15 October 2018

Different angles

Math!

In case you wonder what photography has to do with math, I am going to talk about angles. Telling you how many degrees your camera should make an angle with the horizon line. And for vertical shots explaining when to use 40 degrees and when to use 60. Of course this is also depending on the angle of the main lighting makes with the subject and the camera. Where you multiply this by 1.3 when poorly lit.
Okay, enough nonsense and now let's go to the angles I do want to mention.

Composition

It is said a good photographer knows when to adhere to the rules of composition and when to break them. As seen from the title of my blog, I am a noob, so far away from that. That does not mean I do not think of composition. I did read books and articles about it. In an early post, I already told one of those rules: fill the frame.
I think if you want the top 3 you would get a list like:
  • Rule of thirds
  • Leading lines
  • Patterns
I do miss one remark in most of these books and articles. I think it is as Scott Kelby calls: work the scene. In this post I call it different angles. He means also switching lenses, from zoom to wide. Work with different apertures. I prefer, as a noob, to limit it to: change your position. Shoot from a different angle.

Boring train

Zoo train
Yesterday I was in the zoo and like many zoos, they have a "train" that you can ride on. Knowing I wanted to write a post about this topic, I saw my opportunity and made this not so exciting photo.
The composition is as you might expect from a snapshot. The subject is dead center and no attention has been paid to the background. You might argue that the empty space on the left balances the train cars and people on the right, but I can assure you: I did not think of that when I made the photo.
This is the kind of photo you see pop up on someones Facebook page. Nothing totally wrong, nothing of much interest except to the person taking the photo.

Slightly less boring train

Zoo train
As I had made the previous photo, I walked a few meters and took another snapshot. You can see in that photo that I again did not think of any of the three previously mentioned rules. All I did was change the viewpoint. The same lens was on the camera, the same camera was used and in both cases they were post processed by clicking "auto" in Lightroom.
My change of viewpoint did alter the photo dramatically, though. In my opinion it goes more towards a photo and less a snapshot, but everyone is free to think different.
I did accomplish some things, though.
The first thing is the background. Because of the viewpoint, much less of it is visible and thus less distracting. For the attentive reader: this also means there is less information. At the first it would be easier to guess this is a zoo, given the visible exhibit. The second photo has only the tiger print on the train to indicate that.
The change of viewpoint does bring a more interesting angle to the subject, simply because this is not how you normally see it. Unless crouching down next to zoo trains is your fetish, of course.
The second photo has a very different feel from the first photo. And this also demonstrates the importance of different angles. By shooting the train twice from different angles, I could now afterwards compare and decide what I find the better photo. Or not necessarily better. The first I could show if I want to let people be aware I was at the zoo. But if it goes about zoo trains, I could then take the second photo.

What angle should I use?

Red flower
A question that for me pops up often is then: what would be the correct angle? Where should my viewpoint be?
Now we're back to photography. And like so many things in photography there is no rule for that.
I do like hard rules, where you can be: if situation x, do y. But the first thing of a photo should be: what do I want to tell? What must my photo bring over?
Like I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the two photos of the zoo train tell different things. Even if they are the same subject and shot just a few moments apart. But that demonstrates nobody can give you a hard rule, as nobody knows what you want to tell. That does not mean there can be no advice.
I am sure that pro's can give many tips. But even a beginner like me can add his two cents. Or in this case three cents, as I will give three tips.

My first advice would be: Unless you have a symmetrical photo, do not put the subject in the middle. That often makes a photo feel static and dull. Should you do that, use the rule "fill the frame". If there is nothing besides your subject, the static feel goes away. Of course, your subject needs to be interesting enough to actually fill the frame.

My second advice would be: do not take a photo from your normal viewpoint. If you take a photo from an ordinary thing just as you see them normally, there is not much incentive to actually look at the photo. It has very little that we do not know.

My third advice is: Look!

