Getting started in photography

Often articles on getting started in photography begin by suggesting you choose the right camera and accessories for the kind of photography you intend to do. Unfortunately, this is a strategy which is apt to require a substantial investment and even prevent someone who is otherwise interested from getting started. Fortunately it is also unnecessary.

Getting started in photographyAs a novice, I found a useful practical alternate approach, requiring little or no investment beyond my time and effort based on the notion you aren't going to get excellent images from new equipment until you are getting excellent images from the equipment you have.

Chances are you, your partner, or another family member already owns a camera you can use (When you've got enough of blurred/ unsharp images, ask if they also have an old tripod you can borrow!).

In Photo Impressionism and the Subjective Image, Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson states, " ... you learn how to photograph well the same way you learn to drive well: by doing it carefully and frequently."

So, my suggestions for anyone considering taking up photography include the following:

Get out and practice. That is, "trial and error" or experience. Make some mistakes. In the beginning the more images you shoot, the faster you are likely to learn; but don't make the mistake of making 36 identical images: try different angles, perspective, or lighting. It is usually a good idea to get down to your subject's level and get closer than you think you need to in order to "fill the frame." Review your images and figure out what you did wrong and right. You'll learn more from your mistakes than your successes. Since photography is about using and controlling your light source (light quality, not quantity), try to schedule time to photograph at around sunrise and sunset. Avoid midday. Learning to use a homemade reflector (from a sheet of cardboard and a piece of kitchen foil) and a light diffuser (an inexpensive collapsible white umbrella will do) can be a great aid. Insofar as possible, avoid using flash.

Experiment. Try shooting what you enjoy and give yourself "assignments" Whether you like portraits, landscapes, close-ups, still life, sports/ action, nature/wildlife, or whatever, focus on what gives you pleasure. Photograph first to please yourself. However, remember photography is a form of communication, and perfection is elusive; so it is wise to consider your intended audience. Taking on assigned (even self-assigned) projects will provoke your artistic and technical development. In local camera clubs, it is easy to agree on challenging assignments for a group, but you and a friend can stimulate each other by choosing assignments the other might not otherwise attempt.

Get feedback. Camera clubs, fellow students, or if absolutely necessary, family may help (However, your friends and family may not be able to judge your images.). Fellow photographers may not be willing to candidly criticize. You are likely to get the best critique and feedback from Photographic Society of America---experienced judges in local camera club competitions. Even then, not all judges will agree; but you can learn from their experience. I am fortunate to have a spouse/ mentor who is an experienced photographer and a son who is a graphic artist; you may be able to develop similarly useful connections. A point-and-shoot digital camera can be a great learning tool due to its ability to provide instant feedback.

Feel. Excellent images combine technical quality, composition, and emotional appeal or "wow!" According to Bryan Peterson in Learning to See Creatively, "The real 'truth' of a photograph is in its ability to evoke emotion (feeling)." Putting emotional appeal or feeling into your images depends primarily on your artistic development not which camera or lens you use.

Read. As you strive to improve your work, you will find art and photography books and articles which match your needs and interests. Since photography is a visual art, I was surprised how much reading I've done during my first year in photography. Reading directed toward and focused on your particular interests is a great way to accelerate your development.

See. Once you start looking at the world through a viewfinder, it will change what you see that you previously missed and the way you see the world. Like many non-photographers, I've spent nearly my entire life gathering information, secondhand, from text; now that I am learning to see and not just look, I am gathering information firsthand using my senses starting with sight.

Be open. During my first year of photography (in addition to the above), I have learned so much I would have otherwise missed:

* "Rules of Composition"

* Simplify--less really is more.

* Get closer to your subject(s).

* Do not feel constrained by reality.

* Still life photography is surprisingly difficult.

* Technical details like f-stops, shutter speeds, and depth of field

* Accessories like macro lenses, extension tubes and teleconverters, 81A, neutral density, and polarizing filters * Mirror lockup

* Reciprocity failure

* My neighborhood

* Wildlife

* Old cars

* Sports/action photography

* Respect for the subject

* Shape vs. form

* Moonrise, mushrooms, and the many colors of green

* The camera neck strap isn't just a place to hang your camera but a safety device too.

* The camera looks both ways often revealing as much or more about the photographer/artist as the subject. In fact, we who are fortunate photographers leave so much of ourselves behind.

Be patient. Realize you might have to wait or return to a subject for the light to be right. Be patient with yourself; with so much to learn and discover, your development may take longer than you first imagined.

Meanwhile, any camera will enable a novice to practice composition and begin to develop technical sophistication. Don't forget the tripod; it is the quickest route to sharper images. What a year it has been learning photography!

Barry Grivett