So you want to be a photographer but don't know where to start? Well you're going to need a camera first. Obviously.
Cameras have become so complicated with all the megapixel, photoshop and sensor size talk; it's easy to get lost in the idea of buying the latest and greatest equipment on the market without a hint of what it all means ( nothing wrong with buying the latest and greatest but that's not what this blog is about ). Whenever the subject is about learning I always like to go back to the basics. I mean you're not going to compete in the tour de france without starting off riding around your block as a kid in your bmx with training wheels. Am I right?
Photography has become a serious hobby of mine since 2003. It's been over 12 years now and I've had a handful of cameras come and go as my interests, inspirations and skills progressed over time. I'll never forget the first time I took photography 101 in high school during my freshmen year. For those younger readers out there who will never experience a darkroom, emulsion film or enlargements they won't know the feeling. Those that do understand the time and the rigor it requires to print just a single picture. For me it took hours at a time, I was so obsessed with getting the dead accurate times for the wash and stop bins that often I scrapped the whole roll if I went over / under the alloted time. It's a labor of love to load the film, compose the picture, un roll the film container, run them through all the necessary chemicals THEN dry them, enlarge them and print them again just to make a picture. Assuming you haven't dropped the ball on your technical skills with the camera it would require yet another leap to see them on paper. As a 15 year old with other things on my mine I couldn't wrap the concept around my head of why anyone would want to go through all that trouble for just a couple of lousy pictures. Honestly at that point in time it felt like a chore; or more like a mad rush to just go out and shoot anything just to rush back to develop it before the class period ended just to submit them for grades. Photography at that time wasn't enjoyable for me because it felt like homework. In my opinion I felt that when you make your hobby your job, you just can't step back and enjoy it when it's needed to pay the bills or get that A on your report card.
My first camera was a Canon AE-1 Program Film SLR that was my dad's back in the early 80s. I knew nothing about it at the time I first started shooting and I even asking my parents to buy any old film from Caldor ( Yes, Caldor...that's the equivalent of today's target for 90s ) just for me to get some shots through the AE-1. I had watched my mom drop off film canisters to the local pharmacy for prints but never understood what film speed was or the differences between a kodak gold 100 or an ilford 800. The reason I asked for the AE-1 was because I didn't want to pay a fee to borrow a camera for my high school film photography class ( so asian and cheap I know ). If it weren't for that AE-1 I don't think I would have gotten into photography that early on in my life. For being 15 all the other kids around me were either played with yomega yo-yos, crazy bones or bartering magic cards; film photography definitely was not on their radar. Growing up being one of the only kids with a SLR was pretty tough, there was no one to learn from or shoot with let alone borrow equipment from. I was on my own. Or was it?
That high school film class soon became one of my favorite classes. I would purposely skip lunch or study hall to spend extra time in the darkroom. The photography teacher and I were on a friend basis at that point; while sometimes I would even go to school early AND stay late for more darkroom time. At that young age I knew emulsion paper, photo chemicals and equipment use was very expensive ( well relative to a high school kid ) so I thought I might as well milk it for what it's worth since no other students were doing so. A lot of what my photography teacher taught me outside of the classroom hours I've used to this day to help me understand all those technical terms that would confuse us in the digital world. What's an ISO, or a white balance or a full/ cropped frame sensor? All these terms are the digital manifestation of very basic aspects of film photography. Film photography in that sense is way more complicated that any modern digital camera believe it or not. If you can learn to use a film camera you can basically shoot anything.
If I'm at all in any way influential to your learning I would suggest to learn photography on a film camera pending you have the necessary funds for film, developing and hopefully even darkroom time. You'll be forced to learn faster and adapt to changes with more intuition. For those who are on a tighter budget or on the fence about it but want to dip their feet in, a digital camera with manual controls will do just fine. My first digital camera with manual controls was the Canon Rebel XT. I saved up all my high school money and took the plunge. I again did a bit of research but ultimately I wanted the cheapest DSLR I could get my hands on. I shot the hell out of it with it's 18-55mm kit lens for years; I made sure to have it strapped around my shoulder everywhere I went. I'd like to think I've squeezed every ounce out of the camera in terms of technical skill and inspiration before I even thought about upgrading or getting something better. In my opinion its more rewarding to improve oneself than spending money letting the camera progress on its own, that's a good way to fall into a "GAS" ( Gear Acquisition Syndrome ). Afterall this blog is about learning beginners photography not emptying wallets. I soon out grown my little rebel XT and went back to the AE-1 but that story is for another time.
Alright finally lets get to the learning!
How does a camera work? If you happen by chance to use a holga or diana anything lomography you're already familiar with the pin hole camera. This is the camera in it's most simpliest form. Literally a box with a "pin hole " which is the cameras lens with a piece of film inside the opposite end facing the pin hole. The pin hole lets light in ( what is commonly known as the aperature ) and the light hits the film paper. Film paper is made out of emulsion, to put it in simple terms the emulsion is a chemical that changes form from white to black depending on how much light hits the paper ( assuming its black and white film ). But what happens when I develop my film and its all black? Well depending on the size of the aperature or pin hole you let in too much light for too long of a duration ( the shutter speed ) therefore all the light hit your paper leaving it a black mess. What happens when the film is too white? Same logical as above, your pin hole ( aperature ) was either too small or the duration ( shutter speed ) was too short. Not enough light hit your paper so not much black on there.