In the photos of the flowers, I mostly followed my own advice. If you look at the first you can see the cluster of flowers dead center. You can also see I shot it as I was standing there, looking from above. And I paid no attention to any surrounding or distracting items.
The flower is nice, the shot is crap.

Compare that with the second photo. Same flower, and even same spot. Both post-processed with Lightroom auto-settings. But a different angle. For this shot I got down and took the photo looking upwards. I had wanted to even go lower and below the flower, but there was a puddle of water and I did not want to get wet, so stayed where I was.

My first advice about the dead center looks almost ignored, but by changing the angle the flowers at the top also became more a part of the photo, just as the cluster of flowers is lower and more to the right.

The second advice was followed, which shows you more of the inside of the flower, giving you a slightly different view than you would do normally. To me this is definitely more interesting and thus enhances my subject from "ordinary flower" to "interesting flower".

The third advice is harder to define. But this image does show it. You can see how the changed angle did change the background. From that light stone to the darkness of the bushes behind the flower. It also mostly removed that ugly, distracting branch that comes in at the bottom of the first photo. And this is indeed where the "look" part comes in. I also had a photo from the same low position, but I was more to the left. That made the green of the foliage the background. I personally like more how the foliage frames around the dark background at that main cluster of flowers.

The truth

So, now everybody has read my three cents and noticed how I carefully composed the photo of the flower, you will all agree I am a master photographer. The truth is that I am far away from that. Almost all my photos are still snap shots. This photo is one of the very few times that I actually thought about what I was doing. Because I knew I wanted to make this blog post, so in the 15 minutes I was at the zoo before the others arrived, I actually looked around for possibilities to make photos that could demonstrate my points.

So, the first truth is that I am no master, but a beginner. There is also a second truth to be found here.
I think there is absolutely no doubt that the second flower shot is much better than the first. Now, if I can make the flower shots, the train shots (and some tree and building shots that could also demonstrate these points) in about 15 minutes, it does not take much time. And still I often just point and click. That is why I am a beginner, because I do not take time to think and look. Looking is the most important thing a photographer can do.

So, do not do as I do, but do as I say: Look and change your angle. Work the scene and think.
Or, if you like clicking: do as I do and not as I say, but still have fun shooting.

12 September 2018

My glasses

Tools of the trade

As the header already says, I was not planning to talk about the glasses I need to wear for driving my car. I sincerely doubt there would be much interest in them, just as I would not really know what to tell about them.
Girl with huge glasses
Okay, I will tell you one thing. The picture here is totally wrong. First of all I checked and noticed I was not a girl and second: my glasses seem to be a bit smaller. I have not checked that last in the mirror, so that meant I had the glasses in my hand as I looked at them. They definitely seemed smaller than the one this picture, but perhaps my eyes fooled me, as I was not wearing my glasses.
Apparently when you're a photographer, you do not talk about your lenses, but about your "glass". Luckily I am just a noob, so can call it whatever I want. But should I below mention the term "glass", it is certainly about lenses and not the thing to wear on your face.

We need the best!

Like so many people I have looked at all the available lenses for my camera, and there really are many. In fact, for a newbie I would say there is way too much choice. In an earlier post (wearing glasses) I already said a bit about lenses. Just as I mentioned that bigger is not always needed. I will add immediately that "the best" is also not always needed. Besides that the best is hard to define, as it is mostly depending on what you will do with it, I would advise any beginner to stay away from "the best". Simply because the best tends to be the most expensive.
What you need to do is determine what kind of photo you want to make and where you want to show it. As I am a newbie myself, I cannot give the pro advice, but what I can do is tell about my lenses, and how satisfied I am with them.

The kit lens

My first set was two kit lenses that came with the camera I bought. The camera was a Nikon D3200 and the lenses were 18-55mm and 55-300mm. These lenses are said to be of a poor quality. Nonetheless I think they should perfectly fine photos, especially if you mostly post on the web. Being new, and sometimes looking at my photos, I knew I could make better photos. All I needed were better lenses.
Yes, I did think that. Not long, but I really did. And if you do too, let me correct you. Better photos are made by better photographers. The lens quality helps, but a good photo is not made by the quality. It is made by what you have photographed.
So, yes, I was wrong and if you mainly post on the web I think these lenses are great quality for their price.  I did replace them though.

