What you really need to start photography.
As a professional photographer, there are two comments that I hear all the time. The first is “how do I start photography? Isn’t it really expensive?” The second is “you take really good photographs, you must have a really expensive camera.” If you want to take professional photographs this article might come as a bit of a surprise because I want to burst some of the biggest myths in the world of photography.
Let me get the second comment out of the way first. The quality of a photographer’s work has very little to do with the cost of their equipment. Take Ansel Adams, one of the greatest landscape photographers who ever lived. Well, Ansel Adams died in 1984, a decade before the first consumer digital cameras became available. Adams was most prolific in the 1930s and 1940s and the photography equipment he used was rudimentary by today’s standards.
The great Karl Blossfeldt, most famous for his closeups of flowers, was active in the 1920s, and yet his work still sells today. The point is that the camera doesn’t take photographs, photographers do. Look at it this way. If you go to a restaurant and have a fantastic meal, would you tell the chef that they must have a really expensive cooker? I thought not!
So How Do I Start Photography?
The first thing any aspiring photographer needs is the right mindset. This is much more important than expensive equipment. I won’t deny that expensive equipment will perform better in the hands of a master than cheap equipment. You can buy a Phase One Medium Format Camera for a shade under £44,500, and that’s just for the camera body. You can add another £20,000 for the four lenses you would use most.
On the other hand, you can buy a used Nikon D800 second-hand for about £500. The D800 was released a decade ago, but it was a Nikon flagship product costing £3000 when it was launched and it is still a great camera. A D800 that has been looked after will easily give you another decade of service. Sure the Phase One is a much better camera, but is it 90 times better?
What your local camera store doesn’t really want you to know is that pretty much any brand name camera made in the last 10-years is more than adequate for the needs of most photographers. The make doesn’t really matter, each brand has its own strengths and weaknesses.
You could easily buy a cheaper second-hand camera body than the D800. For example, you should be able to pick up a Nikon D610 for under £300. Please note I talk about Nikon because that is the brand I use, not because Nikon is better than any other brand.
So What Else Do I Need to Start Photography?
If you buy a camera the chances are that it will either be “body only” or come with a cheap “kit lens.” Body only means that you have to buy the lenses separately and obviously it’s not easy to start photography without a lens on your camera. Kit lenses, with a few exceptions, are usually fairly poor quality, but that doesn’t mean they are not worth using. They will perform adequately in good light so there is no need to throw them in the bin, especially if they have a decent zoom range.
If your camera doesn’t come with a lens I would highly recommend that your first lens should be a 50mm lens with a 1.8 Aperture. The wide aperture lets in lots of light and produces a really nice blurred background. They are really good quality, and they are the cheapest good quality lens you can buy. You will often hear photographers refer to these lenses as a “nifty fifty” or a “plastic fantastic.”
There is a wee bit of a downside, there is no zoom on these lenses, known as “prime lenses,” so you zoom by moving physically closer or further away from your subject. These are the lenses that give most “bank for your buck.” You can easily pick up a second-hand version for under £100
So What About Lenses?
When you start photography it can seem that lenses cost a small fortune and to be fair they are not cheap. However, I think you have to look at lenses in terms of their value rather than the initial outlay. A good lens will last a lifetime if you take care of it. Canon and Nikon lenses tend to be much more expensive than competing brands.
My camera bodies are all Nikon, but almost all of my lenses are Nikon fit Sigma Lenses. I did not make that choice based on price alone. I love the optical quality of the Sigma art series lenses and most of them are eligible for Sigma’s mount conversion scheme. This means your expensive lens can be converted to fit another brand should you decide to change systems or move to a mirrorless camera at a later stage.
So, when you start photography my advice is that camera brand isn’t very important, the camera body isn’t that important, the biggest improvement in quality comes from good lenses.
Ok, So Am I Ready To Create Visual Art?
Well, you have the camera and you have the lenses so you are ready to start taking photos, right? Almost but not quite. There are just a few more things that you need before you can start making images. A couple are essential, but most are a matter of personal preference.
If you are going to start taking photographs you will need a memory card and a battery for your camera. Please, do not buy cheap memory cards, they are prone to failure and nothing is more frustrating than having hundreds of photographs on a memory card that fails and destroys all of your images.
I recommend Sandisk Extreme Pro cards. You can pick up a 64Gb card for under £20 from My Memory, a company that I have always had great service from. Most (but not all) modern cameras have slots for two memory cards, use them both.
A 64Gb card gives me over 750 high-resolution RAW images on a card. If you shoot high-resolution JPG files you are looking at 3000+ images on a single card. I don’t recommend shooting in JPG format, but that’s a story for another time.
Camera batteries are fairly expensive. The Nikon branded ones for my cameras are about £60 each. You can buy equivalent replacement batteries for around £20. I use a mix of genuine and equivalent and I have only ever had one battery fail totally on a shoot. This caused me absolutely no problem because I always carry at least four spare batteries. I recommend always having at least two spares batteries.
Some Options For Beginner Photographers
Many professional photographers swear by the use of filters that fit on the front of your lens. When you start photography this can seem like an unnecessary additional expense. A decent polarising filter can cost £60 or more. These filters do help with the clarity of your image when used in the right circumstances. More importantly, they do protect the front of your expensive lens from scratches and dirty marks.
I own a collection of filters, but I never use them unless there is a specific artistic reason for doing so. I believe that the lens hood supplied with lenses is sufficient to protect the lens, and I have worked in some of the harshest environments imaginable.
You do, of course, require a means of transferring your images from your camera to your computer. Some photographers like to remove the card from the camera and transfer their images via a card reader. This isn’t my approach. I connect my cameras directly to the computer, download the images, and format the card in the camera. My theory is that the less you handle cards by removing them from the camera etc the longer they will last.
This approach has served me well, the only card that failed on me was one I had to continuously take out of the camera whilst shooting a boxing event. It goes without saying that I had prepared for this eventuality by carrying spare cards.
Don’t Lose Your Cool Photos: Back Them Up
There is an old saying that there are only two types of computer users. People who have a good backup routine, and those who haven’t yet had a hard drive failure. You can buy a 2TB portable external hard drive for about £30! Once you get your photos onto your computer, delete the duds and then transfer a copy to your external drive. If your images are important back them up to the cloud too.
That’s It, You Are A Beginner Photographer
As you start photography you should be taking photographs all the time. Take pictures of everything that moves and everything that doesn’t. Experiment, and don’t be afraid to fail. Try to remember that the pictures you see on a professional photographer’s website or on their Instagram feed are their successful images. For each of those, there have been failures, mistakes, and experiments that didn’t work.
The real beauty of digital photography is that you get thousands of free images once you have the equipment. Do try to analyze why something worked or why it didn’t, and don’t hesitate to delete the duds. When you start, photography can be frustrating, but with practice, you will soon improve.
If you would like to help to start photography, I do offer one-to-one or small group tuition in beautiful Argyll. Pop over to my shop for more details.