As I’m fairly new to photography as a whole, I’d like to dedicate this piece not to the common PL reader who is already more than knowledgeable, but rather to someone who is only getting interested in this amazing passion that is photography, specifically on how to approach it even with limited experience and budget.
You Can Start Off with a Smartphone (with a Caveat)
Yes, you read that correctly, and let me explain. I myself didn’t really have the money to buy both a smartphone AND a DSLR, and, while I appreciate that this wouldn’t be a problem for everyone, it can be the case for someone who is tentative about photography and isn’t willing to fork over a few hundred dollars/euro over the most basic equipment.
The caveat I mentioned is: get a phone with a pro/manual mode. Phones like the Google Pixel, for instance, won’t let you try anything by yourself as they assume (wrongly so) that they always know best. A phone with a manual mode will let you tinker with enough settings to make you curious about the possibilities with even more control in your hands (as you’d have with a full-fledged camera) and will also let you understand whether you really want to get into photography or not.
Granted, there also are third party apps that have manual controls but the problem with them is twofold: the first being that results are usually inferior to the phone’s stock camera app and that, if you needed to open a different app every time you wanted manual controls, it’d take away some of the immediacy that is crucial to the smartphone photography experience.
I still use my phone for photography in specific occasions, like when I’m out for my daily run. I know I could have better results with a DSLR, but I’m not going to bring it with me during such times, for obvious reasons.
Just for fun, there are a couple of pictures taken with my phone in this section of the article. It is not that they have as much detail as the other photos, but my point is simple – I still like them just fine for what they represent, even though the quality is not the best I could have achieved.
Don’t be Afraid of Entry-Level Cameras
No one really likes the sound of “entry-level model,” for obvious reasons. In photography, though, that term – especially these days – is not felt as being immediately pejorative as it is in other fields. Almost every picture on this article was taken with a Nikon D3200 with an 18-105 kit lens, a camera that came out in early 2012 and that was thoroughly used by the person who kindly lent it to me (my sister, an art student). If you know how to buy used, you’ll pay a pittance for such a model, and even a brand new D3400 or a Canon equivalent will not set you back much and still be great.
I’ll also add that all these pictures were edited on a 2012 laptop that, even when I bought it, was meant to consume as little battery as possible rather than running Capture One as smoothly as possible.
To sum it up, don’t be reluctant to get what your budget can afford, even if that something is the entry-level model.
Stick Close and Learn to Visualize
By that I mean that you can stick close to where you live but that, if you do it, you need to study the places you visit, if you do visit them often. Maybe you can’t travel a lot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a beautiful place that will reward you with plenty of worthwhile sights and pictures. However, if you have to (or decide to) stick to a few places nearby, it is important to study them as thoroughly as possible. Writing down or memorizing when sunset and dawn occur is a clear starting point – as is the position of the sun during different seasons.
Golden hours may be theoretically perfect, but what if you want to take a picture of a subject that actually looks better right when the sun is in a certain position? The best time of day to take pictures of certain scenes isn’t always near sunrise or sunset.
The same holds true for different seasons: If you’ve been to a place often enough, you’ll know that certain weather conditions can cause interesting patterns in your scene. For instance, a light fog may rise from a lake in the morning, and it could be backlit by the rising sun, making for a much more stunning occurrence.
A tourist or another photographer may stumble upon such occasions by chance but if you already know where to be and at what time, that’s already half the job done. Visualization is indeed one of the most important things in photography and a skill that you can hone even better by practicing it in locations you know like the back of your hand.
With those points, I’ll add a few more notes that I think every beginner (which I still am, make no mistake) should consider:
First, familiarize yourself with your gear. You’ll read often on sites like PL about how a particular aperture is ideal in a given situation, and – while they’re obviously right about the given circumstances – you need to try by yourself, with your own camera body and lens, in order to internalize how the photo changes from f/3.5 to f/8, for instance. This may sound silly, but it took me long enough to realize that – while perhaps ideally correct – the aperture I was using in certain situations was clearly not the right one for my lens.
Second, don’t idealize your photos. Learn from your mistakes. Speaking from experience, even after having read hours’ worth of content on PL’s beginner section, the first time I used a DSLR, I set ISO to auto, and (for some reason I can’t fathom), set the shutter speed at 1/1000th of a second… to photograph trees. I thought I knew best back then, but today it is disconcerting to look at old pics and wonder just why.
Last but not least: practice, practice, practice. That’s the most obvious advice for quite literally anything in life, but it bears repeating here as well. Even with the best gear and perfect visualization, you might miss the perfect moment if it isn’t second nature to use your camera. There’s no better way to improve the quality of photos you take.