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Thread: A beginner's guide to photography for total beginners

  1. #1
    thatguyfromvienna's Avatar
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    Mar 2012
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    Alexander Rose

    A beginner's guide to photography for total beginners

    Last year in fall, I bought my first DSLR and started taking pictures.
    I very quickly found the Internet to be an incredible source of wisdom and inspiration with a bunch of websites that really stand out of the crowd.
    You are without any doubt reading this on one of the finest among them.

    By no means would I claim to have found the one and only truth.
    I am a beginner just like you. I make mistakes over and over every time I put my hands on my beloved camera – and even worse, I miss incredible shots every day because I haven’t developed my perception to a point that allows me to see good pictures the way a more experienced photographer does.

    It’s a Saturday night / Sunday morning, I am working a 12 hour night shift and have plenty of time at hand. Everything I’m writing here just comes to my mind in a random order.

    I have more ideas what to write about, so if there’s any demand, please let me know and I’ll have this article grow.

    Also, English is not my native language so if I do make mistakes, please bear with me.

    And if you find any factual errors, please be so kind and correct me.

    Buy the most expensive gear you can afford!!!
    That’s imperative!
    All the pros use these incredibly expensive full format cameras and these nifty fast lenses.
    That’s why their pictures look so great, right?

    Imagine the following situation:
    You meet your old pal Helmut Newton and agree to make a competitive shooting somewhere in a nice loft-like studio. There is a lot of natural light, an incredibly beautiful model in sexy lingerie and Helmut and you share an assistant, a diffuser and a reflector.
    You get the Nikon D4 – THE flagship in all its glory, total bling-a-ling at your disposal and access to each and every single Nikkor lens there is. You’re a pro now!
    Helmut, that poor sod, receives a Canon 1000D (also known as Rebel XS) and one of those 100 bucks 50mm f/1.8 lenses. He’s screwed, right?

    So poor Helmut is running around his model in circles, investigating how the light exactly is, makes the model strike poses, changes angles, has your assistant reflect some light from here to there, shoots from lots of different positions.

    You know you don’t have to. You have equipment in your hands that will do all the work for you so all you do is have your model look sexy and shoot like hell. Continuous shooting all the way, Baby!

    In the end, we all know, your photos will be so much better than Helmut’s. Because the equipment takes the photos. You’re actually just carrying the camera around, aren’t you?

    PS: It probably wasn't obvious enough - this is all tongue in cheek.
    Can a pro maker better pictures with better equipment? Technically he can.
    Would your and my pictures look better if made with better gear? Yeah, they probably would.
    Would you and I be top-notch photographers if we had gear worth 30 grand or more? Haha! Sit down and take a beer, mate.

    Learn everything you can about the exposure triangle
    Seriously. Quite often I meet people who don’t understand the basic concept behind it at all, and some of them were hobby photographers for much longer than me.
    It’s actually incredibly simple – shutter speed, aperture size and light sensitivity. Read up on it. Because you’re a painter now and we paint with light!

    Know thy gear
    Can you operate your camera in total darkness?
    Because if you can’t you will eventually find yourself in a situation where you’ll have to.
    No light will be allowed and you’ll need to change the shutter speed on the fly. Would you miss the shot?

    Or maybe you will have to very quickly change the ISO setting on your camera. How long will it take you? 5 seconds or rather half a minute?

    Memorize it! All but the most expensive pro DSLRs are actually quite simple to operate. They have few buttons and few dials. Knowing which button does what without having to search can save many situations.

    Know the limitations of your equipment – and yours, too
    At which ISO speed do your camera’s images become too noisy?
    I know that my camera introduces some noise at 400. Easily controllable. It’s a bit more at 800 but that can be taken care of in post processing. At 1600, noise is still OK for an image I put on the web but for big format printing, I’d rather not use it.

    What about your lenses? Do you know where their sweet spot is?
    How good is your kit lens at 18mm f/3.5 – are images sharp or do they get a lot better at f/5.6? (They most probably do, by the way)
    Why not download Adobe’s lens profile creator and print out one of their test patterns. Make test shots. Be aware at which point the result is most crisp and when it’s still tolerable. It’s OK to sacrifice some sharpness for more light when this puts you in the range where you can still handhold the shot instead of shaking it.

