My father used to bore me and my family to death as I was growing up, as he always took photos of any remotely significant occasion. That caused me to loathe photography growing up. But now as an adult, and also as a photographer myself, I can empathize with my father’s pesky photographer habits, and photography now strengthens our father-son bond just that much more.
I’ve fully embraced photography as a passionate hobby over the last few years, and now I’d like to share some of the knowledge I’ve acquired with people out there who might be considering photography but don’t know where to start. I want to set potential new photographers straight, as they can surely learn a lot from my successes and mistakes. Let’s get started – below are my top ten tips for newbies wanting to get into photography:
1. Buy a Proper DSLR Camera Right from the Beginning
If you’re serious about photography, then there’s only one kind of camera you should be using – a proper APS-C or full-frame DSLR camera. Smartphone cameras are a joke compared to DSLR cameras, regardless of their breakthrough specs, or which digital filters you use. Point-and-shoot cameras are basically just beefed up smartphone cameras. Micro four thirds and mirrorless cameras are acceptable, but only marginally cheaper than DSLRs. Just spend a bit more and get the real deal.
Analogy: if you’re serious about strength training and building muscle, then it’s best to get started the right way straight from the get go by using free weights and barbells. Sure, you could use machines and get some decent results, but they can never fully replicate building muscle the way using free weights can. APS-C and full-frame DSLR cameras are the free weights of the photography world. They have a higher learning curve and take longer to master, but their payoff with outstanding quality photos makes them worth their higher price tag and years to master. Be a big boy and start shooting photos with a big boy camera right from the beginning. They’re worth the extra start-up cost.
Tip: never buy a DSLR with a fixed, undetachable lens.
2. Stick with One Camera Brand Early On
Do your research and choose wisely when buying your first camera and lenses. The camera brand you go with in the beginning is a major decision that will continually affect you years down the road. Though there are special adapters you can buy, lenses and other electronic camera equipment are generally not interchangeable from one camera brand to the next. For example, if you buy a Nikon camera, don’t expect to use Canon lenses with that camera. And because lenses are often just as, if not more expensive than the cameras themselves, you want to make sure that the brand of camera you ultimately choose is one you plan to stick with in the long run. This becomes all the more true with each passing year you do photography, as the more equipment you accumulate, the harder and more costly it would be to sell and replace it all and start over from scratch.
Every camera brand has its own set of pros and cons. I’m a loyal Pentax user, as the brand is used among everyone in my family. But not only that, Pentax is what I consider to be the “underdog” of the camera industry – they create outstanding quality products that tend to cost far less than those offered by more popular brands such as Canon, Nikon, and Sony. They’ve also been using one lens mount system, the Pentax K-mount, for decades now, which means I can easily use thousands of both old and new lenses with my Pentax camera, regardless of the camera or the lens’s age. This isn’t the case with many other camera brands. But on the downside, due to its somewhat low popularity, Pentax cameras are probably the hardest to find lenses and equipment for when shopping around. Everything is for sale online these days, but it’s hard to find Pentax equipment when shopping at a store.
Regardless of which brand you think you might want to go with, make sure you first weigh its pros to its cons, and then make an informed decision when buying. Don’t just go with a brand because it’s a popular brand that everyone knows. Rather, go with a brand because it’s suitable to your needs. If you decide to take the Pentax route like I did, I wholeheartedly recommend the affordable Pentax K-S2. It’s a great starter DSLR.
3. Buy One Zoom Lens AND One Prime Lens
So you’ve found out which camera brand you want to go with, and you’ve purchased your first DSLR camera. Now you need lenses, which are just as important as the camera itself. Many cameras these days come in a kit, which typically includes one or two starter lenses, usually an 18-55mm wide-angle zoom lens and/or a 55-200mm telephoto zoom lens. These are called starter lenses because they are perfect for people with little to no photography experience. They allow the photographer to zoom in and out when shooting photos, so they’re kinda like training wheels for newbies.
