I’ve been interested in photography for as long as I can remember being interested in anything. I’ve shared a number of photography tips here in the past, but today I’d like to expand even further on the topic. Over the years, I’ve discovered a vast number of tools and resources that have helped me to improve my knowledge and skills as a photographer. I’ve listed these below, complete with explanations of how each item helped me and how I think they can be of help to you, too, as you grow your own photography skills!
Many people mistakenly believe that a fancy camera will make them a better photographer. Frankly, this is not true. The world’s best photographers can take stunning images on iPhones and point-and-shoots, while an inexperienced photographer can use a top-of-the-line DSLR and still end up with a mediocre image.
Despite this, I highly recommend investing in a DSLR if you’re serious about improving your photography. Your phone’s camera or other point-and-shoot cameras do a lot of the work for you behind the scenes, automatically adjusting the camera’s settings to create the most visually balanced image. A good DSLR allows you to shoot in manual mode so that you can make these adjustments yourself and therefore understand what the camera is doing behind the scenes.
In 2008, before my move to Germany, I purchased a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT. This was my first major photography-related purchase. I specifically chose this model because a friend of mine had one; I knew nothing else about DSLRs at the time. This turned out to be a great decision because, by the time I’d purchased my camera, the model was a few years old and was selling at a discounted price. It wasn’t the newest or fanciest camera on the market, but it was exactly what I needed to kickstart my photographic journey. Trust me — unless you are an experienced photographer making a living from your work, you do not need the newest or most expensive camera on the market.
I used this camera for four years before upgrading to a newer model; I bought my Canon EOS Rebel T3i in 2014 and have been using it ever since. It still wasn’t the fanciest camera I could have gotten, but it’s exactly what I needed in a camera.
I highly recommend Canon’s Rebel line for those purchasing their first DSLR camera. The T3i has been recently discontinued, but the Rebel T4i and Rebel T5i are still on the market. Plus, Canon recently released two more Rebel cameras: the T6i and T6s.
A Good Prime Lens
When I purchased my first DSLR, it came with a 18mm to 55mm zoom lens. All of Canon’s DSLRs can be purchased either as the body only or with a zoom lens, commonly referred to as a “kit lens.” You can’t use a DSLR without a lens, so unless you’ve already got a collection of lenses, it’s a good idea to purchase your first DSLR with a kit lens so that you can start taking photographs right away. I used my kit lens for years before purchasing my first prime lens.
A prime lens has a fixed focal length, meaning you can’t zoom in or out. Why would you want such a lens? Despite the inability to change the focal length, there are many benefits to using prime lenses. Prime lenses are faster than zoom lenses, meaning they allow more light in to the camera. Have you ever had trouble taking a sharp photo in a low-light environment? When you take a photograph, your camera needs a certain amount of light in order to create a visible image. There are two primary ways that your camera gets access to light: through a hole in the lens known as the aperture, and through a little door in the camera body called the shutter. The shutter opens when you press the button on your camera and remains open until the camera’s sensor has received enough light in order to process the image. This means that if your aperture is very small, the shutter will have to remain open longer to let in more light than it would if your aperture were much larger. The longer the shutter is open, the higher the chance that you or something in the scene will move and blur the image.
Another benefit of prime lenses is the ability to achieve beautiful, soft focus. This is, again, due to the ability to increase the lens aperture, which also increases the depth of field. Depth of field, put simply, refers to the area of your photograph that is in focus. There’s a lot more to depth of field than I have room for in this post, but I highly encourage you to do some research on your own. A few of the resources I mention below might be of use. And, if you’d like me to do an additional post explaining depth of field, let me know in the comments. For now, just know that a prime lens will allow you to achieve images like the ones below.
Awesome, right? And that’s not all I love about prime lenses. They are much smaller and lighter than zoom lenses, making them much easier to travel with. They are also excellent for learning because they force you into a set focal length, meaning you have to learn to make other adjustments to achieve the photograph you desire.
