I get many letters from readers saying they're unhappy with their equipment and would like a recommendation on what new camera they should buy. Because of the way these letters are phrased I get the impression that many of the picture problems are not caused by faulty gear but faulty technique.
How often have you heard the expression, "That camera takes bad pictures but this one takes good ones?" Very seldom does the skill of the photographer enter into such comments. It's much easier to blame the machine.
Often the manufacturers will play right along with the offering of new widgets that will do it for you. They don't want to blame the photographer, either; they'd just as soon let the equipment take the blame and sell you a new camera.
Now, I don't want to discourage the buying of photographic equipment -- when needed. But neither do I believe in the easy answer of sticking it to the machine. Most of the robots are well behaved and will produce -- if they are programed properly.
You've heard the expression about computers, "garbage in -- garbage out!" Well, this applies to photography as well. Without the proper pictorial input the camera's output will also suffer.
Many of the new cameras are so highly automated that one really expects miracles from them. You can see it on your TV screen every night. All you have to do is point and shoot -- and "Viola, the perfect picture!" Oh yeah? Did you see the film taken out of the camera and developed -- or did you see a finished picture that was taken at another time?
My criticism is not that the new machines are not marvelous -- they are. I remember when all that figuring had to be done by the photographer, not by the camera, and I don't think the results were always better.
So with better equipment there should be better pictures. But better pictures are not solely the camera's responsibility; the photographer also has to play a part.
What can you do to improve your picture-taking without improving your equipment? A lot.
First of all, you must hold the camera perfectly still. I wince every time I see someone with the camera hand holding a cigarette or a jabbing finger descending on the shutter release button or a photographic maestro waving his camera like a baton to orchestrate a group shot. All of these movements will jar the camera enough to result in fuzzy pictures. (Or as the camera-blamers will say -- a bad lens.)
The proper way to hold a camera is rock steady with a tripod-like support gained by pressing the camera against your eye and tucking your elbows in against your sides. And when the shutter is released, take a breath and hold it while squeezing off a shot.
(If you doubt that how you hold the camera has a great deal to do with sharpness, then the next time put the camera on a steady tripod and take the same picture -- the difference will be amazing and may save you the price of a new lens.)
The next step in improving your picture-taking is in the framing, in your viewfinder before you shoot. The picture you see before shooting should look as close as possible to the one you plan to show. By spending some time moving back and forth, up and down and trying a vertical and horizontal format, you can fit the scene into your viewfinder tightly so that you'll get a better enlargement because you're using all the film.
(To verify this, compare the same size enlargement from a full-frame negative and from a part of one where the image has to be enlarged even more.)
Be aware of light. Watch the light that falls on the scene. Don't just accept it as is. Move around -- you may see a better lighting. This is especially true in landscapes, where a strong sidelight will delineate the detail. (The magic moment of the day for scenics is late afternoon, when the low sun warms up color film and picks up texture.)
You can't pay enough attention to lighting -- after all, that's what photography is all about. The right angle and quality of light can even make people think you used special filters.
Composition is important, but keep it simple: Have only one center of interest, off center, and balance it with a contrasting area or color to give the eye a chance to move around inside the picture.
Avoid clutter. Change position to cut out a busy background, or open the lens and fuzz it out. And, for punch, keep moving in until you've cut out all but the essentials.
Think exposure. Most modern cameras have built-in meters, but they can't decide for you whether to adjust the lens or the shutter. A simple rule is: to stop motion, speed up the shutter and open up the lens; for more sharpness, close down the lens and slow down your shutter speed at 1/125th of a second and adjust the lens for the light. For special effects, such as full color saturation, override the meter by half a stop to a full stop under.
Follow these picture-taking steps and tighten up your technique -- who knows, you may decide that the camera you have is good enough after all. Of course, if you decide otherwise, then go equipment-exploring.