What I've learned about Digital Photography

Published on May 25, 2011 under Photography

Shooting photos on the Acropolis

Back in 2008, the Federal Government handed out $600 checks to each and every American with the simple idea of "go buy stuff and stimulate the economy". I made the easy decision to invest that $600 in an entry-level DSLR camera and learn Photography.

It's been three years after the fact, and when I look at photos from the beginning compared to recent shots, I'm proud that I've learned a lot and have become pretty decent with my shooting. I wanted to share what I've learned over a series of articles and hopefully inspire others to give Photography a shot as well as help them get over the learning curve much faster.

There will be articles covering more specific types of photography in the future, but today I just want to share what I've learned about digital photography in general.

Learn your Camera

DSLR control knobIt doesn't matter if you're using a DSLR with interchangeable lenses, or a simple point-and-shoot. The manufacturers load these cameras with features only to make our lives easier. Many simply just grab the camera and start shooting with the default settings. While their photos will look decent, you can achieve many great shots just with the functions on the camera.

For instance, my girlfriend tried to get a decent shot on her point-and-shoot in a darker setting. The flash would not help, and she was ready to give up. I showed her the ISO mode on her camera and she was shocked you could pull off great shots with her inexpensive camera. Maybe they won't make National Geographic, but they got her the results she wanted.

Go through your manual or invest in a book that teaches you the functions of your camera. I might shoot in Manual (M) mode all the time, but I'll quickly explore every setting when I see the shot I took isn't what I want. Sports mode, night mode, Aperture Priority mode (Av), etc; these functions are all there to get you the results you want, and it's a waste of your money not to learn the full capabilities of your camera.

Shoot in Raw and learn Photoshop

Photoshop CS5I'll be honest, I really don't churn out "perfect" shots right out of the camera. Some photographers can, and I give them much credit for their talent. My secret has been Camera Raw and Photoshop. If you don't know, Camera Raw is a file type that DSLR cameras and high-end point-and-shoot cameras can create. It's a digital equivalent of film basically.

When you shoot in RAW you won't be able to instantly email the photo around, but you'll get a large file that you can manipulate in-depth in Adobe Photoshop. You open up the file in Photoshop's Camera Raw device and you pretty much have all the power that classic photographers had in the dark room. You can manipulate the white balance; fill light, blacks, colors, etc. I'll take many photos that look "ok" and make them look great just in Camera Raw alone. Even then I'll still bring them into Photoshop and boost colors, equalize the lighting if I think it's uneven, smooth the skin on people if I want, and other tricks to get the results I want.

If you want to shoot professionally or even semi-professionally, learning about Camera Raw and Photoshop is a must. If you can't afford Photoshop, then check out GIMP and other freeware out on the internet (or the camera's included software) to help you.

ISO and Shutter Speed are your best friends

Model: ZuzanaBefore I ever touched a DSLR, my experiences of shooting on point-and-shoot cameras were similar to most people. I'd shoot photos and they would end up as the camera would allow. I'd use the flash many times and end up with shots of uneven light. You know what I shoot your friends and they are really bright while the background is dark.

When I started using a DSLR though, I learned what ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and Shutter Speed are, and why most photography rotates around those two factors. Suddenly I wouldn't bother with the flash in many instances and instead manipulate the shutter speed to get the shot I wanted.

Here's what it means in laymen's terms. If you imagine your eye as a camera, ISO is how much your iris opens up to let in light through your pupil. It's why it's wider when you're in a dark place and smaller when you're in a bright place. On a camera it's the same deal. The ISO setting is how much light you'll let into the exposure when you open the shutter. So when you're in that church and can't use a tripod or flash, a higher ISO will help you get those shots much easier.

Generally I'll leave my ISO setting low and keep it there in order to get the sharpest and best photos. The higher you go, the grainier your photos might turn out. Shutter speed is what I use the most as I'll be constantly checking the light level with my camera, then rotating the shutter wheel to the right setting. The photo displayed here is a prime example. Had I used a flash I might have overexposed the model and put harsh shadows on her face. Shutter speed allowed me to capture her in a more natural light.

Even if you're using a point-and-shoot, look and see if there is an ISO mode and/or settings for the shutter speed. You will be very surprised what you can turn out with those two settings alone.

