Learning photography as a middle aged adult, on a shoestring.
August 9, 2014 10:59 PM   Subscribe

Please guide me toward books books and free or low-cost resources for learning photography, as well as general advice.

I'm starting to realize that, in order to execute some of the online projects that interest me, I'm going to need to become a better photographer. Currently, I do not have much in the way of spare cash or for classes or equipment. What I do have includes:

(1) A non-SLR digital camera (a Fujifilm S2900-series Finepix, if that matters)
(2) An very old Minolta 35mm film camera that I am reasonably comfortable using, even though film and development costs 1.4 gazillion dollars.
(3) A 3 year-old copy of Adobe Creative Suite with which I am not terribly proficient
(4) An art history degree, and the half-decent eye that comes with it.

Any ideas about what my best path forward might be?
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
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posted by Lynsey at 11:05 PM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

What is it that you want to get better at photographing? How do your current photos come up short?

There is a lot to learn that applies broadly, but there are also domain specific things that can take a long time to work out from general principles, so having more specifics could help us help you.
posted by Good Brain at 11:19 PM on August 9, 2014

There have been some good threads on this subject previously. The AskMe tags are a bit of a mess, but here are a few threads (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) that I found quickly.

You don't need the latest version of Photoshop (CS6 or CC) to become really proficient at editing. Lots of professionals are still working several versions back. And you probably don't need to spend much money on learning materials. There are some great tips in those earlier threads, but I'd add that my local library system has a lot of the more popular photography books; and last year when I wanted one that no library owned, my hometown library bought it for me. Ask.

Any ideas about what my best path forward might be?

Grab a couple resources, learn a bit, and shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot. (And post-process post-process post-process post-process post-process.) Focused practice is where it's at, just like with anything else. Since you indicate having a direction about where you want to go ("in order to execute some of the online projects that interest me"), this should be easier for you than for someone starting with more of a vague motivation to get better at "photography." I'd say dive into whatever you want to be doing: figure out what you need to learn and improve, and work on those. Good luck!
posted by cribcage at 11:37 PM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Learn what aperture, exposure, and ISO do. Take lots and lots and lots of pictures while adjusting aperture, exposure, and ISO to get the look you want. Take more pictures and then take some more.
posted by hannahelastic at 1:41 AM on August 10, 2014

Film cameras are attractive because they themselves are cheap, even for (older) good ones, but in truth there's a false economy there, because developing and printing are not only extremely time consuming, but expensive. The up front costs for a digital SLR are pretty high, but after that there are basically no more costs. My first film camera probably cost me $500 bucks or so (this was back when new film cameras were desirable still) and I probably spent well over $1000 in extra costs over the first year I owned it. And that included the fact that I was rolling, developing and printing all my B&W.

Personally I have never been comfortable with any other camera than a good SLR. The ergonomics seem right to me (either waist level finder or up to the eye), the speed of focus, interchangeable lenses, ability to use off-camera flash, generally way more settings and controls are available and most of them are at your fingertips.

There are some very nice entry level digital SLRs but new ones will never be "cheap" probably. You may be able to find gently used ones though, on ebay, craigslist, or local photographer networks (join some FB groups, meetups, etc and you'll find people who are stepping up to a 5d and selling their 60d or digital rebels). You absolutely can take stunning pictures on an APS-c sensor camera like these.

Lenses are available on ebay all the time for decent prices. Canon has not changed it's lens mount system in a few decades (well, there are now some new APS-c only lenses but APS-c cameras take both these and the old system). I don't know much about Nikons but I think they haven't changed their lens mount system in over 50 years. This means there are TONS of great old lenses you can get for small fractions of their price.

Anyway, that's all equipment - but the heart of photography is not equipment, I have seen artists make stunning work on the shittiest equipment you have ever seen. Toys, sometimes.

