From Snapshots to Great Shots: A Guide to Improving Your Photography

UPDATED JANUARY 2020

When Ansel Adams first trekked into the Sierra Nevadas to create what would become some of the world’s most beloved and iconic photographs, his burro, who he affectionately named Mistletoe, carried almost a hundred pounds of gear and food. Adams himself carried a backpack of photographic equipment which he estimated to weigh thirty pounds. In later years, 35mm film cameras replaced the large view cameras Adams was so fond of, but they were still expensive and out of reach of many would-be photographers.

Today, digital photography, perhaps more than anything else, has placed the capacity to take great photographs firmly into the hands of average people. Decent compact cameras can be purchased for $100.00, and the DSLR and new mirrorless cameras that are well within reach of even the most budget-conscious now sport features that used to be reserved for top-of-the-line professional cameras. Even the latest iteration of the iPhone sports a 12 megapixel camera and a remarkably decent lens. Furthermore, inexpensive and powerful photo editing apps are available which enable iPhone users to edit and publish their photos right from their phone. Illustrating the iPhone’s abilities is National Geographic  photographer Dewitt Jones, who was the first serious photographer to publish a book of some of his (stunning!) iPhone photographs (iPhone Art in My Life: Volume I). On top of all this, photo sharing websites such as Flickr, Facebook, and now Google+ make sharing your photos with the world astonishingly easy. Now more than ever, people are taking pictures, and falling in love with photography in the process.

Most of us start out taking pictures of our friends, our family, our pets – anything that strikes our fancy. Many of us soon find, however, that most of our photos lack real style. They may capture funny or special moments, chronicle important events, or commemorate significant milestones, but they’re not what we would call art. Many of us find ourselves longing to move beyond snapshots to create truly stunning images, but don’t really know how to get there.

We usually start by buying a better camera, usually a digital SLR with interchangeable lenses. Perhaps we add a few additional pieces of gear, like a good tripod or perhaps a flash. Maybe we take a class or read a book. We learn a few things about exposure and composition, we learn terms like “the rule of thirds,” or “the golden mean,” and those concepts help a bit. But they don’t take us as far as we need to go, and they don’t answer all our questions. So how do we really improve our photography? And as importantly, how do we keep from giving up? To quote Yoda, “You have much to learn, young padawan.”

What I’ve attempted to do here is to assemble a collection of resources – books, websites, blogs, and videos – arranged in categories, which are also arranged more-or-less in something approaching a logical progression. These resources have the benefit of being fairly inexpensive (many are free). And with respect to the few that call for an investment of money, the cost-benefit ratio is extremely high.

These are resources that have helped me walk down the exact same road you’re about to walk down. I’ve been photographing since I was sixteen years old (I’m 47 now), but during most of those years, I took snapshots. Only in the last four years have I really made a concerted effort to up my game, so to speak. Today, my photographs are much stronger, I’m more confident, and I’m actually earning part of my living from photography.

Assumptions

I’ve made two assumptions as I’ve assembled this collection of resources. The first is that you’re serious about improving your craft. You will not improve overnight, and you will not improve without some real effort. Photography is not difficult, but it does take work. You will not improve simply because you shoot a lot, although you should definitely shoot a lot.

The second assumption is that you own or soon will own a digital SLR interchangeable lens camera. If you’re serious about your photography, you will end up here sooner or later. It matters not whether you shoot Nikon, Canon, Pentax, or Sony (I’m a Nikon guy), nor does it matter how many megapixels your camera has. If you haven’t bought a SLR yet, I’d recommend 12 megapixels as a minimum, but don’t feel like you’re suffering if you have less. My first digital SLR (and one I still use occasionally) has 6 megapixels, and it shoots gorgeous photographs. Having said that, I do recommend that you purchase a digital SLR with these  features:

A hot-shoe on top of the camera for attaching a flash

The ability to shoot in Aperture priority, Shutter priority, and full Manual mode

The vast majority of digital SLR cameras have these features, so this shouldn’t be an issue. You can get a camera like this for $500.00 or less, including a basic lens, and that’s probably where most of you should start.

Perhaps the most important sentence in this guide is this: Great photography is not great because of the gear. It is great because of the vision and creativity of the photographer. In comparison to the cameras used by the great masters of the twentieth century, today’s cameras are all phenomenal, even the less expensive cameras. Please do not fall prey to the gear mania plaguing photography in recent years which suggests that you must have all the latest, greatest gear to take compelling images. It just ain’t so!

