10 Tips for the New Digital SLR Photographer
I started shooting photography with an SLR (single lens reflex) camera about 23 years ago. I was 15 and my parents bought me a Sigma camera and allowed me to enroll in a summer photography course at the local junior college, Glendale Community. I was the youngest kid in the class and found it one of the most exciting things I’d ever done. Watching a print come to life, when developing in a darkroom for the first time, is an amazing and exciting experience. Although I haven’t done much developing in the past few years, that summer began a love affair with the camera for me that has never stopped.
Today I shoot with a much more expensive Canon EOS 5D, a fantastic full frame digital that has so much more capability than my old Sigma ever did. I’ve had a lot of cameras in between and have taken literally hundreds of thousands of photos between when I started out and today. I’ve got a little over 4,000 of my shots up on Flickr and have recently begun doing a bit of professional work here and there. You can see my photos in the last three issues of San Francisco Magazine and I’m working on another assignment for them now as we speak.
Along the way I’ve picked up a few things here and there and thought I’d share what I feel are some of the basics in a post for new Digital SLR photographers. Bear in mind that these are only my suggestions and observations. Many other photographers will disagree with them and the art of photography truly is an art with many different photographers taking many different approaches. That said here is my list of 10 tips you might want to explore if you are new to the hobby.
1. ISO, ISO, ISO. In real estate it’s location, location, location. With an SLR it’s ISO, ISO, ISO. I can’t begin to tell you how many new photographers I’ve met who have no idea what an ISO is. It’s perhaps the single most important technical thing to know about your new SLR. Technically ISO stands for the International Organization for Standardization and in the old days of film it had to do with film speed. But without getting very technical here, if you are shooting in the dark or a poorly lit room or at night, you can dramatically improve your photos by bumping up your ISO setting. Most digital cameras these days go to 1600.
When you see those blurry shaky photos that people take at night without a flash what is going on here is that the camera lens is being opened on an automatic setting too long to avoid the movement of your hand which produces the blur. By increasing your ISO setting you will be able to shorten the amount of time the lens is open and thus get a less blurry photo due to the ever so slight movement that naturally takes place in your hand when you shoot. I’m not going to go into the differences between ISO, noise at higher ISO settings etc. Experiment around with the speeds yourself but make *sure* you know how to change your ISO setting and make sure that you understand that it will make a world of difference to the photos you are shooting in low light situations by increasing it.
2. When dealing with low light situations that are still blurry at high ISO settings, find something to brace the camera on. You can set it on a table, chair, bar, etc. You can hold it tight against a light or telephone pole or wall. You can lay on the ground and set it there. Find something for stability. This will dramatically improve your ability to steady the camera in a low light situation.
3. Don’t cheap out on a tripod. Cheap tripods are like cheap umbrellas. They will inevitably break and you will be back buying another one. Further, they won’t work right, won’t get your camera at the right angle, will shake in the wind when it’s blowing, etc. Tripods are one of those areas where you truly do get what you pay for. Especially if you are going to be shooting at night budget for a quality tripod that can last you for years. Personally I use a Manfrotto. Manfrotto makes some of the finest tripods in the world. Spend the extra money and buy a good tripod or you will regret it. It should have a ball head and for everyday use be somewhat light and hopefully fit in your back pack. You may want a more sturdy industrious larger tripod for the car, but a basic smaller one for a backpack of good quality is money well spent.
4. It’s all about the glass. I’m continuously amazed at folks that will spend $3,000 on a digital SLR and then keep the low level stock lens that they bought with it and never do anything else from there. Personally I think you’d be better off buying a cheaper SLR but with a few good core lenses to use. The difference in shots using better lenses is dramatic. At a bare minimum find someplace that rents lenses and go rent one for a day, you’ll be surprised at the difference over the stock lens that came with your camera. With Canon their L Series lenses are amazing – you will not go wrong with any Canon L Series lens. Whether zoom telephoto, macro, wide angle, prime (fixed focal length), all will make dramatically different photos come out of your camera. Experiment with lenses and make sure that a fair portion of your camera budget is dedicated to at least one if not two quality lenses. My favorite lens for basic out and about shooting these days is the 135 prime L series, but most would prefer the flexibility of a range of distances over the fixed focal rate primes.
5. Join Flickr. Flickr is almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world. Something happens when you start sharing your artistic photographs with the rest of the world. It’s hard to say why or how it happens but it gives you a tremendous amount of emotional support and genuine satisfaction to see like minded camera geeks sharing their work and appreciating yours. Even with one or two close flickr friends you will find that flickr provides motivation for you to continue shooting. And best thing of all Flickr is free or very modestly priced at (a well worth) $25 a year if you want a Pro account with more bandwidth. You can join other photo sharing sites too if you want. I also have my photos at Webshots, Zooomr, Riya, Vizrea and a few other places, but it is the social network of Flickr that makes the most difference.
Flickr will also give you a lot of great ideas and ways to shoot that others are using today. For more on how to use Flickr you might want to check out this review I wrote yesterday on Richard Giles’ new book, How to Use Flickr, The Digital Photography Revolution. I’ve also published two other top 10 lists on Flickr, The Top 10 Ways to Get Attention on Flickr and the Top 10 Ways to find great photos on Flickr.
