Here are some common and basic FAQs I see repeated all over the web in various photography forums, along with my answers. So, call this…
1) Which camera should I buy?
It depends on what you will use it for and your level of expertise. Today’s point-and-shoots and mirror-less cameras yield excellent quality in a small package and these easily meet the needs of many (most?) people. If you want to up the quality of your images a bit, have more flexibility with lenses and settings, then a DSLR might be what you need. All the major manufacturers have DSLRs at varying quality, performance, and price points. Be honest about your needs and don’t overspend for features you won’t use as even the basic DSLRs have great image quality these days. Also, be sure to go to a camera store and try out the cameras–see how they feel in your hands and see how you like the menu and button setup–but take what the salesperson says with a block of sea salt (do your research online).
Whether it is a point-and-shoot or a DSLR, the quality of most all the cameras on the market today is such that you almost can’t go wrong. Finally, remember that the purchase of a good camera is no guarantee you will get excellent images–to do that you need to know how to use the tool (the camera) to effectively execute your artistic vision.
Postscript: You might also consider using a Diana or Brownie camera with film…or dust off your old Canon AE-1…or spend a fortune on a Leica and a gallery of Zeiss lenses…or purchase a medium or large format film camera on eBay…or make your own camera (maybe turn your camper van into a giant camera!?). There are zillions of odd cameras to fit the myriad personalities of the finicky and funky photographers of the world, so don’t necessarily limit yourself to the electronic DSLR-type gizmos I spend so much time talking about here. I just happen to use one of those electronic/digital gizmos (most of the time, anyway), hence my personal bias.
My Current Recommendations:
I have decided not to list any camera models here anymore. For one thing, they change so quickly and constantly it makes my head do the the Exorcist thing. For another, the cameras have all gotten so good you can hardly make a terrible mistake.
Try this…first, list your priorities. That is, what exactly do you want from a camera? Consider things like: what you specifically want to take pictures of, the image quality desired, the eventual use of your images (small prints, large prints, or internet only), the size and weight of camera you are willing to tote around, the ease of use, interchangeable lenses or not, zoom lens or fixed focal length, your budget, whether you prefer film or digital, etc. Then, spend some time on Google and in the photography forums. If you do that, patterns will begin to emerge and you will slowly zoom in on (sic) the perfect camera for you.
A good site for camera/lens reviews: Digital Photography Review at http://www.dpreview.com/
2) Who makes the best DSLRs, Canon or Nikon?
It doesn’t matter, so get over it! Both Canon and Nikon are big companies with quality products, good customer support and a large selection of lenses. Pick one or the other based on how they feel in your hands, whether you like the placement of the controls, whether you already have lenses of one brand or another, or whether all your friends use one or the other (you can share lenses and user tips). Any alleged difference in color, shadows, highlights, etc. can easily be tweaked with your JPEG in-camera picture options or in post-processing your RAW images.
I happen to shoot Nikon because my first DSLR, a gift from my brothers, was a Nikon (a D70). I would probably be just as happy with Canon. Don’t overlook Fuji, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic or Pentax either. Some of these “smaller” companies are really being innovative and are slowly making inroads in the sales of the Canon/Nikon behemoth, especially in the area of mirror-less designs.
3) How important are megapixels in digital photography?
These days, they are not as important as before since most all digital cameras, from point-and-shoots to DSLRs, use at least a 12-megapixel sensor. You may even have that already in your cell phone. Twelve megapixels is more than enough for most uses–especially if all you do is post to the web. The reason why you might want more megapixels would be to: 1) allow for more creative cropping, 2) allow for cropping as a way to magnify the image (birders and wildlife shooters, for example), or 3) allow for larger prints.
In my experience, even a 12mp camera should be able to give you decent 13″ x 19″ prints–although it will depend on lighting, subject matter, type/style of the image, your shooting technique and viewing distance to the print. Cameras in the 16, 24, 36, and even 50 megapixel range can yield stunning results and even larger prints, as well as give you some great cropping options.
Two other very important factors you will want to consider, depending on your shooting style and end product preference, are low light performance and dynamic range. Indeed, these two may be more important than the megapixel count.
Finally, if you are considering sports, birds in flight, or some other kind of action photography, the number of frames per second and the auto-focus capability of your machine may also trump megapixels to some degree.
