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The Conversation: Basics for Beginners

More than a decade ago, my wife and I attended a local golf tournament (she is the only real golfer in the family). As we walked around the course, I noticed a photographer with a top-end DSLR and a monopod that was so large it could have been used as a support post in a basement. I watched as he moved about finding great positions to frame his shots until the tournament came to a brief halt because of the weather. Any good teacher will tell you that a lesson is a lesson only when you have a willing student – and I was in student mode that day. Here, I thought, was an excellent opportunity.


I was relatively new to digital and the pro was very receptive to my questions. As you’d expect, I asked some questions about equipment and expressed a need to look at a new camera. He asked me what I owned, so I pulled out my 12mp point & shoot. I handed it over to him and he looked it over, checking out the settings and the menu on the LCD. The fact that it featured both RAW and Jpeg along with fully manual settings led him to believe there was a lot of potential for the small camera. I thought I would change the course of the conversation when I said I thought I needed ‘a more expensive camera’ (Does that sound familiar?). He did not agree.


He first asked if I had read through the entire camera manual. I explained that I had downloaded the manual before I bought the camera and read it cover to cover. Good, he said: almost no one ever does that. Then he became a bit philosophical and told me to not even to consider something new until I had mastered the P&S. Look, he said, you have the capability of capturing some great compositions on this little fella. Leave the RAW setting in place and don’t budge from it. And take some time to set everything to manual so you can really get more involved with the camera. You can go back to auto if you want, but you’ll learn a lot more if you take control of the thinking. I do recall a bird photographer who once said “You have to make your camera an extension of your arm – to the point where your response to an opportunity is automatic. Yet he too said he only shot in manual (with the lens in AF of course).


My new, philosophical advisor, seeing that the rain wasn’t ending any time soon, continued. He made a somewhat profound observation that I will never forget: “An expensive camera is just as good as a cheaper camera, at capturing mediocre images…when it’s in the wrong hands. You give me your point and shoot for a couple of weeks and I guarantee I’ll come back with some great compositions that you’d be proud to print. I would bet you have some images like that already!”


He said, “You need to spend more of your time focusing on your skill sets. Being able to see quality images requires a lot of practice. Take some of that money you were planning to spend and invest in some workshops. They will give you a better return on your dollar at this point in your development. And make sure you’re having fun! When I said I was having fun processing them in Photoshop Elements he just warned me to save copies and not to corrupt the originals.

I was relieved to hear him say that, because I had accumulated a lot of PSD files.

Quite a day – my wife was happy and I was, too. The rain finally ended, I thanked the pro, and left with some lessons for the novice:

  1. Focus on the inside of the Creative Exposure Triangle and spend more of your time improving your ability to truly ‘see’ great compositions. As you practice, your mastery of the outside of the Triangle (ISA) will also improve. Stay open minded and don’t choke on ‘the rules’.
  1. Don’t become obsessed with the equipment you own and the things you think you need to have. Direct all your passion and energy at ‘the results’.


Ansel Adams: I am well aware of a compelling impulse of photographers to discuss, with collector’s dedication, the equipment and materials they and their colleagues use, down to the smallest detail. I have never known painters to debate with such intensity the kind of canvas, paper, brushes, and paints used in their creative work. With photographers, however, such knowledge is traded in a kind of inner language of arcane significance. More meaningful would be discussion of such matters as the shapes, luminance values and colours of the subject.

The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.

  1. Read your camera manual….no matter how dull it is, and how long it is. Come to fully understand the features, and then dedicate time to experiment with them, one at a time.

         And don’t overwhelm yourself by thinking you’ll achieve all of this within a week.

  1. Take that ‘cheaper’ existing camera you have and learn what excites you the most. Whether it’s sports, landscape, portraiture, wildlife, or something else, determine the direction you’d like to go. After you’ve started to improve your picture-making skills, take your specific needs (and budget) and start to look at products that make sense based on those needs. Be patient and wait for a sale (there is nothing wrong with buying used equipment after a bit of homework; some pros started their careers by doing that). And, just a subtle piece of financial advice: you can go broke chasing technology.
  1. The target audience for your images (friends, family, social media) does not care about the equipment you own. They want to witness The Results. Make sure you’re only showing them your best images. Save the bad ones for your education file and learn from them.

         David Yarrow: The true measure of a photograph, is the longevity of the engagement between it and the viewer.

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