On the suggestion of some readers, I am thinking of doing a series of short posts to help beginners with their photography. There is a wealth of information available on the internet, but I’m happy to share what has helped me along the way, and give you a starting point to help you pick up your camera and start using it!
In this post I’ll talk about picking a camera (and lenses), getting started with your camera, and a few general tips for improving your photography.
Photography is hard
Taking photos is easy, but taking great photos, consistently, takes time and lots of practice! Many people seem to assume that if you buy a nice enough camera (and expensive lenses), you will take beautiful photos. Once you know what you are doing, it becomes second-nature to pick up a camera and make images that capture what you envisage. This doesn’t happen by accident though.
Photography can seem very technical and complicated. Cameras are getting increasingly more complex and there is a lot of information you seem to need just to start using your camera. It can all be overwhelming to a beginner. However, if you put in some time and effort you will be rewarded very quickly with an improvement in your images and skills. Just don’t assume you can learn everything you need to know in a couple of hours, days or even months! Most professionals are still learning…….
That said, you will be amazed at how much difference understanding how your camera works and a few basics like the exposure triangle and basic composition will make.
What camera should I buy?
If I had a dollar for every time I was asked this question, I would be buying myself more cameras! The answer is actually pretty easy though. One that you will use! The best camera is the one you have with you, so pick something that you like the feel of, is a size that you will take out with you, and you are willing to invest the time in learning how to use.
If you are an a photography beginner or someone who just wants to take decent photos of their kids/pets/holiday, then this often means a compact camera is the best pick. You can put in your handbag/pocket and both use it as a point and shoot, or start to experiment with a few settings to give you more creative control. The brand of camera doesn’t matter, just find one you like the feel of, and is not too expensive, and away you go. A newish compact camera with decent optical zoom and a moderate number of megapixels, will take better photos than your standard mobile phone and will give you an option to start to learn a little about photography.
If you want to start taking your photography a little more seriously and want something with a few more options than a compact camera, then I usually recommend an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera. It doesn’t necessarily matter what brand you buy, they can all produce excellent images and have a tonne of features that can let you learn and expand your photographic skills. In most cases an entry-level DSLR (or mirrorless) will provide more than enough features and give you plenty of room to grow your skills before you start finding it’s features limiting. It’s often tempting to invest a tiny bit more money and get the next level (or two) up camera. You are usually better off investing that money in lenses.
The exception to that advice, is where there is a particular feature you need that isn’t present in the entry-level camera. By ‘need’, I mean ‘would find very useful, often, for what you are planning to do’. Not, ‘that feature looks pretty awesome, I really need that.’ Examples might be the capability to shoot high quality video, the ability to wirelessly transmit photos, or a fast enough frame rate to shoot your kids weekend sport.
While it doesn’t really matter which brand camera you pick, as you start investing in lenses it becomes more expensive to jump to a different brand. That is another good reason to start out with entry-level cameras and lenses, there is less disincentive to swap brands if you decide you want something different later on. If you have friends and family with a bank of lenses of one particular brand it can be an advantage to go in the same direction, as you can easily swap lenses between you. Part of the reason I started out with Nikon was that I had friends and family with Nikon lenses. Ultimately though, if you like the feel of one brand of camera in your hands or the features it offers, go with what you like.
Once you have pushed your camera to the point where you are getting frustrated by its limitations, then you’ll be in a better position to know what you camera should be your next be. Once you know enough to know what features you need to be able to further your photography then it’s easier to ask questions (either of friends or on online forums) to pick the right camera for your next purchase.
The technology in cameras is advancing pretty quickly. There will always be something newer, better and shinier just around the corner. The entry-level cameras currently on the market have better sensors than what many pros were shooting with not too long ago.
A basic DSLR or mirrorless camera will do a very nice job and leave you with cash to invest in other important things like lenses, editing software and/or photography courses or tutorials. All of which will make more difference to your photography than a more expensive camera.
I pretty much pushed my first DSLR to its limits before I ‘upgraded’ it. I used that camera for 5.5 years and learnt so much with it. Only when you know the camera inside out and you start fighting the cameras limitations rather than your own do you really need to upgrade, and by then you’ll well and truly know what you need to be looking for in your next camera.
