How can I learn photography?
March 20, 2014 10:40 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn photography?

I know nothing about photography. But I am seeing a lot of cool live music photography, portraits, and narrative-drive photo shoots that my friends are doing. Some of them have degrees in this and some don't. It tends to show. But I won't be getting a degree in photography. Without taking classes that I have to pay for, how can I learn photography?

I have a 6 year old digital camera, but once I have some money, how should I proceed? In the meantime, how should I proceed? How about disposable cameras?

I actually have a very clear point of view. I know what I want to shoot, I know why I want to do it. I have so many ideas for storied photographs, and I know my style, but it's frustrating because I am neither the tools nor the skill to implement it.

I know the market is saturated so this is purely for a hobby.

Thank you.
posted by DeltaForce to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Ways I have learned: Take a lot of pictures. A lot. Even without a fancy camera (perhaps especially without a fancy camera), you have to learn to pay attention to composition and lighting.

I joined a few flickr groups where people post interesting things; I tried imitating some of what I saw, and that taught me a lot as well.

And poke around here for comments from mefite DaShiv, who's a wicked good photographer and also good at explaining how he does what he does.
posted by rtha at 10:45 AM on March 20, 2014

I have never taken a class but I have reached the skill level that I want, made some money off of if when I chose to, though I have mainly kept it as a hobby. I started out in a manner similar to what you mention: I had an idea about a story I wanted to tell with a photograph.

The absolute best advice I (personally) can give you is this: curate your work. Go take 100 shots of the same thing with your cheap digital camera if you want but when you get home you have to invest the time in figuring out:

A.) which shot is best
B.) why

You don't need fancy gear to get started. Don't buy anything new until you can articulate why it is you need it. Me, I ended up moving to a DSLR once I realized my point-and-shoot had terrible grain at high ISO and couldn't take new lenses that would allow me the depth-of-field that I wanted. Your requirements might be fast shutter speed and telephoto lenses. Doesn't matter, just don't worry about new gear until you know why you need it.

Go take pictures. Take all the pictures. Take a million pictures. Come home and figure out which ones are best. Join Flickr. Mark things as favorites - photos that you'd like to be able to emulate. Try to emulate them. Experiment. Curate your own work. Post only your best.

Enjoy, experiment, do. Just go shoot. Shoot a ton. Never leave the house without your camera and always try to be conscious of what made your best photos the best and how you can reproduce or improve on it.
posted by komara at 10:46 AM on March 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Some of the best photographers out there are working with iPhones. Download Instagram and follow photographers in the style you like.
posted by amaire at 10:49 AM on March 20, 2014

Something that helps when you are practicing...pretend like it is the old days.

Limit yourself to a certain number of photos, with no in camera deletions, of maybe 24 or 36 (like a roll of film) and see what you can do. You will take more time and will look a little longer/better at each shot because you don't want to waste one.

Anyone can come up with a good photo if they take a hundred, try to get several in 24.

Remember, the camera does not take the photograph, the photographer does. I still have 2 MP photos hanging on the wall, because they are good photographs. Practice with what you have and as your needs/interests develop, you will be able to select a camera or camera+lens system that works for you. (iPhone, MILC, DSLR, all-in-one, Hybrid Megazoom, Macro, etc.)
posted by Leenie at 11:42 AM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Anyone can come up with a good photo if they take a hundred"

I would be inclined to disagree with Leenie's statement here but I think his overall point is the same as mine, just from the opposite direction: you won't get better if you're not consciously analyzing what you're shooting. Whether or not it's before or after is a matter of personal preference but without it you won't improve.
posted by komara at 11:52 AM on March 20, 2014

As most of the answers here stress the importance of lots of practice, I'll skip that.

I think that learning the basics of how cameras work (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) and how those things impact the images you're trying to make is an important first step. If you don't (at least roughly (ie, large aperture = low f-stop = shallow depth of field = more light passing through the lens)) know how things work then you won't know what went right or how it went wrong. No particular resource for learning these things comes to mind but I'm sure a quick google could sort you out.
posted by rhooke at 12:25 PM on March 20, 2014

What I did was to read a lot. Craft & Vision have some cheap e-books that are pretty good. I learned a lot from reading blogs. Not really Strobist that everyone keeps mentioning but blogs by local photographers who talk about their craft. For example, I really had an a-ha moment when I watched this video by Bert Stephani.

I rented some higher end gear to get a feel for what is possible. It's important to really know your camera in and out. I would go to the zoo and practice taking pictures in ever-changing conditions (light to dark to shade - fluo to tungsten light etc.)

I did a photo-a-day project that I wanted to do for a year but ended up doing only for about 200 days. No regrets though. I learned a ton.

Learning to edit is also a big deal. I learned how to work with Lightroom and knowing how to properly edit makes all the difference. If you mess up during shooting you can sometimes fix it in post, especially with today's RAW files. Some people will say that isn't "real" but I'll say that it's the end result that counts.

Some people will argue that your gear doesn't matter but having tried lots of cameras it really does. On a sunny day with good conditions I can get beautiful pictures from my old Nikon D70 (10 years old). But I will readily admit that a better camera just makes things easier. My newer Nikon handles dark conditions with ease. However, I also know how to adjust exposure and control an external flash. I learned these things with the D70, not with the newer one.

My idea here is that you need to level up i.e. start with the old DSLR and gradually upgrade. The old DSLR will have fewer controls. Try to shoot manually.
posted by wolfr at 12:53 PM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just keep taking and looking at photographs. It really is that simple. There are a lot of photographers working with iPhones these days. Check out Kevin Russ for an example. He shoots with his iphone, does some simple editing with a free app named VSCO, and then sends the picture to his Instagram page. It doesn't get simpler than that.