Prime lenses come in a huge variety of focal lengths and, as a result, vary drastically in price. The first prime lens I purchased was this Canon 50mm lens, which is known by photographers as the “Nifty Fifty.” This is the perfect starter prime lens because of its neutral focal length and its inexpensive price point. It’s just around $100, making it one of the cheapest lenses you can buy. Once I purchased this lens, I never put my kit lens back on my camera. I shot with it for years before upgrading again. When I finally purchased Canon’s 28mm Wide Angle lens, it was because I had become more interested in landscape photography and needed something a little wider to achieve the images I wanted.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had access to Photoshop since I was in college. Until recently, purchasing a Photoshop license was incredibly expensive, especially for a beginner who just wanted to learn. With the introduction of Adobe Creative Cloud, however, the software has become much more accessible. You can sign up for their Photography package, which includes Photoshop and Lightroom, for just $10 a month!
While there are a number of free photo editing programs out there, I haven’t found anything that quite compares to Photoshop. I’ve learned so much about photography through editing and working with my photos in this software. I’ve learned there are a lot of things that you can improve about a photo after the fact, but many more things you can’t. When I’m editing a photo and I can’t achieve a certain look that I want, it helps me to realize how I can improve my photograph the next time I take one. My photography style has changed drastically over time as I’ve learned new editing techniques and skills. Photoshop is an amazing resource, and now that it’s so inexpensive I just have to recommend it!
An Idea Notebook
This one’s easy. You can use Evernote or any notepad app on your phone, or even just a simple little paper notebook (I really like this one). Whatever you decide to use, make sure to take it with you everywhere. Write down ideas for photographs you’d like to take. Draw little sketches if you want. You’ll have an endless resource for new ideas.
A Good Camera Bag
I don’t want to miss a photographic opportunity, so I try to take my camera with me everywhere. This can be a huge hassle, however, because my camera gear can get very heavy, and I don’t always find myself using it when I’m out and about. I searched for years until I finally found a camera bag that I love.
In order to find the perfect camera bag, it’s important to think about your needs as a photographer. I wanted to be able to take my camera everywhere, but not feel bogged down. I bought this A Beautiful Mess bag by Kelly Moore last year, and so far I love it. I can use it every day as a purse, and it has room for my camera as well as my laptop. That means I don’t have to carry any other bags with me in addition to this one. Plus, it’s a cross-body bag, so it does a great job of distributing the weight of everything inside.
You might have something different in mind, which is fine! Just be sure to get a good idea of what type of bag you want before making a big investment.
Digital Photography School
DPS is one of the first photography websites I frequented. They offer tons of useful photography tutorials and resources for beginners. One of the best features of DPS is their user forum where you can get advice, ask questions, and participate in some fun photography challenges. I found the other members of the community to be extremely helpful and patient with beginning photographers, making it a great place to learn.
Flickr is an online photo-sharing service that allows users to share high-quality photo albums online. You can sign up for a free account and upload up to 1TB of images, organize them into albums, and share them with the world. Flickr is also great because of the community; there are tons of groups that you can join to interact with other photographers. It’s also a great source for photography inspiration. Their Explore feature allows you to browse the most popular photographs on Flickr each day, many of which are truly unique.
I’ve been a member of Flickr since 2007, and I still love it. A lot of the photographers are willing to answer questions and share behind-the-scenes tips on their photographs, which is immensely helpful when you’re learning and trying to figure out how to achieve certain things. Another cool feature of Flickr is the Exif Data Display, which lets you see the camera, lens, and settings that were used in each photograph. This can also be helpful when you’re trying to achieve specific effects in your photography.
Phlearn is a really cool site that offers high-end, high-quality Photoshop tutorials and resources. Their courses are designed for all levels of photographers from beginners to advanced. The best part? They have over 200 hours of free videos. I learned tons of amazing Photoshop techniques from their free videos that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
I absolutely hate lugging a tripod around with me when I travel or hike or do almost anything in general. But I often find myself wanting to take long-exposure photographs and multiple exposures for HDR. Because both of these things are practically impossible to do handheld (unless you are a robot), I happily invested in a GorillaPod. This is a miniature tripod with bendable legs that you can clamp to fenceposts, tree branches, poles, or any other sturdy object. It’s surprisingly sturdy and super easy to carry around with you. Also, it’s great for getting photographs from unique perspectives!