What lens/es should I buy?
If you have bought a camera with interchangeable lenses, but are still a beginner, then a really good starting point is a mid-range (for focal length, not price) zoom lens. Most cameras will come with the option of a ‘kit lens’ and they tend to be a good starting point. They usually have a focal length between about 20 and 150mm (although most won’t cover that whole range) and a maximum aperture of f4.0 or f5.6. You can also pick up really cheap kit lenses on ebay and buys/swap/sell sites.
One handy zoom lens is all you need to get started, and that alone is all you might need for quite some time. The next step is to buy a ‘fast’ prime lens like a 50mm f1.8, which you can get for around $100. A second-hand 35mm f1.8 lens is also similar in price and great for crop-sensor cameras. These lenses will let you learn a lot about depth of field and give you great practice with composition as you’ll have to learn to move your self rather than just stand and zoom!
I used my dodgy old kit lens for well over a year before I started investing in additional lenses. Despite not being anywhere near the standard of lenses I now own, I still have images from that lens on my wall and many of them are among my favourite shots.
Again, once you are past this beginner stage, you’ll have a good idea of what type of photography you like, what type of images you want to take, and what lenses you need to better do this job. I’ll write more about this in another post.
What do I do next?
You aren’t going to like this, but once you get your camera home, you need to read the manual! Boring I know…… I’ve owned a lot of cameras and I still find I need to read the manual at least once. The manual for my current camera is 450 pages (and that is just the English version) so I definitely just do it a bit at a time. Despite using Nikon cameras for over 9 years, I still find new features that I wouldn’t have discovered without the manual, and different ways of customising my camera to my liking.
Reading the manual will also give you an idea of what things you need to understand. I can assure you that 95% of the manual will make no sense and you’ll probably feel like giving up and sticking to your i-phone. You definitely don’t need to know how everything works all at once, but if you start out by reading about what each button does, and going and practicing using that button, it will help you enormously when you start using your camera.
You also want to know where to put your memory cards and battery and how to turn on the video function if your camera has it. You don’t need to immediately understand what each button and dial does, and when to use it, or how to use it best. It is, however, a good idea to know what the button/dial is supposed to do, what it’s called and start familiarising yourself with the terms like focus, exposure, metering, iso, aperture and shutter speed that keep getting mentioned in your manual.
Every time you come across something you don’t understand – it’s a good starting point to go off and google learn more about it. For example, your manual tells you how to change focus points, but you don’t know what focus points are. Google ‘how to use focus points on a DSLR’ or ‘how do focus points work’ and keep scrolling through articles until you find one that makes sense to you. Then go and practice changing the focus points on your camera.
This brings me to my next point……
How do you like to learn?
If you are like me, then I like to read about stuff and then figure it out for myself. I’m happy to learn by reading articles and then practicing what I’ve read. For some things I find online tutorials are great and there are plenty of free articles or tutorials out there on every photography topic known to man!
Many people prefer learning in a more hands-on way. If this is the case, the best thing to do is to enrol in a course. There are lots of beginner ‘learn how to use your camera courses’ as well as some basic photography courses that will get you going. If you prefer having someone explain things to you and being able to get instant feedback, then investing in a short course is better than leaving your expensive camera sitting at home and never using it!
You can also ask friends who are handy with a camera to give you a quick one on one session to at least get you going. Often having someone show you a few basic things is enough so that all the online articles start making sense. I still recommend having at least started reading through your manual before you do a course or getting help from family/friends. You will get so much more out of it.
Get out there and practice, and practice some more. I’ll write much more about this, along with some specific things you will want to practice in the next post….. However, you can take all the photography classes in the world and read every article ever written, but if you don’t practice what you’ve learnt, you still aren’t going to progress that fast.
If people have anything they would specifically like me to write about, please let me know! In the next post in this series I was going to write a little more about ways to set-up your camera that will help you learn and take better photos, and settings you might like to investigate to help you along.
In future posts I could write about:
* the different shooting modes on your camera
* how to use the different metering modes
* understanding and using the different focus tracking systems
* understanding shooting in raw vs jpeg, and which is best for your circumstances
There are probably a tonne of other ideas, so happy to have any suggestions from readers!