Let’s start with a little background information…
I would never describe myself as anything other than a keen amateur at photography despite having an interest for at least the last 10 years. I got my first DSLR when the Nikon D70 hit UK shores and for years took nothing other than motor sport shots, particularly rallying. Now, rally photography, no matter what anybody tells you isn’t rocket science. Shutter priority, pick your spot and off you go. Easy.
Over all those years I never explored further until I started to kindle an interest in “other” types of photography in early 2009. After struggling with the D70 I finally bit the bullet and bought a Nikon D90 in May 2009 and the learning curve began. What follows are some of the biggest lessons I learned which hopefully will prove helpful to other “learners” such as myself.
1. Whatever you do, get your pictures out there on the internet.
Why, you might think, would I want to do this? Simple, websites such as Flickr or Blipfoto allow you to interact with other photographers and from there you’ll get feedback on your images and be able to see how other people achieved their results. Flickr was the single biggest source of learning and inspiration for me and its well worth paying for the pro subscription but do make an effort to get involved, the more you contribute the more you’ll get back. I learned loads from people on Flickr and now enjoy passing on some of the knowledge.
2. Always buy the best you can afford.
It makes a difference. If you can afford to buy a decent DSLR and lenses then it will pay dividends for you. If all you can afford is a compact, then that’s fine but get the more feature packed one you can. By that I don’t mean all different pre-set modes or wireless printer links etc, make sure you can control the camera manually by setting the aperture etc, once you progress you’ll want more control and if you don’t have it you’ll stand still taking snapshots.
Don’t pick one subject matter or one style of photography when you’re starting out, try all sorts and from that, decide what works for you. I have a real passion for photographing my home town, Edinburgh but I also enjoy macro photography, low depth of field shots, etc etc. It keeps things interesting and if you enjoy landscapes its good to have something else to do if the weather isn’t the best for tramping around the countryside. You never know, you might just find a style that suits you and your equipment better.
4. Invest in lenses carefully
If you go the DSLR route then you’ll start to build a collection of lenses. Lenses no matter what manufacturer you go for are never cheap so be careful what you buy. Carefully consider what you want it for and what you need for the job. Most cameras will come with a kit lens, a fairly cheap lens usually in the 18-55mm range. This will serve you well for most situations. I’d say from that add a decent bigger zoom lens, my Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM was expensive but the quality is fantastic and its been used without fault for years. It’s usually always true the more you spend the better you’ll get.
Don’t be too hung up on only buying Nikon or Canon branded lenses etc, Sigma and other 3rd party manufacturers all produce some great glass and usually cheaper prices and in some cases, they are even better than the camera manufacturer’s equivalent. I’ve got a mix of Sigma and Nikon lenses and never had any problems with the Sigma’s which are all of excellent build quality.
A kit lens and a decent zoom will serve you well and you can add specialist glass such as macro lenses, or super wide lenses as you grow and learn.
5. Invest in a decent tripod and remote switch
Don’t skimp on a tripod. You might not see it as a huge problem but having been through loads of cheap, and by cheap I mean sub £30 tripods I finally broke the bank and spent £120 of a Giottos tripod and head and never looked back. The ease of use and build quality are well worth paying for. It might seem a lot for something to sit a camera on but having wasted over £60 on cheap tripods believe me it’s not that bad. As I’ve progressed I find I use it all the time, even it good light as you’re taking no chances with camera shake and ruining a good shot.
A decent remote shutter release is also a godsend. Don’t be too hung up on the IR ones, they do work but your better of with one connected by a cable. £20 on EBay will buy you a programmable one and they go hand in hand with the tripod use.
6. Learn the importance of filters early on
Filters are the key to great images. You probably will already have a UV or skylight screw in filter on your lenses to protect the front element but take the time to learn what circular polarisers and natural density filters can do for you. Most people start with screw in versions as they are easy to use and mainly, you can get them fairly cheap. The downside of them is that if you have different lenses with different sized filter threads you need different filters to fit them all.
In this case, look at square filter systems such as the Cokin P range. To start with, unless you’re a lottery winner don’t bother too much with the top range stuff like the Lee filters unless you’re going to make a business from your photography. The 85mm Cokin P range is fine for most amateur use and a hell of a lot cheaper. You’ll need filter adapter rings to fit your lenses but after than everything else fits on all lenses, you only need one filter holder and one set of filters. I bought the following on eBay for under £100 and it serves me well in 99% of situations. The only limitation is with my Sigma 10-20mm lens but I can use the filters down to 12mm with no vignette from the holder.
77mm adapter ring
67mm adapter ring
Cokin P holder
Cokin P wide angle holder
Kood 85mm circular polariser
Set of 0.3, 0.6, 0.9 Hitech ND filters
Set of 0.3, 0.6, 0.9 Hitec ND Soft Grads
7. Learn and understand about your cameras aperture priority mode.
I wont attempt to tell you about aperture settings in photography, there’s a million tutorials if you Google it. Read up on it, it’s the single most important thing you’ll learn.
8. Don’t be afraid to repeat a shot
So you’ve taken a trip out and came back with a handful of images. You’re maybe quite happy with what you got. BUT, don’t think that’s it, best I can do from there. Go back, try again, maybe do something different. You will be amazed at how you can improve a picture by become familiar with the scene. I’ve done the classic Edinburgh shot from Calton Hill dozens of times and improve it every time or get something different every time and never tire of it. Try the shot at sunrise, sunset, dusk, dark, cloudy days, blue sky etc etc, you will be amazed at how many differences you can get and how you will get better and better at it.
9. Plan a trip out before hand.
Check the internet, is where your going closed at a certain time? Check Suncalc, what’s the sun position when I get there? Look at the location on Google Maps; see where you can get access and what angles you might get. Think about what shots you might take and what equipment you might need. Plan where to park or even if you can park? Check the weather forecast. Doing costal shots? Check Tide Times. Planning can make a world of difference!
10. If your camera lets you, shoot in RAW
RAW is the key to great images, if you can set your camera to give you RAW output, use it and learn how to process it. I use it with Adobe Camera Raw with photoshop but there are stacks of programmes out there to read and process RAW files, once you try RAW you won’t ever go back to jpeg!
So that’s my tips for any beginners or upcoming amateurs. I’m not saying I’m perfect but this is what’s worked well for me, hopefully, it’ll work well for you too. Any other tips, feel free to leave them in the comments.