I’ll go ahead and get it out of the way right up front: the best advice you’ll get here and probably anywhere else on the internet when it comes to photography is to read and get educated.
OK, that is sort of two pieces of advice, and the real trick is what to read and where to get educated. But first a little personal story:
I’m a big BMW fan. I’ve always loved the classic BMW Six Series made in the 1980’s. The first year there was a vintage car-show dedicated to that model I hopped in my sporty, recently-purchased BMW M3 and met up with another guy who was taking the mountain roads to the show. My car was over a decade newer than his old Six. The two cars had similar power but mine was hundreds of pounds lighter, had a better suspension, and the list went on. I had a lot of confidence that I’d keep up with this old guy in his old car (you see this coming, right?). A couple of white-knuckle hours and a few new gray hairs later, we stopped for lunch, and on getting out of the car, he said “Nice road, right? Too bad we can’t drive it really fast.”
That was my first education in what is still an amazingly little-known automotive truth: The biggest horsepower improvement you can possibly get for a car is to upgrade the driver. Go to a track and put a trained guy in an average car and a wannabe in a powerful car and run some laps. The expert in the slow car will kill the untrained guy in the fast one every time. Why? Because he knows how to use the equipment and get the most out of it.
Photography is no different. For all the marketing on megapixels, ISO performance, sharpness, dynamic range and the rest of the spec-soup out there, a photographer who knows what he’s doing can get more out of an old camera with average glass than the guy who runs out and buys a full-frame camera and pro glass. Think about all the great pictures from the early masters of photography and all the modern features they lacked. They had the only thing you really need to be successful: Knowledge (as an aside, “success” in photography to me means you are getting the most out of whatever talent you have – we aren’t all going to be Ansel Adams, but we can all aspire to be as good as we can be, right?)
My biggest issue was there was so much to absorb that I could never get a toe-hold. I got lost in all the lingo, and each topic seemed to have endless science and theory that was intertwined with other elements of photography with even more complexity. There was always a wall in front of me.
That changed when I came upon Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography series. It is currently available as a three or four book box set as well as for Amazon Kindle. Despite the fact that they overlap a bit, I highly recommend them to help you get off the “Scene” and “Automatic” settings and start to unlock all the horsepower you have. The reason I like them so much is his “shooting buddy” approach. He’s not really teaching you too much of the “Why” it works, he’s just teaching you “How” and boy is that a huge help. It is written as if you’re the pal who is new to photography and want to shoot using Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and even *gasp* MANUAL mode. He talks about when you’d use them and how to get the shot you’re looking for by showing examples. The books is filled with lots of other tips and advice, but most importantly it will make you comfortable enough with the “modes” that you’ll get out there and start exploring them, your camera and ultimately your creativity. At the end of each book there are a series of photographs showing the settings used on the camera to get the shot along with an idea of why that combination was appropriate for the shot. These are really useful, and since I have the Kindle version of these books, they are bookmarked and I look at them on my phone fairly often when I’m out playing.
True to the promise, the books won’t give you too much theory behind the practice (though looking back now I got more than I realized). After a while, a series of questions began to form in my head that lead me to another excellent book, “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson. But that is a post for another day.
So read a good book. I’m sure there are many others, but Scott’s book really helped me take a huge first step forward. In the seven months or so since I’ve read the book, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve used the “Auto” setting on my camera knob, and I doubt I’ll ever use the “Scene” settings again. I’ve started to take command of what I’m trying to get, and I actually understand the basics of when to use which mode and why.
Here’s the biggest endorsement I can give: it has made me a much better photographer, and even better has me really loving taking pictures more than ever before. Give it a try and then go play – if you’re like me, I promise you’ll come away with a whole new view on the world and you’ll start winning the race to your best potential.
If you’re reading this and have another book you recommend, I’d love to hear about it!