Finally (again), don’t completely write off the idea of using a film camera. Film–and even instant Polaroid–seems to be making a comeback lately. You can pick up film cameras on eBay and Craig’s List for a sweet song, even larger format cameras. If you go this route, you might eventually want to develop your own negatives and do your own printing. This will involve a darkroom and a whole huge new world of information, learning, and experimentation. As an alternative, many film enthusiasts (including me, when I shoot film), have a local shop develop the film and provide both the negatives and scanned digital files of those negatives. This allows you to shoot with film but do your post-processing at your computer, cookies and milk by your side. Maybe something to consider?
4) Which new lens should I buy?
If you don’t know which lens to buy, you don’t need it! That’s the advice you’ll most commonly get if you ask this question on any good photography forum.
My recommendation is to start out with whatever kit lens comes with your camera, say, the 18-55mm for example (in the case of a DSLR). Then, go out and shoot. Over time, as you shoot, you’ll find yourself saying things like…”Dang, I can’t get as close as I want to that deer!” Or, “Gee, I wish I could focus closer on those ants!” Or, “I really don’t like the background bokeh (out-of-focus area) with my lens when I shoot portraits.” Or, “That lens is always blurry in the corners.” Or, “Why can’t I shoot at a faster shutter speed inside this dark gym?” Or, “Gee, I wish I could use just one lens for everything.” This means you are discovering a need that could potentially be filled by a certain type of lens. Once you have identified a real need, then you can do your research and go shopping. The Digital Photography Review link I gave in question #1 can help you with your investigation–and I would also search the photography forums and ask advice of experienced photographers (not sales people!) as there are lenses that have both good and bad reputations. And don’t write off third party lenses like Sigma, Tokina and Tamron as some focal lengths and versions can actually be very good.
5) How do I get my pictures to look like photographer _______’s work (fill in a name)?
Why would you want to? Why not develop your own way of seeing and creating images? But, OK, we all go though experimentation and imitation stages (heck, I’m still doing a lot of that!) and sometimes we want to know how a certain photographer made a particular image out of curiosity or just to help us learn. One way to find out is to simply ask the photographer him/herself since many have web sites–just send them your question. Another way is to link the image(s) in question and ask away on one of the more active photography forums online. You are likely to get some pretty good feedback from the more experienced folks that way. Or, if you have a local photography club, ask some of the older and wiser photographers there.
It is worth pointing out that the more you learn about both the technical and artistic sides of photography, the more you are able to identify the specific techniques (lighting, post-processing, plug-ins, lens choice, etc.) that went into any given image. Studying images and imagining how they were created, then, is a great learning exercise.
6) Do I really need to post-process my images?
Would you take pictures with film and just be happy with the negatives? No, you’d want to print them, naturally! And that involves all kinds of decisions about timing, burning, dodging, etc. In that sense, in today’s digital world, post-processing is sort of like the printing process. If you don’t do it, your images will never be as good as they can be and you have neglected part of the “performance” to borrow from Saint Ansel. Of course you could simply shoot in JPEG (vice RAW), but then you are letting the camera do the post-processing for you. If you have selected the exact JPEG picture menu options on your camera just the way you like them, this could work. In fact, it might be the way to go if you are coming home with hundreds of images from a softball game–just use the JPEG right out of the camera and save all that post-processing time. However, if you want to maximize the quality of a particular image, shoot in RAW and take the time to post-process it. (You will especially be surprised by how much more detail you can pull out of your shadows and highlights.) I have heard some photographers say that preparing and capturing the image is maybe 50-80% of the work whereas post-processing is another extremely important 20-50% of the process, depending on the type of image.
7) Which post-processing software should I buy?
The top gorilla in the post-processing world is, of course, Adobe Photoshop. Their CS6 version was the last to come out in CD form (possibly available on eBay and elsewhere), or you can subscribe to their Cloud version. Whether you decide to search for the CD (hard to find and costly) or sign up for the monthly Cloud subscription, it may have way more capability than you really need. Cheaper options would be to try Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Elements to see if either of these will do the job for you. The former is primarily for photo cataloging and organizing but each new version of Lightroom has included ever more powerful post-processing tools and it is now a pretty good stand-alone tool. Adobe Elements is Photoshop “lite” but has many of the key tools you commonly need during post-processing, including layers. Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, and Adobe Elements are available for both Mac and PC. Specifically for Mac users, iPhoto and Aperture have been replaced by an application simply called Photos. I haven’t used any Mac-specific software so I can’t say much more. If you are looking for freeware, try GIMP as it seems to be very popular for those looking for a decent no-cost option–and with the advent of Adobe’s not-so-popular-with-the average-photog Cloud, GIMP may see an upsurge in use and popularity.