    And what about you? Did you ever try to find out what’s the longest time you can hold at 55mm? If you don’t, you might end up sorting out a lot of pictures when you get home.
    Here is a tutorial about camera shake.
    (Or rather how to avoid it - because introducing camera shake is too easy to be worth a tutorial!)


    I’ll probably receive some serious beatings for this one – but I totally believe in it.
    RAW is way more versatile than JPEG.
    Yes, files are bigger. A lot, actually. But take a look at the prices for external storage – that stuff is literally free these days!
    You can abuse RAW much more than JPEG.

    Try the following:
    Get out on an overcast day and set your white balance to Tungsten. Or stay inside, have a Tungsten light source around and set white balance to Overcast. Take two pictures, one in RAW, one in JPEG.
    Now open them in your digital darkroom and correct the colors.
    I bet the RAW will look a lot better than the JPEG in the end.
    Don’t even get me started on shadow recovery and the like.
    Of course, CiC has more on this.

    Get a tripod

    A tripod is your friend in so many situations! Like product photography. Self portraits. Long time exposures. Panoramas. Everything actually!
    And these carbon Manfrotto tripods with their nifty ball heads are amazing!
    OK, they will probably cost more than your entry level DSLR with kit lens did so why not buy a cheap one for the time being? You can still move up to something better when you feel the need.

    What’s worse than a cheap tripod?
    Right - no tripod at all!
    Sure as hell, CiC totally agrees with me. Good boy! ^^

    And get one of those cheap 50mm f/1.8
    There’s no cheaper way to have brilliant image quality and a shallow depth of field than these cute critters. They sell for around 100 dollars. They are small and light.
    They don’t zoom – but did you ever realize you had legs? If you’re in a wheelchair, you have wheels. Zoom with either one!

    It’s about composition
    Seriously. It is.
    Learn about the rule of thirds in places like this one. It’s an ancient rule about aesthetics that still holds true today.
    Of course, rules are created to be broken and the same applies to this one. But there are more photos, I promise, that look better following that rule than there are that don’t.

    Oh, and watch your framing!
    Are you sure everything you want to be in the image actually is?
    A buck, just a single dollar (or Euro, in my case) for every time I amputated just a tiny piece of an important object in a shot (thus totally ruining the entire image) and I could quit my job and get a cozy house in the Hamptons!

    So make sure you don’t amputate. It’s not nice.

    Learn about aperture and shutter speed
    There are great tutorials on this site explaining in simple words what they actually do. How to use them. When to use them. Read them. Read them again. Until you fully understand their meaning.
    Forget about circles of confusion and all the other very technical stuff. It doesn’t matter. Most of the time, it’s a very rough rule of thumb decision. But it’s great to know approximately which aperture or which shutter speed are advisable to have your image look the way you want it to.
    Here is the CiC tutorial on depth of field.

    Program modes suck
    So you got yourself a DSLR. And you shoot in portrait mode. Or landscape mode. Or night mode.
    Congratulations – you actually bought an overpriced, heavy and extremely clunky point and shoot camera.

    Your camera can do so much more in the so-called creative modes!
    Control the depth of field to your liking.
    Control the shutter speed!
    Control the ISO speed of your camera!

    Try Time Priority mode first and take pictures of people walking by.
    Learn how different shutter speeds influence their appearance.
    Is a car passing by really sharp at 1/50 of a second?

    Then learn about Aperture Priority. It’s not as easy to understand as Time Priority is but it’s not too complicated either.
    Learn how different aperture sizes influence the amount of light coming in (Hint: A lot!) and how they affect the depth perception of your pictures.

    And when you’re really daring, move to the M mode.
    M stands for “Magic”, no doubt about this.
    Switching to M (“manual”, actually - but isn’t life always about storytelling too?) can be really intimidating in the beginning.
    But don’t be scared, dear!
    Look at your viewfinder! You still have these cute arrows telling you what the camera thinks about the expected result – will it be overexposed? Will it be underexposed?