Essential for long-exposure photographs, multiple exposures, low-light images, and self-portraits. A remote control allows you to fire the camera without touching it, meaning you won’t accidentally bump or move the camera when you press the shutter release button. It’s also great for situations where you might not be able to easily reach the camera to get the shot you want, such as a photograph of yourself, or a high-angle shot from above.
As you learn more about photography and experiment more, you’ll likely want to invest in some filters. There are all kinds of filters you can get that create a variety of effects. Neutral Density, or ND, filters block some of the light from entering the lens. These are useful if you want to take a photograph with soft focus on a brightly lit day, for instance. The ND blocks some of the light entering the camera, and you can open the lens aperture up to compensate. These are some of my favorite filters because they’re really useful for long exposure photography (can you tell long exposures are my favorites?). Polarizing filters can be used to filter out reflections on glass surfaces, which is hugely essential when trying to photograph something through a window or display case. Diffusion filters create a soft, dreamy quality in your images. The coolest filters in my collection are my bokeh filters. They look like little black disks with shapes cut out from the center, but when used with a wide-open aperture, you can change the shape of the circular “bokeh” that appear in soft focus areas.
Filters are a ton of fun to experiment with. You can even make your own effect filters at home using things like panty hose, plastic bottles held in front of your lens, or construction paper and scissors.
I only recently added a reflector to my collection of photography accessories, but I wish I’d gotten one years ago. It’s a huge help for modifying the lighting in your photographs without adding artificial light. I take most of my photos with natural light, and the reflector is useful for filling in shadows or cutting down areas that are too bright. I’ve also used frequently used it as a backdrop when I take blog photos around my apartment. The one I purchased is a simple five-in-one reflector, and it works perfectly in most situations.
I enjoy experimenting with film cameras because they give me new opportunities with which to enhance my photographic knowledge. Lomography offers several cool toy cameras, or you can get some old film cameras from thrift or pawn shops, Ebay, or maybe even from your parents or grandparents. You can look for information about these cameras online to help you figure out their basic settings, then use that information to experiment. Film cameras are especially useful for learning because, unlike today’s modern DSLRs, nothing is calculated automatically for you. You actually have to figure out for yourself how to make sure your photo exposes properly. This can be a lot of fun, but also potentially expensive, especially if your photos don’t turn out.
Backup Batteries & Media Cards
If you run out of space or battery power, you won’t be able to take any more pictures. Investing in a few extra media cards and batteries is a great idea because they’re small and light and ensure that you won’t miss a single shot. Just be sure to do your research and purchase the right type for your camera!
A Sturdy Tripod
Even though I hate carrying a tripod around, it’s sometimes a useful thing to have. Occasionally, you might want to take a photo in an area where there’s nothing to clamp a GorillaPod to (like a beach or desert). In this case, if you want to take a long exposure or HDR shot, you absolutely need a tripod. And you need a sturdy tripod. You can buy cheap tripods for around $40, but these tend to be quite flimsy and can still result in blurry photos if there’s wind in your location. I have this one, which wasn’t absurdly expensive and is decently sturdy. It’s heavy though, and a bit difficult to assemble, so I don’t use it unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Pocket Light Meter
Pocket Light Meter is an iPhone app that I’ve found incredibly handy for calculating my settings when I’m using one of my older film cameras. My DSLR can do these calculations for me, but my film cameras cannot. This is what I use to make sure my film photographs don’t end up under- or overexposed, without having to do all the math in my head.
I use PhotoSync for copying photos between my iPhone and computer. The newest version of OS X allows you to do this with AirDrop, but I prefer PhotoSync because it highlights new photos that haven’t yet been copied over. I use this to backup photos, as well as to edit photos on my computer to transfer to Instagram or to copy iPhone photos onto my computer for use in blog posts. It’s a super handy app that I find myself using all the time.