Use a professional flash over the included flash

Canon Speedlite with Sto-Fen diffuserI'll admit my purchasing of a Speedlite initially was so I had the "whole package" in my camera, but I see my Speedlite as an asset to my photography. My DSLR does have a pop-up flash, and one could think that's enough, but that pop-up flash can't be manipulated. When you shoot with it, you'll just get a blast of bright light that will overexpose your photos most of the time.

A professional flash will connect with your camera and work with it to give the right amount of light for your needs. You'll suddenly see photos with equalized light as opposed to harsh light. You can even take the flash off the camera if you have a cord or remote for it, and thus manipulate where the light comes from in your shot. It's honestly night and day when you compare a professional flash to the pop-up flash. About the only time I'll use the pop-up is when I have a subject in front of me with the sun behind said subject. I'll fire off that harsh flash with a high shutter speed so the subject is illuminated and the background is darker.

I will also tell you to think longer-term when you pick a flash. I bought an inexpensive Canon Speedlite which I use today, but I do regret that I didn't buy the higher-end flash because that higher-end product can be also used to remotely fire off other Canon flashes, thus I could more easily pick up and use multiple flashes for more creative shots.

Also, buy a Sto-Fen flash diffuser. It's that plastic cover on the flash in the image. Seriously, I use it all the time. It will allow your flash to be spread and thus be softer. Use it when you take photos of your family around the holidays, you'll see their faces nice and smooth, but sharp, and no harsh shadows. I barely ever take it off my Speedlite.

Invest in a good tripod

TripodA tripod is an essential piece of equipment for any photographer. Even before you think about more lenses, bags, filters, etc...get the tripod. I followed advice from Photoshop Guru Scott Kelby and bought a tripod with a ball-joint head. He was right when you will be able to position your camera in any direction, and I can't fathom any other kind of tripod. When you want to shoot landscapes, HDR photos, food and product shots, and even some portraits, that tripod is the key asset that will get you sharp, clear photos.

I'd even tell you to later invest in a monopod and a small travel tripod, but I will go into the reasons why in the future articles on more specialized photography.

Practice holding yourself steady

Holding myself steadyNot every scene can you use a tripod, and yet you will wish you could. Since day one for me I have had to really learn not just how to use the camera properly, but how to hold myself steady. Believe me, you might not think it's much, but when you're trying to get that shot of a bird or building, and it seems your photos end up slightly blurry, it's because you're slightly moving around. You might not even realize it, but you are.

People will see me crunching my arms to my chest, elbows on my sides, trying to stay steady. I'll hold my breath just before I press the shutter button, and even set my camera to "rapid-fire" several shots when I press and hold the button. Maybe it sounds like a lot, but it's better to do too much and get that one perfect shot than shoot something like a statue and find it's all blurry when you're home. It takes practice and mental conditioning, but practice and learn any way you can to keep yourself steady when shooting. Many times you can't pull out that tripod, and thus it's all on you.

Use small-capacity memory cards

Memory cardsThis is another big tip from Scott Kelby, and I agree with it fully. Say you're out in the store looking to pick up some more memory cards, and you spot those pricey 32GB cards sitting next to some less-expensive 1, 2, or 4GB cards. You might think the 32 will make your life easier, where you have one big card in your camera and thus you won't have to change it much at all.

Now imagine you are on the last day of your vacation and that card is lost, or ruined, or it just fails. You lost it all.

I have about six cards for my camera, each only with a 2GB capacity. Kelby stated this advice in one of his books and I followed it. While I never had a card fail on me, I'd rather lose a day's photos over a whole trip's photos. I even REFORMAT (not just erase) cards before I use them. It makes sense because reformatting will find bad sectors in the memory and not place your shots in them. Trust me on this one; you're better off having eight 4GB cards over that one 32GB card. Toss them in a case and save yourself the heartbreak when a card fails.

You don't have to go "top of the line" if you're not being a pro

Tamron lensesThis is probably going to be a big debate between photographers, but I'll state my opinion. When I bought my Canon 450D, I had some actual pros tell me how quick I'd "outgrow" that camera and want a bigger/bulkier "professional level" camera. They also told me how I'd outgrow the kit lens that came with the camera very quickly.