    I’ll tell you in the next chapter why I think that M (for “magic”, always keep that in mind) will make you take better pictures!

    Is it high key or low key?

    You know how your camera decides which exposure to use, right?
    It tries to make the whole scene you capture be an average grey. Isn’t that cruel?
    Funnily, this works extremely well quite often!

    When you shoot a landscape in early afternoon, you’ll have a blue sky, some white clouds, lots of green trees and grass, maybe some dark mountains and a tar road.
    Mash it all up, blend it and voilà – it’s an ugly grey, brightness wise.

    While this works great under many circumstances, it totally fails under others.
    Two well-known examples are the black cat on your black bed cover – and a cute little polar bear playing in the snow. Your camera would make them both look grey.

    That’s where you’re at bat.
    You judge whether a scene is brighter or darker than average.
    And I personally find that the Magic Mode helps a lot doing so because you need to use your dials anyway.

    So you’re in Paris, in front of Notre Dame, and want to take a photo of it. Notre Dame is quite dark, so you better underexpose your image a bit.
    Found one of these modern office buildings with lots of glass and bright marble? Overexpose!

    It is a lot of trial and error. You’ll go home, upload the pictures to your computer and delete a lot of them. It’s frustrating. But when you practiced distinguishing high key from low key in a controlled environment (the area you call home) where you can take a shot gone belly up again without problems, you’ll be comfortable doing the same in Paris and get much better pictures in return.

    Be inspired

    There are so many photo blogs out there. Visit them! Take a look at the pictures. Investigate what you like about them. Especially, find pictures of everyday themes you find beautiful because it’s a lot easier to take a gorgeous photo in Monument Valley or Venice than of a simple house you’ll most likely find in your own neighborhood as well. Check out those and try to find out why they impress you.

    If your brain functions the way mine does, you would never come up with an idea such as standing a foot before a house and take a picture right up the façade.
    Now you did! Still reading? Shouldn’t you be hugging a wall instead?

    Be inspired but don’t copy. That’s important.

    Post processing

    There is a gazillion of image processing software out there.
    Personally, I use the cream of the crop – Lightroom and Photoshop but only because Lightroom is quite cheap and I still qualify for an academic license of Photoshop.
    If I didn’t, I would buy Photoshop Elements. Tested it at a friend’s place a few weeks ago and I have to admit that I was heavily impressed! PSE has everything you actually need!

    And there are even totally free alternatives – there really are!
    For instance, Google Picasa is an OK free alternative to Lightroom.
    Way more complex and a lot more powerful is Raw Therapee - without a doubt the king among free RAW editors.
    Gimp is totally free and really powerful too – quite a good replacement for Photoshop.
    Or did you ever try Faststone Image Viewer? Hell – that program is lovely! It is free and started as a pure image viewer. Many versions later, it has become an impressive image manipulation program that even reads most RAW files out there! Give it a shot!

    Because sometimes, you just need to post process.
    People always did. Back in the old days, it was done in the dark room. Today, we have the means to make it much easier and non-destructive. Ain’t that lovely???

    Revision history:
    May 14: Added links to CiC tutorials related to my topics
    May 15: Mentioned RAW Therapee, added links to all programs listed, corrected my statement regarding Gimp
    Last edited by thatguyfromvienna; 15th May 2012 at 02:55 AM.

  2. #2
    herbert's Avatar
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    re: A beginner's guide to photography for total beginners

    Hi Alexander,

    It's not about the expensive gear. The better you get the more you can achieve with less.

    I would add that you need to know your subject. The best photographs are by those who understand the essence of what they are shooting. If you imagine every moment of your life as a potential photograph, some moments will provide enduring memories, some are to be forgotten.


  3. #3

    Join Date
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    Have a guess :)

    re: A beginner's guide to photography for total beginners

    Quote Originally Posted by herbert View Post

    It's not about the expensive gear. The better you get the more you can achieve with less.
    I agree, but I like to look at it from a "limitations" point of view.

