Photography 001

I recently got into a conversation with someone who wants to do more/better photography, and as such things usually do, the conversation went immediately to “what camera should I buy?”

Which made me realize there might be value in writing up a post about how that isn’t where most people should start.

It’s easy to see photography as a matter of gear: if you have better gear, you’ll take better pictures. There’s some truth in this, of course; your light sensor is your light sensor, and if you have a bad one you’re going to get crappy low-light pictures. You can’t take a good telephoto picture without a telephoto lens. Etc. But the way I see it, that’s, like, step three in the process of becoming a better photographer. If you’ve taken steps one and two already, then by all means let’s talk gear — but if you haven’t, then let’s back up for a moment and talk about what comes before that.

To me, step one is composition. People argue about what goes under this term and what doesn’t, but when I say composition, I mean the question of what you do and don’t include in the frame, and what angle you’re shooting from. For example, the natural instinct is to put the thing you’re taking a picture of right in the middle of the frame — and sometimes that’s a good idea! This is one of my favorite photos I’ve taken, and the bridge is basically dead center. But there’s something called the rule of thirds, which often makes a photo more striking: put the actual feature point at the crossing of two lines, rather than the center. Bonus points if you can put something else in the opposite corner, like this, where the gap in the clouds adds some secondary interest.

Or try shooting from a different angle, instead of doing everything straight-on. From below, or from above. (I spend a lot of time on trips crawling around on the ground, and the reason I like the full swivel arm on my camera’s display screen is because it facilitates shots from any angle.) Put one thing in the foreground and another in the background. Zoom in more, so that the focal element takes up most of the image, with not much else around it, or even crop the focal element so that it runs right past the edges of the frame. Or zoom way out, and make your focal element a small thing in a much larger field (this one generally only works if the focal element pops somehow). Take a picture of a detail: the door I looked at in Okinawa wasn’t interesting in its own right, but I liked the texture of the rusted lock against the wood. Dramatic lighting may be hard to arrange, but it’s nice when you can get it.

This is step one because you can do all these things with your phone. Or whatever camera you have with you. If it can take a picture, it can help you improve your composition.

Step two is technique. (It’s also steps four through seventy-nine, because this is something you’ll come back to again and again; I still have vast oceans of technique to learn. Same is true of composition, frankly, but right now we’re talking about what comes before gear.)

When I put technique in second position, what I mean is learning the basics of how a camera operates: ISO, f-stop (aperture), shutter speed, focus. This verges slightly into gear because at this point you probably do need an actual camera, because most of the phones I’ve seen don’t give you a lot of control over the details. I’m not going to explain the whole system here, but after several years of improving my composition skills, I finally learned what all those words mean and how they’ll affect my photographs, which let me take pictures like this one — see how the background is blurry? That’s aperture at work. On its automatic settings, your camera might guess correctly that you want it to take a that kind of photo . . . but I have some shots from the Bangalore zoo that show the chain-link fence in splendid detail, with a blurry smear behind it that a clever person might guess is a peacock. Once I learned my way around the basic settings, I knew how to make the camera focus on the peacock, not the fence. I knew how to take low-light photos without them coming out any grainier than necessary (see above re: light sensors). I theoretically know how to get non-blurry shots of things moving at high speed — I say “theoretically” because I haven’t practiced it enough to be very good at it.

Nearly any dedicated camera these days will let you work on your technique. That little dial with “A” and “S” and “M” on it? That’s how you access these controls. Notice a button or a menu item that says “ISO”? Yep. Get to know your camera’s manual. Learn to love it. Fiddle with settings and thank the gods that digital photography means you don’t have to pay lots of money to find out whether what you did turned out well or not.

And if you’ve done those things, then you can start worrying about your gear. I replaced my old Leica in large part because its light sensor was abysmal; I techniqued around that problem as much as I could (bracing my camera against nearby objects and figuring out via trial and error that a low f-stop, i.e. wide aperture, would let in as much light as possible and therefore mitigate my problems at high ISO and exposure times), but in the end, I needed a better sensor, a tripod, or both if I wanted to take pictures in dark places and not have them look terrible. But there are many, many people in the world who throw thousands of dollars at expensive camera equipment and then shoot everything on auto with no understanding of composition beyond “point the lens at the thing and click the button,” and they stay mediocre photographers.

So if you want to improve, work on your composition. When you’ve gotten as far as you can with that, learn the camera controls. You’ll be surprised how far that gets you, without much expense.

Oh, and: don’t use the flash. Seriously. Turn it off. It has a place and a time, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your picture will look better without it.

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