Over the course of the last few years we have had numerous conversations with people who would like to move from being an iPhone or instagram snapper to a full-fledged photographer. Without exception, the first and often the only question we are asked is: “Which camera would you recommend?”
It is not that I am surprised. After all, we all go through these occasional sparks of excitement from acquiring new gear. However, if the focus on gear, software, processing etc… prevails, “the road to seeing” becomes much more difficult and confusing.
The industry doesn’t help either. Just open any photography magazine and start going through the articles. After a sea of gear-related ads you read camera and lens reviews, how-to-do-it software and which accessories to buy. Maybe some lone pages will carry a few words about light, composition or the philosophy of seeing.
What is the right way to start in photography then, presuming there is a right way?
After analyzing my journey in photography and after talking to my friends about this very subject I am very confident that the starting point is… YOU! Yes… it’s YOU!
Photography is not some kind of technical field where you go to school, learn how to operate a machine (the camera) and then with precision and expertise you come up with a brilliant photo. Quite the opposite! Photography is the art of seeing the world YOUR WAY! It is NOT the art of seeing the world with Nikon, Canon or Fuji. It is not the art of processing. And it is certainly not the art of pixel-peeping.
If you agree that photography is the art of seeing YOUR WAY, then the best way to start in photography must be YOU. What do I mean by that? I would suggest sitting down in a quiet place, away from your computer, cell-phone and TV with a pen and a blank piece of paper in front of you. Think about yourself and start asking yourself questions.
- Why are you interested in photography?
- What excites you? Is it the gear?
- Think about your life experiences – did you go through something dramatic, happy or special in your life? How does this event(s) affect the way you see the world?
- What would you like to photograph? What is important to you?
- Which photo have you seen recently that touched you deeply, made you think or made you laugh or cry? Or maybe you saw a photograph that calmed you down and slowed down your senses?
- What are your strengths? Are you observant? Do you pay attention to the way things look?
- What would you like to photograph? Are you thinking: “I wish I could take photos as well as [your favourite photographer’s name here]?” Maybe you should be thinking: “What is unique about the way I see that I could share with the world?” Ask yourself: “Do I really want to take another photo of Antelope Canyon, even if it is as good as the best out there?”
Sit down and answer. Be honest. Go and explore each direction this question leads you.
You won’t believe how much you can find out about yourself in this exercise.
After this self-discovery effort, start reading about light and composition. Observe light during your daily activities. Watch how it changes throughout the day. Compose in your head.
All right, ENOUGH OLAF! I just want to buy a camera! Fine, at this stage it is okay to start considering your first camera. I will make it short. Don’t buy an SLR!
Buy a camera with manual controls and real knobs and ideally with an EVF (electronic viewfinder). A camera like this will not only force you to learn how changes in exposure, shutter speed or aperture affect your photograph but most importantly, it lets you compose, adjust and see all the changes even before you take it a photograph!
Start by taking JPEGs. Forget about post-processing! (You will learn it later). Take a photograph and observe the way different lighting conditions affect your final photo. Play with exposure compensation and aperture. Leave your shutter speed at AUTO (min. 1/125), for now!
“…but I want to know which camera you would recommend?”
If money is not an issue get the Fuji X100/S/T. This is all you need in order to learn photography. The fixed lens will train your eye. The physical knobs will teach you how to adjust parameters so you can achieve your vision. Because it is small and lightweight, you will carry it with you everywhere.
If money is an issue, look for a used Fuji X-Pro1, X-E1 and buy an XF 35mm F1.4 lens along with it. I saw such a crazy low prices for such a setup that it is hard to resist.
Other brands also offer great opportunities. However, make sure you start with one focal length (fixed lens), ideally a 23mm or 35mm (in full frame terms 35mm or 50mm).
Most importantly, don’t buy any other equipment until you feel confident that you understand the basic concepts of light, composition and subject. NO, you don’t need another lens to become a better photographer. NO, you don’t need a telephoto to get that duck in the park. NO, NO, NO!
When you get a camera, avoid the machine-gun mentality. Observe and think before you press the button. Think about it this way: photograph as if you have to pay for each photo you take, as in the old days.
Finally, read books about composition, light and inspiration. Avoid technical books like the plague.
There is much more to say but this is how I would start today. Unfortunately, I had to make many mistakes and go through a lot of soul-searching before I landed on a path that suited me, at least for now.
Most importantly, remember that “seeing” is a life journey. Even if you got the right start and are doing all the right things, you WILL experience moments of weakness, doubt and discouragement. Put away your camera and take a rest. You won’t believe how much better you feel the next time you pick up your camera.
P.S. This write-up touched on only a few basic issues associated with this topic. Kasia and I are working on an unconventional guide “THE RIGHT WAY TO START IN PHOTOGRAPHY” which should be available by the end of this year. Stay tuned.
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