The telezoom

Sigma telezoom lens
The first lens I bought was a Sigma 150-600mm. Although I was ill prepared to decide which I needed, I knew I did want a telezoom. This was bought shortly before going three weeks on safari in Uganda. I wanted to be able to really zoom in.
Here you can see I for once followed my own advice and first thought about my needs. On a safari you cannot always simply walk up to your subject and this telezoom was indeed used very, very much during that trip.
After that trip? Not much at all. It is big, it is heavy and it will need a tripod or other support to get sharp photos. Some people seem to be able to shoot sharply without support, but I am not one of them. It's maximum aperture is f/5 - f/6.3. This means in lower light conditions, you need to raise shutter speed or ISO pretty fast. Would I buy it again? Yes, as it really is awesome to have such a beauty with you on safari. I was and am pretty happy with it. But you really need to know what you will use it for, or I would not bother with it.

The macro

After I could take photos far away, I was certain that I needed a lens to shoot close up. After all, how else could I get better photos? You guessed it: of I went to the shop. And back I came as the proud owner of a Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. With that I would be shooting awesome shots of flowers and insects and whatever else I wanted.
Insect on a leaf
The photo next to this text was actually shot with that lens. I think it's a nice shot. Will it win a photography prize? I think not. Again, the lens did not make my photos suddenly much better.
In fact, I only then learned a big problem with macro photography. If you are very close to your subject, the depth of field is very narrow. The photo shows this already, when you look - well whatever those pointy ends are called in English - you can see that some of them are pretty sharp. But the ones further away are already out of focus. trust me, this thing was only a few centimeters long.
Okay, I mostly wanted to do a bit of macro photography, so the lens delivered as promised. But unless you use focus stacking (Brenda Hoffman posted a link to a guide in one of my Google communities recently), you can quickly find yourself having problems with focus. Taking shots of flowers real close up? It better be inside, or a day with very little wind. Wind is an absolute horror for getting sharp close-ups outside.
Would I advise people to buy a macro lens? If you want to do macro photography: yes. Otherwise: no. It's that simple.
Note that there is also a cheaper way to get likewise closeups. You can buy a reverse ring and put your normal lens on the other way. You can read a bit about it on this article.

Jack of all trades

I mentioned earlier that I did replace my kit lenses. I like to take my camera along when I go out, I do not want to carry a lot of lenses. Especially not when I am going abroad for work. I already need to carry a laptop then, so reducing the amount of lenses helps. Just as it helps when you are lazy and do not like swapping them. I admit being guilty of that as well.
The replacement is a Nikon 18-300mm covering exactly what the two kit lenses did. I really love this lens, it can basically do almost anything. I doubt it's the most sharp lens and I am certain a pro would not touch it. But keep in mind that most of my photos end up on the web. I put most of them in original size, but most people will only see the smaller version. My photos do not need to be that sharp, so for me this lens is perfect. It did cost more than the two kit lenses, and it gives no better performance. If you are lazy like me, or travel a lot and want to reduce on lenses, this is a nice one. In other cases, you might simply stick with the kit lenses.

Wide angle

Botanic garden
I was still not done with getting different lenses. Knowing that my camera had an APS-C sensor, which meant an 18mm on it, would equal about 27mm on a full frame camera, I felt the need to have a really wide angle lens as well. I bought myself a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens. I shot the photo in my previous blog with it, just as the photo next to this text.
The lens delivers, you can make pretty wide shots with it. And due to its aperture I also used it a few times in museums. These places are usually poorly lit and do not allow flash, so a wide aperture is a real advantage there.
As with the previous purchases, I am happy with the lens. It is pretty nice to bring on holidays, where you can expect to shoot some landscapes as well. Or shoot a hotel room and have it look bigger than it is. On the other hand, with already 18mm available on the kit lens (or my jack of all trades), it is definitely not a need. This is like the telezoom, it surely warrants thinking before buying.

