How to shoot good pictures with a cheap camera

Most people think that great photography comes from great cameras. That’s probably the biggest misconception in the world of photography. Just like money can’t buy happiness, good photography comes from good photographers, not from expensive cameras.

Photographer take photo by smart phone while set tripod

How often do you hear fellow photographers moaning about their entry level camera when taking pictures, or envying the professional photographers for their high-end equipment? What if I told you that you can take good pictures with any kind of camera?

Good photography has never been about the equipment you have. In fact, the question pro photographers hate the most is “Great pics, what camera are you using?”

Well, to be honest, that’s only the second hated question, the first is “Can I use your picture if I give you credit?”.

But to continue, a lot of people believe that pro photographers are taking amazing pictures because they have expensive equipment. First, they don’t get to become professionals by taking lousy pictures. That doesn’t mean they always had professional equipment to shoot those great pictures that made them professionals. Second, once you become a professional in any field, you want to improve your working environment and your presentation. As photographers are not very keen on investing in larger offices, luxury suits or luxury pencils, they usually invest their money in what they know for sure they’ll be using everyday: their photo equipment.

And by professional photographers, we understand those photographers who are making most of their income from photography. As they are hired and paid to do photo shootings, they would need reliable equipment most of all, so that customers could trust them to finish a job that they started, no matter what problems could arise during the actual shooting.

Reliability is the main reason why professional photographers are buying expensive equipment, not that they couldn’t take good pictures with any entry-level digital camera they might put their hands on. The problem with cheap cameras is that they are made of weak materials and might break every now and then.

But if you’re not in the chase for regular customers from your area, and just want to take good pictures, you can take them with whatever camera you can afford. You just need to know and apply the basic photography knowledge, plus your magical touch.

While I can’t help with your magical touch, since you’re either born with it or cheat by acquiring it after long days and nights of studying and practicing, there are some main guidelines to follow if you think of taking photos even with cheap digital cameras.

So, how to shoot good pictures with a cheap camera? Wether you have a dslr camera, a point and shoot or a smartphone, you just have to follow the most important ingredients of a good picture:

1. Subject

Sometimes you choose your subject, sometimes the subject chooses you. You never know what the moment may bring, so stay alert and be ready to shoot at any moment. Keeping a camera at hand could be helpful, and nowadays it’s easier than ever, since we all have a completely capable camera in our pockets, disguised in a smartphone.

I started shooting with a 3 megapixels camera 17 years ago, with lousy low-light performance and a lens that would get really soft when zooming in. I remember how happy I was to see one of my pictures shot with that camera, printed on a half a page of an important national newspaper.

Compared to that one, the latest smartphones have a beast of a camera now, able to shoot sharp, crisp images even in low light, that can produce hdr images with a simple touch, and with countless editing possibilities right in the next second. Not to mention the always connected element, basically you can shoot, send your photo to the agency, sell it and see it published in just a few minutes if you’re lucky enough.

So, if we’re always ready to shoot, we should discuss choosing the subject, if the subject hasn’t yet chosen you.

There are plenty of opportunities everywhere. Start by looking around you, there may be an interesting scene, a ray of light, an unusual object, a person dressed funny, a beautiful sight. If you’re still lacking subjects, maybe you should read some books or magazines, you will get surprising ideas from there.

You may keep it simple, don’t need to think of complicated concepts if they don’t come naturally to you. Even some autumn leaves can tell a story.

Heavy duty leaf blower in action

Which brings us to the next point:

2. Composition

Since the inception of photography, there have been shaped a few rules of composition that you should know and be able to apply. They’re not new, they come from other arts, like painting or sculpture, but they’re attributed to photography now, since it’s the most popular hobby on the planet in our days.

Golden proportions set . Golden section ration

- Rule of thirds - the most known rule of composition, according to which you should divide the frame into 9 equal rectangles, 3 across and 3 down, and place the subject along or at the intersection of the resulting lines.

