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10 Tips for Getting More Out of Your Photography Gear

10 Tips for Getting the More Out of Your Photography GearRecently, I was asked to contribute a What’s in your bag article to the HDROne magazine. As I was writing it, I started thinking about photographers and their gear.

Photographers are a strange breed. Most of them are in love with their gear, and to some, gear is even more important than the photos it produces. This can sometimes lead to strange behaviors and decisions when it comes to purchasing the right gear and using it to the maximum of its potential.

I was realizing that my own approach to buying and using my gear differs fundamentally from the approach of many others out there. While I do feel an aching need to buy some new item from time to time (plain gear lust), I try to resist it and go rational about this desire as much as I can… well… most of the time. So, I decided to put together some tips for you.

Here are my 10 tips that will help you take better decisions with respect to your gear and get the most out of what you already have.

1. Get to know your camera inside out

Read the fine manual. Ok, this is obvious, right? Of course you look into your camera manual every now and then. But what I mean is something different: Take the manual of your camera body and read it – form the first to the last page. Too many people don’t read their manual at all or only very superficially.

You may not be able to memorize all the contents, but that’s not the point. Today’s cameras have so many functions that may be helpful to you in different situations. The only problem is that you probably don’t know they exist when you actually have such a problem.

Reading your camera’s manual front to back will give you a good overview of what your camera is capable of achieving. This, in turn, will enable you to come up with the right solution tailored to your camera’s capabilities when it counts.

While you’re reading your manual thoroughly, take the time to try out the features that you read about. That will make it much easier to recall them when the decisive moment comes.

10 Tips for Getting the More Out of Your Photography Gear - 1. Get to know your camera inside out

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2. Push your gear to its limits and learn what these limits are

How do you know when you need new gear? Most people know it when they see it. But if you’re on any kind of budget (and who isn’t these days) then this is not the most effective way to go about upgrading your gear. It may be the way that gives you the most pleasure, but eventually, it’s a waste of money.

If you let your gear lust control you, you’ll only end up buying things that you don’t need. Instead, find out which features of your current gear actually limit your photography. Then, try to find a camera that gives you enough head room with respect to the features that are important to you.

Let your gear grow with your abilities. Doing it the other way around will not work.

10 Tips for Getting the More Out of Your Photography Gear - 2. Push your gear to its limits and learn what these limits are

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3. Don’t be an early adopter

I have always lived by this rule, and it served me well. Whenever there is a brand new toy out, chances are that the first version has bugs. Whether its display problems in the D800, or dust problems in the D600, or focus problems with some new lenses, you’ll be the one dealing with it. Unless you really enjoy being the first to find out that some new item is crap, and unless you enjoy reporting and debating about that online, stay away from brand new products. You’re not going to be very hip, but this will save you a lot of time, money and pain.

Wait a few month until the manufacturer has sorted out the issues and then buy the next version. If you are the first one in the whole wide world to buy that fancy new camera that was just released yesterday, then “Hooah!” to you. You’re the man! But unfortunately, you’ll probably not be able to process your RAW files for the next 3 months because the respective software vendors still need to write the software to support it.

10 Tips for Getting the More Out of Your Photography Gear - 3. Don’t be an early adopter

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4. Don’t baby your gear

One of the difference between a professional photographer and an amateur photographer is that pros treat and use their gear as tools. They use their camera in much that same way as a carpenter uses a hammer – it needs to work to get the job done. Many amateurs, on the other hand, treat their gear like little treasures that need to be protected at all costs.

Don’t get me wrong! There is nothing wrong with protecting your gear. But if you’d rather not get that important shot because of that 3% chance of your camera taking a hit, you have the wrong priorities. Once you start worrying more about the photographs than about the gear, your photography will really improve.

Along the same lines: Don’t use a cheap UV filter to protect your expensive lens. Once you’ve convinced your spouse that you need to take a loan to buy that 70-200mm 1:2.8 lens, the next thing that you may do is to buy a 20$ UV filter is screw in onto that beast. That effectively makes your new 2000$ lens a 20$ lens. Don’t do it. Your lens is more robust than you may think. Use it for what it is: A tool for getting great photos.

