The Secrets to Getting Great Photos

I recently gave a quick presentation about photography to a neighborhood Girl Scout Troop, who were earning their digital photography badge. I brought in a small collection of favorite photos over the past few years, and thought I might talk a little bit about each one. Umm, well, lets just say that I don't think they were really quite at that level yet, so after I saw the eyes glazing over I just handed them my little Canon Rebel T2i with a 50mm lens attached to it, and suddenly they were super excited and went to town with it! 😂 They did have some good questions, so here were a few of them

What makes a great photo?

There has to be some "wow factor" to the photo. A gorgeous scene when the lighting is ideal, or capturing something at precisely the right moment, with the perfect expression. There's a saying that a great photo is great even at thumbnail size. Although technical image quality is important to a degree, it's more about what you, the artist, can imagine and capture with whatever camera you happen to have. 

How much does it cost to make a good photo?

Photography is one of those things where you can spend as much or as little as you want. There's absolutely no reason why you can't take just an iPhone, and come back with tons of great photos from a vacation. It's not my style, but I've seen it done! Phone cameras have evolved to the point that they're pretty darned good, and it's a fact that highly competent phone cameras have pretty much put the compact camera market, and even cameras stores for that matter, darn near out of business. That said, larger dedicated camera, especially ones with interchangeable lenses, offer a lot more capability, far more artistic freedom as far as getting different types of photos, and different looks to your photos. If all you've got is a phone camera, it won't stop you from making tons of great photos. But yes, you can do a whole lot more with more advanced cameras systems.

What would you say is the best camera to use when taking a picture?

This was an excellent question, and it's one that even many advanced photographers struggle with. The answer comes in a few parts. First, the best camera to use is the one you have with you. If you don't have a camera with you at all, you're not going to get any photos. Cameras and lenses come in all sizes, shapes, and weights. The most advanced professional cameras and lenses in the land that are capable of the highest technical image quality, are also likely to be huge and weigh a ton. You might not want to carry such a camera system around with you everywhere, in which case, what will you take photos with? Your phone? If that's all you have or are willing to carry around with you, then a phone is the best camera to use! If you want more capabilities than what a phone offers, then you can certainly get it, but you have to be willing to lug it around with you. So there are tradeoffs to be made. 

If you're at the zoo and want to get a photo of the lions or pandas, you'll certainly be able to get a photo with your phone, if that's all you have or are willing to carry, but it might not be the photo that you want. Ideally, the best camera to use is the one that you have with you and are willing to carry around with you, and that will get the types of photos that you want. An interchangeable lens camera with a telephoto zoom lens on it will obviously get better photos at the zoo than your phone will. So long as you're willing to tote such a camera system and lenses around with you most places, such that you can actually use it to take photos, that will be the best camera for you. You have to ask yourself what types of photos you want, what types of cameras and lenses will be capable of getting you those photos, and is the size and weight such that you'd actually be willing to carry such a system around with you most of the time, to get your money's worth out of such an investment. 

This is all you need to get started making awesome photos! 

The last point, especially for beginners, is that the best camera to use has to be one that you can actually afford. Here's a little secret. You don't need to save up for a year to get the latest Canon Rebel T6i for the better part of a thousand dollars, when there's absolutely nothing wrong with the few years old Rebel T2i that I let the Girl Scouts play with, and which you can buy from used camera dealers or eBay for under $300 with a lens! Digital camera technology reached what most people would consider maturity more than a few years ago now, where even the basic level cameras had more than enough performance to do whatever you might want to do. But hobbyists keep upgrading for the sake of upgrading, which means you can score these dirt cheap used camera bodies for next to nothing. You can save a whole ton of money by buying used! The best camera to use is the one you can afford and start making great photos with today, rather than the one you'd have to save a year for to get.

Now, onto making great photos! :)


William chasing his remote control Lamborghini. Check out his expression, and the fact that his legs are both in the air and surrounding his car. This was the perfect look and the perfect timing. :) Canon 7D Mark II and 100-400mm lens.

Timing can mean a lot of things in photography, but in the context of portraiture, you want to capture people in the midst of doing something at exactly the right moment, where they have the perfect expression, or they're at the perfect arc of a motion. Having a high-speed camera like a Canon 7D Mark II that shoots at 10 frames per second is a luxury that makes things easier, but it doesn't mean that you can't practice a bit and perfectly time your photos with a slower shooting camera that might only do a few frames per second. And it goes without saying that the first time a child is ever doing anything new, you need to have your camera out! That's when they'll be the most excited, and you'll get the very best photos!

Katie trying to fly with a set of wings. She's at maximum height and mid-stride, and her wings look just about perfect. Canon 7D Mark II and 100-400mm lens.

