I am amazed by the image quality that is possible by today’s digital cameras. It wasn’t that long ago that you had to invest thousands of dollars to get a DSLR with decent, much less “pro”, image quality. Now you can get a nice DSLR with a zoom lens for well under a thousand dollars. Of course it won’t have all of the bells and whistles of the more expensive models, but if you are just getting started you probably don’t need a lot of that stuff anyway. Even “low-end” DSLR’s will produce a beautiful image in good light.
When I’m making photos I am either looking for, or trying to make good light. I think you’ll find that most great photographs have great light. Kinda makes sense, right? The best landscape photos are usually made around sunrise or sunset because of the quality and angle of the light. The best portraits are made by carefully controlled light, whether it’s from strobes or natural light. Even street photography relies on finding both an interesting subject AND interesting light to shoot in.
Whether you have the latest $8k pro camera or a $400 Olympus PEN, learning to see and control light is the easiest way to improve your photography. You can obviously control light when you are using a flash. I would say that learning to use flash is the best way to improve your people pictures, but there are lots of other reasons to break out a speedlight. Once you are comfortable creating light the possibilities are endless.
How can you control natural light? You can use reflectors and diffusers to redirect or soften the light, but it can be much simpler than that. We can control natural light by some of the choices we make behind the camera. Where you place your subject and where you decide to shoot from determine how the light falls on your subject. Choosing whether to shoot in the shade or direct sunlight makes a huge impact on your image. For a subject you can’t move, like a landscape, you can choose what time of day you shoot so you have the best light on the subject.
Whatever tools you use to make photographs, shooting in the best light allows you to make the most of your equipment. Even your point-and-shoot pocket camera works best with good light. Learn to see the light and control your exposure before you decide to go for the big camera upgrade. I guess if you specialize in nighttime street photography this discussion would be a little different… and you might want to go ahead and save up for that new high ISO super-camera 🙂