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F/8 And Be There

Nearing Sundown

I own a DSLR and take a lot of pictures, which makes me an authority on the subject of cameras and photography, and guarantees that every time my shutter snaps, magic happens. It said so right there on the receipt.

Now, that is obvious nonsense, but I get asked a lot of questions about cameras anyway. I carry around an SLR sometimes, so people ask me what camera should I buy or how do I take better pictures, just a bunch of stuff I don’t always have answers for. Honestly: my occasional hobby is buying cheap, weird old lenses and filters off Craigslist and seeing what kind of pictures I can take with them, because I think not knowing how things are going to turn out is fun, but that’s the extent of my qualifications.

I take a lot of pictures, go me, and some of them come out OK.

Focused

But this little rant was brought on when I saw someone just recently with obviously no idea what they were buying drop two grand on a camera they’ll likely never really use, much less take a decent picture with. The most cringeworthy bit was when the person asked which, of a prime or zoom lens, would “take better pictures”.

So I thought I should get this out there. Having done this in an amateur capacity for two or three years, here’s entirety of my thinking on buying and using cameras.

The first thing is: don’t buy a DSLR. Just don’t. Get yourself a competent point-and-shoot. Don’t skimp on the memory card; buy a large one from a reputable brand, but buying last year’s cameras on sale is a good idea. Don’t spend a lot of money; just learn to use it well enough that you can go from off and in your pocket to on and taking pictures in one motion with one hand. Fiddle around with the menus until you’ve turned off digital zoom and the flash, carry it with you wherever you go, and when you see something you’d like to take a picture of, take a picture of it.

Gate And Sky

Take lots and lots and lots of pictures. Don’t take the kind of pictures you think you should take; take pictures of the things you find interesting. You’re taking the whole picture, not just the subject; frame the subject in the shot. Move around, just for the change in perspective, and take more pictures.

You can expect to take a few dozen or hundred pictures for every one that’s even kind of good, and strangely as you get more experienced that number will get higher, not lower; the bar you set for yourself will get higher faster than you improve. But now that pictures are just about free that’s a good thing: failure is more informative than success when you’re just starting out. The Rule Of Thirds will get you a long way here, so keep it in mind.

Phone

So by and large what kind of pictures are you taking? What works well, what doesn’t? What is great, what isn’t and why? Are you zoomed all the way in most of the time, or all the way out? Are they mostly scenery, mostly people? Plants, cars? Are they mostly moving, or are they sitting still for you? With that information, do you still enjoy taking pictures?

Are you still interested in getting better at this? If so, and with all that information, consider buying yourself a DSLR, maybe.

You can blow up a 6 megapixel shot to a 20″x30″ print and they look great, so megapixels are an irrelevant metric. This is doubly true in this modern age where virtually all your picture-viewing happens on a screen; your top-of-the-line 1080p HDTV is a whopping two megapixels; extremely expensive computer monitors might go as high as three. All cameras, and indeed almost all lenses, have been better than that for a couple of years.

Buy used, if you have that option; expensive cameras do not promise good photos, and digital camera prices drop like a rock. I shoot Nikon, but from what I hear the rule of thumb is “If you shoot things that are mostly moving, Canon. If you’re shooting things that mostly aren’t, Nikon”. That said, when you see a guy winning a Pulitzer with a $30 piece-of-crap Holga, you’ve got to know that ultimately the technology is secondary. If you’ve had your point-and-shoot for a year and haven’t shot a few thousand pictures with it, looked at them and thought about them, don’t buy anything, why are you even doing this? If you don’t go places just to take pictures of whatever’s there, don’t waste your money; if you don’t take a lot of photos, having a lot of camera won’t help.

Self

If you’re buying the camera as a kit, as entry-level DSLRs are often sold, you will often have the option to upgrade to a slightly better zoom lens. Did your point and shoot spend all its time zoomed all the way in, while you took pictures of stuff a ways away? If so, and if you have the means, spring for the longer lens. If not, save your money and in a couple of weeks or months buy the cheapest prime lens you can find.

Paint Over Concrete

You now have more camera than you’ll likely ever need. You can learn a lot about the bells and whistles that modern cameras provide, but my advice is to the same as it was for the point-and-shoot; set it to JPEG-Fine and no-flash and take lots and lots more pictures. Keep your point-and-shoot in your pocket anyway; as always, the best camera you can get is the one that will be in your hand when the shot comes along.

If anyone has any other advice, I’d love to hear it. That’s all I have.