The "WillKat Classic". Canon 5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/4L lens. This was the first time William took Katie down a steep driveway in his Jeep. He was excited, she was terrified, and this photo is truly priceless! These expressions came and went in a moment. Timing is everything.


For landscape photography, the most important thing to understand is that the period of time when the light is golden and will perfectly illuminate a scene, or those peak colors at sunset, might only last a minute if not for just a few seconds. The best time to get landscape photos are typically in the morning during sunrise, or in the evenings during sunset, when the sun is at low angles, and its golden light illuminates everything so nicely. During midday, the light from the sun is the harshest and tends to wash out the color from landscape scenes, which doesn't make for nearly as nice photos. So the time for the best light and resulting photos tends to be a bit inconvenient, also! You might have to get up extra early in the morning, or plan your dinner around when sunset or that ideal twilight lighting might be. 

Paris in October 2006, with a Nikon D80 and an 18-55mm kit lens, 1 second exposure on a tripod. I had bought my Nikon D80 not even a month before, which was my first DSLR camera.

5 minutes before, the light wasn't nearly as nice.

5 minutes later, it had already faded!

Sometimes, the light doesn't cooperate with you, and you have to create your own light. Getting good people photos in the middle of the day can be a big challenge as well, as the high angle of the sun tends to create very deep shadows on people's faces. This is what fill flash is for! Flash photography isn't just for dark locations, it's for bright ones as well, when you need to use your flash for fill lighting to help overpower the shadows. 

Canon 7D Mark II and 10-18mm ultra-wide lens, with critical pop-up flash for fill lighting. You can see the reflection of the flash in my wife's sunglasses. See the shadows on everyone's faces? They'd have been much darker and the photo wouldn't have looked nearly as good without using the pop-up flash for fill lighting in bright conditions with deep shadows.

Location and Perspective

Needless to say, it helps to have an interesting location to take photos from if you want to make great photos, but but having a great location doesn't necessarily mean traveling to far away or exotic lands. You can also change your perspective, and explore photography from the same location but in a different way. Rather than taking an action shot from a distance with a telephoto lens, put yourself right in the middle of the action with an ultra-wide lens, for example. Taking a photo with a waterproof camera right as a wave is crashing down on top of you is certainly an interesting location and perspective from which to take a photo, as opposed to sitting on the beach. Will you get more interesting photos watching a Hindu Holi spring time color festival take place from a distance, or if you're right in the middle of it? My waterproof (and dust proof) Nikon AW1 camera is a very deeply flawed camera in many ways, but I still love it because it allows me to take photos in ways, and from places that I can't take any of my other cameras. It's small, rugged, lightweight, stays out of my way, and goes anyplace that can, including underwater. In spite of its flaws, I get a lot of interesting photos with this camera!   

Nikon AW1 at Rehoboth Beach, DE, as a wave came crashing down, with a perfect expression, and water droplets flying everywhere.

The Nikon AW1 does a Hindu color festival!

Nikon AW1 with 6.7-13mm ultra-wide lens, in our back yard. Motion-panned photo at 1/30s.

Nikon AW1 and 6.7-13mm ultra-wide lens taking in the Super Trees and Marina Bay Sands in Singapore at Twilight.

Good Luck and Persistence

Plain old good luck counts, too. Some stunning photographs of the "Yosemite Firefall" phenomena were recently circulated around social media. This is a natural phenomena that only occurs in late February due to the precise angles of the sun that are required to create this effect, and then still only occurs if it's been warm enough for the waterfall to flow due to melting snow, and then only if the western sky is clear for the setting sun to illuminate the falls. If everything comes together perfectly, the falls will illuminate during late-February only, making for a spectacular scene. If you've only got one night in Yosemite and want to capture this, you need good luck for everything to come together when you're there. Otherwise, you need persistence! Sometimes you have to make your own luck, by simply refusing to give up, and getting out there day after day. 

And always have your camera with you and ready to go! You never know when you'll just stumble upon something amazing and breathtaking, like a tropical shower with a rainbow in the middle of it, while flying in the middle of the Caribbean! If you don't have your camera with you, or it's not handy, you'll mess spectacular photo opportunities like these.

Mt Rainier is almost never this clear, but the day we were there we lucked out with crystal clear weather. We had an amazing day hiking, and taking in all of the sights and sounds of Mt Rainier National Park with absolutely perfect weather.

A view off of my deck. How many times in nearly 10 years of living where I do had I seen both a rain shower and a sunset at the same time? Twice. And I captured the other one, too! 

The famous Pitons in St Lucia, from the Ladera Resort. Lighting, Location, and Perspective are certainly in play here as well! The more things that come together in a photo, the more amazing it will be!

A rainbow in the middle of a tropical shower in the Caribbean from the air, and on our side of the plane. This only lasted a few seconds as we were flying by, and it was spectacular. Always have your camera with you and ready!