Categories of Resources

Before we get to the list of resources, I want to explain the categories and my rationale in choosing these categories. First of all, a disclaimer: These are not the only resources available in any of these categories. They may not even be the best resources. They are, however, very good resources, by extremely talented professional photographers. The authors/creators are consummate professionals with real credibility. Furthermore, these are resources that I’ve personally vetted. I’ve used them, and continue to use them, and have found them very helpful in answering questions beginners need answered. Furthermore, the authors are all very good teachers, and have the ability to simplify complex ideas. You will learn much here, and grow as much as you care to grow.

The categories below are not rigid, nor are the resources within the categories. For instance, Joe McNally will teach you about light, but in doing so, you will learn some fundamental photography basics, in addition to a few things about vision and inspiration. The point is that there is bleed-over. I’ve placed these resources into categories, but each one goes beyond the category I’ve placed it in.

There are five categories in this guide:

The Basics – The resources in this category cover photographic basics such as exposure, composition, camera control, and gear choices. The excellent resources in this section will help you build a solid foundation for your photography.

Lighting – To truly create compelling images, you must learn to understand and use light, in all its forms – natural light, ambient light, and flash of some kind. You must be able to understand both the quantity and quantity of light, and manipulate each to suit your creative vision. The resources in this section will help you get there.

Inspiration, Vision, & Creativity – There is a world of difference between mastering the technical aspects of photography (which you must do) and creating compelling images. The resources in this category go beyond technicalities and get to the heart of creative image making. They explore the inspiration for great photographs, as well as the discovery and honing of your own unique creative vision

Portrait Photography – No matter what kind of photography you aspire to engage in, eventually you’ll shoot some portraits. You may even specialize in portraits. Joe McNally is fond of saying he’s never met a landscape he couldn’t make more interesting by putting a person in front of it. The resources in this category are some of the best I’ve found to help you make portraits with taste and that you’ll be proud of. 

Photography as Vocation – Sooner or later, as your photography begins to improve, you’ll most likely begin to think about making money at photography. These two carefully chosen resources will help you approach this subject in a solid, productive manner, and will answer many of the questions you have.

Nature, Wildlife, & Landscape Photography – My own specialty is nature and landscape photography, and so I’m including a few of the best resources I’ve found to help you think through some of the unique challenges and opportunities of this special and interesting photographic niche. Hey, it’s my guide, right?

Okay, we’re almost there, but I want to make a few final comments. There is very little in this list about post-processing. Once you make a digital image, you must upload it to a computer. But what you might do with it once it’s on your hard drive is a huge subject. I’ve not included much on post-processing for two reasons. First, because much of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned through trial and error and the help of a few close friends. I can heartily recommend Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, and Apple’s Aperture is a good program, too. There are loads of good resources online that will help you use Lightroom and Photoshop, far less for Apple’s Aperture. I hope to sometime update this post with resources for post-processing, but don’t have that together in my head yet. The second reason I haven’t included much about post-production is that it can range from doing nothing to the image at all to completely compositing the image (or a set of images) to the point that they don’t resemble the original at all. What you personally do will depend a lot on your desire, your creative vision, and how you intend to use your images. Post-processing is a very individual thing. Personally, I tend to lean toward getting as much right in-camera as possible, and decry the “fix-it-in-Photoshop” mentality. Having said that, you will pick up a few post-processing hints in some of the resources below, but I felt it best to largely bypass this topic for now.

One more thing: You will see a few names appear more than once in the list below. Joe McNally and David duChemin have been continual sources of inspiration and photographic knowledge for me. Frankly, some of the things they’ve written are simply better than anything else I’ve found. I’m not aiming at absolute diversity in this guide as much as I’m aiming at clear, easy-to-understand resources that are genuinely helpful.

Now, without further delay, here are fifteen great resources to help you improve your photography. If you take the time and engage them all, I guarantee that you’ll improve dramatically.

The Resources

The Basics:

AdoramaTV. Adorama camera company in New York City has a great educational wing called the Adorama Learning Center. Within the ALC is Adorama TV, a video endeavor hosted by notable Arizona photographer Mark Wallace. Mark has a genuine gift for teaching, and his ability to explain complex ideas with clarity is a delight. Within Adorama TV, you’ll find several hundred relatively short video clips, in several categories, dealing with a wide variety of photographic topics. Many are tagged by target audience (beginner, advanced, etc.). My favorite category is Mark’s series, Digital Photography 1 on 1, which is a series of basic lessons on core photographic concepts. This can be a great source of information for years, and you’ll keep coming back to it as your information needs grow.

