You’ve heard it before: A new camera won’t make you a better photographer. If not, then what will? Photography is a craft that blends art and technology. Each skill on its own requires patience and practice. I can break down my process into several key components.
Learning to See
For many people, this is the hardest part of photography. We are all given a viewfinder to look through; it’s what we frame with it that matters. This component of photography does not require advanced knowledge of your camera other than how to focus and click the shutter. Forget about settings. Just put the camera into program auto mode “P” and fire away. See what works. Get inspiration from the masters. Learn the rules, break the rules, but most of all: take lots of pictures.
Learning Your Camera
If you’re comfortable taking photographs and want to move away from the point and click mentality, then it’s time to take your camera more seriously. Start off by learning the rules of exposure; specifically, the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. At this point, you’ll start to exert creative control over non-compositional elements of your shots. You can control depth of field, isolate subjects, and freeze or blur motion once you know how your camera operates. A good place to start is with Aperture-priority mode. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll want to try Manual Exposure, too. In certain situations, Manual mode offers the best control over your exposure.
For more creativity, you’ll probably want to dig into your camera menus to see what other features it has. Realistically, most in-camera features are “nice to have” items that have little bearing on your actual images. However, some features can be extremely useful in the field, like Live-View Focusing and Mirror Lock-up.
Learning Your Software
It’s the 21st century. Your digital camera needs a digital darkroom. For those of us just getting started, your camera is also your darkroom. The in-camera settings can change the look and feel (contrast, color, sharpness) of your images directly. Of course, you’ll be limited by the type of camera settings that are available with your particular camera model. Once you’re ready to explore photography, I strongly encourage you to shoot in RAW mode. Even though it sounds complicated, you’ll be thankful later once you’ve mastered your software. Shoot RAW today so that you can work on those images tomorrow or even next year!
Image processing should only represent a portion of the creative process. Adopt the attitude that processing is just the finishing touch. By relying on processing too heavily at first, you won’t improve the craft of your photography skills. It’s always better to have a good image going in that you can make better rather than a crummy image that will never live up to its full potential. In today’s photographic environment, getting it right in-camera does not mean you need a fully finished product, but it does mean that you should have a high-quality image that’s properly composed, focused, and exposed. Having such an image will enable you to produce a vastly better finished product.
Get Out There
Getting good images requires lots of practice. If you don’t use your camera often, you’ll slowly get rusty. Just as learning a new language is often best through immersion study, so is photography. Any time you can spend a full day or more dedicated to photography is going to vastly lower your learning curve. All the theory in the world makes no difference if you aren’t out there putting the fundamentals to use. It’s important to go out and make mistakes and learn from them. For example, when I lead workshops in the field, I see my own photographs improve over the course of 3-4 days, not just my students’ images.
The image at the top of this article represents all the components of photography that I’ve learned over time. I took this on the final day of a trip to Death Valley National Park. By this time in the trip, all the rust was shaken off and I was in tune with my gear. We went to a spot we had scouted out previously. We made sure to get there well in advance of sunrise so we could be ready for the moment when the best light occurred. I explored the spot we stopped at to look for a pleasing composition. I used manual exposure mode to get the exposure exactly how I wanted it. I then enhanced the RAW image with a combination of Lightroom 4 and Nik Software Color Efex Pro 4 to get exactly the look I wanted.
Photography is a journey. Make every moment count.