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Last week I asked how we were doing and what you wanted us to write about. This week I thought I’d hit on one of those subjects mentioned. Keep in mind that I’m not a professional. Like many of you, I’m learning as I go. The words below are just my opinion, from my own personal experiences. I don’t typically take a straight forward approach to anything and experimentation is king in my book.

Getting to Know Your Camera

The cameras we carry around with us have so many functions it can be overwhelming. It doesn’t matter if you shoot Nikon, Canon, Sony, or any other brand, they all have the same basic functions but use different terms and techniques of employing them. I shoot just as much film as I do digital, so I like to break it down to the basics.  Once I go in and setup all the custom functions, I leave them and just deal with the things you’d find on a camera built forty years ago; ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture.

The first thing I did when I pulled my camera out of the box was start flipping through all the custom functions. If I came across something I didn’t know I hit Google, spent a couple minutes reading, then turn the function on or off. In most cases I shut everything off, as I don’t want my camera auto correcting anything.

The next thing I did was to start learning the buttons. If you don’t know how to use your camera in the dark then learn. I find it helpful to know where all my buttons are.  This way I don’t have to take my eye away from the viewfinder if I need to change something. If you take your eye away from the viewfinder, you’re going to miss out on great pictures. Turn the lights out and start pushing buttons. Learn what each button does and figure out how to make change on the fly as quickly as possible.

Shoot manual and shoot RAW! It may take a while to get it right; your pictures may suck for a while and you may have to adjust things like white balance in post, but you’ll pick it up quickly. Learn from the mistakes you make and you’ll be getting it right in no time. Know your camera.

Only had a few tries before security busted this kid. He tried the trick five or six times and if I didn’t know my buttons I wouldn’t have been able to adjust my shutter speed and viewpoint quick enough. My eye never left the view finder, I had to trust it would turn out okay.

Get to Know Your Lenses

I’m lazy. I don’t like carrying around a bag full of lenses and gear. A lot of the time I take my camera, one lens, (maybe and extra battery) and nothing else. If it’s a bright day I put an ND filter on the lens before heading out. If it gets dark I unscrew the filter and put it in my pocket.

Like your camera, every lens will behave differently. I think the biggest learning curve in photography is learning how each lens will behave in different situations. Light changes from one minute to the next, so knowing how a lens is going to react is pretty important.

Lenses are expensive! If you’re thinking of investing in a new lens think about the type of photography that interests you. It doesn’t make much sense to buy a 300mm lens if you shoot portraits, and what can you accomplish as a wild life photographer with a wide angle lens?

Since I can’t afford to buy the biggest and best lenses, learning to get the most out of what I have is important. I don’t own a lot of lenses, but I thought carefully about the lenses I wanted. I love primes and don’t find myself in need of a long lens, so I sold my longer zooms and invested in the fastest primes at the focal lengths I found best for what I do. They are not the best lenses but it’s what I could afford.

When I get a new lens I put it on my camera and leave it there for at least a month. I use it in all situations and light conditions and learn the lens. At first I’m often disappointed, but with time I learn the sweet spot, learn how to handle the lens in low light, and figure out how to finagle the best possible pictures using a combination of lens and camera settings.

I knew this shot would work because I know my lens, had an ND filter on it, and knew what it does .  I saw the image before even leaning down to take it. I adjusted for exposure and hit the shutter button blindly. It took me three shots to line it up properly without looking through the viewfinder.

Artificial Light

Light, gift of the Gods! Well, not so much of a gift as it is a drain on your bank account, and profits for the major manufacturers. If you’re smart about it you can get up and running on the cheap and get some excellent results.

Off camera lighting can be simple and cheap, or it can be expensive and confusing. Light is something that I think we’ll talk a lot about here on the site, but I’ll hit it briefly here. If you are getting started you can get a good/useful light setup for a few hundred dollars. There’s no need to spend $500 on a strobe when there are alternatives that will get you that same basic functions at under a hundred dollars. A cheap light stand, an umbrella, and a way to fire off the strobe are all you need.

If you are just getting started or thinking about buying an off camera setup go for it and don’t get discouraged. When I first started using off-camera lighting I was disgusted at the photos I was taking. I thought I wasted my money. I kept at it, researched lighting, dragged my family (against their will) in front of the camera, and just kept at it. I did a lot of self portraits while learning-a lot-and the more and more I worked at it the better my pictures looked.

There is no way I could have pulled this off a year ago, now I don’t think twice because I practiced my lighting over and over and over, on myself, my wife, the kids. There was no need to complicate the shot with three lights, gels, and all sorts of modifiers. Just One light and an umbrella. I know my limits and know that I need to keep it simple.


Experimenting is fun and a great way to learn, but when it counts, you’ve got to nail the shot. If I can leave you with one piece of advice let it be this… keep it simple!