10 Tips for Getting the More Out of Your Photography Gear - 4. Don’t baby your gear

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5. Don’t be a pixel peeper

The Internet is full of people who spend their time sitting in front of their computer looking at photos (taken by other people) at 300% zoom level, trying to spot noise, a lack of sharpness or other artifacts. If they don’t find any, they’ll go to 400%. They discuss vividly and get aggressive while arguing about things like MTF and pixel density.

Make no mistake – image quality is important. The problem, however, is that nobody will ever be looking at your photo at those levels of magnification. Chances are that your 24 megapixel images will be scaled down to 1 MP or less before they are viewed online. If one of your photos is ever going to be printed on a billboard and displayed on Times Square, people will view it from 500 feet away, making it appear even smaller than the 1 MP on your screen. By the way, at that point in your career, gear will be the least of all your problems.

Think about your gear in realistic terms: Will it allow you to produce high-quality photos for the purpose you are using it for?

10 Tips for Getting the More Out of Your Photography Gear - 5. Don’t be a pixel peeper

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6. Don’t listen to what people say online too much

Pixel peeping is not limited to pixels. The same type of people that complain about lack of sharpness at 763% magnification will put forward bold statements about anything under the sun if you ask them. If you have a gear-related question, you should not as your very first step post it on a forum. Many people on these forums are on one of the following missions:

  1. They have bought the item in question and want to protect their decision by claiming that it’s the best one out there, even if it’s crap.
  2. They cannot afford the item, and they try to defend their decision not to buy it by telling people that it’s crap even if it isn’t.
  3. They bought a different item, and they try to defend their decision by telling everyone who decides differently that they’re plain wrong.
  4. They are trolls and will argue with you whatever you say.

Unfortunately, it can be quite hard to tell the sensible people apart from those that are on a mission.

Try to find credible sources of information that deal with such questions without any emotion or personal desire to be right. This takes more time and effort, but the end result is much better. Big review sites (e.g. dpreview.com or cameralabs.com) usually have good objective reviews. But be aware of people who only promote products to earn money from affiliate marketing.

10 Tips for Getting the More Out of Your Photography Gear - 6. Don’t listen to what people say online too much

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7. Don’t blame it on your gear

If you only had a Nikon D4, a Canon 1D, or a Leica M9 (or whatever you are dreaming of), your photography would be so much better, right? Well, maybe. But that is no excuse for making crappy photos. Today, even entry-level DSLRs are capable of capturing professional photos. The difference between a Nikon D3000 and a Nikon D4 is no longer to be found in the quality of the photos, at least if you have sufficient light.

Blaming it on your gear does only one thing: It keeps you from using your gear effectively.

10 Tips for Getting the More Out of Your Photography Gear - 7. Don’t blame it on your gear

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8. Be inventive

If you really find that your gear is limiting you, and you don’t have the budget to change that, try to figure out how you can use your gear to work around the problem. If your camera only does 3 shot in an auto exposure bracketing series, use semi-auto bracketing to extend it. If your camera is not as good in high ISO settings as you wish, use exposure stacking to reduce the noise. If your lens does not go to f/56 to give you the depth of field you need for your macros, use focus stacking.

For many problems, there are simple solutions with which you can reach your goal without investing in new gear. Research and learn! If you’re having a gear problem, google it and see how other people solved it. But stay away from those pixel peeper forums, will ya!

10 Tips for Getting the More Out of Your Photography Gear - 8. Be inventive

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9. Be prepared to make compromises

Nothing is perfect in this world. This is especially true for camera equipment. Often, you will find yourself having to choose between two or more products, and whichever way you go, you have to sacrifice something. Some people get so carried away over such decisions that they lose sight of the actual problem they had in the beginning. Some even become pixel peepers or start online fights with them.

If you can’t decide, make a priority list. What’s most important to you, and what’s not so important. Compare the products according to this list. If you still can’t decide, just buy either one. Apparently, it does not make a big difference.

10 Tips for Getting the More Out of Your Photography Gear - 9. Be prepared to make compromises

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10. Think and act holistically

Photography is not about one camera or one lens. It’s about a whole system of hardware and software entities that need to play well together. Optimizing one without looking at the others may break your whole system.

