How I drastically improved my photography with just 2 little decisions

How I drastically improved my photography with just 2 little decisions

Manuel Becker Manuel Becker in Tips & Tricks
7 min read
Photo by Manuel Becker

The question I get asked the most is: "Wow, nice pic! Which cam are you using?" Does this sound familiar? Every time I heard this question I used to answer in the same way, telling people which camera I was using, but that it didn't really matter in my opinion. And here is why...

Beginners and hobby photographers usually expect that if they can only save enough money to buy much better equipment this will improve their results in a linear way. That's maybe the reason why so many people are buying DSLR cameras without knowing or even without having an open mind to learning how to use them. You recognize this type of photographer pretty easily while they are using a flash in auto mode to brighten up the whole skyline of New York. ;-)
I understand that behavior because all of us want to take great pictures without having to invest too much work at first or at all. I also started my landscape and cityscape photography like this until I realized that there is no need to understand all these settings and things your camera is doing for you until you really want to get creative. For me or for most of us it's essential to understand the difference between settings like f/4.5 and f/11 because we might have a certain type of style in mind but if you are new to photography and you just want to get a great picture it may not matter as much as you may think.

I was processing an image I took this year in New York as I thought that it could be very interesting to look back at my older pictures and see how I and my type of photography have changed. I already visited this spot in 2012 for the first time, so this is the perfect comparison. The look of both images is completely different and in my eyes a huge improvement in quality, which got me thinking about the reason why there is such a huge gap between 2012 and 2014.

How I drastically improved my photography with just 2 little decisions

The difference between 2012 (top) and 2014 (bottom) without any significant gear changes.

It's all about the gear - wrong!

As I saw these 2 images I was thinking about the equipment I was using 2 years ago and I realized that I was using the exact same camera and even the exact same lens. The only thing I replaced was my very cheap and heavy tripod, which I should have done years ago to save weight and strained nerves. Besides that, I learned how to use my camera, dropped into that typical HDR hole for a while, and decided to improve my post-processing afterward because I didn't like these extreme unrealistic results. I read so many articles, books, and everything I could find about photography, watched many YouTube channels from other professional photographers, or just tried out new things to get better. In retrospect I see and understand all these little "mistakes" I made and know how to fix them but the most important insight I had is: that I improved without new photography gear. Actually, the opposite is true as I focused on using just one single lens and on doing landscape photography only. The nice side effect was a much lighter backpack, which made longer trips much more enjoyable for me and left more time for getting a great shot with the equipment in my hands instead of changing lenses all the time.

All you need for landscape photography

I said that gear doesn't matter for beginners or hobby photographers in most cases, which is true as long as you have a minimum to work with. In my opinion, only these 3 things are essential:

  1. Camera is able to shoot RAW format
  2. Camera is able to change the f-stop manually
  3. A good tripod (ideally with remote control for your camera to prevent shakes while pressing the shutter button)

Forget about megapixels for a while and don't try to start with ND filters and don't make up a reason for yourself to get a full-frame camera to get a better image quality for your star trail shots. These are all great techniques to get a certain type of result, but they won't improve your photography at all if you are still a beginner.

How I drastically improved my photography with just 2 little decisions

Cranehouses in Cologne, Germany

Decision 1 - Focus on just one thing

Before focusing on just one part of all these completely different types of photography, I just tried out the full range of themes by doing macro photography (bought a currently unused 70-300mm lens for that), and tried so many diverse long time exposures, started to shoot people, etc...

To cut a long story short, I wanted to try everything but I never had the chance to improve because every photo needed a completely different mindset and other technical aspects. My advice for you is to start focussing right now. I liked landscape photography the most so my decision for just one single lens led me to a 17-50mm. If you love portrait photography it may be another one based on what's important for you to start with. As I was only shooting with this minimal gear, I noticed that my view for good perspectives got so much better and even my people photography made a huge passive improvement. I only noticed this after I was asked to shoot at a wedding this year. I was very surprised about the results and even told the bridal couple before that they shouldn't expect too much as I hadn’t taken portrait photos in a long time (and to be honest they were really bad at that time). And guess what – I only used this one lens again that I am very familiar with by now. Fewer opportunities but much more time to focus on the important aspects and timings of a wedding for me as a beginner in wedding photography.

How I drastically improved my photography with just 2 little decisions

Manarola, Cinque Terre

Decision 2 - Learn how to post-process your images

After focusing on just one thing in terms of getting a good shot I also decided to improve my post-processing. As a professional web designer and product manager, I have been working with Adobe Photoshop for years but this was a completely different workflow. In theory, I knew all the basics of how to use this complex software, but not how to post-process my images in the right way. The most important first step for many photographers is to stop considering Photoshop or similar software as cheating, that's simply not the case. The human eye (and brain) for example is able to adapt very fast to high dynamic ranges, but the camera isn’t. This is why people started doing HDRI in the first place. Most of the time I see my resulting images and remember the mood of the original scene in a completely different way. Colors often vary from what I remember and felt while I was experiencing an amazing sunset for example. Post-processing gives me and all of you the opportunity to bring back everything which got lost in your photo. This is why it is so important to shoot RAW images because they contain and keep much more details you can restore if you want. How much you have to "fix in Photoshop" mostly depends on your raw data, but since I learned so much stuff my personal preferences about what's a really important change in a huge way to the following order:

  1. Timing & Location
    Take your photos at the right time at the right spot with an amazing sunset or during blue hour and your results will be at least on a pretty decent level.
  2. Postprocessing
    The way you tune the final result mostly depends on your personal style. Have you ever seen an image and instantly knew who took it? It may be the clothing etc. in portrait photography, but for landscapes, it's mostly defined by the way you process your image.
  3. Taking the photo
    Unless you are completely destroying the photo by using the wrong focus to get very unsharp results or by setting your f-stop to 2.8 for landscapes you can't fail in this part. That's the most important part to understand in my opinion! Excellent professional photographers don't get the best results because they have the best and most expensive gear, but because they know the best timing to get a great shot and how to process this raw data.
How I drastically improved my photography with just 2 little decisions

Park near John Hancock Center in Chicago, USA


Even if you haven't just found your passion for photography it's a good start to focus on something to improve your skills in this tiny scope. Looking back you will notice much bigger steps, which will also pay dividends for your entire photography knowledge and results.
If you already own a decent camera and you are currently thinking of investing your money into the next generation you should think twice about what you are trying to achieve. I would never keep an advanced wedding photographer from buying a new f1.8 lens if there is currently only an f4 available, but most of the time you would be far better of without more equipment. If you aren't using Adobe Lightroom (or Capture One), Adobe Photoshop, or these amazing Nik and Topaz filters yet, you should initially think about investing in your post-processing quality and learn how to use these tools.

Comments (24)

