Updated: Jun 23, 2021
Are you new to photography? Are you thinking about starting photography as a hobby? Do you have some questions and are not sure where to find the answers? I invite you to read on and you just might find the information you are looking for.
Recently I had a conversation with someone who is thinking seriously about starting photography. Just as I had when I came back to photography, she has a background in photography from many years ago, but her skills are rusty, and she has not kept abreast of new technologies except for smartphone technologies. She was interested in finding out about my experience of returning to photography, so she decided to ‘pick my brains’ on the topic! This ‘commonly asked questions’ post is based on her questions and my answers.
Q. Why do I need a ‘dedicated’ camera? I have a good camera on my phone.
A. That is true, and I have used my phone camera on many occasions when I didn’t have my DSLR with me and I was pleased with the results. However, I don’t regret having bought my DSLR as it pushed me to learn photography - to get to know about aperture and shutter speed, to know what ISO means and when to use it, to have choice concerning shooting modes. If I wish to, I can shoot in fully automatic or semi-automatic mode or I can go full throttle and use full manual mode where I make all the creative decisions, rather than letting the camera decide. Also, I can experiment with the results obtained with different lenses. To sum up, the smartphone is convenient and does a good job in many situations but, in my view, it doesn’t give us that real photography experience.
Q. Ok, then which camera do you recommend I buy?
A. Not an easy question to answer. Initially, I went for an entry level camera as I was not sure how committed I would be to photography in the long term. I did a lot of research and settled on a Nikon D3400 (recently replaced by Nikon D3500). The deciding factors were great battery life, not too heavy to carry around, great image quality for an entry level camera and it comes at a good price. I wrote the following blog to describe the decision-making process:
It’s not a perfect camera. There are a few obvious omissions which I would like to have now that I know a bit more about photography. This camera has no touchscreen, the screen doesn’t tilt and Nikon doesn’t provide weather sealing on this camera, which can be a disadvantage for landscape or travel photography, but overall, the D3400 is, in my opinion, a good beginner camera. I might even suggest an upgrade to the D3500, which reportedly has a battery rating of 1500 shots, compared to 1200 shots which the D3400 can capture, and is a bit lighter without much increase in price.
Image taken with Nikon D3400
My second camera is an Olympus E-M10 Mark 11. Again, I did a lot of research before buying this camera. I was taking a trip to Italy and wanted something lightweight, but which could take good pictures, particularly in low light. I looked at a range of ‘point and shoot’ options but to get the features that I wanted, such as viewfinder and good image quality, I had to look at the upper end of the market and realised that most of these cameras could soon be surpassed by advancements in smartphone cameras. I reckoned that going for a mirrorless camera might be a better option if I wanted to ‘future proof’ my camera kit, since these cameras can take a range of lenses. The Olympus has a few advantages over the Nikon such as a touchscreen and image stabilization, which reduces blurring due to camera shake. On the downside, though, it only captures 320 shots before the battery runs out, so carrying a replacement battery is highly recommended. I am happy with my choice as it is fairly compact and has a sort of retro look, which I like.
Image taken with Olympus E-M10 Mark 11
Q. What about lenses?
A. Most cameras come bundled with a kit lens. My Nikon came with 18-55mm, while the Olympus came as a camera deal with two lenses, a 40-150mm zoom and a 14-42mm. Kit lenses are designed to give you some versatility and, since they don’t add a huge cost to the price of the camera, they let you get a feel for what the camera can do. I did move on from the Nikon kit lens to a prime lens and a zoom lens. I’m not by any means expert at using lenses so would refer a beginner to some of the many sites that provide expert reviews, such as https://www.dxomark.com/category/lens-reviews/ . Reviews by genuine users are often as helpful as expert reviews, although they can vary a lot. While the kit lens does offer some versatility to start your photography journey, buying your next lens might depend on what it is you like to photograph. Landscape lenses will differ from lenses for close-up work, while certain other lenses might be considered best for street photography. Even when shooting the same subject, different lenses will give different results. A wide-angle lens, a telephoto and a prime lens are the three lenses that seem to cover most of what we need as beginner photographers, so these are the lenses I have opted for.
I recently published a blog about my camera set up and the lens selection I find useful as a learner at photography. You will find the link here
I like using the 50mm fixed lens as it allows me to experiment with bokeh (blurry background)
It is reported that Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the greatest street photographers of all time, frequently used the 50mm as his lens of choice.
Q. What else will I need as well as camera and lenses?
A. A camera bag is a must. I thought I could use a regular backpack but soon realised that it was neither safe nor convenient. After a lot of research, I found a bag with numerous sections, the main section containing padded inserts. These provide adjustable compartments to hold camera and lenses as well as space for a spare battery, lens cleaning kit and other accessories. The bag also has a waist strap which gives added back support. Camera bags vary enormously in price but with a bit of research you can find the one that suits you.
Most photographers will suggest that you invest in a tripod, particularly for landscape photography. While it will help to avoid blurry pictures due to camera shake, a tripod is not always easy to carry with you. So far, I have not invested in one although many photographers will claim that it should be your number one accessory.
A spare battery is a useful item as there is nothing worse than being out on a photography shoot and realising that you have forgotten to charge the battery (it has happened to me!) As I said previously, the Nikon D3400 gives around 1200 shots on a battery charge, which is pretty impressive and will easily give me a day’s shooting, but the Olympus mirrorless camera only allows me to shoot a fraction of that number so I always need to have a spare battery handy.
