An Introduction to Digital Photography
The advent of high quality and inexpensive digital cameras has made it easier than ever to learn the basics of photography. The immediate feedback you get by being able to preview your images (via the LCD screen) in relationship to your exposure settings is invaluable. In the film days (not that long ago!), photographers had to take notes while in the field so that they could compare the results after the images were processed. It could take days or weeks before a film-photographer could process their images and examine their work. This could be sped up slightly if you had your own lab. Mistakes in exposure and lighting were expensive. New photographers breaking into the field faced these same challenges. Learning photography was usually a tedious and expensive endeavor.
What might have taken several days with film is now accomplished in minutes with digital images. Today, a young photographer can experiment with a new idea and see the results immediately. Want to learn more about timed exposures? Just setup your camera on a tripod and start cranking on the shutter speed. The camera automatically records your exposure settings so that you can examine and compare the results later when you get back to your computer. You can see what worked and what didn’t almost immediately.
As a self-taught photographer, I began by taking pictures with a clunky, hand-me-down, 35mm camera over 15 years ago. I learned by reading books (with no easy access to the Internet then) and shooting lots and lots of photographs. I photographed just about everything I laid my eyes on. I spent nearly all of my discretionary income (which wasn’t much!) on film and processing. Most of my images were pretty sad to look at; however I learned a lot about exposure and light. Nothing can take the place of honest-to-goodness experience. Getting out in the field and practicing, with whatever camera you have, is one of the fastest ways to master the fundamentals of exposure.
I get a regular stream of emails from new photographers asking for advice. There are thousands of books and even more websites providing advice for new photographers. Rather than writing an in-depth guide covering the basics elements of photography, I decided to share a few ideas to help point new photogs in the right direction. I recommend reading through this as a road map or guide rather than a tutorial. Near the end, I list a few of my favorite links that cover the essential aspects of photography. I also provide titles to several books that I highly recommend (most of which I own and have read several times). Let’s get started!
Number One: It critical for new photographers to understand and become familiar with the delicate balance between aperture, shutter speed and ISO to obtain properly exposed photographs. In the age of automatic digital cameras, it is easy to skip over this and never fully understand what is happening behind the scenes. Take the time to learn how each element is interconnected and dependent on the others. Understanding the basic principles of exposure is the foundation of becoming a good photographer.
If you are just getting started, fill your mind with everything you can find on the basics of photography. In fact, I recommend reading through a few of the older (i.e. pre-digital) books on photography that were written prior the advent of Photoshop and digital DSLR cameras. There are many classic photography books still available at the library and used bookstores. The basic principles of photography still apply today. Understanding how traditional analog cameras and film work will give you a broader view of the field of photography.
When you are ready; get your hands on contemporary books on digital photography. Don’t forget to scour the Internet for guides and tutorials – there are free resources available everywhere. Start bookmarking the ones you like and read through them at your own pace.
Consider Taking a Class
Number Two: If you have time, consider enrolling in a basic photography class. Taking a photography class is a fantastic way to speed up the learning curve. Most community colleges offer a variety of photography courses. Enrolling in a local class is also a great way to meet other photographers and develop a network of friends to learn with. There is nothing like having someone demonstrate and teach fundamental principles while also being available to answer questions. If time is a factor, another option is to work through an online class or watch Internet based learning videos. Although not as interactive as traditional classes, you can learn a great deal by watching experts demonstrate tried-and-true techniques. Check out the list of resources for online training at the end of this guide.
Nothing Takes the Place of Experience
Number Three: Once you have a basic understanding of exposure and how your camera works, it’s time get out in the field and snap some pictures. Just about any decent digital camera will do when you are just getting started. Many of today’s digital point-and-shoot cameras allow you to shoot in manual mode. Set your camera to manual and start shooting. Play with the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Shooting in manual mode should help reinforce everything you have been reading about. Try shooting in different lighting conditions and at different times of the day. Deliberately under and over expose your images and see how that changes things. Shoot into the sun. Shoot at night. Shoot in the rain. Shoot moving objects. Shoot inside and outside. Photograph your family and friends. Photograph landscapes. Photograph animals at the zoo. Deliberately experiment with ideas. When you are ready, import your images to a computer and review your work.
Photographing a variety of subjects has an added benefit of refining your interest in photography. Some photographers love shooting portraits while others prefer the solitude of landscapes. Over time, you will develop a sense for what type of photography appeals to you the most. It is important to focus your interest.
Don’t Get Discouraged!
Number Four: Try to be easy on yourself and not get discouraged. As a new photographer, I shot countless throwaway pictures (I am not kidding here!). I have boxes and boxes of photographs that will never see the light of day; however each and every image represents a different learning experience. The more experience you get, the better you will become. Remember that all serious photographers started in the same place you are now. Today’s new photographers are fortunate as it’s no longer necessary to shell out tons of money processing film to learn basic lessons. An inexpensive point-and-shoot camera and flash card are all that are necessary to get started.
Start a Journal – Record Your Thoughts and Ideas
Number Five: Start a photography journal. Write down what works and what doesn’t. Record new ideas and generally keep track of your progress. Take your journal with you so that you can capture your thoughts as they come. It used to be that you had to write down the exposure information about each image as you went (if you wanted to precisely keep track of exposure data). This was sometimes referred as a photo-log. Today, digital images contain metadata. Metadata is simply defined as data about data and pretty much replaces the photo-log. Metadata is saved with each photograph you take and contains ISO, shutter speed, f-stop, color space information and a myriad of other little details about each photograph you take. Use your journal to record your thoughts about composition, lighting, and anything else that comes to mind that might be relevant later. As you review your images, take note of the exposure settings (saved with each image) and write down what you think you can improve upon the next time you are out.
Start a Photoblog – Show Off Your Work Online
Number Six: Consider starting a photoblog. Maintaining a regular photoblog is a great way to stay motivated while documenting your progress as a new photographer. Think of a photoblog as an online journal of your progress. Most photoblogs allow viewers to comment and critique your images. Constructive feedback can be a helpful way of discovering your strengths and weaknesses. It is also a wonderful way to network with other photographers around the globe. I have made many virtual friends in the photoblogging community through my own photoblog. Above all, a photoblog is a record of your growth as a photographer.
Add a DSLR to Your Arsenal
Number Seven: At some point you’re probably going to feel ready to jump into a more serious digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera. It is easy to get mesmerized by all the high end photography gear and feel tempted to spend thousands of dollars. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture (no pun intended!) and get hung up on getting the latest, greatest setup. Find an affordable DSLR, one or two lenses and a tripod that you can grow into. Take a trip to Flickr and you will find thousands and thousands of stunning images produced with entry-level DSLR cameras. Remember it’s not about the gear; it’s about producing images. Stay focused on the art of image making.
Number Eight: Once you feel comfortable and are ready to take it to the next level, consider interning for a professional photographer. Hopefully by this time you have a general idea of what direction you want to go as a photographer. If you are interested in portrait photography, check with portrait photographers in your area and see if one of them will mentor you. My experience has been that most professional photographers are more than happy to help young people learn about the business. You will probably have to start out by carrying gear and lugging equipment around. Don’t under estimate how valuable this can be. Watching how different professionals work should help you develop a photographic style that you are comfortable with. You will also learn quite a bit about dealing with people and business side of being a professional photographer.
Learn How to Process Your Work
Number Nine: This is a big one. When I transitioned from film to shooting digital, I underestimated the importance of learning how to process my images on a computer. As a film photographer, my sole focus was producing the “perfect exposure” (for whatever look I was attempting to achieve). I took most of my film to a professional lab – they in turn charged me an arm and a leg to process. I never worried about the processing because my lab did an excellent job. As long as I exposed my images properly, I knew my lab would take care of the rest.
In the digital age of photography, processing is now done on a computer. Today’s digital photographers shoot and process their work. It took me about a year to really grasp the significance of this as a new digital photographer. I couldn’t figure out why my digital images seemed so flat and lifeless compared to my film photographs. As time went on, I slowly realized the significant role programs like Adobe Photoshop (and now Lightroom) play in this new digital age.
I can’t stress enough how critical it is to learn how to properly process your digital photographs. You don’t have to become an expert at using Photoshop or Lightroom; however every digital photographer should take the time to learn the basics of non-destructive image processing and using layers. Some long-time film photographers are still struggling with this. It is tough to change and learn new ways of doing things. The Internet is loaded with free written and video guides on Photoshop and Lightroom. Books on Photoshop and Lightroom fill whole walls in big name bookstores. There is no excuse for not learning how to properly process your digital images. Just like learning about photography for the first time, it just takes time and practice.
Don’t Take Photography Too Seriously (i.e. Have Fun!)
Number Ten: Whether you are interested in pursuing it as a hobby or professionally, digital photography is a wonderful, creative outlet. Have fun with it. It is easy to get caught up in the “what’s next..” and forget about the here and now. Whatever your skill set, remember to have fun and not to take things too seriously. Your skills will improve as time goes on – learning is a never ending process and your photographs will look better and better each time you take your camera out. I can’t imagine myself without a camera. Hopefully some of these suggestions help point you in the right direction so that you can grow in the field of photography. Just remember to have fun!
Digital Photography Resources : Fuel for Your Brain
Below are some of the best online resources and books available to learn the basics of digital photography. Most of the links are geared toward beginner and intermediate level photographers and should wet your digital-photography-appetite. Books are arranged by date and category. Send me an email if you know of a informative guide or book that should be added to the page. Enjoy!
Pro Photo Show
Beginning Digital Photography
Ten Tips to Get Started in Photography
JPEG vs Raw: Understanding File Formats
Eight Tips to Better Photo Composition
100 Photography Tips
Composition & Framing in Photography
Bokeh Explained (slightly technical)
A Look at the Wonderful World of Early Photography
A Rookie Guide to Digital SLR Cameras
A Guide to Understanding Digital Cameras – Part I (slightly technical)
A Guide to Understanding Digital Cameras – Part II (slightly technical)
Camera Image Sensors (slightly technical)
Lighting 101 (PDF format)
Understanding Flash Sync-Speed
Using Fill Flash
Better Digital Photos In Low Light Conditions Without Using A Flash
Video Lighting Guides
Digital Photography Best Flow (highly recommended reading)
Adobe Photoshop: The Complete Guide (an older guide, but one worth reading through)
Your Complete Guide to Adobe Bridge (an older guide, but one worth reading through)
Your Complete Guide to Adobe Bridge (PDF format)
Camera Raw, Bridge, or Lightroom?
The Beginner’s Guide to Lightroom and Photoshop (PDF format)
Photoshop Digital Darkroom
Photoshop User TV
Photoshop Killer Tips
Recommended Reading : Digital Photography
McNally, Joe. LIFE Guide to Digital Photography: Everything You Need to Shoot Like the Pro. LIFE Books, 2010
Peterson, Bryan. Understanding Exposure, 3rd Edition: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera. Amphoto Books, 2010
Barnbaum, Bruce. The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression. Rocky Nook Inc, 2010
Kelby, Scott. Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography Boxed Set, Volumes 1, 2, and 3. Peach Press, 2009
Recommended Reading : Photoshop
Snider, Lesa. Photoshop CS5. O’Reilly, 2010
Kelby, Scott. The Adobe Photoshop CS5 Book for Digital Photographers. New Riders Press, 2010
Evening, Martin. Adobe Photoshop CS5 for Photographers. Focal Press, 2010
Recommended Reading : Lightroom
Evening, Martin. The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Book. Adobe Press, 2010
Kelby, Scott. The Adobe Lightroom 3 Book for Digital Photographers. New Riders, 2010
Adobe Creative Team. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Classroom in a Book. Adobe Press, 2010
Recommended Reading : Must Have Classic Titles
McNally, Joe. The Moment it Clicks. New Riders Press, 2008
Kelby, Scott. Scott Kelby’s 7-Point System for Adobe Photoshop CS3. Peach Press, 2008
Freeman, Michael. The Complete Guide to Digital Photography. Lark Books, 2005
Peterson, Bryan. Understanding Exposure. Amphoto Books, 2004
Johnson, Dave. How to Do Everything with Your Digital Camera. McGraw Hill/Osborne, 2003
Hedgecoe, John. The Photographer’s Handbook. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996
Adams, Ansel. The Camera. Bulfinch, 1995
Adams, Ansel. The Negative. Bulfinch, 1995
Adams, Ansel. The Print. Bulfinch, 1995
London, Barbara, and John Upton. Photography. Harper Collins College Publishers, 1994
Schaefer, John. Basic Techniques of Photography. Little, Brown & Company, 1992.
Eastman Kodak Company. The Joy of Photography. Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1979
About the Author
Steve Paxton lives with his wife and two children in the Seattle area. Steve has been a photographer for nearly 20 years. His experience ranges from wedding and portrait work to landscape photography.
Steve owns and manages the F/Stop Spot; a website dedicated to supporting photographers of all skill levels. You can find more of Steve’s work at Paxton Prints and Paxton Portraits.