I also suggest buying one prime lens right from the get go. What’s a prime lens? Simply put, it’s a lens that does NOT allow the photographer to zoom in and out on a subject, rather the focal length is fixed to a specific number, i.e. 50mm. In other words, if you’re using a prime lens, and if you wanted to get a tighter or wider shot of a certain subject, say of a person’s face, either you or that person would have to physically move yourselves towards or away from the camera, because you can’t simply zoom the lens in or out with a prime lens.
Now you might be wondering why in the hell anyone would want a non-zoomable prime lens when they could just buy a much more flexible zoom lens. The trade-off you make by using zoom lenses is that their optics are generally of lower quality than those of prime lenses. In order to zoom in and out, they need far more real estate within the lens itself for moving parts. Whereas a prime lens can use that same real estate to house superior optical parts, since it doesn’t need the space for so many moving parts. Except for the lack of zoom-ability, prime lens also give the photographer far more creative control. You can adjust the depth of field far more, you can get sharper shots in low light situations, and so on. If you’ve ever seen a photo you really like that has a subject strongly in focus, and a background very out of focus with an almost cinematic look, chances are that photo was taken with a prime lens.
To summarize, zoom lenses give you far more flexibility in where you are physically standing relative to your subject, but the trade-off is lower optical quality and less creative control. Prime lenses have much better optical quality and creative control, but they are generally more expensive, heavier, and they force the photographer to physically move around relative to their subject. As a newbie, it’s perfectly fine to be using both kinds of lenses, but you certainly shouldn’t avoid prime lenses out of fear of challenge. Try to use a prime lens right from the beginning. I recommend newbies to buy either a basic 35mm or a 50mm prime lens. Both of these focal lengths are good for shooting everyday subjects at a medium-short distance, and they both tend to be relatively cheap.
4. Shoot in RAW from Day One
This is a simple tip, but one I wish I had followed from day one. When shooting digital photos, most modern DSLRs will allow you to select which file type you want to save your photos as. The popular choice these days is either RAW or JPEG or both. You absolutely want to be shooting in RAW, because RAW is the digital version of a photo negative. RAW is pure and is never modified. Whereas on the other hand, JPEG is the digital version of a photo print you received from the one-hour photo shop. It was printed from the photo’s original negative. It’s merely a copy.
Let’s say fifty years down the road you stumble upon a big box of old photos. Which would you rather the photos be, their original negatives or just photo prints from the one-hour photo shop? Surely the former, right? Yes, because the original negatives have never been modified in any way – they are as pure as pure can be. And if you want to make your own prints from the negatives, it’s better to print them from their original source, not from copies of originals. Quality degrades from each copy to the next.
JPEGs are highly compressed files. They can be altered, whereas RAW files can’t. When you edit a RAW photo in an editing program like Lightroom, you’re not actually editing the RAW file itself, rather a JPEG copy file is being created with all the edits you have made, while keeping the RAW file pure and unaltered. This is good. You can always create new JPEGs from RAW files, but not vice versa.
RAW photos also have a much larger threshold from which to make changes to than JPEGs do. Think of a TV’s volume control – would you rather have a TV with 20 volume increments or 100 volume increments? Surely 100, because 100 increments gives you far more control and the most precision on how loud you can make your TV. RAW is the same. For example, you’re much more likely to be able to adjust a photo’s brightness, contrast, and/or white balance to just the way you like it with a RAW file versus a JPEG file. Because the JPEG is merely a copy of the original negative file, its details have been degraded, making its editing threshold is much smaller, and hence you have far less control to make alterations to it.
Shoot in RAW from day one. You have everything to gain and almost nothing to lose except a bit more hard drive space, as RAW files are roughly two to three times bigger in size than JPEGs. You can also shoot in both RAW and JPEG simultaneously if you so desire, but never shoot exclusively in JPEG.
5. Shoot as Much as You Possibly Can
Surely the most cliché on the list, but also the most important. As with any skill in life, practice makes perfect, and photography is no exception. Just like with learning a new language or learning to play an instrument, you will learn and improve the most with photography by simply doing, rather than focusing too much on theory. Yes, there are many technical and theoretical aspects you can master to improve your photography, but they take a hard back seat to first just getting out there and taking as many photos as you can with as many different kinds of subjects and situations as possible. Shoot first, study later.
