Tips to get your fancy camera off the shelf and start taking more pictures

You bought that camera, so you might as well use it.
Person taking portrait with DSLR camera
Your smartphone can't do everything. Kane Reinholdtsen via Unspla

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A lot of people have a new-ish DSLR or mirrorless camera just sitting in a drawer. It’s just that there’s really not a pressing need for one—most of the time, your smartphone will be able to capture that photo you want, or you’ll be able to get close enough to the action that there’s actually no point in more camera power.

But, as much as smartphone cameras have evolved tremendously in the last few years, DSLR cameras still have the potential to take better photos—if you know how to use them.

Get yours out of the drawer and start shooting the photos that your smartphone can’t.

Learn to use it

Smartphones not only fit in your pocket, but they’re much easier to use than any DSLR. You don’t even have to unlock your phone: just open the camera app tap the shutter button, and bam!—you have a photo ready to upload to Instagram. Sure, you can put more thought into it and take as much time as you need, but even then, the process is still super straightforward.

What makes a DSLR more intimidating is that you have options—oh, so many options. You still might get good pictures using automatic mode and leaving things up to the camera to decide, but that sort of defeats the purpose of having a DSLR. If you’re bothering to carry a heavy camera, you might as well use a semi-automatic mode, like aperture priority, or even manual mode, for which you’ll have to think about the camera settings.

If your camera’s been sitting in the drawer for a while, right now you’re probably wondering if you even remember how to control it, which you’ll need to know if you want to take more photos with it. Get reacquainted with your camera by starting with the basics of exposure and its different exposure modes and controls—shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. I recommend you pick up a copy of Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure or a similar intro-to-photography book. Books are still the best way to really get a handle on things.

Once you’ve got a decent grasp on the basics of photography, grab your camera and spend some time just trying out different exposure settings—use the manual to learn how. You’ll want to get comfortable controlling your camera so you don’t have to think too much when you’re trying to take photos with it. There’s nothing worse than missing your perfect shot because you spent five minutes trying to get things set up for it—that’s why so many people just grab their phones.

Make it easy to bring around

Person carrying camera over the shoulder
Avoid the tourist look at all costs. Miss Zhang via Unsplash

Most people barely have to think about having their smartphone at hand. I know mine is seldom farther away than arm’s reach. Under the same principle, if you want to use your camera more, you need to make it easy to bring around too—even if it will never be as easy to carry as your smartphone.

The first thing is to look at what you’re actually carrying. You have the camera, but there’s also the lens. If you only have the kit lens that came with your camera, then you don’t have any other options. But, if you have other lenses, then you’ll need to choose between them. Although they’re bigger and heavier than single focal length prime lenses, zoom lenses are good candidates to win some coveted space in your bag—they’re more versatile and you’ll find it easier to take photos in more situations when using them. If you’re concerned about weight, I recommend you go with the smallest, lightest lens you can, at least in the beginning. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of carrying your camera about, you can make it bigger and heavier.

You also need some way to carry it comfortably. Sticking your camera in a bag is not a good option if you want to use it—just the effort required to take it off the and take the camera out is enough to deter most people. You’ll need to carry your camera somewhere you can grab it quickly—preferably turned on and with the lens cap removed.

Most people go straight for the neck strap that comes with their camera, but I find them awkward and barely fit-for-purpose—it also screams tourist. Instead, you should replace it with a more versatile strap that can be used as either a neck strap or over-the-shoulder sling strap. I really like the Slide strap from Peak Design—I’ve had it for about five years and it’s stood up to all the abuse I can throw at it—but any similar strap will do.

I also recommend carrying your camera over your shoulder—it will hang more comfortably by your side and it’ll always be ready to use. You’ll still notice it’s there, but it’ll sit closer to your body and less in the way than with a neck strap. You can also look at something like Peak Design’s Capture Clip if you want to firmly mount your camera to a bag strap or belt.

Schedule some time to take photos

Person looking at camera at sunset
Just imagine how frustrating it would be to not have your camera nearby for that beautiful sunset. Robert Richarz via Unsplash

As with everything you try to incorporate into your routine, if you don’t set aside time for it, it just won’t happen. With photography, it’s the same thing. This doesn’t mean you have to be strict in deciding on a specific time and day—although if you’re a structured person, that can actually work. Instead, make rules for when you’ll carry your camera with you. A few useful ideas:

  • Always take your camera with you when you walk your dog.
  • Take your camera with you whenever you leave the house on the weekends.
  • Leave your camera in your car and stop and take a photo whenever the light is good.
  • Spend one afternoon a month hiking somewhere to take a photo.

With rules like these, it’s important to focus on the act of taking photos rather than the photos themselves. And don’t use the weather as an excuse—even if it’s miserable outside, you should still bring your camera with you and challenge yourself to take photos in different light conditions. Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter if you don’t actually take any photos: just by having your camera with you, you’re forcing yourself to think about it, and if you see something worth photographing, you’ll definitely be ready.

Similarly, if you take a load of photos and none of them turn out to be particularly good, that’s okay, too—it’s all practice.

Push yourself with challenges

Photographer aiming camera upwards
Want a challenge? Take your camera with you on your daily commute and just look up. You’ll sure find great things to photograph you’d never seen before. Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Carrying your camera around with you is all well and good, but it can still be hard to find things to photograph, especially if you have a regular routine. Taking your dog on the same walk every day isn’t particularly helpful when you’re trying to find new things to shoot.

One of the best ways to push yourself to take pictures is with creative challenges, which can be anything you want. I originally got into photography by forcing myself to take a photo every day for a year. Some days they were quick snapshots of whatever was nearby but, at least some of the time, I put real thought into what I was doing. I learned a lot about photography that year.

Another option is to create a photo series. Document the same location as it changes through the seasons or pick a theme—like “love” or “a sense of place” or “football”—and create images related to it. Or if just thinking about it is giving you a headache, just go for one of these 40 photo challenges. Having even a small amount of direction will stop you from getting photographer’s block, and the very limitations will give you enough guidance so that you can focus on a certain amount of things at a time and not feel overwhelmed.

Just do it

Whatever way you look at it, there is one surefire way to take more photos with your DSLR: doing it. You can put all the effort you want into learning how to use your camera and coming up with ideas for photos, but unless you get out and take the damn photos, it’s all for nothing.

If you really want to take more pictures, close this tab, go get your camera, and take one today.