If you already have a new camera, RTFM. You could leave your fancy camera in automatic mode, but that sells your investment short. Instead, take the time to read the user manual. That will empower you to manipulate things like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. This knowledge allows you to marry the theoretical with the practical.

If you don’t have a new camera yet, think about your needs. What do you want to shoot? Where will you be? Does size matter, or do you want something small and discrete? What’s your budget? There are no perfect cameras in the world, but there are some really good values and all-around options.

Next time, I’ll get into pertinent vocabulary and some working knowledge for getting started.

Originally published on the [Brains on Fire blog] on September 7, 2016.