David duChemin, Photographically Speaking: A Deeper Look at Creating Stronger Images (New Riders Press, 2011). Vancouver-based humanitarian photographer David duChemin is one of my favorite authors for his no-nonsense approach to photography. David’s motto “Gear is good; Vision is better,” sets the tone for this book, which was written to discuss what makes a strong image. Growing out of his popular workshops, David discovered that when he asked his students what made a particular image compelling, few people knew how to talk about what made that image great. This book attempts to provide us the language to speak about why images move us. It is a fascinating study in the art of image making, and should be required reading by every new photographer.

Kelby One. This is the most expensive resource in this guide. Scott Kelby is certainly one of the world’s most prolific photographic writers, and has a gift for teaching. Scott has assembled some of the world’s best photographers and created over a hundred video training seminars, all available online, covering that particular photographer’s specialty. There are videos ranging from how to use your new camera, to lighting, to wedding photography, wildlife photography, landscape photography, portraits, Photoshop (Scott is also the president of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals), corporate and commercial photography, sports photography, and on and on the list goes. Kelby Training is $200.00 for a one-year pass to every bit of content online. Watch it whenever you want, as often as you want. It may be a bit expensive, but it may well be the best $200.00 you spend on improving your photography.

Bryan Peterson, Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera, 4th Edition (Amphoto Books, 2016). Bryan Peterson’s popular book on exposure is a great place to start in understanding what makes a great exposure, as well as the tools at your command to achieve it. Bryan writes in a clear, concise style, and is an effective teacher. You will learn much from his book.

Lighting:

David Hobby, www.Strobist.com. In 2007, David Hobby took a year off from his work as a staff photographer for The Baltimore Sun to devote to a lighting blog he’d started. A year later when The Sun offered to buy him out as part of a massive layoff, Hobby took the deal. Today, Strobist.com boasts an online monthly readership of over 300,000, and was voted one of the 25 best blogs of 2010 by Time Magazine. Strobist is a veritable gold mine of lighting information from a master of off-camera lighting. New photographers should start with his Lighting 101 series, which starts from square one, assuming you know nothing about lighting. After working through those posts, you should move on to the Lighting 102 series, which may be better than Lighting 101 (David’s teaching style has become more refined over the years since he began Strobist), but presumes you’ve worked through the first series. The site also has a very helpful On Assignment series, in which each post features an actual photo assignment and how Hobby planned and executed the lighting and photographs. In my opinion, David Hobby and Strobist.com is one of the two voices you must pay attention to when learning off-camera lighting.

Joe McNally, The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes (New Riders Press, 2009). If David Hobby is one of the voices you must listen to, Joe McNally is the other. McNally has been a professional photographer for over 30 years, and has famously worked for Life Magazine, National Geographic, and Sports Illustrated. Joe’s approach to lighting is slightly different than David Hobby’s, but the two should not be seen as adversaries. In fact, they complement each other nicely. Incidentally, in 2011, the two completed a wildly popular nation-wide lighting tour dubbed “The Flash Bus.” McNally is one of the great masters of off-camera light, and this book is certainly one of his best.  The book has four sections: Nuts & Bolts; One Light; Two or More; and Lotsa Lights. If you’re just going to read one book about lighting, this should be it.

Joe McNally, Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash (New Riders Press, 2011). This is the newest book I’ve read (I just got it for Christmas). From Joe’s blog (joemcnally.com/blog), here’s what Joe says about the book: “There’s a ton of basic information in this book. there are pictures, sketches, production photos, notes, and metadata. In most instances, I’ve divulged virtually everything you could want to know about any particular shoot, short of the color of my boxers. They’re generally blue, by the way, though I do have a couple of pinstriped numbers, and on really big shoots I wear my lucky thong. Joe make joke.” Joe is a clever writer, a master teacher, and at times he has you in stitches as he humorously describes a photo shoot. Like The Hot Shoe Diaries, this book has lots of pictures (it’s 420 pages!), and they’re all stunning. To enjoy Joe’s photographs and learn the nitty gritty behind how he took each one, including why he made the lighting and composition choices he made, this book is just too much to pass up.

Inspiration, Vision, & Creativity:

David DuChemin, 20 Ways to Stop F*cking Around With Your Camera and Make Better Photographs Without Buying More Gear. Another eBook available from Craft & Vision, this FREE book is certainly one of the most valuable things I’ve read in the last year.

Portrait Photography:

Brian Smith, Secrets of Great Portrait Photography (New Riders Press, 2012). Brian Smith has photographed some of the most famous people on the planet, from Bill and Melinda Gates to Bono to Gene Hackman to Anne Hathaway. And on and on the list goes. This book looks at some of his most iconic images and walks the reader through the hows and whys of that particular shoot. But it’s much more than a troll through Brian’s archive. There are poignant lessons to be learned on every page that you can use to make your own portraits that much better.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that any of Joe McNally’s books mentioned above will give you some really good insight into what goes into making good portraits. Yeah, he’s focused on lighting, but he discusses it all in the context of portrait photography. You will glean much, young portrait padawan, from Master McNally’s books!