Fast glass

Starfish
I did it. I meant lenses and called them "glass". In this case on purpose, because fast glass has a meaning. In general it is meant that the lens has a wide aperture and is therefore able to catch more light, allowing it to (auto-) focus faster. That is at least how I understood the term. And this would surely be the stuff I need, right? This is where the pro's go. Fast glass, yes.
For once I did not run to the shop, but thought about it. In the end I got myself a Nikon 35mm and a Nikon 50mm. Both are f/1.8 and thus have the widest aperture of all my lenses. As they are prime lenses they are cheaper than zoom lenses. They are also supposed to make sharper photos. I believe that, although for my purpose (web content) it is not noticeable.
Anyway, they are - compared to the other lenses - pretty inexpensive, so you could pick them up. Everyone talks about the nifty fifty and that this is the lens closest to what we really see. That is - as far as I know - true. On a full frame camera. So on an APS-C sensor like my camera has, that would be the 35mm. It works great for what I bought it for, shooting in lower light conditions. The photo of the starfish was shot at the local aquarium and that has very little light. I don't mean dusk or so, but really dark. Having the wide aperture allows the ISO to be acceptable, while still having a bit of shutter speed to prevent blurry photos.
If you shoot in low light conditions, I would definitely advise getting one of these lovelies.

Finishing thoughts

Let's start with a disclaimer. I am not a pro, I am a newbie and tell you what I think/experienced. So keep that in mind when following my "advice". To put a bit perspective in it, I can tell you how much I used each lens in 2018. I did buy the two prime lenses in 2018, so their usage is lower than could be. But I think it gives an idea about how much I use each lens.
Total photos: 4665
Nikon 18-300mm: 3893
Tokina 11-16: 643
Nikon 35mm: 55
Nikon 50mm: 48
Sigma macro: 23
Sigma 150-600mm: 3

Which tells me I need to make more macro photos, and will probably tell you what lens tends to be on my camera.
Now, did these lenses make me a better photographer? No. I think over the years I have made a few nice pictures and made much less crap photos. But that was because I tend to look better and by looking better, you also throw away more.
Do I regret buying these lenses? Definitely not. Most of them have their specific use and by having them, I can actually do these things. That's not to say it is impossible to do with the kit lens. You can go very, very far with just kit lenses. But sometimes it is nice to have tools better suited for the job. And lenses are the tools of our trade. But don't buy them with the idea that they make you a better photographer. I fear practice, listening to advice and all the stuff that works for all other professions are what can make you better. I also believe that you do not need to be a pro, to have a fun hobby. And that last can definitely be done without many expensive lenses.
Happy shooting!

20 June 2018

Processing a photo

Click and done

Or perhaps not. When you shoot in JPG format, you might be done indeed, as the camera will process the photo for you. In RAW format this does not happen and you're on your own. I do like post processing, so shoot almost always in RAW format.
In this post I would like to go over a photo that I did process to show what I did and tell why I did that. It will be specific to Lightroom, because that is the tool I use.

The start

This is the original photo. My eyes were caught by the rope holding the ship moored and how it would make a nice leading line. I also found the photo had some kind of geometry in it. The water and air would divide it in half vertically. Then the clouds in the air plus the two ships would occupy the right half of the photo. While the left half would have no clouds and the two buildings. The ship that came into the photo from the left was not planned for, but it added a feeling of movement to the static picture.

The basics


My first action was to straighten the buildings on the left, using a guided upright perspective in Lightroom. I felt that buildings should not look like they fall over. The original photo also had a cool tone, which changed to much warmer when I changed the white balance.
I always start with these things. Cropping and straightening the photo and then the white balance. These two can have a huge impact on the overall mood of the photo. I did not really crop here, but the straightening did modify the photo a bit, so there are some parts cropped away.

