I have a secret to tell you: You don’t need an expensive camera. Don’t get me wrong, I love my big digital camera, huge lenses and all. I love taking photos too. It’s a hobby as well as part of my job. But it’s a myth that a “real” camera instantly makes all photos better. Sure, there are some photographs only possible with big lenses and a real camera, but these situations are less common than you’d think.
A good photographer can take award-winning photos with whatever camera is available. Or to put it another way, your photos aren’t going to get better just because you have an expensive camera. Anyone can make sounds with a guitar, but you have to learn how to make music with it, and it takes a lot of work to master it. A camera is the same.
Before you spend money on a new camera, try improving the photos you take with your current camera or phone. You may be happy enough with the results that you’ll skip the new camera completely.
How to line up that perfect shot
While there are no “rules” with photography, there are certainly “good practices” worth learning. For example, unless you’re specifically going for symmetry with the background, try placing your subject off-center. In the camera settings, enable grid lines. These will help you line up a more visually interesting shot.
Try different angles. Dogs, for instance, look way cuter if you photograph them from their eye line. Photograph children from that same low point of view, they’ll look hilariously huge. Adults generally look better with the camera positioned slightly above them. Looking down at a camera puffs out the chin and neck, and no one looks good like that.
Try different distances and positioning. Instead of capturing your family with Big Ben far in the background, you’ll have a more interesting shot with the clock tower close behind or towering above them. Photographs with people especially benefit from being close to the camera.
When outside, try to shoot with the sun behind you, as the light will be better. As for timing, the best light is the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, the so-called “Golden Hour.” Want to get that epic photo of your partner on the beach in Fiji? That’s probably the best time to take it. The worst will be midday, with the strong light coming from directly above.
Also, turn off the flash. Only use it if you absolutely have to. Most modern phones and cameras can take decent photos in pretty low light, and your shots will look better if the flash is off. Even so, check the result after you’ve snapped a photo. It’s possible there’s not enough light, and you can adjust.
How to make your photos shine before your share them
The next tool in your photography toolbox are free photo editing apps and software, like Adobe’s Photoshop Express, Google’s Snapseed and even the manual adjustments in Instagram. They all allow you to easily change the look of a photo, often dramatically. Yes, there are stock filters everyone uses on their photos, but play with the toggles and see what each setting does. It may seem daunting at first, but basic adjustments are easy and make a big difference.
Nearly every photo will benefit from subtle tweaks to contrast, brightness, shadows and saturation. If you’re not sure what those terms mean, check out the apps and experiment with some of your own photos. On my Instagram account, I adjust my photos to be more visually interesting, a sort of idealized version of what you’d see in real life. Everyone has their own style, though. As you experiment, you’ll start to figure out yours, and that variety and personalization are what makes photography awesome.
Don’t be afraid to experiment
Experimenting is the key, no matter what camera you’re using. For every amazing image a professional photographer takes, there will be hundreds, probably thousands, of images that are terrible and never see the light of day. Like everything, this takes practice and experimentation to see what works.
If you still want a fancy camera for your trip though, buy it well in advance to understand how it works. Play with the settings extensively. A complex camera left in “Auto” mode isn’t going to be much different than the camera on a mid- to high-end phone. Maybe it will be a little better at night, or offer a real zoom, but this mode is like owning an expensive guitar and not using half the strings.
Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products, has multiple camera suggestions. I recommend one of the smaller ones with a decent optical zoom (digital zooms on most phones are basically useless). A good small camera with myriad manual adjustments is an excellent tool to learn photography. Once you master that, you’ll know exactly what you want in a full-size, interchangeable-lens camera.
Oh, and one last crucial tip for phones and cameras alike: Make sure your lenses are clean. Nothing ruins a photo more than a smudgy lens.
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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.