While quality gear may help in getting good pictures, it certainly is no guarantee. The right technique (and a good eye for composition) gets you much further. Even with “mediocre” equipment, a point well proven by Chase Jarvis in his book “The Best Camera Is The One That's With You: iPhone Photography by Chase Jarvis.” While all photos in this book were taken with a meagre 2 MegaPixel iPhone camera, they still look great…
Here are some more tips:
- (Always) use a lens hood. Lens hoods are designed to keep out stray light from entering the lens and influencing your picture (e.g., lowering contrast, producing flare, etc.). If you're looking towards the sun, you use your hand to shield your eyes too, don't you? Well, the lens hood does the same for your camera. And while the effects of stray light are most obvious outside on a sunny day, stray light can be everywhere. So, better to always use your lens hood to prevent possible problems. Besides, a lens hood provides great protection for when you accidentally bump your lens into something.
Note: Sometimes the lens hood alone isn't even enough to keep out the stray light. In this case use something else to shield the light (e.g., your hand, a piece of (black) board, etc.)
- Use the best possible lens for the shot. Know where your lenses perform at their best (e.g., focal length and aperture). Especially if you have multiple lenses with overlapping focal ranges, knowing where each of these performs best, helps in choosing the right lens for the shot. Note that the best lens needn't always be the most expensive one. For instance, on a full frame body, the relatively cheap 70-300 Nikkor lens has better corner sharpness than the first version of the much more expensive 70-200/2.8 (note: the new VRII version of this lens has solved this issue). The quality and feel of the unfocussed parts of your image (bokeh) is different for each lens too, again something to take into account when choosing lenses.
- Be aware of diffraction. Diffraction is the phenomena where light waves hitting a small object can actually bend around the object, instead of going straight., This can result in lost image sharpness. The effect gets stronger, the smaller the aperture you use. So instead of closing down the aperture to its maximum (e.g., f/22) to get the biggest depth of field and sharpness, you may actually reduce overall image sharpness. Diffraction kicks in at different apertures depending on the lens and body (sensor pixel size) used and sometimes sacrificing a bit of overall sharpness in favour of depth of field, may be better too. But as a general rule of thumb, you shouldn't go beyond f/11 on a crop body and f/16 on a full frame body (f/11 on a D800 and similarly high resolution cameras).
- Don't use filters, unless you have to. Every filter on top of your lens potentially degrades image quality and increases the chances of lens flare and unwanted reflections. With digital this problem is even bigger than with film as the sensor unit is much more reflective than film. Lens designers take great care to prevent (internal) reflection and lens flare problems, so don't throw away their efforts by adding a filter!
Luckily in the digital era there isn't much use for most filters as their effects can be (better) accomplished in post processing anyway. Noticeable exceptions here are the Polarising filter and Neutral Density filters. Note though that Gradual Neutral Density filters are mostly obsolete now as there are better alternatives in post processing (e.g., HDR or manually merging two exposures).
When you buy filters, get good quality (coated) filters; these considerably reduce chances of flare/reflections when compared to the cheaper, uncoated, ones.
Personally, I don't believe in using a “UV” filter for protection either (I use the lens hood and lens cap for this). Unless I'm shooting in really adverse conditions (e.g., on the beach with lots of sand blowing around), that is; then I would certainly think of adding a protective filter. Talking about filters for protection, by the way. Modern cameras already block UV light, so adding another UV blocker really has no added function. Therefore, instead of buying a UV filter for protection, you may be better (cheaper) off to buy a simple, but high quality, clear filter (e.g., a Nikon NC filter).
- Instead of taking a single shot with wide angle lens, consider taking multiple shots with a longer lens and stitching them together. This will leave you with more, and better quality, pixels to play with. (Note though that the depth of field changes too when you use a different lens)
- Use the right camera settings. This means exposure (expose to the right, part 1), aperture (depth of field), shutter speed (motion blur), ISO (as low as possible, part 1), and, (especially) if you're shooting JPG, White Balance, and Picture Control (Nikon)/Picture Style (Canon) settings. Getting these settings wrong at time of shooting either means having lost the shot, or having to perform quality degrading post processing to correct the mistakes.
- Block the viewfinder when not looking through it. On most modern cameras, light hitting the viewfinder eyepiece, influences the light meter. So if you've determined the correct exposure (compensation) while looking through the viewfinder and then, when taking the actual shot(s), you do not look through the viewfinder any longer (e,g, when using the self timer, cable release, etc.), the camera may in fact be using a different exposure than you set up for (unless you were using manual exposure of course). To prevent this, simply cover the eyepiece before taking the shot.
- Keep your equipment clean. It's simple: clean equipment works better and more reliable. Dirty lenses or a dirty sensor can ruin your pictures, dirty contacts can prevent your gear from working at all (for instance, most complaints about non functioning lenses are in fact caused by dirty contacts, not by a broken lenses), etc. So at the end of every shoot, simply check and clean your equipment.