What's exposure? Exposure is the delicate balance of shutter speed vs aperature to achieve a well exposed image ( not too light and not too dark ). Of course when situations call upon you to use a fast shutter speed ( to avoid camera shake in darker lighting ) you need to compensate for a larger pin hole ( aperature ) to let light in. Most modern digital cameras will have a " light meter " to let you know what exposure your image currently is at. Commonly shown in the image below ( will be different graphically depending on the camera ). Zero being the best balance of light to dark with + or - 1, 2, 3 etc for how many stops your over or under the mark.
What's an aperature? Much like the pin hole camera any hole that allows light in is considered an aperature. On modern cameras the aperature will consist of blades inside your lens housing allowing for manual adjustment to make the aperature either bigger or smaller. Aperature also controls what is " Depth of field". Depth of field can be simply explained my closing one eye and staring at your finger tip at eye level about 6 inches from your face. You'll notice when you stare at your finger the background blurs and when you stare at the background your finger blurs. Yep your own eye balls work on principles similar to how an aperature works. The bigger the aperature ( measure inversely as a smaller number means bigger ie. f/2 bigger than f/22 ) the greater the depth difference and the smaller the aperature ( f/22 ) the less difference in depth therefore everything in view will be in focus just like looking out your room window into a forest. Everything in frame is in focus. Typically when you buy a lens the bigger the aperature it has the more desirable and expensive it will be.
What's shutter speed? Commonly known as a function of DSLRs ( digital single lens reflex ) the reflex describes the motion of the mechanical shutter as it opens and closes controlling the duration of how much light hits the film or digital sensor. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second ie. 1/300ths or 1/4000ths. In lower light situations you'll begin to notice your image blurs due to camera shake. This situation would call for a fast shutter speed to 'freeze' the image so its clear; one would use a shutter speed greater than 1/2500ths just to be safe. Again the shutter speed goes hand in hand with the aperature; you need to achieve that balance to get to a "0" exposure for properly exposed image ( not too light not too dark ).
What is ISO? In the film world ISO would be known as film speed. ISO can be measured on how sensitive a specific film is to light. For example a film with a low sensitivity would need either a larger aperature or slower shutter speed for more light. Inversely a film with high ISO is capable of shooting in darking lighting conditions without changing the shutter speed / aperature balance. Is there any difference in image quality between lets say a ISO 100 vs ISO 1600? Of course. For film higher ISO means you get film grain which is quite nice depending on who you talk to and for digital the higher ISO means the digital sensor is struggling to read color data and it'll use an algorithm to assume the rest of the colors the camera can't pick up. That's why you always see red, green and blue grains where deep blacks should be on your smart phone pictures that is what we call "noise." In a film camera you can't change your film speed or ISO until your roll is done or you put in another film with a different speed. The convencience of digital is that you can change your ISO at the drop of a dime regardless of what you're shooting. Typically for today's film people shoot Kodak Portra 400 or an Illford 800 / 1600 as a standard.
What is focal length? As humans we see at approximately 53mm. So when you see ads for lens at 18mm or 100mm you normal base it off the human focal length. Simply put anything lower than 53mm would be considered towards the wide angle end and anything greater would be zoom or telephoto. But which focal length is right for me? Well it depends on what you want to shoot. To be extremely general wide angle would be for architecture, landscape and interiors and zoom or telephoto for portraits, sports or wildlife. This isn't a concrete standard honestly I like shooting architecture with more zoom lenses. Typical focal lengths you'll see for all around use would be 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm.
Now I know the basic technical aspects of photography but how do I take a good picture? This is probably the most controversial issue in photography composition. People follow super old school guidelines like rules of thirds, symmetry, triangles and of course the golden ratio. All those are fine and dandy but it doesn't necessarily mean you'll have a great photo if you follow them. In my opinion the key to a good picture is the inspiration and the underlying meaning or story behind it. Have you ever walked into a museum and a single picture put you in an uncalculated stream of consciousness? The most important thing is to bring your camera. The best camera is the one thats always with you and not sitting in your closet at home ( though some leica fan boys might disagreed ). Focus on shooting the hell out of your camera and getting the most from your experience. Be adventureous and don't hesitate to pull the shutter finger for fear your photo won't be good. Mostly likely your first couple shots won't be successful and sooner or later you'll get a keeper among the whole days worth of SD card. For film beginners keep shooting and buying film until your wallet can't accomodate for it anymore. Photography is one of those hobbies where you gotta put in the time to see results unless you're a prodigy of the late Henri Cartier Bresson.
Alright I'm ready now what camera should I buy? Honestly get the cheapest thing you can afford whether it be film or digital. The last thing you want is to constantly worry and baby your new hobby camera and never take any shots! Find your camera on the used market. Lots of people upgrade and sell their gear at a loss which could be your gain. Almost all my equipment is used just be sure to do the proper research to know exactly what you're buying and don't be afraid to ask others of their opinion. If I were to recommend a film camera I would say find a clean Canon AE-1 or similar with a 35mm or 50mm f/2 lens which is going to be around $75 and for a digital one probably a second hand Olympus EP-1 with that desirable 17mm pancake lens which should be around $125 altogether. The reason I'm not recommending a DSLR because they're heavy, bulky and have such a steep learning curve. I honestly believe the AE-1 and EP-1 are the bare bones back to basics underdog cameras of the pixel peeping world. But do your research and you'll find out what you like and don't like. The key is to have fun and enjoy learning from your mistakes because you're bound to make a lot of them. And don't forget to share you photos! Constructive criticism is what progresses this hobby. I'd love to read your comments on how you started your photography hobby and if you just recently did how is it making out for you guys?