As an example: When the Nikon D800 came out, I seriously thought about getting one. But when I discovered that those 36 MP files are about 45 MB large, I knew that this would break my whole workflow, forcing me to buy new storage and maybe reduce the images in size before processing a big HDR Vertorama. This simply did not make sense. So, I decided against it for the moment, even though the camera itself is fantastic.

The point is that you need to make gear decisions with your whole system in mind. Try to find the piece of equipment that fits in best, and make sure that this new item does not become the limiting factor too soon.

Oh, and don’t use a crappy tripod to support your new pro DSLR with that 600mm lens, please.

10 Tips for Getting the More Out of Your Photography Gear - 10. Think and act holistically

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Summary and Conclusions

Buying and using photography gear can be a real pleasure if you do it right. Sometimes, however, you upgrade too early or for the wrong reasons. Sometimes, simply using your existing gear in the right ways can be the solution, and paying some extra thought before you purchase can save you a lot of money, time and pain.

Be sure you take the right decisions next time. Oh, and have fun with whatever you have right now. Chances are that it is capable of doing what you need.

14 Tips for Quick and Effective Travel Photography

Long Tail (HDR)If you are a serious photographer, you are reflecting each and every shot. You are planning it. You are studying the subject from every possible direction to find the unique original angle and composition. You are choosing the time of day wisely to get the perfect light. You may even come back several days in succession to get that magic moment where everything comes together and you get the dream shot, the shot that ends every discussion about that very subject, the shot after which nobody will ever attempt to shoot that subject again because they know that you where there.

Did I characterize you correctly? No?

Ok, I see! You are a guy that has normal holidays with his wife (or husband) and maybe a bunch of kids. Somebody who likes to take guided tours through foreign countries and happens to have his/her camera with him/her. BUT you still have the ambition to take great shots that are worth presenting.

Does that sound familiar to you? Then I may have some useful tips for you.

You frequently find yourself in situations that simply do not allow for planning “the perfect shot” While the serious photographer takes hours to get the shot, you only have seconds. You are rushing after your guide, already last in the group. Your wife (or husband) is already throwing that come-here-now look at you, and you discover that lovely sight. Wonderful light, great colors. You know that this will be your one and only chance to take this shot. If only you had 15 minutes… or maybe only 5. That would be all it takes to shoot the photo of your life. Here you are with about 5 seconds left. How do you get the best out of this situation??? The question in this situation is not whether you get the perfect shot. The question is whether you get the best shot under these circumstances. There are ways of getting the shot and of maximizing the result as I will show you below.

The Gear

Having the right gear can help you a lot with your effectiveness and speed. Here are some things that you may want to think about. Be aware though, that every photographer is different when it comes to gear. You should experiment and develop your own strategy.

Let there be Light (HDR Vertorama)Tip 1: Get a camera with good low-light capabilities. Shooting in low light is one of the most difficult and at the same time most frequent exercises. When you go to a foreign City, you will most likely visit its churches as they are usually a very good subject to shoot: Great colors of paintings and statues etc. and the low light adds a special atmosphere. However, you will probably not be allowed to set up your tripod in most cases. Moreover, there will be little space and time and so much to shoot. That’s when you need a camera that performs good in low-light situations. What does that mean? Stepping up the ISO sensitivity and opening the aperture is the only way to get decent shutter speeds in low-light. Therefore, you need a camera that allows for high ISO values while keeping the noise low. Moreover, you need a lens that is still reasonably sharp at a wide-open aperture. I use a Nikon D7000 that produces very low noise at high ISO values.

Take me to Istanbul (HDR Panorama)Tip 2: Use a monopod. A solid tripod is definitely the best solution for high image quality and comes in very handy for panorama shooting (together with a panorama head). However, on the kind of travel discussed here, it is barely usable. First, setting it up takes a lot of time. Second, in those places where you need it (churches, temples, museums – any place with low light) you are often not allowed to use it. In these situations (as well as for panorama shooting) a monopod can be extremely helpful. It provides more stability than shooting handheld, it is quick to set up and use, it is allowed in most places, and it gives you a base of making a quick panorama with a proper panorama head. Practice using it! You will get better quickly and get the extra stability that allows you to take decent shots in low-light situations.

