I’m frequently contacted by people with an early interest in photography and curious about how to start, what camera to buy and what to know.
Like any craft or hobby, there is no single right way to get started with photography, but hopefully this blog might help to answer some easy questions and maybe even give a few tips to any newbies out there wanting to give it a go.
First thing’s first, let’s start with the why. Photographic genres are endless, and each comes with its own quirks and tricks but even before we talk about those, we need to get down to what it is that inspires you.
One of the greatest things about photography is that it can be added to what we already love to do; it’s a hobby that plays nice with our other hobbies. Do you love to travel? Do you love children? Nature, sports, cooking? Landscape, portrait, macro, sports and still life photography all have their own areas to focus on and hone your skills at. Having an idea of what inspires you will make those early days of practice all the more fun and rewarding.
So, have a think about what you like, what you would like to take photos of and start looking for some inspiration.
Go and get a camera
This is the fun part. We can’t really get into photography without a camera but if you’re new to photography getting a ‘good camera’ can be a daunting endeavour. So, here’s a few pointers.
Let’s not beat around the bush here, photography is no cheap sport and as you improve so too will your need for more or better accessories.
But why is that relevant now? Because when you buy a brand of camera that’s the same brand you’ll need to start investing in accessories for, so my recommendation would be to stick with one of the bigger and more established camera manufacturers and one that can cover your needs as you develop.
Budget and goals
Good cameras cost a lot of money and so too do their accessories, so it’s important to be clear about what your goals are for the new camera. Chances are, if you’re just starting out, you don’t need the best quality full frame sensor on the market, the highest speed shutter sync, fastest frame rate or the most extreme ISO quality.
What you need is a camera with interchangeable lenses and manual control. That’s it. There’s a lot to learn and it’s all good fun but we need to walk before we can run, and mastering photography all starts with mastering light, exposure and composition.
An entry level dSLR or mirrorless camera will give you the chance to learn the various settings without being overwhelmed. Speaking of dSLR’s and mirrorless cameras…
What’s a good camera?
Up until recently, deciding to buy a ‘good camera’ meant a dSLR but there’s now a second option; mirrorless. As you research cameras you’ll probably come across these and without a little understanding as to what they are you may rule out a potentially great option without knowing it. Just like with dSLR’s, mirrorless cameras feature a lens mount which means you can interchange lenses, but as the name might suggest, they forgo the mirror system from dSLR’s.
See, dSLR’s use a mirror to relay an optical reflection of the scene through the lens, up through a glass pentaprism and into an optical viewfinder. Abandoning this complex mirror and glass system helps reduce size and weight. It seems like an obvious win, but pros have taken some warming up to the mirrorless system. With no mirror, they rely on an electronic viewfinder or, indeed, the back-LCD panel.
There have also been some concerns over the extent of compatible lenses available for these new systems but that’s quickly changing as well, so it’s really a choice around size and weight or a traditional glass viewfinder.
Now to the features
At the absolute minimum, you must buy a camera that has full manual control, there is simply no other way to learn about exposure and light. If you’re at all interested in any type of still life, portrait or macro photography you will also need a camera that has a hot shoe for mounting a flash.
Low Light Performance
A camera's low light performance is delivered via it's ISO. High ISO capability is a nice to have but unless you’re serious about sports, photojournalism, events or astro photography you won’t need to push your ISO too high. Even most entry level camera’s today have better ISO performance than pro-level models of only a few years ago.
The camera’s focusing engine will be the next major point of differentiation you’ll see between models and prices. Moving into a better camera will bring with it the introduction of Automatic Focus Points (AF Points). Higher end cameras will have more AF Points spread out across the frame to help it lock focus on moving subjects. This is a common point of differentiation between models and their respective price differences. For example, Nikon’s entry level D3400 uses 11 focus points while the higher D5600 uses 39 focus points. Nikon’s Top of the line professional D5 uses 153 focus points (and also costs as much as a small car).
Are focus points important? Absolutely. Should you start with a higher end camera because of them? No. Learning to focus and track subjects as they move takes time and is more important.
Better camera’s usually have larger sensors. The larger the sensor the better the image quality. If you see a camera with a ‘full frame’ sensor that means the sensor is 35mm – the same size as a standard 35mm film. Full Frame sensors are usually found in professional level cameras and come with a price tag to match. Getting started with a micro 4/3rds or APS-C size sensor makes perfect sense and will still be a huge step up from your point and shoot or phone camera.
I’m going to skip over this because it just doesn’t matter. 20megapixels is pretty common today and more than enough. Just remember – higher resolution does not equal better image quality.
This is actually a really important point and one that shouldn’t be overlooked. As a rule, I’ve never liked Canon, that’s not because they don’t make a good camera, but rather because I’ve never liked their ergonomics.