The classic camera and lense to start with is some kind of 35mm or full frame DSLR camera and a 50mm lense. The 50mm lense is generally considered to have the most natural perspective, as opposed to one with a more wide angle or zoom distortion. Objects are about as far away in real life as in the viewfinder, so what you see is more or less what you get. You can find great deals on used Nikon cameras on eBay.

You can easily edit your picture using your computer's native Preview application, which should have sliders that allow you to control the brightness and contrast of your picture. The classic goal of editing is to extend the tonal range of your pictures as much as possible, which is usually done by moving the sliders so that no part of your picture is whiter than a pure white background and none blacker than a pure black background. A healthy picture should only need a little exposure and contrast adjustment and nothing else.

If you want to hang a picture, I would get it printed at a professional lab. For anything else, you can order photos from Snapfish for next day pick up from a Walmart or similar store.

It completely depends on the photographer, but for myself I've found anything that requires a ton of money or time that could be spent instead taking pictures not to be worth it. Printing your own pictures requires careful color calibration, film needs to be scanned, manual cameras make correct exposure difficult; Photoshop has a steep learning curve, shooting RAW requires you save larger files and spend time converting them to Jpegs. There is no need, even for a professional photographer, to do any of these things these days.

Photographs are more solved than made. If you want to improve, the exercise I recommend is taking photographs from exactly where you first see them, and then "solving" for a balanced and clear composition.
posted by xammerboy at 1:39 PM on March 20, 2014

Don't get caught up in discussions about equipment. It's an enormous waste of time that has little to do with actual photography. You might look at Bryan Peterson's books, and consider taking a basic photography class at your local adult school, community center, community college, etc.
posted by cnc at 2:12 PM on March 20, 2014

Yeah, equipment isn't as important as knowledge/skill. Pros make great photos with simple gear.

I gained a base of knowledge (and had a hell of a lot of fun) by taking community college classes. They helped more than reading did because I could compare photos with other students and get direct feedback from the instructor. A cheap way to learn.

Once I had that base of knowledge, the thing that made me a better photographer was simply taking a lot of shots and figuring out what did and didn't work. That also helped me find my style. I like taking photos of people in real situations, not posed. I work hard to be sure I've cropped out extraneous stuff from the shot. I'm not great with color and composition, but because I do these two little things -- focus on real people and get rid of background noise -- my shots look okay.
posted by jdroth at 2:45 PM on March 20, 2014

"Photoshop has a steep learning curve, shooting RAW requires you save larger files and spend time converting them to Jpegs. There is no need, even for a professional photographer, to do any of these things these days."

Why walk when you can just crawl, right?

Listen, if you or DeltaForce or whoever wants to take pictures and do straight-out-of-camera printing / posting to the web then great. I've seen some great shots done that way; I won't even pretend to deny that.

But to make a blanket statement that there is "no need" for any photographer - especially a professional - to learn Photoshop or to shoot RAW or utilize any of the other tools that can enhance, expand, and enliven one's photography? That's just flat-out wrong. There's no other way to say it.
posted by komara at 2:51 PM on March 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have been thinking about this and how I learned.

1. Practice. I figured out the basics borrowing my Dad's old all manual film camera.
2. I took a class at the local community college. I didn't take the regular class. I took an evening "bring your own camera" non-credit class that was actually taught by a very good local pro photographer (with decades of experience). We even went to his house to use his dark room. Very cool class. No stress, no grades, etc...and a good field trip at the end.
3. I practiced with very unforgiving narrow exposure latitude slide film. Either I got the exposure or I didn't. Print film and digital has a wide exposure range that will work for a good image.
4. Looking at what I liked in photo books and online.

What helped me:
1. Understanding the relationship between ISO, shutter speed and aperture and how the different camera modes (P, Av, Tv, TAv, etc) affect it.
2. The rule of thirds. Alt
3. The Sunny16 rule. It might seem kind of out of date with modern exposure detection, but I still use it once in a while.
4. Controlling depth of field by using the aperture (and distance) and getting the shot by adjusting the ISO and shutter speed as needed.
5. Practice
6. Having fun!
posted by Leenie at 4:52 PM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Making a blanket statement that there is "no need" for any photographer - especially a professional - to learn Photoshop or to shoot RAW or utilize any of the other tools that can enhance, expand, and enliven one's photography? That's just flat-out wrong. There's no other way to say it."

As I said, it depends on the photographer. I assume DeltaForce will want to explore some of these tools, but he shouldn't mistakenly believe his photos aren't of professional quality until he does.
posted by xammerboy at 5:29 PM on March 20, 2014

1) Spend as much time as you can looking at photos you consider to be great. As photographers we continually take the same photos again and again... So, one of the easiest ways to take better photos is to know what better photos look like! I have a mental Rolodex of "great" photos that I can continually reference when I am taking photos. I have a good idea what a great photo of a sunset looks like, an old man sitting on a bench, a waterfall, a couple kissing, a dog lying in the sun. Try and find the best photos you can that make you gasp and learn from them.

2) Take lots of photos. Spend as much time looking at your bad photos as you do your good photos. If you take enough photos you WILL take ones that please you and you'll take some that hopefully please you very much! Show people your good photos (and be brutal) but spend as much time looking at your bad photos. Try and work out what makes them not as good. Is it technique? Is it the camera? Do you need to treat the photo after you take it? (Snapseed is great and free for phone or tablet) Or is it just that you're not getting the idea right before you take the photo?

3) Don't worry about the tech until you have to. Your phone can take great photos. It's all in the photographer.

4) Love what you're taking photos of. It shows in the final image, it really does.
posted by Mr Ed at 5:06 AM on March 24, 2014

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