How to get better photos, no matter what camera you’re using

Fancy cameras are nice, but it’s the photographer—not the gear—that makes or breaks an image.

You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that the London-based street photographer Shane Taylor can often be found out and about with an old and well-worn Canon EOS 30, which he got for just £35. When emerging film photographers ask him for advice, he always recommends they start with an affordable 1990s SLR and cheap film before upgrading in the future.

Photo by Shane Taylor (@heroesforsale on Instagram)

He’s not alone in his preference for simple, inexpensive gear. After fifteen years of working with all kinds of gear, the Toronto photographer Andrew Emond now prefers to shoot with his Samsung phone. “I think a lot of photographers, especially beginners, worry about not having the right camera or lens,” he says.

“It’s important to remember that expensive gear is no substitute for style, composition, and an interesting point of view. These things take time to develop. A basic camera, without all sorts of bells and whistles, is often the best tool for this because it lets you focus on learning those key elements of good photography.”

“It’s important to remember that expensive gear is no substitute for style, composition, and an interesting point of view. These things take time to develop. A basic camera, without all sorts of bells and whistles, is often the best tool for this because it lets you focus on learning those key elements of good photography.”

Photographer, Andrew Emond
2×4 Arrangement by Andrew Emond (@andrew_emond on Instagram)

We recently asked nine professional photographers to tell us about their gear, and many of them said they often use non-professional cameras for their work. Luckily, they were kind enough to share some of their top tips for improving your photos, no matter what type of camera you’re using.

1. Perfect your lighting

“When I was a professor, most of my students didn’t have DSLRs, but that was okay because I taught them to use the light as their base,” the New York City-based fashion and advertising photographer Celeste Martearena tells us. “Early in my career, I saved for years before I bought my first full-frame camera, and that taught me that lighting is everything.

Photo by Celeste Martearena (@celestemartearena on Instagram)

“You can shoot with a phone or a DSLR, but if the light is bad, everything is going to fall apart. If the lighting is good, however, it will work. Analyse the light in the scene, and watch how it reflects and interacts with surfaces. If needed, modify it according to the mood or message you want to convey.”

Golden hour is the perfect time to get started with natural light since the light at sunrise and sunset tends to be warm and diffused. For more control over your lighting and exposure, shoot in manual mode or use exposure compensation.

Check out 10 lighting tips to improve your photography here on Spotlight, for more ways to enhance your lighting.

2. Learn to simplify

It’s easier to master a skill when you’re starting with basic, easy-to-use gear. “Use a simple camera with only one or two lenses at the start of your career, and learn how to use them well,” the London-based photographer Jillian Edelstein suggests. “Practice and perfect before moving on to anything expensive. You don’t need to over-complicate anything, especially in the beginning. When I went to visit Robert Frank at his studio, he said to me, ‘I like your work; it’s simple.’ Then he added, ‘Simple is genius.’ I never forgot that.”

Instantáneos de Portugal by Jillian Edelstein (@jillianedelstein on Instagram)

3. Bring your camera everywhere

The benefit of a simple setup is that it’s portable and can go everywhere you go. “I shoot a lot with my iPhone 11 when I don’t have my DSLR,” the Belgium-based photographer Whitley Isa says. “I think it’s important to shoot as much as you can and pay attention to the lighting of each situation and location you’re in. Try to learn to read and work around different environments to hone your skills.”

Rabia by Whitley Isa (@whitleyisa on Instagram)

4. Study the greats

When Shane Taylor embarked on his journey as a street photographer, he studied pictures by Robert Frank and Sergio Larrain, taking notes on how they used composition, expressions, gestures, and light to bring everyday moments to life. Consider investing the money you would otherwise spend on gear in acquiring photobooks and visiting galleries.

You don’t need formal training in photography (Shane is self-taught!), but the more time you spend with great images, the stronger your pictures will be. You can even start by trying to recreate photos you love or emulating the lighting style or colour palette of a photographer you admire; from there, you’ll develop your own voice and style.

Pinhole photo from Lisbon by Frank Machalowski (@frankmachalowski on Instagram)

5. Experiment with composition

“When it comes to taking good photos, an eye for beautiful scenes and compositions is more important than an expensive camera,” the German photographic artist Frank Machalowski tells us. While he uses a DSLR for commercial jobs, one of his favourite tools is a pinhole camera he converted himself.

“I bought a used medium format camera (Agfa-Klick) on eBay for less than €10 and replaced the existing lens with a thin brass plate with a hole,” he remembers. In many ways, the simplified camera allowed him to slow down and focus on the basics. You’ll see in the photo above that he’s made clever use of several compositional techniques, including leading lines, the rule of thirds, and a “frame within a frame.”

“I was very excited by the results,” he says. “In one of the pictures, I was able to capture the ‘Torre de Belem’ in Lisbon as very few have seen it. To make your own pinhole camera, you don’t need an expensive lens—just a tiny hole will do.”

Muwosi on New Year’s Eve by Annie Noelker (@annienoelker on Instagram)

6. Practice every day

The more you shoot, the more you’ll get out of your camera, regardless of whether it cost $10 or $10,000, so spend some quality time with your gear before upgrading. “I started out shooting on an early iPhone in high school, and I used it as my main camera for years,” the Nashville-based photographer Annie Noelker recalls.

“I think when you become comfortable with whatever gear you have available to you, you can start to manipulate it and push it to its limits. Understanding how to harness light and using interesting compositions will always outshine even the highest quality camera.”

Photographer, Annie Noelker

“I think when you become comfortable with whatever gear you have available to you, you can start to manipulate it and push it to its limits. Understanding how to harness light and using interesting compositions will always outshine even the highest quality camera.”

Shoot as many photos as you can throughout your daily life, even if it’s just on the way to work. It can help to set a concrete goal, such as shooting 500 photos in a day or creating a photo each day for a month. Allow yourself to make mistakes; that’s how you learn and improve.

Seraphina by Zeinab Batchelor (@zei.bae on Instagram)

7. Expand and explore

Gradually, you’ll begin to evolve and expand from a simple setup to a more complex one, with different lenses and accessories to suit your needs. “As your career progresses, you’ll start to realise that you often have to tailor your choice of camera, depending on the needs of the image that you are trying to create,” the London-based photographer Zeinab Batchelor tells us.

Once you master one or two lenses and lighting setups, step out of your comfort zone and try new things. “There are many options available through inexpensive rental companies like Fat Llama, where you can rent kit for a day or so,” Zeinab adds. “Especially as technology advances, we are starting to see so much more content shot on an array of formats. There isn’t a rulebook, and I think it’s important for young photographers to remember that.”

Brecon Beacons 2017 by Ken Marten (@kenmarten on Instagram)

8. Learn how to edit

Almost every photo needs a little editing to jump off the screen. “I would always recommend shooting in RAW or the equivalent for maximum flexibility when it comes to post-processing, no matter what your setup,” the Vienna-based photographer Ken Marten says.

“Having said that, if you are limited to using a smartphone that does not support RAW capabilities, you can still have a degree of flexibility by processing your images through a powerful editing suite. Smartphone-only apps for image editing can only get you so far. For more professional results (and if you intend to buy into a DSLR/mirrorless or film setup at some point), it’s worth the initial investment in some proper photography processing software.”


Affinity Photo offers professional image editing on Mac, Windows and iPad. Not already a user? Why not download a free trial and check out our handy beginner’s guide Jump into Affinity Photo to see if it meets your needs.


About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.