My second step is a global adjustment. here I would definitely want to open up the shadows more. I ended up with a +54 on that slider. As I also wanted to add a lot more punch to the photo, I raised clarity to +48. The photo was quite light and although not foggy, it had a little of that same feeling of being smoothed out. So I actually used the dehaze slider to get it a bit darker and more contrast in (mostly) the sky You can read about dehaze on The Lightroom Queen's forum.

Local adjustments

I mostly want to emphasize the two moored ships and therefore thought of darkening the left side of the photo. Because of the ship that sailed in from the left, I thought of making it like coming from the dark to the light. So I added a radial filter that would lower exposure a lot. As I only wanted that effect on the left, I used the brush to remove the right side of the photo from the filter. The left corners being as dark as they are now, gave me the feeling of "opening up" for the ship on the left. Here you do not need to look very well to immediately see this photo is processed, as there is little chance of finding this in reality. But to me a photo does not need to be 100% real. In that case I should have kept the original raw photo. However, be aware that others might not like over edited photos and this one is pretty obvious now.

While I am happy with the quay being on the photo, as it holds the base of my leading line (the rope), I do not want it to hold attention for long. So I dimmed it a little, by using a gradient filter that just covers the quay. Here I lowered exposure (-0.35), whites (-24) and mostly highlights (-78). The part holding the rope is very dark, so I opened the shadows in it (+54).
I do not think these settings are too obviously noticeable, unless you have the before and after next to each other. Still, they do improve to what I would like to get.

To me, the white text on the back of the right ship was an eye catcher. This had to stand out a bit more. For this I added a new radial filter, around the text. Here I mostly raised whites (+63) and highlights (+22) to have the text stand out more. I also added clarity and sharpness here.
Like the previous adjustment, I think it is step that one will not immediately see, but it definitely contributes a lot. The text stands out better and is more of a point to attract attention now.
If you look at the image, you can see that in the previous step the text was a bit toned down, like the white of the bridge on the ship. It now jumps out, so for the careful watcher you can surely see that has been edited.

The last step

My final step was a slight alteration to the air. Here I used a gradual filter where I lowered the temperature (-15). This gives a more blue tint to the air. Using the brush I made sure the ships were not altered by this filter.
Like the previous adjustment, I think this one is not attracting much attention. Unless looking at the top of the sky, I think the effect is very minor. But it changes the sky to less gray, for which I am happy.

Looking at the result, it surely changed a lot from the original one. The leading line and radial filter that darkens the left corners do immediately pull the eyes towards the center of the photo. The ship on the left and the buildings there do give a bit of context, but do not divert attention. From the center the eyes go to the right, where the ships - the topic of the photo - are moored. The text on the back of the right ship keeps attention for a bit due to how it jumps out. From there the eyes can look around at the ships, go to the quay and finally one would look around and glance more at the buildings and the sailing ship.

The photo is much to my liking, the edits make my eyes go as I described above. Of course, I cannot say how others look and whether they will perceive things as I do.  But to me that is less important. Of course, I hope others like my photo and feel I made good edits. Yet, given that I do this for fun, I mostly strive for photos and edits that please me. Which I think should be the case for all us beginning photographers.
Do the things you like, make photos that please you. And then enjoy your hobby.

31 May 2017

Back to the eyes

Lenses again

In this post I am going to talk about lenses again. I know I did this before in an earlier blog post, but I think I should get back at that again. The reason is quite simple: last week a friend asked about lenses he would need. Now, I am a noob, but I do happen to have DSLR with three different lenses. And I have actually read a bunch of articles. He was not at that stage yet. So we spoke about what he wanted to do and then I told him what I would buy.
The funny part is: it is the exact same advice as I gave in that earlier post. During that talk however, we also came to a topic that is not mentioned in the previous post. But it is an important one, so I will talk about that part in this post.