Before buying a camera it’s important to go into a store, hold it and use it. Does it feel right in your hands, can you access the controls easily and do the menus seem logical to you?
These are important points and could make all the difference. For example, on a head to head comparison, the Nikon D3400 does edge out the Canon 1300D but the 1300D is still a terrific camera so don’t assume the D3400 is the right camera for you until you’ve held and tested the 1300D. This is even more important now with the smaller and lighter mirrorless options. Specifications and features don’t mean a lot when the camera doesn’t feel natural to use.
It might come as a surprise that lenses are of equal importance to the camera itself. We’ll research and agonise over what camera to buy and give little thought to lenses, but they play a major role in photography. Most entry level camera bodies come with what will be called a ‘kit lens’ and these are usually fine to start with.
It’s common to find a single or twin lens kit and the choice on which one to get really comes down to the style of photography you want to learn and practice with. Nikon’s entry level D3400 comes with a 18-55mm single lens kit or a 18-55mm + 70-300mm twin lens kit. The 70-300mm is a long tele-zoom.
The 50mm prime and why you need one
If you were hoping for a few tips in this blog than listen up.
Lenses come in two flavours, zoom lenses and prime lenses. A prime lens is simply just a fixed focal length, ie, it can’t zoom. Regardless of what style photography you would like to learn I strongly recommend buying a 50mm f1.4 or f1.8 prime lens. Remember when I said earlier that photography is about learning light, exposure and composition? A 50mm prime lens is the single best accessory to help you practice and learn all three.
Light and exposure
Learning to control light and exposure requires an understanding of three variables, shutter speed, aperture and iso. Most kit lenses will have what is called a variable aperture, meaning the aperture may start around, say, f3.5 and narrow down to around f5.6 as you zoom.
This helps to keep the cost of the lens down, but it also makes it terribly tricky to learn your exposure controls when your maximum aperture range is variable and changing without your input. A 50mm f1.8 prime will allow you to fix your aperture at f1.8 and observe the difference in exposure as you adjust the shutter speed and ISO.
Learning to compose for shots is a skill that will come to some naturally and to others with a little practice, but a zoom lens gives you a little too much freedom to be lazy as you’re learning.
A fixed 50mm will force you to physically move as you compose for the scene, overtime this will become habit.
Here’s the cool part. You know those photos where the subject is in focus and the background is all blurred out? That is called ‘depth of field’ (D.O.F) and a shallower D.O.F will give you a more blurry background. D.O.F is a product of three variables, aperture, focal length and distance. The wider your aperture (f1.8 is wide, f11 is narrow) the shallower your depth of field.
The longer your focal length (100mm is long, 16mm is wide) the shallower your depth of field. So, you guessed it. That 50mm f1.8 prime – a perfect lens for shallow depth of field shots. They’re fun, they’ll get you hooked but they’ll also really help teach you about exposure and light as you’ll be forced to learn how to accommodate for a wider aperture with your shutter speed and ISO.
The accessory list for photography is longer than most car brochures and makeup catalogues, but there are three accessories worth touching on at this point. Tripods, Flashes and bags.
If you want to try any sort of long exposure or night photography, you’ll need a tripod. The same can be said for landscape photography. Shooting a sunrise or sunset handheld isn’t going to give you the best results. I’ll write more on this in a later blog.
Flash photography is incredibly fun and used by many styles of photography including portraits, events and still life (still life – that’s you foodies). So, will you need one? Yes, but you’ll have a bit to learn before you can make sense of how to correctly use a flash and it’ll probably just complicate matters to begin with, so maybe hold off for now unless you can wheel and deal a package price for buying it upfront with your new camera.
As for bags, well, they’re rather important. They say the best camera is the one you’ve got on you, and unless you have it packed up and ready to go, you’re likely going to find yourself leaving it at home. You won’t need much to begin with but as your range of equipment grows so too will your collection of bags (I’m not afraid to admit I have a minor bag problem). Landscape photographers in particular need good bags and there are a lot of options to choose from. Say goodbye to carry-on luggage.
Ok, so we’ve identified what inspires us. We’ve made the commitment and purchased our camera, now what? Well it may seem obvious, but the next step is to just get out and shoot. A lot. Every time you learn a new skill, practice it. If you read a tip on line, practice it.
Start paying attention to where light is coming from and how different angles create different shadows and how different types of light change your photos. And most importantly, make mistakes. Get to know what it is that you don’t like about your photos and what you could change to fix them. Every great photo I’ve taken has 100 failed attempts behind it.
That’s about it for now. Photography is a wonderful hobby and it really is never ending. I’ve been shooting passionately now for almost 15 years and I’m still learning all the time. The challenge becomes addictive and I am sincerely grateful that I fell in love with photography when I did. It’s cost me a lot of money and a lot of time, but I love it and I’m sure you will too.
Till next time.