Don’t get intimidated by all those complex settings on your camera for now. The more you shoot, the easier those settings will be to grasp later down the road, as wielding a camera will eventually become second nature to you. The more familiar you are with something through hands-on experience, the easier it is to understand its intricacies as time progresses. Now is the time to simply get used to holding a camera, to develop an eye for what’s photo-worthy, and to learn what you actually enjoy taking pictures of.
My photography has definitely improved a lot over the years, but those early days of shooting were easily some of the most fun. Some of my most memorable photos were taken during that time, so enjoy those early days while they last, as they’ll easily be some of your most exciting and nostalgic ones.
6. Find Your Style
The more you shoot, the faster you’ll know what you actually enjoy shooting. There are countless kinds of photography, all of which suit different kinds of people. I’ve been living all over Asia for the last seven years now, so I naturally gravitate towards travel photography. Food photography, landscape photography, street photography, and architectural photography could all be classified under travel photography. I enjoy taking them all, because they force me to observe and engage with my environment as I move around the globe.
But if there’s one kind of photography I like above all else, it’s night street photography. The challenge of getting an interesting and sharp photo is huge, but so is the payoff of a unique looking shot. I like to compare it to hunting animals, because street photography really brings out your inner hunter instincts – you’re constantly on the prowl for photo ops, and once you find one, you don’t want to spook your subject away before capturing it.
But you’ll never truly know what’s for you until you’ve tried them all. There’s portrait photography, astrophotography, macro photography, wildlife photography, sports photography, and so on. They’re all totally different. I try to dabble in them all to keep challenging myself as a photographer, to keep things fresh, and to keep my skills sharp. The sooner you find what you like, the faster your interest in photography will grow, and the more and more you’ll start to anticipate your next photo shoot. Try them all until one enthralls you.
7. Get Inspired
One of the best ways to better your own photography is to get inspired by the good photography of others. With the advent of the smartphone, photos are a dime a dozen these days, and consequently so are bad photos. But on the upside, when you do actually stumble upon a great photo in the sea of countless shitty and mediocre photos, it makes it all the more invaluable and noticeable. Study a picture you like and try to figure out what exactly is attracting your eyes to it. Is it the photo’s subject matter? Or maybe its lighting? Its composition? Its colors? All of the above?
Here are a few leads for inspiring photography. For outstanding street and travel photography with an emphasis on Thailand and Southeast Asia, you can’t go wrong with New Zealander Stickman Bangkok (he’s also a great travel writer with a non-PC point-of-view). For great travel portraits, landscapes, and cityscape photography, young Aussie Peter Stewart is quite good. Thai Sarawut Intarob is one of the best rural Asia photographers I have ever stumbled across. And anything American Michael Steverson takes when he travels is gold.
Also check out photo sharing websites like 500px and Flickr for inspirational photography, though you might have to dig deep. Landscape Photography Magazine is great for inspirational photography and tips on how to master landscape photography. National Geographic is a timeless source for top-of-the-line photography from all over the world. Just don’t let these great sources of photography crush your confidence as a novice photographer.
And not just photos have to inspire you to get out there and take pictures – there are plenty of other art forms perfect for inspiration. I personally find movies and music to be major driving forces to get me off my ass and outside taking pictures. Certain movies and songs just have a way of motivating me. Dark movies like Lost Highway and Videodrome inspire me to take night and low light photos. Visually vibrant movies like TRON and 2001: A Space Odyssey motivate me to take cityscape photos, and so on.
8. Learn the Technical Aspects of Photography in Small Increments
So you’ve shot thousands of practice photos, and you’ve gotten a good idea of what you actually enjoy shooting. You’ve also developed somewhat of a “photographer’s eye.” Now it’s time to take things to the next level. Any photographer could stand to improve his or her photography by learning and mastering the many technical aspects of the field of photography. We all have to start shooting with our training wheels, i.e. doing everything in automatic mode. Yet slowly but surely, we should all aim to remove those training wheels.
There are countless technical aspects to photography, and neither I nor most photographers out there have mastered them all. But the more of them you can get good at, the better your photos will turn out as a result. Rather than overwhelming yourself and trying to get good at all of them at the same time, take them one by one. Below are the aspects I think are the most important to work on, listed in order of importance:
- Manual focus
- Framing and Composition
- Editing (Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, etc.)
