Improve Your Photography by Getting Back to Basics

June 18, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 13 Comments | |
Improve Your Photography by Getting Back to Basics Image

Another person commented, “I can’t even hope to create pictures like Tom’s because I am only using 35mm…he’s using medium and large format cameras.” The size of the format doesn’t matter; it’s what you do with it that makes the difference. It’s even possible to make great pictures with a camera phone. I was using the larger formats at the time because of client requirements and I still use large format, though more selectively, mainly because I enjoy using a view camera.

Now with the advancement of technology we have a level playing field. The quality and capability that DSLR’s now provide is astonishing. It has opened up creative possibilities in my photography. I can now achieve images that before I wouldn’t have even bothered to get the camera out of the bag.

Recently, I was photographing a well-known coastal landscape, that in the years prior to digital, there would be several photographers using medium or large format cameras mounted on tripods. Yes, of course, there would be lots of tourist’s handholding their compacts or 35mm cameras, but now the tables have turned. A majority of the photographers had tripod mounted DSLR’s and these tended to be medium or high end DSLR’s. There was only one person shooting medium format film.

For the most part, we are all using the same cameras now so we should all be creating great images, right? Remember, it’s not the camera that makes the pictures; it’s the person behind it. Starting with a good understanding of the basics of photography is much more important than buying the latest gear on the market. Putting these principles into practice on a regular basis will then hopefully become second nature.

Oh, there is one secret that I learned when I was starting out. Knowing when not to make a picture.

Get Back to Basics


Tom Mackie has been a photographer all his working life. His degree in commercial photography took him first of all to Los Angeles, where he spent five years as an industrial and architectural photographer. It was during this period that he travelled widely in the Western States, discovering in himself a previously unknown fervour for the beauty of those vast ‘cinemascope’ panoramas. After that, the confines of a Los Angeles commercial studio were never going to hold him. Tom married his art to this new-found passion and embarked on a ‘til death-do-us-part’ relationship with landscape photography.

Moving to the UK in 1985, he pursued a full-time career as a landscape photographer. Working with digital, panoramic and large format equipment, Tom’s understanding of light and bold use of colour became a hallmark that established his reputation.

"My aim from the first was to develop a clearly defined style of my own: by simplifying images down to their basic elements, I consciously attempt to give my compositions more power."

Calendar, book and magazine work followed from a wide network of clients. Architectural and travel commissions added to his repertoire and his role as one of the country’s leading landscape photographers was sealed by his inclusion in ‘The World’s Top Photographers: Landscape’, published by Rotovision.

His talents have also won accolades from The British Institute of Professional Photographers, the Ilford Awards and Business Calendar Awards.

Tom Mackie has had two books published by David & Charles: a best-selling ‘Photos With Impact’, ‘Tom Mackie’s Landscape Photography Secrets’ and his latest book ‘Digital SLR Experts: Landscape’ is a collaboration with four other top photographers.

He has written numerous articles for photography magazines and lectures to other professionals on the art of landscape photography. Tom regularly holds photographic workshops in the UK and abroad.

Entry Tags

photos, photography, landscape, digital, technique, landscapes, film, improve, Tom Mackie, back to basics, basics, rules, fundamentals

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#1 Erick @ Photocrati Photography Blog

Here, here. The principles of lighting (amount, type, direction) and composition, two powerful factors in any great photo, don’t change as we move to digital. Mastery of those allows you to create great photos with any camera, film or digital.

That said, I do think digital has changed a lot. It’s rapidly accelerated people’s learning curve. I think it’s much more forgiving, since it’s so easy to adjust photos digitally - adjusting light (at least amount and white balance) and even composition through cropping. As a related downside, I think the flexibility of post processing actually makes people a bit lazier about the fundamentals above.


3:32 pm - Thursday, June 18, 2009

#2 Robert

Great article, clear and simple, just as what he explain in it. There is not secret and like I always say to people who begin with photography, everything is in the light and in the photographer. I know people who jump from nothing to expert and pro cameras without knowing what is an… ISO… The basics, the basics please!

5:23 pm - Thursday, June 18, 2009

#3 Alesha

Wow, what a great shot! I love the way the light hits the trees and the house on the edge of the cliff.