- Symmetry - probably the easiest to understand of them all, you center the subject if you can create a symmetry between the right and left, or between the upper side and the lower side. Works well with reflections in water or shiny surfaces in which case you can also combine it with the rule of thirds.

Silhouette of woman jogger running on sunset beach with reflection

- Frame within the frame - the name says it all. You should basically search for natural frames to compose the subject, like windows, mirrors, arches, passages and so on.

Budapest, Hungary - View on the ancient Fisherman`s Bastion Halaszbastya at sunrise

- Leading lines - following this rule, you should draw the viewer's attention through the image by using real or imaginary lines that lead to the subject. The image above also uses leading lines, along with the frame within the frame.

- Rule of odds - there is a theory saying that a picture will be more pleasing for the eye if there is an odd number of subjects in it. An even number would distract the viewer, as they can't decide on which of the subjects should focus.

- Foreground interest - with this rule, you would include some elements in the foreground, to add depth and a sense of 3D to the subject. The elements in the foreground shouldn't cover too much of the frame, otherwise, they could either become the subject itself, or distract the viewer's attention to it.

Autumn landscape - Old wooden bridge fnd river waterfall in colorful autumn forest park with yellow leaves

No matter the subject, you need to bring it to glory with your composition. As you can see, good composition is so much more than just the rule of thirds.

Make sure to eliminate all the distractions as much as possible. Your subject needs to be clear and easily understood at a first glance (now in the days of social media more than ever). You can and should place it in a context, just like in a story, but try to eliminate the useless elements from your composition, if they don't help the narrative in any way.

As Ansel Adams supposedly once said, there is nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept.

So sure, you can apply the rule of thirds, the symmetry rule, the frame within the frame, the rule of odds or whatever other composition technique you may find out there. But always keep in mind that the subject must be the easiest element to be seen in your picture, and by following the rules of composition you should highlight it, rather than hide it.

3. Lighting - even if you have a good subject and an amazing composition, light is the one element that can make or break a photo.

Antelope Canyon Page Arizona

Light is what photography is all about. The term "photography" comes from the greek words "photos", which means light, and "graphe", which means drawing. So, when you're saying you're shooting photography, you're basically saying that you're drawing with light. That's why the light is probably the most important element of great pictures.

The lighting subject is way too large to cover it in one blog article, but there are entire books and courses about it.

Just a few basic principles of light:

- light can only travel in straight lines

- as the distance to the light source increases, the subject will receive less light.

- light on the subject will be softer if the light source is larger

These are just the basic principles and you should study and play with light as much as possible, in order to understand it and use its power in your advantage.

Journey in the mystical garden

But if you don't have a sofisticated equipment, and don't want to complicate things too much, try to have the light source (wether it's natural or artificial) coming from the side of your subject. Between you, the subject and the light source, you should create an angle of about 45 degrees. After you have achieved that, you can play with semi-obscurity, backlight, you can play with silhouettes and so on. But start with the basics and explore from there.

4. Soul - whatever your subject is, in whatever way you choose to compose it and no matter what kind of light you may have available, you have to put your soul into your photo. Otherwise, the image may be as superficial as you were when you shot it. I often look at the World Press Photo awards and, even if the results are often contested, I can always imagine what the photographers felt when they shot those images. Truth is, you probably won’t be able to shoot good pictures if you don’t love photography. You will often have more chances of producing something memorable when you empathize with your subject, or when you understand it fully before engaging in taking a shot.

old man in autumn forest at sunrise

Many great photographers have studied or at least observed their subjects for a while before touching that button. If your subject is a city, wander around a bit, try to catch its essence. If it's a person, try to talk with them, have some interaction and analyze their personality. If it's an object, maybe you should learn about it before photographing it. Who made it? Who uses it, when, for what purpose? Good photos take a bit of work, they don't come as easy as snapshots.

Asking yourself some questions is the first step in understanding your subjects.

