So you have a camera, what now?

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.

Man holding two phones taking picture in picture image
Pho­to by Zac Ong on Unsplash

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.

Global Photo Club

That’s all good, but…

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?

Church of the good shep­pard, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

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.

Global Photo Club

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:

The orig­i­nal image, the church too close to the border

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.

Quick summary:

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!

Global Photo Club

What, you want to see the failed Astro-pho­tog­ra­phy images? Ok, I give you one:

A ghost walk­ing in front of the pho­tog­ra­ph­er, with phone in hand

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