One last thing: You can download trial versions of most of the above software as well as many other worthwhile plug-ins and stand-alone programs (On1, Nik Collection by Google, Phase One, Acorn, Affinity Photo/Serif, Topaz, Corel Paint Shop Pro, etc.)–so try them out yourself and see what you think. Can’t figure something out? Search YouTube for tutorials to help you. [March, 2016 Update: the Google Nik Collection, is now available for free. Yes, that’s right: FREE. It’s Silver Efex Pro app is my go-to for monochrome images.]
8) I want to move beyond the Auto or Program mode on my camera. Which modes should I use and how?
It depends on your subject matter. If you shoot sports, birds or action subjects, try using shutter priority (you choose a shutter speed that stops the action and the camera picks the aperture for you). If you shoot landscapes, try aperture priority (you choose an aperture that gives you the depth-of-field you want and the camera picks the right shutter speed). Manual (you pick both shutter speed and aperture) is fun to play with to learn the shutter speed-aperture relationship under different lighting conditions. Given how I shoot, I’d say 95% of the time I use aperture priority and 5% of the time I use manual. I rarely use shutter priority or the auto or program modes. Your mileage may vary based on subject matter.
Keep in mind the third variable in controlling exposure: ISO. On digital cameras this refers to the sensitivity setting of the sensor. In low light, you may have to adjust your ISO to a higher setting (= higher sensor sensitivity, but also increases “noise”) in order to use the shutter/aperture combination that your situation requires. Consider setting up you camera to automatically adjust ISO in these situations–but up to a limit at which you deem the noise level to be acceptable (perhaps ISO 800 or 1600…but depends on the camera).
9) Should I have my friend shoot our wedding pictures?
Easy answer: NO! Hire a pro. You’ll be glad you did. You can have your friend play back-up photographer–just as long as he or she does not interfere with the pro. (In fact, have your friend talk with the pro beforehand so it is completely clear about what everyone is doing.) To find a good pro, ask around, check with the Better Business Bureau, then review websites and portfolios to see if the photographer’s style is what you want. You get what you pay for to a large degree, so if you want professional photos of your wedding, hire a professional. If someone asked me to shoot their wedding I wouldn’t be able to say NO loud enough. And they would be glad I did.
(Postscript: Just recently, I actually did shoot a wedding of some friends of ours (my wife and I worked as a pair). There were no expectations (they weren’t planning on having a photographer) so there was no real stress…and, well, I did find it to be somewhat fun. At least I came to understand why people do this kind of work.)
10) I want to make a living in photography. How can I do that?
You and me both! These days everyone thinks she is a photographer (yes, including me!). That’s fine, I suppose, but whether you can make a living at it is another thing entirely. Most experienced pro photogs counsel this: To make a living at photography, your business skills are much more important than your photography skills (assuming you at least know how to aim and focus the camera). Some may assume that the way to make a living as a photographer is to sell your beautiful fine art prints, calendars, cards and books, but there are myriad other ways: wedding photography, portrait photography (from the local mall portrait shop to school portraits), freelance newspaper or magazine photography, shooting eBay products for a small dot com, sports event photography (cycling, motocross, running, soccer, hang gliding, rock climbing, swimming, triathlons…you name it), salesperson at a camera shop, teaching photography classes or clinics, photography tour guide, stock photography (this last one is disappearing fast), etc., etc.
Be careful, though. Once you have a JOB as a photographer, it is a JOB and you work for your clients, not for you. Only a few talented photographers are well-known and lucky enough to be able to go where-so-ever their artistic fancy-farts lead them. As for me, I’m much happier NOT doing this professionally–I don’t want it to be a JOB!–so that gives me the freedom to go shoot whatever and whenever I damn well please.
[February, 2017 Postscript: Thom Hogan has written an excellent and very short article addressing some of the issues involved with Questions 1 through 3. You can peruse it at: Some Irreverent Answers To Serious Questions.]