The Right Brushes

Portraiture and selective focus with a full-frame Canon 5D Mark II DSLR, and a 135mm f/2L prime lens.

Even the girls in the Girl Scout troop noticed how the background was completely blurred out in this portrait of my son, and asked how you do that. This is called selective focus, and is a matter of the format being used to take the photograph, and then lens physics. The larger the photographic format that you're using, the longer the focal length of the lens, and the larger the lens aperture, the smaller your depth of field will be (area in focus), which is what leads to these eye-popping portraits. This photo was taken with a full-frame Canon 5D Mark II camera (a larger format than most DSLR cameras, which are "half-frame" APS-C format), and I used a longer focal length large aperture prime lens, the Canon 135mm f/2L, which is about the best portrait lens that there is.

You can't get photos like these with a phone camera, or even most compact cameras, which typically use very tiny sensors and are extremely small formats. For portraits like these, you need an interchangeable lens camera system (which are much larger formats in terms of sensor size), and a longer focal length lens, preferably with a fast aperture, in order to achieve the razor thin selective focus required to create a portrait like this. These are the 3D eye-popping photos that I knew I wanted to be able to make before I even bought my first DSLR camera, and I eventually acquired the very best lenses to do this with. The snowflake photo below was also taken with this same Canon 135mm f/2L lens. The idea is to manually focus mid-field somewhere, and at a large aperture (to minimize depth of field), so that you have a razor thin slice of snowflakes coming down that are in focus, with everything else being yanked out of focus. 

Canon 7D Mark II and 135mm f/2L lens creating selective focus. Only a very thin layer of snowflakes are in focus, and everything else in front and behind is blurred out of focus.

But you don't need to spend way too much money on high-end photographic gear to get photos like these! The little Canon Rebel T2i with a 50mm f/1.8 lens above is capable of doing the same, and is a great way to get started!

I've been acquiring and buying and selling DSLR camera gear for 10 years now, and I've never had a 400mm lens until now. It's a new focal length to explore, with new artistic possibilities. I've never been able to get detailed moon photos like these, and am loving this new brush in my bag. Super long lenses such as the Canon 100-400mm have also long been a favorite for those into remote controlled hobbies, as the huge zoom range allows for a relatively small object to fill the frame nicely. Want some really nice baby panda photos at the zoo? A super long telephoto lens will have you covered. ;-)

Moonrise, with a Canon 7D Mark II and a Canon 100-400mm lens.

Joint Base Andrews Air Show 2015, Thunderbirds Aerial Demonstration, Canon 7D Mark II and 100-400mm lens

Remote control Lamborghini Murciélago, with a Canon 7D Mark II and Canon 100-400mm lens.

Joint Base Andrews Air Show 2015, F-22 Raptor Aerial Demonstration, Canon 7D Mark II and 100-400mm lens

What's Six Inches Behind the Camera

The thing that matters most of all for getting great photos, is what's six inches behind your camera. That's you! :) It's your vision, and your creativity, and your desire to get to interesting places, or to explore other perspectives, that will drive your ability to make interesting photos. You can spend many thousands of dollars on photography gear, and take nothing but lousy photographs. Your own creativity and artistic vision are what drives everything else! If all you have or use is a phone camera, there's absolutely no reason why you can't get a ton of great photos just with that.

Photo Credit: Natalie L Way, iPhone 6s Plus

My friend Natalie took this photo of her daughter out in the snow with an iPhone, and I thought it was perfect. She's actually a brilliant photographer who has the knack, but her phone is all she ever uses, despite the fact that she has fancier cameras! Merely using an iPhone doesn't stop her from getting great photos. The composition is great, the timing is perfect with the snow being flung, and the lighting was wonderful too, with the sun near setting. A lot of great things all came together in this photo, taken with a mere phone camera!

Similarly, I was at a concert recently, and the only cameras that were allowed were phone cameras. I wished I could have snuck a fancier camera and some nicer lenses in, but I worked with what I had, and it didn't stop me from getting some pretty cool photos. A phone is not what I would consider a proper tool to photograph a dark concert with! But I had a great location above the crowd, paid attention to timing, the lighting, and eventually created a few decent photos through sheer persistence!  I actually ran out of memory on my phone, and temporarily deleted a few apps so that I could keep taking more photos! 

Run what ya brung! SLAYER concert in Silver Spring, MD taken with just an iPhone 5s. This is a very technically flawed photo, but it's still a pretty cool photo!

Photography is an art. There's no right or wrong answer. It's all about what makes you smile, and what works for you. The possibilities are endless, and the biggest limitation is not the brushes you have to paint with, but with the person holding the brush, their creativity, and what they can imagine. 

Happy shooting! #photoglife