7:23 pm - Thursday, June 18, 2009

#4 Shayne

I like the article, and you are right Erick, too many people rely on post processing now to make a shot. Now don’t get me wrong, I also do the same… but when you talk about getting back to the basics and then show an image of a starfish on the beach being hit by water that is totally montaged (two images added together) I think you are misleading and not completely telling the readers the truth about your work.
I have been doing retouching and digital montage for other photographers, for eight years, and that image ‘screams’ mistakes in both photoshop and physics!
Get back to basics you say…!

12:22 am - Friday, June 19, 2009

#5 Vic Pellicier

Good article, and I agree, but not to many photographers who are any good are straying to far from these ideas, this article is pretty basic. Which I guess in this case is a good thing.

Not sure what the guy above me is talking about though. Speaking dogmatically like that makes no sense.

7:20 am - Friday, June 19, 2009

#6 Mei Teng

I enjoyed your article. Great write up and very good tips! Thanks for sharing.

12:19 pm - Friday, June 19, 2009

#7 Olivier_G

“Knowing when not to make a picture” is probably the best way to improve your skills in photography.

But it is more difficult today because digital tends to make you ponder this issue afterwards, just because “it’s free”.

Very interesting/basic ;) article. Thank you.

10:38 pm - Saturday, June 20, 2009

#8 Evan

No one is taking issue with the comment about man not landing on the moon? Is this a common belief on this site?

8:05 am - Monday, June 22, 2009

#9 Keith

Photography is still photography. THe basics are unchanged from what I learned 60 years ago when just about everything was manual - I still have the old circular slide rule type exposure caculator I had before I could afford a light meter. What has changed is the means of storing the information the camera collects and how to deal with it. Instead of using filters to allow for different light sources, we change the White Balance, instead of messing about with chemicals in the dark, we use a computer and as I have only recently got a DSLR after having my main 35mm SLR stolen I’m busy learning all the new procedures - and it’s a steep learning curve!

11:24 pm - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

#10 Tom Mackie

This is exactly what I am talking about Shayne. By understanding the basics of photography and executing them with passion, great results are possible without the need for a lot of post processing in Photoshop. Even with digital I like to get a straight image whenever possible otherwise I become more of a computer technician than a photographer. The starfish on the beach is a straight image (no montage)that shows if you become familiar with your subject, images like this are possible.


4:20 pm - Thursday, June 25, 2009


Just a little ramble:

Thanks Tom for the great article. I’m going to email it to some friends of mine. I’ve had some great film cameras over the last 30 years and have taken some great photos. I finally decided to get a point and shoot digital camera and that camera let me take some great photos as well.

I certainly appreciate your reiterating that it’s the photographer that takes the picture not the camera. I recently bought a whiz-bang semi pro camera at I’m able to take good photos with it as well. I was at a couple of 4 July parties last week and several people noticed the new camera and said that they couldn’t wait to get a camera like mine so they could take good pictures too.

I couldn’t convince them that they could take great pictures with the camera they have. I offered to trade cameras for a few pics but they declined. Hopefully they will take my parting advice and go out somewhere, even in their yard or neighborhood, and try to take some pictures they like. Just taking snapshots a few times a year at parties usually won’t do it.

OK, I’m no Tom Mackie by a long shot. When I shoot film, I’m still amazed that anything turns out at all… good or bad! When a picture turns out great and looks like what I wanted a picture of, that’s just icing on the cake.

With digital, I have to fight getting lazy. It’s easy to throw the camera up, snap, and look at the results and then try again. I have to take a deep breath and remember to take more time to compose the shot, switch over to manual exposure sometimes and think about how much a lousy shot would cost if I was using film.

Thanks for the Blog,


8:09 pm - Thursday, July 9, 2009

#12 Nathan Griffin

Great article and comments from others.  Keeping it simple is so beneficial not just in composition, but also in workflow and even equipment choice.  I fully planned on getting several (2-3) lenses for use with my new DSLR, but finances have only allowed one medium zoom.  That is one of the best things to happen to me - allows me to go for specific compositions for that focal range and not fiddle with what’s in a bag.

9:08 pm - Friday, February 12, 2010

#13 Skunks

Very good article.
After acquiring the G11 I’m trying to apply these principles where I can.

12:40 am - Wednesday, September 29, 2010