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Edward 26.01.2023
That was a good read, Manuel, thank you. I should have gotten to it sooner. As for whether post-processing is cheating… all digital cameras post-process the data captured by the sensor to produce the JPG, GIF etc but the settings are chosen by the manufacturer to suit most situations; the engineer who configures it has no idea what image you are going to capture witgh the camera and is therefore unlikely to make as good a job as the photographer of translating the raw data into an image. This is what I tell myself. As for personal styles, there are two photographers in this community whose images are especially instantly recognisable. In one case, I’ve watched in admiration over the years as the photographer improved. I wish I knew what training courses made the difference.
Manuel Becker Team
Manuel Becker 26.01.2023
Couldn't agree more dear Edward. Especially if you compare the outcome of a Sony with a Nikon or Canon or Fuji... when I was on photo tours with friends, every image looked totally different even if the settings were similar. So it's definitely up to you to decide what the scene should look like and how much you want to retouch. There are so many photos that are barely retouched and look amazing while astrophotography simply always needs to be retouched because the sensor can't capture everything in one photo. Hope you had a great start to 2023!
Yves L.
Yves L. 28.11.2022
I am lately reading this article. Very interesting and very close to my own experience. There are already a lot to learn with entry level stuffs, especially for landscapes.
Manuel Becker Team
Manuel Becker 28.11.2022
Fully agree and learning too much at once can feel overwhelming. But I think that's true for everything in life and mastering one thing before starting the next step feels always so satisfying to me because it makes everything easier in the future. For me learning how to code an iOS and Android app was actually quite easy because I was very experienced with 80% of the techniques already and only had to learn a small part. And for landscape photography, it's super important not to forget to enjoy the views and being there instead of trying too much stuff.
Jarne S
Jarne S 28.11.2022
Same for me, just made me realize that i shouldn't think so much about how bad i want full format, but more about what i can do with my current camera
i believe this is an amazing observation thanks so much for sharing your thoughts....
Manuel Becker Team
Manuel Becker 16.01.2021
You are welcome dear Ronald. Thank you as well for leaving your feedback, really appreciate that. :-)
Hanaa Turkistani
Hanaa Turkistani 31.07.2020
very clever and good article manuel thanks 4 share!
Manuel Becker Team
Manuel Becker 31.07.2020
Thank you for your feedback dear Hanaa! Hope all is well with you and have a great weekend!
Manuel Becker Team
Manuel Becker 31.07.2020
Oh, that sounds awesome. Feel free to write me at any time if you have any questions or need help with anything.
Hanaa Turkistani
Hanaa Turkistani 31.07.2020
highly appreciate it sure :)
Jolanda Van Velzen
Jolanda Van Velzen 25.02.2018
Thank you Manual for this practical advice. Since a little bit over a year I became interested in landscapephotography. But also the approach of taking pictures of landscapes can be very diverse. I’m still struggling with what I want to achieve with my images. Have you an advice for me how I can discover my own identity? Is this easier for an other person to see, because I’m so engaged with my pictures? I’m glad to hear the camera doesn’t make the difference. When I participate in a workshop, others look disapprovingly at my little Olympus camera E-M10 Mark Zero! :)
Manuel Becker Team
Manuel Becker 25.02.2018
Hey Jolanda, glad that you liked the advice and I hope it might benefit you in the future. I guess everybody needs to find his/her own way of improving at something, but being focused and putting the effort into it is in my opinion still the best way for nearly everything. I also know the feeling about your struggles. I had the same issue until I set myself a goal, which was to develop the best possible solution for photographers around to world to find all these beautiful places, so this also includes that I had to visit quite a lot of them in the beginning myself and I still do and just love this part about photography. There is nothing better for me to enjoy these amazing places during the best time possible and see nature at its best. If the result from that day wasn't that good, it's just not important to me, because the moment is something that I enjoyed and photography is only my source of motivation to get up early to get that magical moment in time instead of going there during the day. As you can see I am not that focused anymore about my photos, but about the moment itself. If you are just at the beginning, it's just important to be curious about anything, try different things and if you found something you like, to focus about that if you really want to get better at it. This might also help you to find a goal and something my favourite professor taught me at university was: "If you want to write a dissertation, which requires years of hard work, write a small letter to yourself with reasons why you are doing this and please don't add money here, because this will fail." And yeah, having a great camera is helping and nice and everything, but there are so many photographers out there, shooting amazing photos with their smartphones. The question for me would be: Would a better gear make me a lot happier or improve my photos by quite a lot? I would often say no, because it's also not a Ferrari you will practice driving in and which would make learning so much more frustrating. When I changed my bigger Canon 7D to a smaller Sony because I really wanted to travel as light as possible, I get asked so much rarer if I could take a selfie for somebody... So everything has its advantages... ;-) Good luck with your adventures!
orange snapper
orange snapper 15.04.2016
Very helpful advice. Thank you. I am a hobby photographer struggling whether to get a better camera "which I thought" now I have a different perspective.
Manuel Becker Team
Manuel Becker 16.04.2016
Hope that this other perspective helps you! Try it and compare your results so that you get a feeling if this helps you, but usually a better camera doesn't make your photos better, because it's nearly never that I would say that a photo is bad because of too much noise when the image itself is great... you know what I mean? If you are a professional photographer and you need the output quality of a really expensive camera... well this may be something else, but that's usually not the case even if we all love to buy new equipment. I will try to write more articles with specific tips to get better, so I hope they will help you too! All the best and keep learning!! :)
Ralf Lune
Ralf Lune 10.04.2016
Wunderbarer Artikel. Leider hat es mich rund 30 Jahre fotografischer Zeit gekostet, um festzustellen, dass die Reduzierung auf ein Minimum der Schlüssel ist. Eigentlich hätte man es eher erkennen müssen: vor allem Leica zeigt seit Jahrzehnten, vor allem in Zeiten analoger Fotografie, dass man eine "kleine" Kamera der M-Serie und ein lichtstarkes Objektiv braucht und sonst nichts. Ich habe vor Monaten den Schritt gewagt: seit ich ein 35mm / f1,4 Objektiv und RAW für mich entdeckt habe, kommt kaum noch was anderes auf meine Kamera.
Ralf Lune
Ralf Lune 10.04.2016
Translation with the help of Mr. Google :-) Wonderful article . Unfortunately, it took me about 30 years of photographic time to determine that the reduction to a minimum is the key . Actually, I should have seen it sooner : especially Leica shows for decades , especially in times of analog photography, that a " small " camera M series and a good lens is all one needs. Months ago I have discovered a 35mm / f1.4 lens and RAW for me, since then I don't need anything else for my camera.
Manuel Becker Team
Manuel Becker 10.04.2016
Vielen lieben Dank Ralf. Ich kann dir der Einfachheit halber auch einfach auf Deutsch antworten ;-) 35mm wären mir für Landschaften glaube ich schon zu viel da ich es liebe möglichst viel im Bild einzufangen, aber ich finde es klasse das du diesen Schritt gemacht hast und sobald man das Gefühl für genau diese Kombination entwickelt hat kann man ja immer noch eine zweite Linse dazu nehmen. Wichtig ist es denke ich sich auf jeden Fall zu fokussieren um das Maximum aus dem gegebenen Equipment raus zu holen. Danke für dein Feedback!! :)
Ana Carolina Corneau
Ana Carolina Corneau 06.04.2016
I really like your articles. Please do it more. I'll be very happy if you make one telling us about your post processing techniques. :)
Manuel Becker Team
Manuel Becker 10.04.2016
Thank you very much dear Ana for your feedback. Post processing is already on my list I want to write about in the future, so stay tuned! :)
Paul Gabronis
Paul Gabronis 19.03.2016
Nice! looks like I'm not only one thinking this way ;)
Manuel Becker Team
Manuel Becker 19.03.2016
Yeah, welcome to the club dear Paul! :) I really appreciate your feedback, thank you!
Olga Dorovska
Olga Dorovska 28.02.2016
Thank You, Manuel, for these useful advices!
Manuel Becker Team
Manuel Becker 28.02.2016
You are welcome dear Olga, I am glad that you like them! :)
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