6. Know your rights. Nowhere are rights more misunderstood than with photographers today. Can you take photos of strangers on the street. Yes. Can you take photos of buildings from the street even after security guards tell you not to? Yes. Can you shoot into an open door from the street into a bar? Yes. Know your rights and stick up for them. This not only helps you but it helps other photographers. For a
great primer on your rights as a photographer check out Bert Krage’s excellent .pdf called “The Photographer’s Right”
7. Shoot in RAW. Even if you shoot in JPG a lot too, shoot in RAW. I really only shoot in RAW for my art shots. RAW files are large, cumbersome and difficult to work with. They take up a lot of space on your hard drive. But being able to make modifications to the exposure, contrast and temperature (white balance, think are your whites whitish blue or whitish yellow) before really processing the photo makes a *huge* difference. Shoot in RAW and then learn how to do the production necessary with your photo processing app to do the minor modifications necessary to make your photo the best that it can be. I still shoot in JPG a lot of the time when I’m doing family snapshot stuff and don’t want to be bothered with the extra time it takes to process but for my art stuff it’s all RAW.
8. Photoshop, Photoshop, Photoshop. Whether buying the low end version of Photoshop Elements for $75 or the more professional CS2 version for $600, buy Photoshop and use it. Do *not* listen to the naysayer that will tell you that you are not a purist if you edit your photos. Almost every digital photo can be improved by editing it. Simple things like bumping contrast, altering saturation, sharpness, selective color, etc. all can make a world of difference. Buy Photoshop and use it to process every artistic type image you do. If you really, really can’t afford Photoshop or want something else for a laptop on the go or something, also take a look at Google’s Picasa. It’s pretty good for free software. Not as good as Photoshop, but you can’t argue with the price and it does do a lot of the basics nicely.
9. Take lots and lots and lots of photos when you shoot. Feel free to throw out the vast majority of the shots you shoot. When you see something you like to shoot, shoot 6 shots of the exact same thing. Some will be bad and you can pick the very best one and throw out the rest. I throw out most of the photos I take. I also have about 60,000 photos that I’ve yet to process that need more consideration on a hard drive I’ve named Scratch sorted by date. I shoot like crazy. On a typical outing I can easily fill two memory cards. And while I’m on the second card I’m transferring the photos off of the first card to my laptop to free up more space. Others disagree with me and a photographer I admire a lot Tim Gasperak was telling me recently about this discipline process thing of only being allowed to take a single photo a day in order to better focus and understand your composition and photography in a thoughtful way. There is probably something to that and as an expert it may have merit, but as an amateur shoot away.
You should never come back from a shooting outing with any room left on your card. Shoot, shoot, shoot and shoot. You’ll be surprised at the gems that you come back with.
10. Change your perspective. Whenever you think you have your shot framed and captured take your shot and consider different perspectives. Can you get down on the ground (or simply set your camera on the ground and shoot from there standing up) and get a better perspective. Look up. Is there someplace higher you can get. What about closer, further back. Turn around. What’s behind you? Are you missing something great? Look everywhere at once. Keep your eyes open for different ways to take the same shot. Tilt the camera, take a vertical, a horizontal, a diagonal. Crop out the sky. Crop out all of the land but a thin small strip at the bottom. Play with your perspective on a shot and take several different versions of the same thing.
There is this Chinese Restaurant in San Francisco called All Seasons. It’s not a favorite of mine but I’ve been a time or two. One day I went to lunch there and walking up the stairs just decided to look directly above me for some reason. There were these amazing umbrellas hanging from the ceiling. Had I not looked up I would have missed them. This shot in turn has become my most favorited and popular shot on Flickr. If I hadn’t turned my head and looked straight up at the ceiling I never would have gotten the shot.
Are you shooting at night and using a manual shutter speed for long exposure shots. Try it at 2 seconds, try it at 10 seconds, try it at 30 seconds. Shoot the same shot in many different ways.
And finally, have fun. Digital photography is a great hobby and can be loads of fun but make sure that you don’t get so serious about it that it stops being fun for you. It’s a wonderful way to be creative and to express yourself. Buy your kids, spouse, partner, brother, sister, mom, dad, friend cameras like my parents bought mine. Teach them to shoot as well. Photography is a wonderful hobby full of ways for you and them to be creative. Oh and by the way when buying all this gear (did I mention this hobby can be expensive?) resist the temptation to buy the cheapest discount gear online. Take my advice and check out my bad experience in the past in this department. Personally I like and would recommend B & H Photo for all of your online purchases but their are certainly many other reputable dealers as well.
Update: In the article I mentioned that Flickr is a wonderful place to get advice and share your love of photography with other like-minded photogeeks. In addition to my 10 tips are some more that you may want to consider that I solicited from the members of Flickr’s largest group Flickr Central.
Jeff Clow adds: “Might I also add that they should learn how to use the manual settings as opposed to just the auto focus – since manual settings are intimidating intially but become second nature when one understands how important shutter speed and aperture are to crafting good shots.
