I can see you are excited. You discovered photography in your life and you want to know more. Welcome!
But where do you start?
There are so many ways to practice photography. The technology is moving fast, together with the devices we use for photography.
Given that we have about 3.5 billion smart phone users worldwide (according to statista), I would guess that the first camera most people start with today is a smart phone camera.
Not too long ago (that’s a relative term, I got my first camera I think in 1974), these phone cameras were more a gimmick, and “real” photographers looked down on photographers using their smart phone to start into the world of photography. If you are starting out with your smart phone today, you are in a much better position as the cameras got fantastic. Some even have manual control on-par with dedicated cameras the “real” photographers use.
On that note: Don’t let anyone tell you what a real photographer is. No one can tell you what a real photographer is. Everyone is learning.
We might all be on unique paths and with a different amount of knowledge concerning photography. Don’t let someone intimidate you with expensive gear and lots of titles from international photographic societies. They are humans. And most of them love to talk about photography and impart on their wisdom.
Just ask them what you want to know. And maybe you can show them how to use photography software on your smart phone, because they might not know. I certainly have limited practice with mobile phone photography, I’m still learning. But I can teach a lot of other photography topics, so let us learn together.
That’s all good, but…
Where to start?
Join a photo club
I love being in a photo club, so my answer would be: look for people who love photography and join them when they meet. Or join an online club. There are heaps of physical clubs everywhere. But photo club photography is not for everyone, the clubs operate differently, some are competitive, some just don’t meet often enough and some are stuck in old traditions and are hard to enter. How to find a good camera club is a topic for another article.
Use online material
This is an obvious one, you are the best proof.
The online world covers photography with every little detail explained. You need to search for the more obscure things, but among online print media, video platforms, online learning platforms, blog websites and ebooks, there is so much material out there. If someone explains to you what aperture is, and you don’t understand it right away, look up 500 other sources which might explain it a bit differently. One way would click with you (see what I did there?).
The difficult part is to find the good websites, the video channels to subscribe to, and the (paid and unpaid) online learning courses worth the money/time.
I have over 100 YouTube channels related to photography in my subscription list, but I only visit maybe 10 on a regular basis. Every month I clean up the ones I do not use anymore. It takes time to get rid of the noise.
Learn your camera
When you start with photography, you quickly discover that photographic gear plays a major part in most of the online material you can find, as that is one thing you can sell in photography. And fresh stuff comes around the corner every day. We can have an extensive discussion about what gear you need as a beginner, but I personally would put more emphasis on starting small and learn the basics first. And with basics, I mean: learn not only to master the camera you own but also master one image processing program. Invest into your knowledge, not gadgets.
At our neighborhood photo club, we have a photographer who is a regular guest for photo critiques. He likes to tell stories. So one day he told us what he does when he watches TV in the evening. He practices using his camera without looking at it. He would set himself a task, say: Change to aperture priority mode, select f/8, switch to manual focus and dial in 1 stop over-exposure. Without looking at the camera.
If you do that kind of stuff, you really learn your camera and you can take advantage of every opportunity because you are prepared. You have your camera with you all the time, right?
I was reminded of that learning practice when I did a trip to Lake Tekapo (New Zealand, South Island), a famous place for night photography as it is in one of the least light-polluted areas of the world and still very accessible. So I was trying to take a picture of the Church with the Milky Way in the background. At night. In the dark. Can’t see my camera controls. That’s where your practice comes in handy.
After a while it was not a problem anymore as so many other photographers and tourists joined the location, some not aware of what photographers do. They walked in front of a long exposure shot, or used their flash lights while happily taking images of the church. Astro-photographers don’t like this, but what can you do. I think I did not get one proper shot that night. Not because I didn’t know how to operate my camera in the dark, but because of light coming from all over the place at the wrong time. It reminded me of how useful it can be to know where the camera controls are without looking at the camera.
Learn a comprehensive image processing software
The other thing I would like you to think about is learning a good image processing program for the post-processing of your images. It may be something you try to avoid, but if you learn it together with learning more about your camera, you build up knowledge slowly and it comes natural after a while.
I was the competition secretary for our club for two years, that provided ample opportunity to look at the images in my time. It was then when I recognized where images fail and why. One reason images did not get a better award was because the photographer was not effective in using post-processing, while others were.
The equalizer is gone
In the time before digital photography, there was an inbuilt equalizer in the system, as most people did not develop their own film rolls or prints or slides. The image quality was more determined by the subject, the composition and other things you need to get right in camera as you couldn’t change them easily afterwards.
Now everyone can (theoretically) do their own post-processing, and several people in your club will be great at that. Your image will compete with the best software on the planet which can do fabulous things in the right hands. Some people can make mediocre subjects and composition look a lot better than an excellent subject and composition, but with bad or no post-processing applied. Love it or hate it, that’s the reality from my point of view. If you want to get the most out of your images, find new tools to express your creativity by learning post-processing early on. Most people think of learning Photoshop, but there are other options out there. Even free ones. It just takes some time and dedication, but it will reward you.
Here comes the test. Did you notice anything unusual with the first church image above? No? Well, I used Photoshop in a quick two-minute job to add sky and grass to the top and the right side, as I found I did a poor job when I positioned the church in the frame when I took the image. It was too close to the border. But do you want to throw away the image because of that? You may want to put it in a photo album of your latest trip to a famous place, so you create the best photo which comes close to what you saw and remember.
Just be careful when changing content of an image like that, especially when entering photo competitions. Read the rules, they might not allow you to alter the photo to that extend. That is especially important for nature and photojournalism competitions.
This is the original image:
That was just an example of what you can do with a bit of education and a capable image processing program. Look up “photoshop content-aware fill”, then you know what I did to the image.
When you start out with photography, and you want to improve on your image results, my suggestion would be to start by…
- … using the camera you already own and learn to operate it blindfolded. Literally.
- … learning an image processing program.
- … joining a photo community.
Have fun taking pictures! And have fun adding sky and grass!
What, you want to see the failed Astro-photography images? Ok, I give you one: