Maybe you received a camera for the holidays, or maybe you've always had one but it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere because it just looks too complicated to use. If this is you, fret not. The best way to learn any hobby, increase any skill, or perfect a passion, is to do it! There is simply no substitute for practice. The only thing stopping you from becoming a better photographer, is you. As Matt Granger says, “Get Your Gear Out!” You can watch videos online, buy books, and even memorize the manual that came with your camera but it won’t make a bit of difference if you don’t put it into practice. This post is about different ways to engage with your camera and become a better photographer.
First off, don’t try and figure out what every single button on your camera does right away. You will learn them over time. Even then, you may not use all of the buttons. There are some buttons on my camera I have only used once or twice only in attempting to figure out what they did. Second, don’t buy into the ‘you have to get your camera out of automatic mode to be a good photographer’ rule. Some of my favorite pictures I have taken were taken on a full automatic setting. Does putting your camera in ‘manual’ mode make for better pictures? No, not if you do not understand what ISO, aperture, and shutter speed mean. You may actually wind up with worse looking pictures if you don’t know how to set up a camera in manual mode. If you have absolutely no clue what any setting means, keep your camera in automatic mode and start taking pictures. Automatic mode is a good way to start learning about composition. Take pictures of things you like. Take several pictures of the same thing from different angles. Doing this will help you develop a sense of framing, composition, and perhaps lighting. Does the item look better right in the middle of the image? Maybe it might look better just off-center. Play around. There are ‘rules’ about where you should place the subject of your picture, but don’t worry about the rules. Besides, rules are made to be broken. If you like it, then it’s good enough.
Once you feel like you have a handle on composition and placement of your subject in the picture, pick a different setting on your camera. Some cameras have presets for portraits, landscapes, sports, close-ups (macro), etc. Give these a try. Maybe pick one and spend some time just taking pictures with that setting. Obviously if you set the camera into sports mode, try to make sure you are taking pictures of scenes with a lot of movement and action. Likewise, if you set it to portraits, try doing a lot of portraits. When you do different settings, try and pay attention to the numbers the camera is using for different scenes. Try this method with other modes too such as P, Tv, and Av, modes on a Canon and P, S, and A modes on a Nikon.
After you think you are getting the images you want from these modes, consider manual (M) mode on your camera. The best place to learn about manual settings is online, especially video tutorials on YouTube. This is where learning about ISO, aperture, and shutter speed will start to become important. If you paid attention to the settings the camera used when using the presets, that gives you a good starting point. For example, put your camera in portrait mode and focus on a person. Write down or remember the settings and then switch to manual mode. Input the very same settings. This should result in the same picture you would have achieved in the portrait preset mode. But what if you want the picture darker or lighter? What if you want the background to appear fuzzier? This is where you can learn to start with the ‘suggested’ settings and change one or two settings to achieve a slightly different final image. It’s not as daunting as it may seem. After all, they are only digital pictures. No money has been spent on developing film or buying new rolls. Worst case scenario, you probably are only spending money on batteries or electricity to recharge batteries. There’s simply no reason not to experiment.
The single best way that helped me learn my way around my camera and all of the settings, was to engage in a 365 day photo challenge. The concept of the challenge is to take a photograph a day, without missing a day, for a full 365 days. A friend of mine was currently doing this challenge and I loved looking at his pictures. Although he was already a very accomplished photographer, it was fun to see how he could create amazing pictures from ordinary everyday objects. The challenge can focus on a single subject, such as taking a picture of a growing beard over a year. It can even be as simple as taking one selfie a day over a year. For my personal challenge, I selected an entire month to different camera settings. I would pick a month to focus on just ISO, another month focused just on shutter speed, another month just on aperture, another month just on focusing, and so on and so on. I even dedicated a month to forcing myself to Photoshop my photos A LOT to better understand post processing and Photoshop. Afraid I wouldn’t have enough unique items to photograph, I picked up a toy army doll and routinely made him the subject of my daily picture. Although the challenge seems very fun and interesting at first, it can be a very daunting endeavor. Honestly, there were days I just didn’t feel like picking up the camera, but I did.
At the end of the challenge, I created a short video of every picture I had taken over that period. I realized I was no longer afraid of my camera or any of the settings. I no longer fear manual mode, in fact, now my camera hardly comes out of manual mode. I no longer fear ‘breaking’ my camera by setting it wrong. The most unexpected outcome of finishing the project was the feeling the few weeks after. I honestly felt a sense of withdrawal. It felt very strange not picking up my camera on a daily basis. As a result of the challenge, I view the world around me VERY differently. I am constantly looking at people, places, and things in a way I never before had. It forces me to stop and appreciate the beauty in every moment that I think gets overlooked all too often.
A 365 day photo challenge is just one way to make you pick up your camera and become more proficient with it. In the end, it’s about having fun. If you simply don’t enjoy using a camera and taking pictures, then find something that does spark that interest and enjoyment for you. If you enjoy taking pictures but maybe on a less frequent basis, that is fine too. But if you enjoy photography and really want to learn how to master your camera and equipment, then get out there and use it! Videos and books are fine, but nothing beats trial and error. You will have a lot of pictures that aren’t that good, a few pictures that are ok, and fewer that are really great. By repeatedly using your equipment, you can reduce the number of bad pictures while at the same time increasing the number of great ones. For me, photography is often the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about before I go to bed. My only regret is not getting into this hobby earlier in my life. But as they say, better late than never.
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.