Three years later, and I still use my 450D and even my kit lens for many occasions. I know I could probably have some improvement if I bought a better lens, and I did buy some better lenses for some occasions, but I've found much of photography is about the person using the camera, not just the camera.

It can get very easy to think popping $1000 on a credit card for some "L" lens will make you shoot as well as Annie Leibovitz, but it's skill, experience, creativity, and talent that will make you shoot that well. If you're looking to shoot for Sports Illustrated, then by all means spend the money on those high-end lenses, but if you're just looking to take better holiday and vacation photos, save your money. Look around on the internet at reviews of the "lesser brand" lenses and gear.

I've actually decided to buy Tamron lenses now not just because they cost less than the Canon lenses, but also they come with a six-year warranty. Six years of replacement if anything goes wrong, and online reviews show they shoot almost as well as the Canon lenses, well enough for my needs. It's the same with camera bodies and any other gear. It's why I'm working on converting some halogen work lights into CFL lights just to use for photography. Yes they won't be as good as professional lights, but they will serve my needs.

Don't fall into the trap of spending your life savings on a hobby. Spend when you're ready and you see a need. I bought a wide-angle lens because I wanted the range. I bought a light-tent because I wanted to shoot food and products. I didn't just run out and buy stuff unless I have an actual need for it. Look around, research, talk to other photographers. You will be surprised how many times an inexpensive item will do just as well as the high-end item.

Put a UV filter on each of your lenses

UV filterThis is another tip credited to Scott Kelby. Imagine you are at the Coliseum in Rome, and you realize you need your wide-angle lens. So you're pulling your telephoto lens off the body, when it slips and falls...CRACK!

What if I told you could spend $20-$30 and protect that lens? That you could end up only breaking a $20-$30 item and not your expensive lens?

A simple UV filter on your lens is the item that will break. I thankfully never dropped a lens, but Kelby spoke of when he did. He was thankful the $50 UV filter on his $2000 lens was the only thing that broke, and that story was enough to make me buy a UV filter every time I buy a lens. I'll also say the filters protect your glass from particles and anything else that could damage it. Come on, you're spending big money on a lens; the added cost of a UV filter will do wonders even more than an extended warranty.

Relax...start small and set goals

So you've gotten into the complexity of shooting with a higher-end camera and photo manipulation in Photoshop. You might think it's a bit overwhelming at times or you find yourself constantly checking settings, numbers, and other technical stuff before you even press that shutter button.


I've had friends who tried photography and quit because they felt they were not getting the results they wanted. The problem was they were spending more time learning the technical end of photography and not just shooting and learning. I went with one and did a model shoot on the street. He pulled out his white balance card, shot those photos, used a 50mm lens, etc...and wondered why I was using the "auto" setting on my white balance and shooting with my kit lens.

My photos ended up looking better than his. One can say my skill in Photoshop was a big factor, but I also like to see my success as simply because I didn't think deeply about the technical end, and just learned by shooting. Granted the photos I took were not shots one would see end up in a magazine, but the results showed me what I did and allowed me to think about what I'd try in the future to do better.

Don't get overwhelmed by it all. Just pick up the camera in its basic form and shoot photos. Start with the automatic settings and move your way into the deeper functions as you see yourself ready. So you might shoot a photo of your kid and think it's "ok" and thus you want to try the Av setting over the auto setting. That's how this works. It's like cooking. You start by simply learning to make toast, then a sandwich, and then you get into how to make homemade condiments or how to roast a ham to slice up. It's a growth process.

The best thing is to set small goals and go from there. I know when I do some shooting, I'm going to try to talk about the shoots here on this blog and state what I think I did wrong. Read my blog and others like mine and learn from it. The name of the game is to have fun and strive to get better shots with each attempt.

One of the first shoots I did was just walking around downtown Chicago. I'm going to try another shoot like that again, only three years after the fact. I simply set some small goals and will try to achieve them, but most importantly have fun. Post your photos online and let others give you suggestions. It helps a lot.

Do you have any tips you would add?

Tags: digital, photography, lessons

comments powered by Disqus