    Initially, mostly what limits a photographer is their own lack of skill -- but at a certain point they may well find that all the skill in the world still won't let them get "the shot" without the right gear (although probably not so much the camera - or even the lens - but definitely when you start talking lighting etc).

    Joe McNally is perhaps a good example. A photographer who is more "at the top of his game" you're unlikely to find ... but he none-the-less brings a truckload of gear (and several assistants) -- but he gets the shot. Don't think - even with all of his experience - he'd het the shot without the gear though.

  4. #4
    krispix's Avatar
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    re: A beginner's guide to photography for total beginners

    Hey Alexander,
    That's a masterclass! Obviously your 'Expensive is best' is tongue-in-cheek, although Colin does have a point. It's the guy behind the camera, not the gear that takes the picture.
    If you want to have some fun and test your creative abilities, get a disposable camera from a chemist (drug store) and get a group of like-minded chums. You can each have the camera for a week and take one shot (and one shot only!). You'll be stunned by the results.

  5. #5
    Moderator Dave Humphries's Avatar
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    May 2008
    Windsor, Berks, UK
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    Dave Humphries :)

    re: A beginner's guide to photography for total beginners

    Hi Alexander,

    A very entertaining, and for the most part, inspirational/educational post.

    Once I'd got past the first bit, which possibly isn't quite obvious enough as being tougue in cheek for the "brand newbie" as it could be, this is a very thought provoking piece of writing.

    I concur with so much of what you say.

    I (distantly) remember when I had a job that was "be there for a shift" and left you time to think - now I'm more a manager of my own tasks, be technically creative (web pages) and have an outstanding job list that allows no time for thinking about anything else during working hours, plus some hours beyond what I'm officially supposed to do (but for the most part I enjoy it).

    I'm glad you wrote this, it even has me thinking of a better definition of 'high key' and 'low key' images.


  6. #6
    thatguyfromvienna's Avatar
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    Mar 2012
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    Alexander Rose

    Re: A beginner's guide to photography for total beginners

    Thank you all for the input and kind words.
    I will overhaul and extend when I find the time.

  7. #7
    Photon Hacker's Avatar
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    Dec 2011
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    Re: A beginner's guide to photography for total beginners

    Congratulations, this is a good introduction. I would love to see it expanded in the future.

    However, I would like to point that The GIMP, as part of the GNU project of which I'm a supporter and in which I actively collaborate, is developed with the free software philosophy in mind. Albeit the GIMP qualifies as open source software we don't support the open source initiative because we think it misses the point of free software which is the user freedom (See the link for more information). Please don't use "open source" as a substitute for "free software" when referring to the work of the GNU project and its supporters because it misleads people to think we share that viewpoint.

    Apart from The GIMP I use RawTherapee to process my photographs and ImageMagick to efficiently encode the RawTherapee output as the paying or not paying client requires.

  8. #8
    Moderator Manfred M's Avatar
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    Manfred Mueller

    Re: A beginner's guide to photography for total beginners

    I think you need to add two more thoughts:

    1. Practice, practice and more practice; and

    2. Be your own harshest critic.

  9. #9

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    Re: A beginner's guide to photography for total beginners

    Quote Originally Posted by GrumpyDiver View Post
    I think you need to add two more thoughts:

    1. Practice, practice and more practice; and

    2. Be your own harshest critic.
    Good advice, I've found the more I've practiced the better my images and the more at ease I am with the camera. Which in turn makes it a far more enjoyable experience.

  10. #10
    thatguyfromvienna's Avatar
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    Alexander Rose

    Re: A beginner's guide to photography for total beginners

    Dammit! Totally forgot about Raw Therapee! Will add it tonight.
    And sorry about open source. I am well aware of the differences but I was convinced Gimp was open source.

    You're totally right - I'll emphasize the importance of pratcice more.

    That's what I mean when I say "Know thy gear".
    It's like writing. When you still need to concentrate on painting every single letter, you won't create literature. And while you still struggle to get the settings on your camera right, you are very unlikely to produce good shots.

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