The Refuge (HDR Panorama)Tip 3: Get the right panorama head. If you are interested in panorama photography, then you may have learned that for a proper panorama, you need a tripod and a very expensive 3 Kg panorama head for €700. Well, of course this gets you the perfect panorama, if you have 30 minutes setup time and a strong wife that can carry your gear for two weeks straight under extreme climate conditions. But it is not what I want to take on my travels. First of all, I use a monopod for most of my panoramas (normal and HDR). A monopod with an integrated leveler is all you really need. It gives you a point around which you can rotate the camera and keep it at the same height for every shot. Second, I use a very simple panorama head: a Kirk macro rail mounted on a simple tripod head. This gives you the possibility of adjusting the position of your camera and lens to the no-parallax point. Together with the monopod, it is light-weight and easy to carry.

Yo! Taxi! (HDR)Tip 4: Get an ultra-wide zoom lens. This tip has to be regarded with caution. An ultra-wide angle zoom (e.g. 10-20mm) produces images with a specific perspective with some perspective distortion. If you don’t like this, forget this tip. If you do like it, such a lens will give you an invaluable advantage: It puts you into the pole position. On my travels, I have hardly ever seen anybody with such a lens. This means that everybody else has to stay further away from a subject to get everything into their frame. You (if you happen to have such a lens) have to get really close. Thus, nobody will be between you and the subject, at least nobody with a camera. Such a lens is also perfect for panoramas!

Rosanou Abbey - Meteora (HDR)Tip 5: Get the right lens bag. Unless you are using a single lens, you will have to change lenses for different shots. And you will have to do so quickly! I usually carry two lenses that cover the zoom range from 10 to 200mm. I have a small lens bag with a shoulder strap that takes these two lenses and some other equipment. This is light-weight, unobtrusive, and allows me to change lenses very quickly. Don’t get a camera backpack for such occasions. You will have to take it off, open it, take the lens out, put the lens back in, put it back on – way too much time!

Tip 6: Get the right camera strap. I use a self-made system similar to the Rapid-R Strap. This is really perfect for me. My camera is at my right hip not obstructing me in any way, and I can slide it up to my eye to a shooting position extremely quickly. When I put it back to its hip position, I have both hands free without something dangling in front of my chest.

Izmir Harbor (HDR)Tip 7: Get a biiiiig memory card. The urge to save space on your memory card is the most detrimental thing for photography. It makes you do things like reducing the image quality, turning off the RAW images, not taking certain shots, deleting shots etc. If you use a modern DSLR with 12+ mega pixels, I recommend a 32GB memory card. Maybe you won’t need all that space, but it frees your mind! In fact, using all the techniques described below, I came close to the 32GB limit on some occasions, and I was happy to have a spare 16GB card in my pocket. In addition to having big memory cards, you should also take a small laptop with enough hard disk space with you when you are traveling. After each shoot, move the photos from the memory card to the laptop to archive them and to free the space on your memory card.

Tip 8: Get a small external hard drive as a backup, just in case. We all know that shit happens. If you incrementally copy all the images from your memory card(s) onto a single hard drive, this may not be the safest place. The laptop and/or hard drive may fail, it may get stolen, and you may lose or forget it somewhere. Get a cheap external drive and copy all the images from your laptop onto this drive to have a backup. You may either take it with you when you leave your hotel room, or you may put it into the safe at the reception or another safe place.

The Preparation

Speed and effectiveness are very much a matter of preparation. This is not only true with respect to your gear, but also for using it. Here are my tips for being prepared.