6 Comments | Skip to comment form

  1. Jim Millen

    Think this post nailed it – nothing more depressing than somebody with all the gear and no clue how to use it. Sadly photography, like many male/geek hobbies, suffers from a kit snobbery that really detracts from the point of it all.

    Wouldn’t argue with any of your advice – must confess I use RAW, for the sole reason it’s a safety net when capturing shots with lots of tonal contrast. I’d freely admit that’s sometimes a crutch for poor technique, but does let me recover worthwhile shots that otherwise would have been missed!

    For somebody getting started I’d strongly advise them to ignore the current obsession with achieving ultimate sharpness & technical correctness in photographs. Sure, pictures need to be reasonably in-focus, exposed properly etc. But it’s far more important to capture a powerful composition that will have an impact on the viewer than it is to worry about sharpness at 1:1 enlargement.

    Completely agree about the only way to develop being to take lots of photos, review, reflect, and repeat. One thing I’d add is to throw in some study of great photographs by others. This might be going to exhibitions, reading books, photo blogs, or making connections on Flickr – doesn’t matter. I’ve just found it really helpful in developing my own work to examine & think about what I find inspiring in photographs generally.

    There’s obviously a caution there about plagiarism – nothing great ever came from copying the work of others too closely! But there’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from the general themes, styles & techniques of those who have come before you, and using that to feed into developing a unique style of your own.

    Reckon you’re absolutely spot-on with kit advice – you only have to look at how many pro photographers now use compact P&S cameras – or even iPhones! – for their personal and impromptu work. It’s having the eye to see the picture that counts, not the gear.

    Nice post on an interesting topic!

  2. Mike Kozlowski

    So after a brief flirtation, I actually have moved away from photography as a hobby, due to the part where I had to admit that I saw less and less point in it. Making artsy/interesting photos is pretty much like writing poetry in that I’m sure your mom thinks it’s neat, and nobody else will notice, due to the part where Flickr has roughly 18 billion photos on it. So I’m pretty much just taking pictures for memorial purposes now. Although you wouldn’t know it to look at my vacation pictures.

    Anyway, though, now that I’ve established that I have no credentials whatsoever, my point was going to be that I think you’re wrong about the SLR thing. I mean, maybe you’re right for yourself, but for my part, I find that I strongly dislike taking pictures with portable cameras. And I mean, I got rid of my SLR for a GF1 that I really wanted to like, so this isn’t just inexperienced snobbery here. (Plus, there are pictures — such as anything indoors out of bright sunlight — that you just can’t take with a non-SLR at all.)

    Anyway anyway, I think that someone who is interested in photography and wants to take interesting pictures will do it no matter what they have, but I also think that giving people constraints forces them to be more creative, which is why I’d recommend a cheap SLR and a cheap prime lens to start.

  3. mhoye

    I’m curious; what did you eventually do? Resell the GF-1 and move back to an SLR? Stick with it?

    While I love my prime lenses, I also think that by blurring or blowing out the non-subject parts of the picture they let you cheat a lot in terms of framing and taking the whole shot; I think you’re right that constraints can force creativity, but I also think that primes let you get away with a lot more than you acknowledge.

  4. Mike Kozlowski

    I still have the GF-1, and I waffle around between just keeping it for a while or Craigslisting it and getting a small SLR like a T2i to replace it.

    As for your complaints about primes: Well, that’s all related to aperture, right? So what you want is a REALLY cheap super-slow prime. Or just shoot stopped down all the time, I guess?

    But I think the lack of zoom is arguably more important. If you only have a single focal length, you’ll find that there are lots of pictures that you want to take, but can’t — you can’t zoom in on that bird in the tree, or zoom out to take a wide shot of the landscape — which forces you to take the non-obvious pictures instead. That said, though, I think it also depends on what prime you have. Using a 50mm lens that had an effectively 80mm POV forced me to do interesting things. Whereas the GF1 comes with a 20mm lens that’s effectively 40mm, and that seems to encourage me to just take the laziest possible “group photo” picture.

  5. mhoye

    On reflection you are doing exactly what I’m saying not to do here; buying gear without really knowing what kind of pictures you want to take, and thus spending money without being happy with the results.

  6. Mike Kozlowski

    Ironically, the Digital Rebel that I bought basically at random back in the day was the camera that was the most satisfying for me, and the GF-1 that I bought because it seemed perfectly suited for what I wanted to do with it is the one that’s the least satisfying.