Thursday, January 23, 2014

So You Got A DSLR, Now What?

Covered Bridge - Stallion Springs, California
You got a brand new DSLR for Christmas. You excitingly opened the box, charged the battery and set out to take amazing pictures. Only the pictures don't look all that great. They're alright, but not at all like what you imagined. You thought that having a nice camera would mean taking nice pictures, but so far that has not turned out to be the case.

Now what?

My photography story has a similar beginning. I took a road trip to New England the summer between high school and college. My dad loaned me his 35mm SLR camera. I knew very, very little about photography, but how hard could it be? After returning home and developing the film, I soon learned that it was much more difficult than I thought.

Bad Advice
Color Lamp Abstract - Bakersfield, California
The internet has a wealth of knowledge, but it also has an amazing amount of misinformation. There is a ton of readily available insight out there, but at the same time there is a ton of bad advice. The internet is both great and terrible at the same time. It can be difficult to wade through it all, and decipher what is important and what isn't.

One piece of bad advice that you might find is that equipment is what matters in photography. If your photographs aren't good enough, then buy a better camera and better lenses. You need accessories of all sorts. You need Photoshop. While it is not said in so many words, the bad advice here is that money will make you a photographer.

There is no truth to this. Ansel Adams said, "The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it." Great photographs always start in the mind of the photographer. In other words, great photographers make great photographs, not cameras.

What you need to understand, then, is what it means to be a great photographer. Once you figure that out, you'll see great improvements in your images.

Technical Skills
Leaning Ladders - Rosamond, California
DSLRs are tools. There are all sorts of knobs and menus and settings on your tool, and perhaps none of it makes any sense. That's alright, because, believe it or not, learning the technical side of photography isn't all that difficult. And, while it is important, it is far from most important.
"Getting the technological foundation to make perfectly exposed photographs was easy, but amounted to nothing on its own. I simply had to commit myself, to express feelings about what I was undertaking." --Bjorn Rorslett
It is a good idea to take your camera out of auto mode and begin using manual or semi manual modes. If you take some time to play around with your camera, try the different settings, you'll quickly master the technical aspects of it. There is a reason that they call this "photography basics."

Learn By Doing
Butterfly - Bakersfield, California
The more you do something, the better at it you will become. This is true with photography. You want better pictures? Then create lots of pictures. Henri Cartier-Bresson said, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." I like to add that your next 10,000 photographs are your second worst.

The point is that there is a learning curve, both with the technical and creative sides of photography, and no one figures all this out overnight. It takes practice. It takes experimentation. It takes failure. It takes trying over and over again. It takes not giving up. Only after you've captured a whole lot of images will you begin to create great photographs.

What You Need To Know (But Few Will Tell You)
On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
I said earlier that there is something more important than technical skills, and it is this: you must be an artist in order to create great photographs. Otherwise, you are a snap-shooter, and you'll have mediocre images.

You may have no interest in being an artist, per se, but if you are interested in creating great photographs with your new camera that will "wow" your friends and family, then exploring your artistic side is essential.

There are several keys to becoming an artist photographer: vision, creativity, and the decisive moment.
"The world is waiting for men with vision - it is not interested in mere pictures." --Charles Hawthorne
I define vision as a vivid and imaginative conception. A basic way to understand this is that you must think about what you want the final image to look like prior to opening the camera's shutter. You must previsualize.

Creativity, while an aspect of vision, is worth mentioning on its own. This is where you make a photograph your own. This is where you give images your voice. You don't want to think outside the box, you want to think without the box.

The decisive moment is the instant that a scene is at its zenith. You can think of this as timing. Each and every scene has a decisive moment. Even stationary objects have one. It is up to the photographer to recognize and capture that moment.

Vision, creativity and the decisive moment work together to make great photographs. No great photograph exists where the photographer did not have all three.

Sailboat Race - Oxnard, California
If you want to use that new camera of yours to create great images, it will take practice, patience and perseverance. It won't happen overnight. You do have what it takes. You don't need any equipment that you don't already own.

Great photographs come from the mind and heart. It is up to you to find ways to communicate what is inside of you through your photographs.

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