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on photography | my journey & tips for beginners & beyond

It was somewhere along lonely I-29 on my 300 mile weekly commute from Omaha to South Dakota that I made the decision. I had a great year selling Mirena & earned a bunch of points to use in the Bayer store to buy something nice. After a bit of coaxing from my sister-in law, I decided a camera was what my treat would be. I had always loved taking pictures & thought it might be a fun thing to have. So a few days before Christmas, my Canon Rebel xTi & 17-85mm lens showed up at my doorstep and I began playing. It took me some time to figure out, as I tend to be a do-er not a manual reader. I just went shooting. I read one book. But the rest was just tinkering around.

Then, we got orders. I quit my job. I moved to texas. (boohoo) and was unemployed and infertile. I started a business in home staging. But I loved taking pictures. I bought the 28mm f/1.8 & started really enjoying taking pictures. I finally got pregnant & reevaluated. & then I second shot a wedding (which is just not for me) and was invited to go (with my SIL) to WPPI in Vegas. I was extremely inspired. I came back with her hand-me-down Canon 30D & several “learning” sessions on my schedule. I practiced. I learned. I forced myself to understand the junk that a creative like me couldn’t care much about. Because that is what a smart business person does. LLC restructuring. Website. Taxes. Skills. Equipment. Lots of time & lots of money. But I was up & running. & 7 months pregnant. (genius timing…)

I am in such a different place now. I have better gear. More knowledge. Focus & a niche that makes my heart sing. I can proudly tell you my specialty is modern newborn portraiture. That is what I do. That is all I want to do. & is all that I am doing. ;) But I didn’t get here by accident. & many of you have asked questions about stuff along the way, so here are your answers. If you can hang in there. ;)

I also decided to add some images with my technical data. I refrained from reediting anything you see here…as much as I wanted to!! You can follow my journey through three cameras, four lenses & three different editing programs. I hope this helps you see that you can take beautiful images with many different pieces of equipment, not just the most expensive stuff. I only upgraded equipment when I felt as though I was being limited by my gear & had mastered what I already owned.

I have to declare the following: I do not enjoy teaching photography. My love for this craft is behind the camera. I have spent an astronomical amount of time over the last several years learning & growing and to tell you that I can teach you what I know is just not realistic. My education has been completely self-driven & I hope that that fact alone can inspire you–because you can do this without anything fancy or formal.

This post is meant to encourage you & give you a few shortcuts. I aim to help point you in the direction of learning, not teach you. If I have learned anything during my short time in this industry, it is that you have to choose your teachers & industry friends carefully. Not everyone has the same philosophy & style when it comes to photography. Or teaching photography. My biggest growth occurred when I quit looking at any other photographers’ work & instead, focused only on my own. So, first thing first, please start judging your work against your other work. Not against someone else’s. This is your journey & yours alone. There is a very slippery slope ahead if you start looking at all the great stuff out there & feeling intimidated instead of focusing on your talent & current ability, then challenging yourself to learn & grow. Learning is fun! For more little lessons that have helped me grow, read this.

So I am writing this post with some basic assumptions. (1) You want to use your camera to its maximum potential. I am a very firm believer in learning your gear. If you get a DSLR & treat it as a point & shoot, you might as well just buy the point & shoot. (2) You are willing to invest time to learn. Taking great pictures does not happen by accident. There is as much technical knowledge involved as there is art. It is simple, but overwhelming until you see through the lingo & familiarize yourself with the terms.


What is the preferred brand of DSLR cameras? Do you think one is more user friendly than the other?

I am a Canon girl. I do not have experience with Nikon. I love my Canon. I have seen amazing images taken with Nikons. I believe it is the person behind the camera, not just the camera, that creates the magic. I find Canon to be very intuitive.

I am interested in getting into photography a little bit. Nothing big, not like for a business or anything. What camera would you recommend?

My recommendation is a Canon Rebel. There are many versions on the market, but I started with a Canon Rebel xTi. The new hype is the Rebel with HD video. My opinion on that is this: I am far more likely to use my iPhone or HD Flip to catch sweet little moments with my kiddo. I have never used my HD video & shudder at the thought of processing it & storing the massive amount of data on my hard drive. Maybe someday I will have the interest. But right now, I am a picture gal, not a video gal.

The biggest difference I noticed when upgrading cameras (all three times) was the ISO capability. That is the first thing I look at. The new Rebel goes up to 3200. Not bad. I bet it is noisy at 3200 though. What is noise? more here. My rebel only went to ISO 1600. I found this to be very limiting as I grew as a photographer.