- Depth of field/aperture
- Shutter speed and ISO
- Lighting and Exposure
- Using a Tripod
- Lens filters (not to be confused with digital filters)
I suggest one month you just go out and take photos, with manual focusing as your primary agenda. Try to completely avoid using autofocus. Naturally, your manual focusing skills will slowly improve. Focus on framing a shot the next month. Pay attention to angles and what you are and aren’t including in the shot. Because of your prior month’s practice, you will already be decent at manual focusing, so continue manual focusing while you’re practicing framing your shots. Once the third month rolls around, manual focusing will be second nature to you, and you will barely even have to think about it as you do it. Your framing skills will be decent by the third month as well. So during the third month, focus on editing any new photos you take, while still minding your manual focusing and composition. Take things one step at a time, while always reviewing and using what you’ve already learned.
9. Learn to Curate and Be Discretionary with Your Photos
One of the most sure-fire ways for a photographer to bore his audience is by dumping all of his photos onto his audience without curating them first. You might have taken hundreds of great photos, but you also need to first figure out the right way to show them off to the world, or else you risk having many of your best photos go unnoticed. Seeing 50 great, yet similar photos of the same beach by the same photographer would bore anybody.
I suggest when you take a set of photos from a certain scene, pick only the best photos from each group to show to an audience. Say you took 15 photos of a model from angle X, and then 15 more photos from angle Y. Then show only the best shot from angle X and only the best shot from angle Y to your audience. Don’t show all thirty photos! No matter how good the photos are, they’re gonna get boring to your audience quick if there’s not enough difference among each individual photo.
Also organize your photos by themes or albums. I’ve taken countless photos from all these years of living and traveling in Asia, so I’ve noticed lots of patterns and themes among my photos. When I share my photos on social media or to friends, I group them together according to these themes and patterns. Food on a stick, historical figures, bridges, in the kitchen, graffiti, night street photography, and store fronts are just a few of my latest random themes.
Making all the pictures tell a story as a group or as a supplement to good writing also works well. I have taken many photos over the years that would be somewhat meaningless if displayed all alone, but when they are displayed alongside a blog article, they tell a story.
10. Stay Away from Fad Photography Styles and Digital Filters/Presets
Go for a timeless look that ages gracefully, rather than following the latest flavor of the month that will look cheesy 10 years down the road. We’ve all seen the photo where a girl is facing away from the camera, while her hand is reaching behind her back to hold the photographer’s hand. In front of the two is some random scenery from around the world. This kind of photo is the perfect embodiment of fad photography and should be avoided by serious photographers who want to be taken seriously by other serious photographers. A good photographer doesn’t need to follow shallow fads to captivate an audience.
Also avoid digital filters or presets (not to be confused with physical filters that are placed on your camera’s lenses). Sure, digital filters can make photos look better, but nine times out of ten, they’re just making a crappy or mediocre photo look half-decent. They’re a cheap shortcut for bad photographers. Great photos don’t rely on filters (or over-the-top editing) to look good. Those great photos look good because the photographer put in the right amount of effort to take a great shot and didn’t take any cheap shortcuts.
Just like how so many women these days wear make-up to mask their flaws rather than to highlight their attractive features, so many people use filters these days to mask their shoddy photography skills, rather than to bring out their photos’ highlights. Ask yourself this: would my photo look good without a filter applied to it? If the answer is no, then the photo is probably subpar, and you need to try again. Digital filters should really only be used in very small doses, and when used, they should merely supplement your photo, not complement it.
Photography is a timeless and honorable hobby that can help a man share his vision of the world with an audience. But knowing where and how to get started on capturing this vision can be overwhelming. Only a few years ago, I was also in your shoes, new to the vast realm of photography. The ten tips listed above were written from my own personal experience to help newbies get started on the right track to taking good shots. Once you’ve finally learned to fly, then it up to yourself to decide which direction to go. Now stop thinking about it so much, buy a DSLR, and just get out there and start shooting. You may just happen to find the hobby you’ve been missing out on your entire life.