F-stops

In case you think every guy loves the Formula 1 and this is about pit stops in the Formula 1, you're mistaken. We're still talking photography, and it's about a thing you can see on your lens.
Nikon lens 18-300mm
Nikon 18-300mm F3.5-5.6
In the image you can see the mention about the F-stop. Of course, they do not make it very clear, as the letter F is not mentioned there. But it is the part with 3.5-5.6 in it. There are also lenses with only one number there. Every prime lens, which has a fixed focal length, always has only one number. But a zoom lens can have either one number, or a range. The F-stop means your widest aperture. If you have a lens with one number, it has that widest aperture on every focal length (zoom level). If you have a range, the lowest number is the widest aperture when not zoomed in at all. The higher number is the widest aperture at full zoom. In general you can say that the lower the number, the better. And that means also more expensive. Just as lenses with a fixed aperture on all focal lengths are more expensive.
I can see that the question would then be: why would you want these lower numbers? What does this F-stop thing do?

Light and focus

And this heading here is the answer to the question in the previous paragraph. An F-stop can be seen as a number telling the wideness of aperture. A low number means a wide aperture. A wide aperture allows more light into the camera. And that means you can shoot in darker situations, or raise the shutter speed to freeze motion. Being able to do so, is of course nice. And that is why you should like a lens with the lowest possible F-stop value you want to pay for. However aperture has another effect, namely the Depth of Field (DoF).
Hello birdie!
Hello birdie!
The photo here demonstrates this effect. Now, I do not have lenses with really wide aperture like F1.4 or F2.8, but I suppose this example suffices. The photo shows the bird sharp. It's focused on it. You can see the branch it's sitting on is also quite sharp. The branches further away are... well... I guess we know they should be branches, but it's definitely not very sharp. In photography this is often a desirable effect. In this case I want you to look at the bird, not the branches in the back. If you want to show a landscape, it is often not what you want. A wide aperture gives a small depth of field, so with a wide aperture (so: low F-stop), we have a shallow depth of field and get blur sooner. With an F-stop of 1.4 and taking a close-up of a person, you might notice that when you focus on the tip of the nose, the eyes are already not sharp anymore.

Distance

That last remark brings us to the second ingredient that makes up the Depth of Field: distance. The closer the object is that you focus on, the shallower your DoF will be. So if the previously mentioned person would be not close by, but say 30 meter away, then with the F1.4 he would still be fully in focus. So, there are two things to consider, the F-stop and the distance to the object to focus on.
Wide aperture
Wide aperture
Small aperture
Small aperture
 And then we go to the last part about this, and that is the difference before and after the object in focus. It would be easy if we could focus on an object and then by setting aperture wider we would make the plane we focus on larger, both before and after the subject. Well, that is not how it works. The depth at the front is half of the depth behind the focus point.
The images here represent you: the photographer on the left. Your subject, the princess model in the middle and some background: a forest. The first image uses a wide aperture and makes sure your princess is in focus. The green around her shows what's in focus and what is not. And as you can see behind her is clearly more. Everything in the white area would be blurred.
The second image shows a much smaller aperture. And while the forest is getting into focus, the area right in front of you is still mostly out of focus. Rule of thumb is: 1/3 in front of the subject and 2/3 behind the subject is the focus area. With changing aperture, you can set the depth, but always in these proportions.The other way to set the depth would be walking closer or further from the subject.

What F-stop do you need?