Q. Cameras today have a lot of buttons and dials. Did you have difficulty in getting to grips with them all?
A. Short answer, yes. Ever since I got my first SLR camera, many years ago, I have loved taking pictures, but hated all the technical stuff. For a long time I tended to stay in auto mode, but this time around I decided to learn properly. That’s not to say I liked it any better initially, but this time I have given myself time to get used to different settings, to experiment a bit more and to take the camera out to practise all I am learning before moving on. I can see the value of learning about the main shooting modes (namely, ‘Auto’ mode, ‘Program’ mode, ‘Aperture Priority’, ‘Shutter Priority’) and when to use each, and to avoid the ‘scene’ modes which are basically just allowing the camera to decide how to shoot. I can even say that I now enjoy knowing how to use those buttons and dials!
I took the following images on Auto mode when I first started back to photography.
While this mode does help you get a feel for the camera again, it is important to move beyond this mode if you want to learn photography. Auto mode turns your DSLR into a point and shoot camera, and DSLRs are much more than this. I would recommend this post from digital photography school, which really is an ultimate guide to learning how to use your first DSLR.
Q. You obviously need some photography skills to get out of Auto mode. Did you go to a photography class to learn the skills you need?
A. I started my journey with an online class which gave me a good grounding in the basics. I also found lots of useful and knowledgeable articles suitable for beginners, like the one mentioned above from https://digital-photography-school.com/. I supplemented this with some YouTube videos on specific topics. I gradually got to know the photography teachers whose approach I liked and took some of their courses and workshops online. I did one face to face workshop on street photography, which I enjoyed and found to be very beneficial as I picked up a lot of tips from the one-to-one interaction that can be missed in online courses. In addition, it was good to get out ‘in the field’ with other learners, to share problems, get advice, have questions answered and feel part of the photography learning community. I intend to do more face to face workshops in the future.
Another feature of the learning process is having my photographs critiqued by others and there are opportunities for this in some online communities, particularly those run by reputable photographers who have an ethical approach to online interactions. One of the most important things is to get out and practice what you learn. Sitting in front of a book or computer reading about photography only gets you so far. You need to get the camera in your hand, get out and take plenty of photographs. Practice may not quite make perfect, but it does make improvement.
Q. I hear photographers talking about post-processing. Is it necessary?
A. There are some who feel that any type of processing is wrong, that it somehow leaves our image less authentic, that a digitally enhanced photograph is not an ‘honest’ image. I have been guilty of thinking in this way in the past, but I have been proven wrong by those with superior knowledge on the subject and I now realise that every image is digitally processed to some degree. Some of this processing is done by the camera (or phone) software, over which we have little control, and some is done by the photographer in what is called ‘post production’, which gives us a degree of creative control over how we want our final images to look. Regardless of whether we have a strong opinion on this topic or not, the truth is that, while the camera may not lie, it does not see as the human eye sees. Ultimately it is a machine that processes what it sees and produces the best image of that. As the photographer, we know what we wanted to capture and how we wanted our vision to turn out, so we can try to achieve what is close to our vision by using an image processing program. I use Lightroom and enjoy the post-processing part of the photography art. For a quick edit on my phone I use Snapseed. There are many other popular (some free) programs which allow us to make small changes to our images which make a big difference to the final result.
This is a photo straight out of camera
This photo has had some minor enhancements in Lightroom
Q. Do you prefer a particular style of photography?
A. I get asked that question a lot. I started doing landscape photography as I seemed to be drawn to that but I quickly realised that it was difficult to get a good landscape photo without spending a lot of time travelling to find the right location and having specific lenses. I still enjoy doing landscape photography when I can and continue to learn ways to improve my landscape images. As I wrote in a recent blog, I particularly love coastal landscapes and doing photography is an added incentive for making a trip to the coast.
I have to confess, I didn’t think I would like street photography so I challenged myself to take a face-to-face workshop last summer. That gave me a whole new outlook on this genre of photography which I can now appreciate more than I did previously. Street photography is about the art of capturing candid moments and natural human interactions, it is about storytelling through photography and as such it has its own special appeal. I’m glad I opened my mind and made that discovery.
Overall, I think most of my photography falls into the category of nature photography. When I look back over my images, I find that a lot of them are nature photographs of one kind or another. I seem to be naturally drawn to this genre of photography, particularly as it can encompass most of what I want to do in photography. Nature photography has something for everyone in that you can capture great images in nature with whatever equipment you have at hand, even a smartphone camera, and you can adjust your images to suit whatever gear you have available rather than having to buy specialist equipment as may be the case for landscape photography. I wrote a blog called 10 tips for better nature photography which I think sums up why this photography form appeals to me.
Q. Why do you enjoy photography so much?
A. I think the answer is that to me, photography is such an all-round pursuit - and it has benefits in many areas of our lives. It supports our mental health by keeping our mind alert and active; it involves learning new skills such as making choices and decisions, working with different technologies and communicating with others, all ways in which we need to be mentally alert. From a physical health point of view, the very nature of photography means that we will be out and about, walking and taking in the fresh air. I often find that I walk far further than I intended to walk and for a longer time than I intended to spend as I lose myself in the art of finding and making my images. I believe that photography ticks the box regarding emotional health also as it is certainly a pursuit that grounds us in the present moment and, for me, the very act of heading out to capture some images has a calming effect. Some people go for a run when they are stressed, some do yoga or mindfulness, so people go the gym or participate in a sport. I take my camera and head out to the park, the coast, the countryside, even into the city streets. If my camera is my companion, I leave stress behind.
The topic of the importance of photography as a hobby but also as it contributes to a healthy way of life is one that interests me and I have written a few posts on this theme, which you might like to dip into on my blog. This is a recent one: