Better photos when you learn about your camera

It really doesn’t matter if you are using a camera in a smartphone (e.g., iPhone) or an expensive DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera, a better understanding of how to manipulate the camera controls will improve your photographs. Frankly, the best camera is the one that you have with you at the time you want to capture an image.
Almost any camera or smartphone camera will take great photographs for social media, journals, or scrapbooks. If you want to have images to print and hang on a wall, you should consider getting a DSLR. Many consumer-priced DSLRs have the same sensor and many of the same features of the professional cameras and may have many more capabilities than you will ever use. A DSLR will also allow you to use a greater variety of lenses and filters and can provide better pictures in low light conditions. Keep in mind, the more stuff you have, the more stuff you will need to learn to use. However, even as very competent photographers, we will often use our smartphones to take pictures while we are casually touring about. So, don’t stress about what camera you use. Just be sure you are confident about how to use it.
There are many ways to learn about the various camera controls and settings. My favorite is to just start experimenting by pushing buttons, selecting different options, taking test photographs, and looking at the results. This approach works well if you have some prior experience and understanding about what the buttons and menus on the camera should do. If you are not familiar with the symbols on the buttons and terms on the menus (e.g., contrast, HDR, etc.), then you might need to spend some time learning some basic camera language. You can read about some of the functions and features of your camera in the manual. However, most manuals are difficult to read and assume you already have some familiarity with the terminology. Frequently, there are books written in a much more user-friendly format for most of the popular camera models. If you read one of these books, the manuals provided with the camera can serve as a useful pocket reference guide. We always carry a manual in our camera bag. Sometimes it easier to use the manual as a reference to locate a specific function than it is to search through the menus. A sophisticated DSLR camera can do an amazing number of things. However, remembering how to access all these functions on a new camera can be a challenge.
Another good way to get familiar with the terminology and camera features is to take an introductory class to photography. These are often taught through a local college or university as an extension course. They are relatively inexpensive and usually taught during the evening or on weekends. These classes tend to be somewhat general and won’t necessarily help you learn your specific camera. There are so many brands of cameras and smartphone cameras; it is virtually impossible for an instructor to know all the ways to modify the settings for all cameras. Fortunately, the common settings are usually pretty obvious.
Videos on the internet can also be excellent resources. YouTube is an amazing source of information. There are hundreds of videos providing introductions to photography. Conduct a search on YouTube for Basic Photography or Introduction to Photography to see some of the variety of videos available. If you search for the make and model of your camera or smartphone, you will likely find some very specific instructions on how to manipulate the various controls on the camera. Once you watch videos from different sources, you will find that the capabilities and approaches of the instructors will vary. Find those that present the material to you in a manner that is most helpful to you.
It is often better to learn skills and camera features in small doses. After you have learned some basics, get out and experiment. Then as you become comfortable with a style or camera feature, learn something new and then try it out during your next photography session. Even professionals will confess that they are always picking up new skills or experimenting with new approaches.
In all cases, once you get familiar with some of the basic terminology and functions, go out and practice. Digital film is really cheap! There is a great benefit to experimenting.

My Best Tip for Better Photographs

I am generally a pretty friendly guy when out shooting landscapes.  Being friendly, I often get a lot of questions.  The questions range from “what camera do you use?” to “why do you have those filters on the front of the camera?”.  The former question will almost always lead into a discussion of why some other brand of camera is better than the one that I am using.  Frequently, this comment is followed by a long dissertation about equipment in an attempt to show off technical knowledge about cameras and lenses.  However, I was recently asked by a young fellow what single piece of advice I would recommend to a novice landscape photographer that would make a significant improvement in their photographs.

At first, I was tempted to throw out something about learning your camera, or taking a class or in-field workshop from one of the many wonderful landscape photographers.  Education is something that I highly value.  While I pondered my answer, I noticed that his camera was still in the bag.  I asked if he intended to take some photographs.  To my surprise, he said no, he was on his way to dinner.  I would love to be able to tell you that I gave him some inspirational answer before he wandered off.  Unfortunately, my brain doesn’t work that fast.

A few months went by before the question popped back into my head.  We were at a camera club meeting and I happened to overhear a conversation between two fellow photographers.  They were discussing the various merits of using filters versus high dynamic range (HDR) techniques.  The conversation went back and forth for a while before I realized neither had ever actually used either technique.  They were full of knowledge and opinions but had no experience.  It was at that point, the young man’s question came back to me.

The answer I wished I had given the young man to become a better photographer  was practice.  Take your camera out of the bag and use it!  I would add that there has to be intent behind the practice to make it really useful.  Shooting with intent means practicing specific skills in a wide range of conditions.  It also means critical evaluation of the results.  For landscape photography, this often means getting up before the sunrise or being out after sunset.  It means doing the work to put yourself in the best situation to catch the very best light and composition and practicing with the equipment you have to learn what will happen when you shoot with a variety of camera settings, elevations, angles and lenses.  Practice taking photographs from different heights, and learn how getting down lower to the ground affects the composition.  Practice with wide angle and telephoto lens to see what impact they will have on your composition.   Try out a variety of techniques, including using neutral density gradient filters and/or the methods for HDR photography.   Learn about focus stacking and try it out during a photo session and with the associated digital darkroom methods.

I am a big fan of education.  However, you gain virtually nothing if you do not go out to practice what you learn.  Having more knowledge without experience will not make you a better photographer! Perhaps your first attempt at a new skill will not yield great photographs.  This happens to me all the time.  However, don’t give up after one disappointing attempt.   Do some more research (e.g., reading or videos) and try the technique again and again.   With practice, the knowledge will yield greater proficiency and more satisfying images.

Another reason to go and practice a skill is that it helps you learn when it will be most useful.    You may know how but do you know when and will you recognize the opportunity when it arises.  In my experience, recognizing the opportunity only comes with a lot of practice.

So my advice to that young man is to forget about going to dinner.  Get your camera out and practice with intent, practice your skills and take more photographs, lots and lots of photographs under all types of different conditions and then critically analyze the results.  Then start all over again!