So, you want those nice blurry backgrounds? Then you need an F1.4 lens, obviously. Or... no. You don't. The previous examples already showed you can get that also with higher F-stops (so, a narrow aperture). If you are close to your subject, you already make the DoF shallower. And a shallow DoF means your background gets blurry sooner. The other trick would be to move your subject further away from the background. And this is also demonstrated with removing parts in front of the subject.
bear
A bear looking at a snack?
I took this photo in the zoo, and I can assure they do not let you go near the bears. Nor do they allow the bears to go to you, it might mistake you for a snack, after all.
So, there are fences, like you can see in the background. Such a fence is also in front of the bear, yet you don't see it on the photo. This is also an effect of Depth of Field. The distance between me and the bear was quite some meters and with an F5.6 it has a reasonably small DoF. The distance between me and the fence was pretty small, so all it gave was a tiny blurry line. Which I mostly removed in post processing. So, do you really need that F1.4? I cannot decide that for you, but I would at least say: unless you want to go the path of a professional photographer - in which case you should not read this blog, but write it - you probably don't. Simply start playing with your aperture, look at the effects and don't forget to try out small apertures and wide apertures, both close by and at a distance. And then, after having seen what your current camera and lens can do, you can decide whether you need that. And in case you happen to have a spare one fitting my Nikon D3200: I would be a happy receiver, even if I think I do not need it, nor feel willing to pay the price for it.

Now, please go make great pictures with blurry backgrounds and perhaps we will next time talk about bokeh.


19 April 2017

The Eye of the Master

I need to get better

In most activities you can improve yourself. Just as you can in photography. The question then remains: how? Now, before thinking much about that question, perhaps there should be a question before. Just as the heading above might be different. The heading should read: "I need to get better, or not?"
Like most people, I like to get better at what I do. Or at least good enough to serve its purpose. So, before I can tell whether I need to get better, I would need to know what my purpose is. If you take a random look at my photos, you will most likely notice they are in general not very special. Even if I think I improved, I cannot find much in my photos that makes people go "Wow!".
Vulture
Vulture, photo taken in the zoo
Most of my photos are like the one here. Taken while on a day out. Or on holiday. In this case a simple photo from a vulture. I am not going to say it is a bad photo. But it also has no spark, it's a decent photo.
I have a lot of these photos, because that is how I like to shoot photos. I can tell you that I like going to the zoo. But photography gives me a good reason to be there. I am now not only relaxing, but am also taking photos. The first part, relaxing, I could do at home on the couch. But the second part will become dull quite fast, as my house is not that big that I would not have photographed everything in a day.
Just as I like taking the time to make photos during holidays or other trips. The camera gives me a reason to take time, to do things leisurely and a reason for being there. Those are my main reasons for making photos. Nowhere in that part is mentioned anything about high quality photos. Nor about becoming an ace.
So, that brings me to the question: do I need to get better, or am I good enough to serve its purpose. The last part seems to be easily answered: as I had no quality demands, except taking photos, I am probably good enough to serve its purpose.

Vanity

I added the heading above, so it would stand out. Why, you ask? Because it's important, I answer. And then you ask me why it is important. My answer could be short: everyone, including me, is vain.
Vanity smurf
Vanity smurf 
There are degrees, but we all like to be complimented and we all like to be noticed in a positive way. Of course, you can be shy and blush furiously when people praise you in public. But even then you cannot deny it feels good to be praised. A photographer, even a hobby photographer like me, likes to be praised for their photos. I have put a bunch of mine online. Partly, so I have access to them wherever I am. Partly, because that also serves as a nice back-up in case something happens to my hard disk. And partly so others can admire them. I admit that last one is just a small part, as I don't give much reason for people to come and admire my photos. But I still like it when someone would see one of my photos and tell me it's a good photo.
With this in mind, the question whether my photos serve their purpose is much harder to answer. As they rarely get comments that they are great, I don't really get praise. But I am not primarily after praise, it's just a secondary issue. So, I finally settled for: they are good enough to serve their purpose, but it would be nice if they would do so better.
Getting better is then obvious something I would want for two reasons:
  1. Because humans like getting better,
  2. So my photos serve the purpose of attracting praise better.

How to improve?