As you may have noticed, none of the ingredients of good photos refers to ISO capabilities, f-stop or frames per second, exposure compensation and so on. The image quality is not one of the most important elements of good photos. If you can study them, understand as much as you can and put your soul in your pictures, you will be able to create those photos you dream of, even with an entry-level camera or your smartphone.

Of course, you will have some drawbacks when taking pictures with a less performant camera or your smartphone.

If the light is too weak and your digital camera doesn't have much high ISO capability, you can always use a tripod when taking photos, or use the flash if you can do it creatively. If you can't use a tripod (it's forbidden in some places, or maybe you don't have one at hand), you can put your camera on your backpack or even your coffee mug, if it has a lid. If you can't use flash, tripod, coffee mug or whatever, keep the camera steady and hold your breath when you take pictures, you will see the success rate will improve. Not always, but it's better than nothing.

If your lens is nothing spectacular and you still want to try a different perspective, one way to do that is to give up the eye level when you take pictures and shoot from the waist level.

If the subject is moving and you simply can't increase the speed of your shutter, move your camera in the same direction at the same speed with the subject. Some nice panning could come out of it. Or you could try to go abstract and shoot a moody frame.

Man with umbrella

There are many hacks you can find to overcome the low capabilities of your digital camera. You just have to put your mind to it and ask yourself some questions.

Beautiful slender blonde at the sea. Summer travel photos

A good camera won't help you make good photos, yet, if you already know hot to take them, a good camera can make your work easier. There's an important nuance to this.

But always remember that the camera is just a tool. Photography tips don't always apply in real life situations, but for every problem, there's a solution. Last, but not least, your soul is unique, so you may wanna add it to each and every one of your photos.

The photo below has been shot with a smartphone and uploaded via Dreamstime mobile app.

Autumn forest path

Photo credits: Anetakwiat, Aniszewski, Brett Critchley, Oleksii Bezrodnii, George Mayer, Hhtang, Jaysi, Matt Antonino, Rdonar, Smileus, Taiga, Zoltan Gabor.

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October 14, 2020

Katelodgeuk

Such a great article, it reminded me of a lot of things I'd forgotten since my photography course at college 30 yrs ago! I particular like the section about composition with the diagram, and very well explained with beautiful photo's thank you. 

October 07, 2020

Moruzx

Beautiful pictures! Useful words!

October 07, 2020

FabioConcetta

Wonderful article, congratulations!

October 05, 2020

Rbrucew

Great read, very sensible discussion, and spot on. I love the smartphone photo.

October 04, 2020

Dudau

Thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to read!

October 03, 2020

Jolene0500

Excellent and informative advice. I just want to say ”Awesome”. Excellent work. Keep it up. Thanks for sharing.

October 03, 2020

Adeliepenguin

You always give such great advice!  Excellent, excellent article. Great examples.  Thank you! 

October 01, 2020

Kmasud380

Wow nice blog post

September 29, 2020

Onime

Nice tips.

September 29, 2020

Limelight64

We were fortunate to own a professional studio and laboratory with  Swiss  processing equipment in 1990. Our main focus was commercial & aerial photography. However, one of the most beautiful photos taken was of a bride & groom on a runway at a wool exhibition fashion parade. Whilst the model was an beautiful looking woman in an understated exquisite gown, the comment from all who viewed this photo was "You obviously have worked with this lady before. Her expression shows her complete trust in you and it and her beauty shines through."  Well, it was a candid shot taken by my business partner which I happily displayed in my office when I became a Marriage Celebrant years later. I  regard it as the ultimate 'fashion shot.'  It still speaks to the 'heart' after all these years.

September 29, 2020

Deciofotografia

excellent the text ... I heard: know the rules like a professional, but break them like an artist

September 29, 2020

Williamwise1

Wow, now that's an article packed full of really great info! Interesting about the "Rule of Odds". I've heard of that when it comes to landscape design, but hadn't really thought of it as a rule in photography. William 

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