It is a common problem: new people coming into photography need to learn how to do it. High quality cameras are cheap and easy to find. But photography is a strange beast, both a limitless creative art and yet highly technical. Besides the usual how to work the camera and what the latest gadgets and software are, you can go as far as getting into some basic physics and learning the behavior of light, advanced optic theory will teach you how your lenses actually function, you can buy books on the psychology of visual perception, but much of the creative ability is just inherent. Art is a very personal expression that can’t be taught. You can learn technique but you just can’t learn to be creative… or can you? Creativity is something you need to practice like everything else and learning the technical aspects first destroys most people’s ability to do just that.
My dad was an amateur photographer so I grew up using a Nikon FE we inherited from an uncle who was a professional photographer, but because we didn’t know at the time that I was nearly blind I couldn’t work it. Instead I had tons of Time Life books, National Geographics, and all kinds of other magazines and books filled with pictures of places here on Earth and beyond. I would spend my days looking through crates of original prints we had of the Apollo moon landings, NASA tests, wars and more that my uncle either shot or developed for Department of Defense a government film lab.
When I was older and interested again, I had a unique advantage of having an old Sony DSLR with a single, non-interchangeable lens to play with that my dad would use once in a while for family occasions or vacations. I just grabbed it and went out to play. I had no idea how the camera worked or what the letters on the dial meant but I knew they all looked different and I made up a mnemonic device for the lettered settings to help me remember which one to turn to depending on what I wanted.
After a few months of playing around I had plateaued. Just then a neighbor working on his photography degree pulled me to the side and showed me what the dials actually did and suggested that I take a little $50 class at the local camera shop on basic SLR functions. I did that, and because I had the experience from playing around to comprehend the lessons, I shot years ahead in that little hour long class. Now I suddenly knew how to be creative on my own AND how to make the camera do what I wanted. The combination of growing up looking at photography and a lack of structure at my creative infancy were critical to learning to be creative on my own.
Learning the rules first means you have to think about the rules and technical issues while you’re trying to learn to be creative. The entire concept of the way photography is taught is an outdated throwback to the film days. If you didn’t know how the camera worked, your shot was ruined. You HAD to learn the technical side first. Those days are over.
We can’t all have someone that will let us grab their expensive gear and go run around with no idea what we’re doing, but that camera with permanent lens that was $1200 new cost about $125 on the used market when I got to it. Most people buy cameras that are way above their skill level or need. You don’t give a kid with a learner’s permit a brand new Maserati to learn to drive on. Get on Craigslist or Ebay or a local shop with a consignment section and buy something for $200 with no features. Buy the closest thing to a film camera that you can without constantly wasting the money on film and development. Instead get an ancient digital camera with manual controls and no features other than a screen for instant feedback and make sure it records camera raw, then develop yourself. Being creative begins with playing around!
Learn to work around the features your basic camera doesn’t have. Wait to upgrade when you outgrow that camera body and you know which of those fancy features you’re actually going to use to accomplish something or get out of a very expensive hobby that you found out you don’t like for relatively cheap. The place to spend your money in photography is on lenses and traveling. Keep that old body a while and buy yourself some really good glass. You’ll save a ton of money because the film is free.
First run around and play. It is OK to use the dial without knowing what it means (at first). Let the camera’s internal computer do some of the work for you as you learn composition and perspective. When you get home, stick your memory card in the biggest screen you can find (many TVs and video game consoles have memory card slots or USB ports) and weigh the pros and cons of each shot. Compare them side by side, then pick the best of the best to edit. Shoot WAY more than you could ever use, the film is free.
Use any of the hundreds of free photo editing programs on your pictures. They have unbelievably easy and intuitive user interfaces and editing an image will help you learn how you should have shot it. Photography has been around since the 1800s and anyone who tells you editing your pictures in software isn’t real photography is not worth your time. Nothing you are doing to the photo in software hasn’t been done since the 1800s. Everything from basic exposure and color correction, straightening, cropping, even image compositing and “Photoshopping”. The only difference now is that you don’t have to spend years of your life in a dark room inhaling toxic chemicals and you have the ability to undo. Did I mention the film is free?
Don’t go off and read a bunch of internet articles you aren’t even able to understand yet. Wait until you’re reasonably proficient and join a local camera club. Meet new people, you’ll be surprised how many photographers are happy to help you. Put your pictures in front of anyone who will look at them and ask for critiques. I keep my entire portfolio on my phone because I always have everywhere I go (or at least I’m supposed to 🙂 .
Instead of being a star with your friends, forget your ego and surround yourself with people who are better than you. Presidents and heads of state know this lesson. They are decision makers surrounded by experts giving them the information to make the decision. Don’t be a hoarder. It is your obligation as a person who was helped to share your lessons with others as you grow. Remind them the film is free.
Because the film is free, you will want a large external hard drive. 4 terabytes only costs $300 these days. That’s 4,000 gigabytes. That’s 4,000,000 megabytes…. for $300. Buy two of them and keep a backup. Nothing is more heartbreaking than losing everything. You have an even greater risk of losing your memories by keeping them on your internal drive, but redundancy is your best friend. Backup software is much easier on drive wear because it will not make the drive copy something that hasn’t been changed since the last backup. Format your cards after every use or one day you will lose everything on the card before you ever plug it in to your computer.
Get uncomfortable. Stretch and contort yourself into strange positions to see what things look like from that perspective. Shoot over your head, lay on the ground, do anything to get a different view than the one at your own eye level. Don’t look down at the flower and shoot, get down to the flower’s level and shoot it straight on. Most objects and creatures are much more interesting at their own eye level.
Hold the camera to your eye and just walk in a circle around your subject seeing how the lighting and perspective change. Squat, kneel, lay down, stand on a chair, hold the camera over your head as you jump as high as you can. The harder it is to get in a position to get a shot, the less people are willing to do it, i.e. you’re creating something unique. A picture of something that looks the same way you see it every day is boring.
If you have an unusual lens like a fisheye or Lensbaby put the camera up to your eye and just walk around your house or neighborhood looking through it. Get super-close and force perspective, pan up and down and see how it affects the distortion. Do that every day for a few hours without taking any pictures and before you know it you will start to see the world that way without the camera to your eye and be able to plan shots in your head for that lens. Then keep doing it, take the pictures home, and review them. Debate what you would do different, then go do it. Lather, rinse, repeat. In time you will be able to walk into somewhere you have never been and nail the shot the first time, because sometimes you only have a minute and it is gone forever.
The moral of the story is this: You can learn the technical aspects of making the camera obey you, you can study psychology and physics and learn the hundreds of little rules of composition and exposure until you can recite them from memory, you can have the greatest gear money can buy, but none of it will make you see the shots in your mind before you take them, it won’t teach you to notice a shot in a scene you’re passing by casually, and it will prohibit you from breaking those rules and trying to do things in a new, creative way and depending on yourself instead of your equipment to create a great shot. The most important thing is your artistic intention, knowing what you want to create before you pull the trigger. If you learn the camera first there will always be those technical issues blocking you from learning creativity.
Photography by the numbers is about as creative as painting by numbers and you learn just as much from each. Play first, then learn how the camera works, learn how light works, and apply that to making the camera do what YOU want. They don’t all have to be winners, digital film is free! If you don’t experiment you’ll never do anything new. We all shoot garbage, that’s part of the creative process, we just don’t post it. Remember the old saying: “The difference between a good photographer and a great one is what you don’t see.”
Or just shoot by the numbers like this guy …