Saturday, March 16, 2013

Brief Advice on Learning Photography

SOMEONE WRITES “I am buying a new camera, but cannot make up my mind…” The correspondent then lists a number of expensive recent-model cameras, commenting on various technical features, and why one might be more suitable than other for his stated purpose of taking photographs of sports, and of wildlife while hiking. He states that he is a beginner.

A camera purchase can be an agonizing experience, especially given the choices available.

When I first got into digital photography, back in the year 2001, I spent hours going over the reviews, and ended up getting a very expensive camera, one which was a top-rated camera back in those days. I wanted a camera mainly for taking nature photos while hiking.

I was extremely disappointed in my photographs, and wasn't able to return the camera for a refund. That disappointment killed my interest in photography for a number of years.

Later, only when I needed to deliver good-quality photos, did I learn about photography, and so I discovered that my ‘bad’ camera was actually pretty good, especially after I learned the basics of composition, white balance, and exposure. Also, I learned to overcome some poor features of the camera with the right post-processing software and techniques.

Be aware that the newest cameras today operate in a similar manner to cameras decades old; and old problems such as the color of light, and the basics of focus, exposure, and shutter speeds haven’t changed. Newer cameras won't do the thinking for you, although they try sometimes. Don't expect that a camera will make your photography good.

If you are a person who tends to get buyer’s remorse, then I would not suggest spending too much money on something, even if reviews and people like me strongly recommend it. However, I would avoid getting something that lots of people criticize. Rather, look for good values.

Until you know what you are doing, you are merely guessing at this time. Don't worry too much about it, we've all gone through it. Here are some suggestions:

  • Obtain or borrow an inexpensive camera, maybe one that is used. A super zoom camera might be good, or an older, used DSLR with a good zoom lens. If you are worried about making the right purchase, then spending only a little money on something OK might be better than getting an expensive camera that will be disappointing.
  • Go out and shoot lots of photos with it, under a variety of conditions, of various subjects.
  • Simultaneously, learn the basic theory of photography: exposure, shutter speeds, aperture, ISO speed, focus, etc. Learn the basics of general visual arts theory: composition, light, color: find good photographs and paintings and study them; find out what makes them good. Learn how to use your camera; don’t try to make lots of adjustments to your camera at first.
  • Get feedback from your images. You can post photos on the DPreview forums and other places. It is most important that you post disappointing photos there, and ask why a particular photo might be disappointing. You are likely to get excellent feedback if you present a problematic photo and ask for advice for improvement.
  • Take the advice and experiment some more. See if your photos are less disappointing.
  • Find a fellow photo hobbyist or club and go out shooting with them, especially one who is more experienced.
  • I would not post photos on forums that you think are really good, expecting praise from others. Very often I’ve seen beginner photographers post photos, saying “look how great my photo is,” and they end up being savagely criticized. This is the nature of the modern artistic ego which seeks perfection: a thick skin is needed at times. A measure of humility is needed: rather, post a photo and ask for suggested improvements. Eventually you might be surprised and get lots of compliments.
  • Learn the basics of post-processing on the computer. Beginners tend to become enamored of special effects, but instead try to thoroughly learn the basics of levels, contrast, white balance, resizing, cropping, sharpening, etc.
  • Once you gain lots of hard-earned knowledge and experience, then you will pretty much know what kind of purchases you will need in the future.

Many beginners go through a phase of loving the photographic process, first placing lots of emphasis on gear, and then later on techniques. That is natural. But always keep your eye on the final purpose of photography: making good photographs.