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Tips for Better Pictures


Today's e-tip:

How to become the
Best Photographer you can be

Your digital camera doesn't see the way you do. Understanding the differences in the way you and your camera sees is the start of taking great pictures.
How to become the best Photographer you can be

We all want to improve the images we take. We buy expensive equipment, in the hope that it will accelerate us toward our goal. Equipment can help, but there's more to photography than equipment.

This eTip is about what separates a good photographer (who takes great images) from a "picture taker" and what it takes to achive your goals.

Let’s get start with a short quiz. (I'll examine WHY I asked these questions further down in the eTip.)
  1. What is the first thing you look for before pressing the shutter?
  2. What is hyperfocal distance?
  3. Can you answer the following about your camera:
    • How do you set exposure compensation?
    • How do you set mirror-lockup?
    • How do you change to continuous (Nikon) or AI Servo (Canon) focus mode?
    • How do you change the ISO speed?
  4. Do you post-process your RAW images?
  5. Do you ever get up at 4am to get great light?
  6. How do you define a good image?
  7. When is the last time you ASKED for a critique of your images?

Note: This eTip is an extension of my last eTip on "Improving the pictures you take is an art".

Question #1 (What is the first thing you look for before pressing the shutter?)

If you answered the first question with something about the subject or the composition, you failed. Good photographers know, that good subjects and the best composition will never create a good image UNLESS there is good light. Sometimes that light exists in nature and sometimes you have to provide the light (usually in the studio). Good photographers have learned to become seekers of the light.

We’ve seen countless images of great subjects and superb composition, only to see a lackluster image that is downright boring, caused by flat light. We’ve also seen images of otherwise dull subjects, but because they were illuminated by great light, the image is captivating.

Light has several attributes. When you look for good light, you’re evaluating the color, quality, angle and direction. This evaluation often dictates the position where you want to take shot from.

Rule #1: Always be on the lookout for good light – then look for a subject and use good composition.

Good sunlight most often occurs when the sun is low on the horizon.
It is a warmer light and create shadows which enhance texture.

In this image, the shadow from the tree, the texture in the grass,
the side-lit tree and the cool shadow in the background all are the results of good light.

In this image, the effect of the good light isn't as obvious,
but the warm tone and texture in the grasses would be lost if the light wasn't "good".

Question #2 (What is hyperfocal distance?)

If you don’t know what hyperfocal distance is, then you don’t have a good grasp of the fundamentals of photography. A good photographer must have a good understanding of the mechanics behind exposure and focus. Without this knowledge, the best camera in the world will rarely take good pictures.

Note: The hyperfocal distance is where you focus to achieve the greatest depth of field in an image. It is also the closest point at which a lens is focused while maintaining acceptable sharpness for objects at infinity. It is an important concept in landscape photography.

Rule #2: Learn the basics of exposure and focus.

By focusing on the hyperfocal distance,
depth-of-field is maximized -
an important attribute
in landscape photography.

Question #3 (Camera Settings)

Efficiency is the hallmark of a good photographer. Knowing how to quickly adjust the ISO speed, exposure compensation, aperture, shutter speed and focus mode is critical to "getting the shot". Lighting conditions change and subjects move – and you have to be ready. You have to know your gear so well, that you don’t have to think about how to change these settings.

If you can’t quickly answer the questions in #2, you don’t know your camera well enough – and if you don’t understand your gear, you’re not an "efficient" photographer.

Rule #3: Know your gear.

Question #4 (Do you post-process your RAW images?)

This is a two-sided question. The first is, you must know how to post-process your images – and you must know how to do it well. JPEG images that come straight from the camera are rarely good quality. The second side of this is that you may rely too heavily on post-processing. Have you ever mumbled to yourself: "I’ll just fix it later in Photoshop"? Post-processing can cover-up, but there is no escaping the fact that shooting it right (in camera) is FAR better than covering-up a shooting error up in post processing. The intent of post-processing is to take a RAW image and adjust it so that the resulting image looks like what you saw when you shot it.

Rule #4: Shoot RAW and post-process, but don’t over-process.

The image on the left is a JPEG processed by the camera.
The image on the right is a RAW image that was post-processed.

Question #5 (Do you ever get up at 4am to get great light?)

Getting up early won’t make you a great photographer, but it’s all about "passion". Sometimes you have to get up really early or stay up late to get a shot. The blue-hour (just before dawn or after dusk) and the golden-hour (just after dawn or before dusk) are great times to get great light. The blue-hour can work for landscapes and just about everything looks best during the golden hour. Sometimes, you have to hike a distance to get a shot. If you have passion for your photography, then you will do what it takes to get the shot. It sometimes takes passion to get up really early and/or stay up late because you know that’s when the light will be best.

Rule #5: Get passionate about your photography – go the extra mile to get the great shot.
Getting up early has it's advantages.

Question #6 (What makes a good image?)

You may think this is a completely subjective question, but, in reality, it isn’t. Clearly, each of us sees things a bit differently, but, humans are programmed very similarly when it comes to identifying things we like. Our DNA is pre-programmed to "like" certain shapes and color combinations.

For example, the shape called the golden rectangle (you should Google it) was determined to be one of these things by the ancient Greeks. Nobody can explain WHY we like this shape defined by mathematics, we just do. We like warm colors, as in a sunset. We like to see warm & cool tones (think red and blue) close-by each other in the same image. We don’t like to see horizon lines in the center of an image, unless there is an overriding compositional element in the image. There is no escaping these things – they are built into our DNA.

You can best determine what these are by viewing images taken by other great photographers. Whenever you view an image, you should always ask yourself: What do I like about this image and what don’t I like. Continually doing this will sharpen your skills to compose better images.

And if you truly want to get better, ask someone else to critique your images. You'll be amazed at what you can learn from others!

Rule #6: Learn what makes up a good image.

Understanding light, exposure, focus and composition combine to make a good image.


Becomming a better photographer requires more than just a camera. One of the great injustices of modern society is the Facebook "like". People will "like" the worst images just so they themselves can be liked, because "not liking" an image might offend.

If you want to truly take images that "wow" people, you need to do more than buy an expensive camera and have your friends and relatives tell you how good they are. You need to truly become a better photographer.

The way to do this is:
  • Learn to photograph light, instead of subjects
  • Learn the fundamentals of photography
  • Learn you gear
  • Learn to shoot RAW and how to properly process your images
  • Get passionate!
  • Learn what makes a great image and ask to have your images critiqued.

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