Making pictures that are art can happen by accident but most often, the artist has a vision and then executes it, so you need to learn the connection between intent and outcome. This means learning how the camera captures light, how focal planes work, how the distance and angle between you and your subject affects their relative placement in the image, how the angle between you, the subject and the light source affects the apparent brightness of the subject. How the quality and distance of the light affects the image (a pinpoint light source like a light bulb makes harsh light and shadows, a big light source like a north facing window makes soft light and shadows)

There's a ton of stuff but you don't have to integrate it all at once. In my experience every novice photographer makes HUGE leaps when they discover how light really works. So in that vein I really recommend a few books
Light: Science and Magic
Learning to Light

Also, a general photography book will save you a lot of time - twiddling settings and seeing what that looks like is one strategy, but having a preconceived notion will save you time. So something like:
A short course in photography

For learning photoshop, I recommend youtube. Start with the "Phlearn" channel, maybe, that guy is a wizard.

Actually in general there are photography videos on youtube in stunning numbers, on every subject, and they are a GREAT resource. Because they can do what the books do, while *showing* you what they're doing.
posted by RustyBrooks at 3:35 AM on August 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd sell your cameras and buy a used entry level DSLR like a Canon Rebel XTi with a kit lens for a few hundred dollars. Then shoot on manual to learn manual exposure. And read this book.
posted by kdern at 10:15 AM on August 10, 2014

Something that helped me was joining a photography club of sorts-- I regularly posted to a blog and had other community members critique my work. It served as a nice record of my work and flipping back through the blog helped me see that I really did improve over time.

Other than that, just keep taking pictures and visit art/photography museums.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 10:34 AM on August 10, 2014

You didn't give much hint on the kind of photos, some of the far ends of the range like macro or wildlife certainly are helped by specialized equipment, mainly lenses. So medium to long term find an older digital Nikon or Cannon on craigslist or ebay. An older used Nikon has been more than I'll ever need. Not that there is anything against other cameras but those two seem to have the largest market for lenses. And as most discussions of photography get to, it's the glass.

But nthing gemutlichkeit, find some outlet to get feedback. I've liked the discussions I've seen on photo.net, but it seems to be getting quite high quality, that's good but might be brutal initially.

And take lots.

One other element that I have always struggled with is managing the bookkeeping. Find a system that works for you that lets you store and retrieve. Knowing you had a mediocre image of a totem pole that will work for something is painful if it means a zillion image review.
posted by sammyo at 11:40 AM on August 10, 2014

The Great Photo App is a decent introduction to photography principles.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 3:25 PM on August 10, 2014

there's the saying that "the best camera is the one you have with you." i think you ought to start taking pictures right now! don't wait until you've learned "more" or "enough" or gotten "better" gear. one way to improve is to do it, a lot.

i really like this quote from john szkarkowski, a really renowned photography curator--i hope reading it frees you to just go out and start noticing things that interest you, then documenting them in an interesting way.

it's long, but good:

"As a way of beginning, one might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing. All of us, even the best-mannered of us, occasionally point, and it must be true that some of us point to more interesting facts, events, circumstances, and configurations than others. It is not difficult to imagine a person-a mute Virgil of the corporeal world-who might elevate the act of pointing to a creative plane, a person who would lead us through the fields and streets and indicate a sequence of phenomena and aspects that would be beautiful, humorous, morally instructive, cleverly ordered, mysterious, or astonishing, once brought to our attention, but that had been unseen before, or seen dumbly, without comprehension. This talented practitioner of the new discipline (the discipline a cross, perhaps, between theater and criticism) would perform with a special grace, sense of timing, narrative sweep, and wit, thus endowing the act not merely with intelligence, but with that quality of formal rigor that identifies a work of art, so that we would be uncertain, when remembering the adventure of the tour, how much of our pleasure and sense of enlargement had come from the things pointed to and how much from the pattern created by the pointer.

To note the similarity between photography and pointing seems to me useful. Surely the best of photographers have been first of all pointers-men and women whose work says: I call your attention to this pyramid, face, battlefield, pattern of nature, ephemeral juxtaposition."
posted by iahtl at 4:38 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Photography is a broad subject. There's a big difference between providing advice on large format film landscape photography and street lomography and selling stuff on ebay. Certainly there are some common fundamentals (shutter, aperture, ISO), however it would be helpful to know what "online projects" you are attempting so that advice can be more specific.
posted by j03 at 2:10 PM on August 11, 2014

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