As I do a bit of retouching, I’m listening to film soundtracks. Slumdog Millionaire came on and is a favorite, though some ways down from The Last Samurai, mind you. However, it made me recall when some years ago, sitting with some family friends and ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ came on television. I noticed they didn’t even have a passing interest in it. I’d never thought it before, but of course they weren’t because they were two particularly wealthy people for whom having a bank balance with a 1 followed by 6 zeroes left of the decimal would be taking a significant step backwards. Not photographers, in other words.

At first it made me grin, and then it made me grimace, with a sort of wry amusement. I know the educational path they’d taken, and I know it cost many hundreds of thousands of greenbacks for them to navigate it, and for them, it made sense. It was rational, and truly to get to where they are in their chosen fields, there was no alternative. They couldn’t ‘wing it’, and the only way to ‘life hack’ it was to go to the right schools, to meet & marry the right person, with the right father. It was old-money thinking in an old-money business where it took lots of money to make lots more.


But that was then, and this is now, and whilst having a bank balance bigger than our bank account number isn’t in the future of most photographers, it also doesn’t mean it’s not done, and more than that, you don’t need bags of money to go further in your work.

Of course, the caveat, without being too pedantic, is that in photography, you do need to spend some money on gear because it’s not like painting where the same brushes and paints were used by master and pupil. In photography, certain things do what others can’t, and yes that will affect your pictures. Your 11-16mm f/2.8 isn’t going to render a similar image as a 70-200, however, here are 3 things to do and think about to improve your images and your overall work that you can afford even if your purse is as empty as a hermit’s address book.

Use MakeUp

Well, not you per se, but if you’re shooting people, have your subjects use it, male or female. With men, it depends much on the scenario and what the work is for, but for women, I tend to always recommend it. You don’t need to have a professional MUA necessarily, though it helps, and if you don’t, you either need to be adept at doing it yourself, in your instruction, and your subject must have the ability to execute those instructions.


The obvious reason for this you’ll typically hear is for the benefit of retouching, and there’s no denying it. Having a good makeup job done pre-shoot will make post-shoot that much easier and timely. I can’t stress enough just how much makeup matters in this way, but there’s another side to it, and that’s how much more comfortable and confident your subjects will be when they are wearing it. And a confident subject is a god send.

I feel it pertinent to interject here that the makeup needn’t be necessarily intense depending on the type of imagery you’re going for. It could be as simple as concealer and brow gel. If I had to tell you to keep anything on you as a photographer, it would be under eye concealer in various shades for your subjects. Famous Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated model Daniela Pestova once said it’s makeup for under the eyes that makes the biggest difference to your look, and I agree; it’s useful for concealing other skin issues, too.

A huge part of executing a good shoot is effectively communicating with your clients, and being able to evoke a feeling and look, and get them to emote. Your job is a hundred times more difficult when your subject is demure and shy, and your images won’t hide it. Makeup has the ability to positively transform someone’s confidence and persona, and that makes it powerful. We all feel good when we feel we look our best, and it’s incredibly powerful if this can be achieved under your direction. It not only makes the client feel empowered, but gives you credibility in their eyes.

Tune Your Autofocus

On the more gear and physically technical side, there’s learning to tune your autofocus. If you’re looking for one of those ‘a-ha’ moments in photography and you haven’t ever yet fine-tuned your AF, do it. There’s a broad misconception that when camera manufacturers create a lens, even like the most expensive ones you own, they are shipped matched perfect and flawlessly built. This is not the case, and even if it were, that would change after use. If you’re noticing trouble nailing focus on a lens or too much softness, don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s your camera’s system, as far more often, it’s your lens that needs tuning.


Your lens likely has a multitude of moving elements and mechanisms, and like anything else, they can become improperly functioning. Most insidious, actually, is when they’re not blatantly off, but just ever so minutely that you can’t tell from your viewfinder or rear LCD, and then you get home and realize you’ve done the entire shoot focused on the farthest eye, or the nose, or on something that’s close but not what you need. This is a tragedy, makes you look incompetent, and that’s just a shame when lens calibration is rather simple and inexpensive to do. For around $25 dollars and a few minutes of your time, you can tune your lenses so you have total confidence when it’s show time.

Image cred: Jay Cassario

Check out this article from colleague and friend Jay Cassario of Twisted Oaks Studio on the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’.

Get Niche

If you think your work isn’t gaining enough recognition or traction because you’re not technically proficient, you could be right, so use Photography 101 or whatever to fix that. However, at the end of the day, if you studied and practiced and experienced enough to be as entirely technically exemplary as one could be, you would not find yourself alone, but still amongst a crowd. There’s a ceiling you’ll generally hit when you’re technically good enough, and there are more people who are at that level than you may imagine. This isn’t to discourage you, but rather to shift your thinking to be more vertically and laterally integrated.


What this point is there to illustrate is that if you are busting your tail and want to be noticed but it’s not happening, it’s likely not your technical ability that’s holding you back, but rather your vision. If you’re serious about photography, and you’re going after a certain level of client, or any client, let’s cut the crap and put it out there that there’s an expectation that you are capable of doing the work and executing it. That, to a client, is something understood and assumed when you show up. Think of it as applying for a medical residency up against lots of people with exactly the same qualifications – there’s an understanding that you have the essentials like a medical degree, and thus it’s something else that must separate you.


And that’s the key word, ‘separate’. You shouldn’t aim to be technically better, but to be different in a sea of people who are all capable of executing the same shots. What separates you? How’s your stuff gonna stick? Getting anything to stick in this saturated and slippery world isn’t easy, especially when porn and Facebook are all a click way. It’s your creative vision that’s your currency. One of the ways to highlight said vision and separate (since there’s little new under the sun), is to find a niche. I’ll likely be speaking more about this in the future, but understand that the more niche you go, the smaller the pond, and the likelihood rises that you become a bigger fish in that pond, and get more attention.