New Mosque  (HDR Vertorama)Tip 9: Know your camera setup. Since you normally work under some time pressure, you have to get your shots quickly. But still, your camera setup is vital for getting good results. Now, you could just bump your camera into auto mode and let it take all the decision for you. But since you are an ambitious photographer, that’s not what you want. You want to set the vital camera settings to decide the final outcome yourself. In order to be able to do that, there are two things you need: 1. decent knowledge about how a particular setting changes the result (basic photography knowledge – e.g. how the aperture influences the depth of field), and 2. a base setting from where you can operate. I will not tell you anything about no. 1. There are tons of pages on the Internet that do a good job with that. However, I want to emphasize the importance of no. 2: I always have a base setting on my camera that suits the given location. When I want to shoot a particular scene, this lets me quickly change the settings accordingly. After the shot, I change them back to the base setting. If you do not have such a base setting, you have to check and adjust the entire range of settings for every photo because you will probably not remember the most recently used settings. If you do have a base setting, you only need to change 1 or 2 things and then change them back immediately after the shot. I usually change the aperture, the ISO sensitivity, and the auto-bracketing mode (see below).

Santorini Cathedral (HDR)Tip 10: Have a steady hand. Especially if you are into multi-exposure techniques like panorama or HDR photography (or HDR panoramas for that matter) you have to take many single shots that are combined into one final photo. This can be between 12 and 30 shots sometimes. The more steady your hand is, the less problematic the process of combining these shots will be. Furthermore, in low-light situations (e.g. in a church) shutter speeds will be quite low. Having the ability to hand-hold very low shutter speeds (1/40 – 1/10 seconds) and still produce sharp photos is a definite advantage since you do not need a tripod or monopod each time. This can save you a lot of time and trouble with local authorities. Practice proper techniques of hand-holing shots before it counts!

The Shoot

When you are shooting, the most important thing is to produce material that gives you the flexibility of choosing the best shot and of improving the shots in post-processing as much as possible. The following tips allow you to maximize this felxibility.

The Alley (HDR)Tip 11: Auto-bracket your shots. Most DSLRs have an autobracketing mode. However, most people don’t know what this is, how to turn it on and off, or how to use it. Basically, autobracketing means that your camera takes 3 or more shots when you press the trigger, each with a different exposure. I auto-bracket 90% of my shots. Why? Bacause this allows me to choose the best of the three exposures when I am selecting shots for post-processing. Furthermore, for scenes with a high dynamic range (big difference between the dark and the bright parts), you can later combine those three (or more) shots into a single one where all the areas are exposed well. This techniques is called HDR. Most cameras allow you to bracket different settings. You should bracket the shutter speed, not the apreture or ISO!

The Tube (HDR)Tip 12: Shoot RAW (and JPEG). Especially beginners tend to switch off the RAW output of their cameras. RAW images take a lot of space and time to download, and you don’t really know what to do with them anyway. Right?… Wrong! I was like that too. Now, I wish I had taken all my shots in RAW format right from the start. RAW images contain all the information your camera captures while JPEGs are compressed. Some of the information gets lost in this compression. Especially, if you post-process your images, this lost information usually translates into notably lower quality of the final result. I am not going into the details of this here. I can only tell you: turn on the RAW output format on your camera! If you don’t know what to do with it now, just let the RAW files sit on your hard disk. Some day, you will be thankful that you have them. Additionally, you should turn on the JPEG output in highest quality. RAW images cannot be used before your run them through a RAW converter, and you do not want to do this with each and every shot you take just to view it and share it with others. So, let your camera produce both the RAW image and the compressed JPEG for each shot you take.

The Blue Room (HDR)Tip 13: In critical situations, shoot multiple times. If you are in this fantastic church and there is this gorgeous golden ceiling that you would love to get a great shot of, take as many shots as possible. If you are taking a panorama or HDR shot, repeat the whole series of shots 2 or 3 times. Check the result on your camera display to see if the images (longest exposures) are sharp enough. If in doubt, shoot again. Sometimes you may also vary setting inbetween. This ensures that you have enough material to produce a high-quality photo. Chances are that you will only use 10-20% of all your shots. But who cares.

Tip 14: Have fun: There is one final tip that I had to include for two reasons: 1. to give you the right perspective again and 2. in order not to let this post end with a 13th tip (some people may be supersticious). This final tip is: Don’t let this whole thing stress you too much. Producing high-quaity images under pressure may seem to be stressful. But it should be fun. Enjoy your time wherever you are on the planet.