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t remind you of the rich resources for portrait photography on the Kelby Training website. Of particular note is Scott’s own 2012 course, “Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It, On a Budget with Hotshoe Flash.” It’s a phenomenal primer on shooting basic, high quality portraits, from start to finish. He covers everything from choosing useful, inexpensive gear to location scouting, to lighting, and then retouching the portraits in Lightroom and Photoshop. It’s a masterful class!

Photography as a Vocation:

David duChemin, VisionMongers: Making a Life and a Living in Photography (New Riders Press, 2009). This is the single best book I’ve read on trying to make a living (full or partial) as a photographer. It is different, and in my opinion, stronger than many other books in its combination of extreme candor and overall spirit of helpfulness. There are no easy paths to success in photography. Building a life and earning a living requires work, plain and simple. David shows us what kinds of work and how to begin, continue, and stay motivated in that work. This book does not contain everything you need to know, but if you dream of making a living as a photographer, this is the place to begin. Sadly, it now appears only to be available used.

John Harrington, Best Business Practices for Photographers, 3rd ed. (Course Technology PTR, 2017). Sadly, most small businesses in America do not last five years. As a photographer, you are not only an artist, you are also a business person. John Harrington will help you learn to manage the business side of photography so that you actually earn enough money to live on and manage your money well enough to stay in business. This is the most thorough book on the photographic business you will find, with chapters on how much you should charge, contracts, licenses, insurance and much more. If you’re serious about trying to earn a living from photography, this is a must-read book.

Zack Arias, Photography Q&A: Real Questions, Real Answers (New Riders Press, 2013). Zack’s new book is a slap in the face. Literally. If you want to know what it’s like to be a working photographer, this is your book. Zack holds nothing back and tells it like it is. While some may think he’s harsh and crass, his intent is to tell you what he feels no one else is telling you about the grit, hard work, and tenacity needed to make it as a working photographer. The book is full of wonderful, practical, budget-conscious advice and encouragement. Yes, encouragement. “But how can a slap in the face be encouraging,” you ask? With truth comes hope, and with hope comes determination, and with determination comes success. Well, that and a really strong set of skills. This book will help you with all of that. I found it refreshing in its honesty, and think a lot of folks will as well.

Wildlife & Nature Photography:

Michael Freeman, The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos (Focal Press, 2007). This book is about designing a compelling photograph. Here’s what the book says about itself: “Design is the single most important factor in creating a successful photograph. The ability to see the potential for a strong picture and then organize the graphic elements into an effective, compelling composition has always been one of the key skills in making photographs.” You absolutely must read this book if you want to really understand what makes a compelling nature photograph.

Michael Frye, Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Masters (Focal Press, 2015). Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. Frye takes the lessons taught by Ansel Adams, THE master landscape photographer of the 20th century, and shows us how they apply to the digital age. A must-read book.

Moose Peterson, Captured: Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer (New Riders Press, 2010). This is a much-needed follow-up to Moose’s original book on Wildlife Photography, Moose Peterson’s Guide to Wildlife Photography: Conventional and Digital Techniques (Lark Books, 2003), which was the first photography book I ever read. The first book is great, the new book is even better. If I were just buying one, though, I’d buy the new book. One of the best things about the new book is that while it contains MUCHO instruction, it also follows a linear storyline through Moose’s life and career. He basically shares the lessons he’s learned as he’s learned them. If you’re going to read one book on wildlife photography, this is it.

David duChemin, Portraits of Earth (Craft and Vision, 2012). One of the best landscape photography books I’ve ever read, thanks to David’s no-nonsense approach. The book quickly helps the reader learn what they must have and what they absolutely don’t need in terms of gear. Of course, it’s not all about gear, once the gear discussion is out of the way, David  gets to the heart of what makes a good landscape photograph and offers helpful tips on how to make them. At only $5.00, it’s a no-brainer. Buy this book! 2020 UPDATE: Sadly, I can no longer find this book anywhere. That’s not to say it isn’t there; if you can find it, buy it!

Scott Kelby, The Landscape Photography Book: The step-by-step techniques you need to capture breathtaking landscape photos like the pros (Rocky Nook, 2019). I confess that I haven’t yet read this book, though it definitely is on my reading list. However, I have read a lot of Scott Kelby’s stuff, and without fail, everything I’ve read of Scott’s has been solid gold. I have no reservations recommending this book.

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