The Photography Lesson

© Dave Whenham
“The Photography Lesson”

I was asked this week by someone just starting out in the hobby what my top tips were. On the surface it sounds an easy enough question, after all magazines are full of Top Ten, Top Twenty, Top One Hundred even Top Thirty Six tips for excellence in all manner of categories.

So, what did I answer? It was on the surface an easy enough question to ask but in the event an incredibly tough one to answer. A generic ” Top Ten Focusing” tips or “Top ten tips for sharper pictures” in a magazine is a broad catch-all aimed at all readers. But I was being asked a question to specifically help one individual.

My first answer was “have you bought a camera yet?” and my second was “what will you be photographing?” I know, strictly speaking these are questions but I asked them in answer to the original question. The key to a good answer is a good question (think Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker books).  The first answer was “Yes”, so I knew it wasn’t worth advising on what camera or type of camera but as with many of us starting out the response to the second question was “Oh, the kids, things I see around me, whatever catches my eye really”.

So, in the end I thought about the things I did starting out in digital that I later wished I hadn’t. It’s not an exhaustive list or even a top ten but for what it’s worth here they are, in no particular order.

  • If your camera supports it shoot RAW and JPEG. If you do not feel up to mastering RAW conversion yet awhile store them on an external drive until you are ready. I am constantly improving my processing skills and manufacturers are constantly improving their software; the file you couldn’t do justice to this month might be worth returning to when you or the software improves even if that is a year or two down the line.
  • Invest in quality glass. Most current camera bodies, certainly from the main manufacturers, do a good job and in any event are arguably obsolete on release as the next innovation or improvement is already being refined for next years models. By avoiding the cheaper lenses and waiting until good quality lenses are within our financial reach we are making the best of whatever sensor our current camera employs. I have four Nikkor lenses, three f2.8 zooms and an f4 prime 300mm, these have done service for five different Nikon bodies. Which is the point, quality glass is an investment, they also get updated far less frequently. I took my own advise when buying into Nikon (and now also Fuji) but wish I’d been told that when I started putting together a Canon DSLR system – I weep for the wasted money on cheap Canon-fit lenses.
  • Learn how to sharpen your images properly – I have just looked back at some digital images from 2008 and cringe with embarrassment at how soft some are through under- or no sharpening and at the artefacts on others from over-sharpening.
  • Print your pictures and if they are family snaps put them in an album and caption them with dates and names. You don’t need to print them yourselves even. Keep a “To Be Printed” folder on the desktop of your computer, pop images in and when you’ve enough to make a reasonable order (ie where cost of prints outweighs postage perhaps) then get them printed via one of the numerous online print companies. Chose a reputable company and properly stored prints will outlive you and provide a tangible link to the past for future generations.
  • Share your pictures with like-minded people, there are countless ways via social media for example or popular photo-sharing sites like Flickr (my Flickr photostream)  and if you print them its even easier to share with friends. However, a small word of caution, enjoy the “wows!” from family and friends, great for the ego and definitely well-meant BUT seek out a fellow enthusiast or two and ask for some honest, constructive critique. It may not be as nice to hear but will ultimately do your photography more good.
  • Do NOT take every piece of advice as gospel! Photography is incredibly subjective and some for even say something is not “good” purely because they don’t have any interest in whatever it is you’ve photographed. All advise should be filtered critically by YOU and you should then take out the bits that will improve your photography whilst accepting that in some things we must agree to differ. There are NO rights and wrongs here.
  • Finally, join a camera club. If you don’t have the time or inclination to join the local club there are online and even postal clubs that are just a few mouse clicks away. My camera club of choice is both postal and online  (vested interest alert I am it’s General Secretary and Editor) and you can find us HERE.

So there you have it. The advice I gave a friend recently over a couple of large american0s (other coffees and hot beverages are available). You may agree with all, some or none of it, but as with all things photographic we all have strong opinions, it is all subjective and we are all right!


Header Image: Canon 5DIII and EF 100-400 1/1000th sec at f5.6 and ISO 400. That lens saw active service with a 40D, 7D, 5DII and finally the 5DIII before my move to Nikon. Buy good quality glass – it will outlive your cameras!