I think another important item for newcomers to learn is the steps necessary to access the great features like auto bracketing and remote shutter release that almost all DSLRs have built in to their menus. Once a person becomes adept at those, the world of photography opens up even more broadly – and not surprisingly, better photos become much more the norm.”
carpe icthus adds: “Cheap advice for beginners? In addition to the basic zooms for the range you need, pick up a 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.7. Every line has one, they’re very cheap, you will instantly be able to do things with low-light and depth-of-field that you cannot do with a bridge camera, and practicing zooming with your feet will teach you a lot about composition.
Also, if you find yourself doing a lot of flash photography, picking up a flash that can bounce its flash angle (and, better still, rotate) will improve your photography immensely. For most, the basic such flash in their line-up is more than enough, as long as it takes advantage of their camera’s metering. SB-600 for Nikon, 430EX for Canon, etc.
Also, an addition to the ISO item is to address the common newbie mistake of thinking it is better to underexpose while shooting at a lower ISO then exposing properly at a higher ISO. It’s not; always try to get the right exposure if at all possible. In particular, your images’ color will thank you for it.”
Morven adds: “One tip I got a long time ago and never forgot: carry your camera as much as you can. Great subject matter, great photographic moments, don’t just occur when you’re hunting for them. Sometimes
they just happen totally randomly. Not an SLR tip, but a general tip; in fact, it’s one of the best arguments for also owning a point-and-shoot. Even shots with a crap camera can be good, and they certainly beat the shot you didn’t take because you didn’t bring the camera with you.
Another: be cold and be ruthless when selecting shots. One of the secrets of many master photographers is simply that they take so damn many photographs and then cull ruthlessly. Garry Winogrand died with almost half a million photos he’d not even looked at yet. He deliberately didn’t look at his photographs until he’d forgotten the circumstances of taking them, so that he wouldn’t be influenced by good memories of the circumstances into favoring a poor photo. You don’t have to be that extreme, but try and divorce your emotions about the subject matter and the circumstances of the photo-shoot from your judgment of the resulting photographs. Attempt to see them as a stranger. Sometimes the most fun days out photographing produce no good shots at all, and sometimes an awful day with a subject you hate produces a winning photo.
Don’t wear good clothes. Sometimes the best shots are found by lying in the dirt or climbing up things. By the same logic, buy a camera bag that can absorb the inevitable knocks your equipment will get when you’re doing that.”
monkeyc.net adds: “Dont fall into the trap of thinking that the more expensive the camera you buy is the better your shots will be – buying a professional SLR for your first camera is pointless, it wont make you a better photographer but it will make you a poorer one – start with an SLR you are comfortable with and can use and wil use – the entry level models from Canon and Nikon are excellent but there is a lot of value in the offerings from other companies – Pentax in particular make some excellent price competitive DSLR’s that have the added advantage of being able to use a massive range of lenses and as theyre almost the ubiquitous student choice Pentax gear is readily available second hand meaning you can get some cheap lenses at a good price.
A pro camera wont make you a pro photographer no matter what that guy at the camera store tells you.
And my second advice is the most important – 3 things every photographer needs to know and understand. Depth of Field, Arpeture and Composition – theyre not hard to learn but they are essentials of taking good photgraphs – pick up one of the many handbooks on 35mm photography – you can get them cheaply normally and the principles are the same and learn what they mean – once you have these basics down pat your photography will take off – you will be amazed how much difference understanding them will make to your work.”
Proggie adds: “If you don’t want to carry a tripod, get (or make) a beanbag camera support, to support the SLR on surfaces where you may not be able to normally place your SLR. These may not work as well with larger lenses though. But they work well for me as supports when I hold the SLR on a railing, or rock.
Check your image in the viewfinder by zooming in to make sure it’s sharp. Often when zoomed out the viewfinder will make you think that a soft or out of focus photo looks good, but when you download it to your computer you’ll discover that it’s not that great. Check the histogram in the preview as well (though I’m still learning how to interpret it correctly).”
f8125 adds: “Take a photo with every mode and setting. Even if you don’t use all the functions all the time, knowledge is power and with technical fluency, your creative juices will have no bounds.
Get a a good sized memory card or 2 (at least 1 GB), running out space during a shoot is depressing.”
est0al adds: “A good habit for any beginner (I am still struggling with this one though) in my opinion is to not be shy to shoot anywhere.
If you get out your gear in a crowded place just ignore the interested or just plain weird looks of passers-by. In the past I have missed some nice opportunities just because they occured in a setting in which taking out a camera seemed awkward. Oh yeah, and always take along enough spare batteries and memory cards. Also, it pays off to check your gear before you set out I nearly went bananas the other day when I I had checked the status of my batteries before leaving the house but when on site I realized that I had left my CF in the card reader at home… Luckily I had my backup cam (an A620) with me.”
leecullivan adds: Take your camera with you everywhere you go, work, dinner, church, hairdresser… I took my camera to work yesterday and took the latest in my stream which I am happy with. I also took it to dinner last night and got a couple of great shots of a friends kid which I’m sure they will be pleased with.
Learn what Depth of Field is and how to effectively use it.”