Only now I have established I do want to improve myself, I can start thinking about how to do that. I could take a formal education to become a photographer. And at that point it becomes clear for me that I don't have enough motivation to improve myself that way. That would take a lot of time and money. Neither of my two reasons above are important enough for me to go that way and invest that. For anyone wanting to become a professional photographer, I would strongly encourage getting an education. But for someone wanting to take photos in the zoo... well, not really.
The other thing that immediately comes to mind would be practice. They saying goes: "Practice makes perfect." Unfortunately that saying does not mention how much practice it would take to get even near perfect. But I can do a guess: a lot!
But... who mentioned perfect or near perfect? Well, I did. But I agree with you, I do not need to become near perfect. Just a little better would already be fine. In which case I would need much less practice. So what is stopping me? Obviously: I am stopping myself. I do not like practicing just to get better. I do not want to invest that time, just as before with the education. That is not to say I do not get any practice whatsoever. Every time I take a photo I get some practice. But it is not enough to make big steps forward. This is more like crouching forward and being taken over by a snail.
If you feel like practicing, one of the easiest way would be to participate in challenges. Those can be set by others, or set by yourself. In the latter case you can make it as easy or hard as you want. You could set yourself challenges like:
  • This month I make at least 5 photos of a sunset, all noticeably different,
  • I want this month to make a collage about the color orange, with at least 8 different photos,
  • I want this month 4 photos of one location, with clearly different lighting conditions.
These examples have one thing in common, they make you think about a subject. And make you see the same subject in different ways. That way you can compare photos and learn yourself what effect things like lighting and composition have on a photo.
My personal problem here is: I am too lazy, so I would most likely half way stop bothering.

I need help!

The part about practice still has a problem. What if you do not see what should be improved? Or cannot think of how to do that? Yes, even with practicing, help from others is needed. That does not count just fro me, but I think it counts for everyone wanting to improve. And preferably, you need help from someone better than you. Because that person can probably see things that you do not, but can also help in tackling those issues.
For example, if I think back, I do recall taking shots of landscapes, without bothering about the horizon. Until someone pointed out that a crooked horizon makes a photo feel awkward or uneasy. And then I started noting it myself. I did see photos with crooked horizons, where at first I did not know why I found them "wrong". This is of course a very simple example, and you do not need an expert in photography to tell you. In fact a noob in photography just told you, so this is really ridiculously easy. By the way, a non straight horizon can serve a photo well, but just keep in mind that it's in general not pleasing.
In the time I have been a little bit more serious about photos than merely taking snapshots... Okay, stop, I still am at the level of merely taking snapshots. So, let's say that I am more serious about giving a photo a bit more thought. Even if only after taking it. Anyway, in that time I did improve. I have read various things about photography. I have moments where I can say in advance that it will make a lousy photo. And I am regularly looking different at photos than I was before.
What I lack is enough critical views over my own photos, telling me what could be improved and giving hints about how. I need help for that from others for that. Preferably people better than me, but that is not necessary. Strangely enough I improved myself a bit by giving critique to photos of others. Because that forced me to really look at those photos and to think about what I liked or disliked. And to give a fair critique, I needed to mention why I felt that way. I could not always tell the "why", but did my best to provide it. So the other person might improve.
Eye of the Master
Eye of the Master
So, yeah, I need help. I need the Eye of the Master. But, given that I do not know a master in photography to help me, I would definitely settle for another option: the many eyes of anyone interested in photography. So, you reader, could be one of those eyes, and I would really appreciate if you would spend a bit of time looking over my photos and telling me what needs to be improved.

As a last part for my fellow noobs: of course, the many eyes would help you too. So don't hesitate to ask others. Make sure to ask people with an interest in photography, though. I found out that asking friends tends to result in: "Good picture!"
And as friendly as it sounds, it is no help at all. But just as you are asking for the eyes of others, spend some time using your eyes for others. They might benefit, just as you will probably benefit. Take some time to look at photos, take some time to find out the strong and weak points of a photo. And above all: discuss this with peers.
Happy chatting with your fellow photographers and let's help each other out. Be each others eyes and one day you might be the one with the Eye of the Master!

P.S. If people would want critique on their photos, the Google community "Society of Photography for Beginners" has a section "Critique my photo". Join and post. You might get more response than just from me. Of course any forum/community/whatever that suits your needs will work. If you have a nice one, please let me know, so I can check it out as well.