Photography 101 – Choosing the right camera and getting better photos.

Two of the most often asked questions I get working in the camera department of a large retailer are: What camera should I buy?  And, What’s the best camera you have (while pointing toward the 36 different models on display).  That second question I will answer first by saying, “That $649 Nikon DSLR is the best camera we have?”  This response will be followed by, “Wow, I don’t want to spend that much!”  At this point I launch into a brief Q&A…ask yourself these questions before asking that silly question:

1.  What am I going to use it for?  Kid photos, pet photos, family photos, travel photos, starting a photo business, etc.

2.  What camera (if any) do I have now and, what do I like or don’t like about it?

3.  What’s my budget?

For the novice photobug, here is a general place to start and what I usually tell well-intentioned camera buyers.

I tell them, “I can take clear, sharp, lovely photos with that $69 camera right there”…with this caveat.  Your options with a cheap, plastic, digital camera are slim compared to a $649 DSLR when it comes to features, ie, bell and whistles.  However, do you need those bells and whistles you get with a DSLR.  I should say at this point that DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex.  Quite simply, the digital version of 35mm film cameras, which, by the way, you can now purchase (top of the line) older 35’s for less than the cost of a cheap DVD player.  More on this option later, back to digital.

So, what’s the difference between that $69 dollar point-and-shoot and THAT $199 point-and-shoot?  Typically, the cheaper camera is made entirely of plastic including the lens.  The more you pay the sturdier the camera and it probably has a glass lens.  Durability is one of the benefits of spending a bit more.

I won’t get too technical and get into megapixels right now except for this.  You’d be hard pressed to find a new digital camera these days that isn’t at least 16 megapixels…cheap or expensive.  Keep this in mind…more megapixels will NOT make you a better photographer.  In other words, a high-resolution, improperly framed and over or under exposed photo image is still a lousy photo, right?

My advice if you are just starting out, or want to replace an inexpensive digital camera, or your camera broke…etc, DON’T SPEND A LOT OF MONEY YET!  So what should you buy?  Look to a sub-$200 Nikon or Canon point-and-shoot for the best builds and reliability for now.  I would also say Sony except for the fact that they tend to have a higher learning curve at times.

If you’ve already purchased something similar to the above.  Here are the most basic tips for getting decent, if not fantastic photos.

1.  Hold the camera still when pressing the shutter.  Less expensive cameras are notorious for having a relatively slow shudder, ie, the lag time between pressing the shutter button and when the camera actually exposes the images.  This is probably the biggest issue when folks show me their somewhat blurry prints, especially in low light situations.

2.  Expsoure…eegads…that sounds too technical!  Put your camera in the most Automatic mode available, usually the little green camera icon, either on a dial at the top or in a menu…and leave it there for now.  The camera will take care of everything else…exposure, shutter speed, and focus.  It will even adjust the ISO setting (film speed in the old days) for lower light photos…and, it will fire the flash if necessary.  Done deal.  However, please always refer back to #1 above no matter what the situation or camera setting.

3.  Framing.  This is where practice comes in.  One of the biggest mistakes I see when printing amateur photos is improper framing, specifically not being aware of where the subject is in the viewfinder.  For example, when taking a portrait shot, don’t place the subject’s face in the middle of the viewfinder, leaving the top half of the image with nothing but sky or trees.  Get closer, the next biggest issue.  Those little digital cameras have a great wide angle to them.  That works fine with landscapes or scenic shots.  Either get in closer to your subject or use the zoom to frame them so you can at least recognize who it is!

4.  And finally:  Practice, Practice, Practice…shoot, shoot, and shoot some more.  It’s digital for gosh sakes, you aren’t paying for film development.  After you shoot, check out the images….then delete, delete, and delete some more before taking the memory card to your friendly neighborhood photo kiosk for prints.

A few other valuable tips include:  Keep your camera clean, especially the lens.  Protect your camera by carrying it in a small, padded case.  Charge the battery often or keep fresh batteries handy.  Check the settings before embarking on a photo shoot opportunity.  Keep an extra memory card handy.  For the casual amateur, if you faithfully delete the bad shots on a regular basis, you shouldn’t need another card unless you are going on vacation or an extended trip.  Do not…I repeat…do not lend your camera to a friend under any circumstances.  If it doesn’t come back trashed (or they lose it altogether) it will come back with the settings all screwed up.  Don’t lose your battery charger or charging cord!  They are not expensive to replace as long as you buy them on eBay, but finding one in a retail store?  Forget it.  And, the universal ones cost $30 or more.  Along the same lines, buy an extra rechargeable battery, again on eBay (maybe $5-$10 with a charger) as electronics stores charge an arm and a leg, and, they don’t come charged.  Keep your digital images organized on your computer.  In other words, download the good ones to a file and label it.  Then delete the ones you don’t want.

Please know this.  I am not a photo wizard or photo guru.  I just love to take pictures and have been doing it a long while, for myself and, for a time, professionally (weddings, events, portraits).  My main focus now is landscapes and still lifes. I do an occasional portrait.  But I love still lifes and landscapes for the simple reason(s) that my subjects always show up and I can take my time!  Right now, I am a Nikon advocate.  I’ve owned and used Canon, Pentax, Sony, and Minolta equipment among many others…both film and digital.  No “one” camera is the best.  It’s whatever is best for you.  Again, I just get asked these questions on a daily basis.

Another quick suggestion or two:  Invest in a digital photo program for “processing”, cropping, and tweaking your photos.  If you own a Mac like I do, the latest iPhoto has most everything an amateur photographer could ever want.  I also use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.  Lightroom retails for about $149 although I think it’s available to download from the Adobe site for less than $100.  Photoshop?  About $600.  With Photoshop keep in mind that you will only use about 5% of what PS is capable of doing.  It’s not a necessary program unless you really want to get into design and special effects.  Open a flickr account (it’s free for the basic one).  Not only can you see other folk’s photos you can post your own and share.

If you have any questions, please drop me an email through this post.  I will try to answer it the best I can.  If you ask me about a specific camera, I will refer you to Google as you will find countless reviews on every camera there.

Coming soon: Watch for Photography 101:  Movin’ on up.  Buying a better camera.