A brief beginner’s guide to contemporary photography

Chase Jarvis’ quip, “the best camera is the one that’s with you” resounds in an era where anyone who wishes to take photographs is spoilt for choice about how they capture images. A few still opt for a battered, much-loved film camera and send their pictures to the photo lab to be developed but a growing number want a device that will take a ‘selfie’ and post it online quickly.

The vast growth in the number of photographs being taken and published in the last decade, as digital photography has become affordable and social media makes sharing easy, has been phenomenal. It is possible to buy sophisticated DSLRs that cost as much an automobile or disposable cameras for a few dollars. Regardless of the amount of money you are prepared to spend on equipment there are still some basics that need to be mastered in the quest to shoot interesting images.

How do I become a better photographer?

Photographers capture light. They need to master the technical aspects of taking a photograph but that is not enough. There needs to be artfulness too, what Galen Rowell calls the ‘inner game’ of photography or, more expansively, from Ansel Adams:

“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

Lets concentrate on the technical aspects of the process.

The most basic of concepts that will assist amateurs to capture this light and improve the quality of their photography have been standard since the 19th century. Regardless of how sophisticated the device they use is in analysing the scene and automating decisions, the photographer needs to think carefully about how best to capture the image they desire. It is essential to frame a shot thoughtfully, considering what elements of the scene are to be included or left out.

A successful exposure is still very much determined by controlling the aperture and shutter speed of the camera. Of course, the digital or smartphone user is able to automate and avoid any manual settings but ultimately most people who want to improve their photography opt for more control.

What do you mean by aperture, shutter speed and ISO?

The aperture is the hole through which light travels. DSLR cameras use a wide range of lenses that vary from very fast f/1.4 apertures to quite slow f/8. The lower the f/ number on a lens the wider the aperture will open. This means that more light reaches the sensor quickly. Many portrait photographers create the background blurring effect, known a ‘bokeh’, by having the aperture wide open. The shutter controls the length of time light is allowed into the aperture and through to the sensor. If the aperture is reduced, the shutter can be opened for longer allowing a greater depth of field (DOF). In other words, more of the scene or background is revealed.

Here is a portrait shot with the aperture wide open at f/2 with a FujiFilm X100s compact camera as a good example of this bokeh or blurred background:


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore

Another example, taken with a Nikon D700 DSLR and 70-200mm lens, is shot at f/2.8 and the running ‘Nipper’ has a very blurred ocean setting in the background:

.


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore

Here is a barn owl shot at f/5.6:


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore

Adjusting the aperture and shutter effectively permits the photographer to control the light hitting the sensor. Another important tool for manipulating this light is setting the sensor’s ISO (an acronym that dates back to the ‘speed’ of the film we used to purchase for our cameras) to make it more or less sensitive to the light coming through the lens. Expensive DSLRs often have high ISO settings allowing photographers to shoot in low light, near dark conditions, without a flash.

Which gear?

You can be a great photographer on any budget but having the right equipment helps. DSLRs are often sold with kit lenses but a good plan is to buy just the camera body and one good lens to get you started. A 24-70mm is a good all-purpose lens. It is possible to buy a great variety inexpensive zoom lens; often they are more than good enough for the beginner. A very affordable and sharp lens is the 50mm f/1.8.

The quality of the lens or ‘glass’ is very important when buying camera gear. Professional photographers and serious amateurs have a wide-range of lenses for every occasion. Fixed prime lenses often assist one to capture the ‘sharpest’ images. For example, a fast 85mm f/1.4 lens is very good for creating sharp portraits with good bokeh. A 24mm f2.8 lens is great for landscape shots although many prefer a 12-24mm option to capture the scene.

These lenses can be very expensive. It is a good idea to shop online for the best prices rather than in a ‘bricks and mortar’ store. The online stores cannot afford to get a bad reputation in the age of social media, as very quickly they will be out of business, so they are mostly respectable. The established photography stores will argue that you get better service and a guaranteed warranty if there is a problem with the lens and that the online, or ‘grey market’ is a risky proposition. Comparing the prices will likely help you decide which option is best for your wallet.

Increasingly mobile devices, rather than compact cameras, are proving popular due to their availability and relatively excellent image quality. The steep dive in worldwide sales tell us that the era of these little point and shoot cameras is, if not coming to an end, being eclipsed for very practical reasons. The diverse range of photographers using their iPhone camera is expanding for many reasons, not least being the excellence of apps for editing or to improve the experience of shooting with a phone.

One can understand the advantages of this mobile technology for all kinds of photographers – casual, serious amateurs and professional – including those documenting civil strife and war. It is very quick and easy to shoot, manipulate and dispatch to an editor or upload online. There are quite simply near endless options to enhance the image and to be creative all housed in in one small device.

Interestingly enough, there has also been a resurgence of high-end, retro looking cameras that not only have a classic appearance but also rely on more manual control, rather than automatic settings for the photographer. The FujiFilm X100s compact camera is a beautiful example of this development.


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore

Apps

Instagram became omnipresent in 2012 but there’s a goldmine of tools that provide genuinely excellent editing and sharing options. A personal favourite is Snapseed but there are many excellent apps, it is just a matter of finding the right ones for the job at hand. Do you want to take a macro or landscape panorama? What photographic era do you wish to recreate? What, simply put, will enhance your creativity? Some of the best camera apps perform a wide variety of tricks including the capacity to zoom.

Here are a few iPhone apps to try:

Magic Hour, Tiny Planets, Diptic, Adobe Photoshop Express, Adobe Revel (storage), TiltShiftGen, SketchMee, PicFX, FilterStorm, Panorama, Photosynth, Pano, Colour Splash, Photo Toaster, Pro HDR, Cinemagram, Camera+, Camera Awesome, Vintage Camera, Hipstamatic, Grid Lens, MarbleCam, Miniatures, DMD, Lapse it, Pro Slow Shutter, 360 Panorama and Best Camera

Sharing

Many share their photos, especially those shot with a phone, via Facebook, Instagram and emerging sites like Eyeem. Regardless of what you use to shoot pictures, flickr.com is an endlessly fascinating and diverse source of photographic images and is a favourite site for sharing photos. Photographers can choose from a variety of creative commons licenses at Flickr that protect copyright and also permit sharing. There are many thousands of great groups for you to join at the site including many that explore iPhoneography. There are more images from iPhones, than any other kind ‘camera’, uploaded to the site.


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore

Conclusion

Photographers are a very mentally healthy group for obvious reasons. The conscious act of seeking out arresting images tends to allow the photographer to live in the moment, everything is interesting and potentially a great shot. It is hobby with many facets. It is possible to start with very inexpensive gear and over the years continue to learn, acquiring more equipment as interests broaden. You may start with family snaps and become enthusiastic about portraiture before moving on to landscapes, then HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. The joys of macro, exploring the world of nature and sports photography can soon become passions for many enthusiasts.

Amateurs soon discover they are able to create very professional images and strive to improve the standard of their photography. If one is ever feeling frustrated with the quality of their photos, some good advice I once read said simply, stand in front of more interesting things.

Happy shooting!

This piece was originally published in Australian Teacher Magazine.

Featured image: cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Darcy Moore: http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/8361564964/

Here are some of my other posts for those of you interested in photography: FujiFilm X100s +  iPhoneography the Lytro + learning HDR + some books to read and my Flickr page is here.

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