The main difference you’ll find when looking at the Rebel versions available now are the number of megapixels. My xTi had 10.1 Megapixels and I had no trouble printing a 24×30″ print. The new Rebels go as high as 18 megapixels. Your average consumer would likely not be able to tell the difference between the two. Understanding print resolution is a hefty topic. For the basics, check out this chart.

For a really unique way to peruse camera capabilities, head on over to Flickr & check out their Camera Finder. You will find thousands of images taken with the camera you are looking to buy. You will typically find lens information on there too. The trends chart is also really interesting–to see what others are buying now.

Don’t forget, you can always buy a used camera body and lenses. I buy everything from B&H Photo. I would trust them for new & used equipment.

I want to get something that I will not have to upgrade for a long time/ever, so you might as well spend $1400 for a 7D and not regret it in 4 years…logical thinking?

Well, depends on how you are going to use it. Like any technology, you are always going to find something new on the market sooner than later. My best advice is to get the best lens, with the best camera body that you can afford. Your lens is EXTREMELY important. I would spend more money on a lens or lens options. The 7D is going to be a great product for the money, but it is still a cropped sensor camera (vs. a full frame camera, like the 5DMKII.)

I can tell you, based on the number of low light, high ISO settings I have found myself in lately, I would never feel comfortable calling myself a professional photographer without my ability to get all the way up to ISO 6400+, which is capable with the Canon 7D or the 5DMKII. The big difference between those two cameras is that the 5DMKII is a Full Frame camera. Watch this little video to learn more. I would never shoot professionally without a full frame camera. Keep in mind a cropped sensor camera (like the Rebel) causes lenses to act at 1.6 times their focal length. Therefore a 50mm lens on a Rebel acts as an 80mm lens, because you have to include the crop factor (50mm x 1.6).

What kinds of lenses do I need for everyday capturing the life of my family?

I would recommend a good zoom lens & a good prime lens. I started with the 17-85mm f/4-5.6 on my Rebel & was happy with it. Then I purchased the 28mm f/1.8 and never used the zoom lens again. As explained above, the 28mm lens acted similar to a 50mm lens. I loved this lens.

I now shoot with the 24-70mm f/2.8L about 95% of the time. The other 5% I use my 50mm f/1.4.


Should I just take a class? where?

Local camera shops will always have classes to teach the basics of photography if you are not into reading books & teaching yourself. I took a class, but since I read books & the internet, it did not teach me anything I didn’t already know.

What books should I read?

The VERY first thing you should read inside & out is your camera manual. & you should understand it. If it’s over your head, read the next reading suggestion first, then go back & read the manual again. Know it backwards & forwards so you know how to manipulate the technology you hold. It is THE MOST IMPORTANT learning step you can take.

On Photography: Understanding Exposure

On shooting in RAW: Real World Camera Raw for your corresponding version of Photoshop

For basic Photoshop: Anything by Kelby

I am overwhelmed with online resources. Help?

Some of my friends who have recently taken up photography are raving about Me Ra Koh. I haven’t followed her at all, but they say great things. Jasmine Star is also a wonderful resource. She often does Q&A’s that are extremely helpful. Other than that, pick a topic & google it. There is a lot of great stuff out there! 


ISO, Shutter Speed & Aperture. Huh?

As requested, here are my tricks for remembering the difference between these super crucial elements:

  • ISO: pretend your ISO number is actually worker bees. How many worker bees are taking each image? 200? 1600? You want as few working as possible. The more bees, the more noise. (this is stolen from understanding exposure, please read it…that will make so much sense.) You shoot high ISO in a dark space, low ISO in a bright space.
  • Shutter Speed: this is a measure of time & refers to how long the shutter stays open. If you are shooting at 1/30, you are shooting one thirtieth of a second. The smaller the denominator, the slower the shutter speed & the more blurry your subject is apt to be. If you have a moving subject, this needs to be FAST. Try very hard not to go below 1/200 if you are holding the camera & shooting people.
  • Aperture: how wide open your lens is. The more wide open (like f/1.8 vs. closed at f/17) the more blur (technical term: depth of field) & less is in focus. So…open aperture, you get the flower focused, but the mountains behind it are blurry. closed aperture, you get the flower & mountains behind it both in focus.

The first thing I set is my aperture. I almost always shoot wide open. Then I set my ISO, starting at 200. The shutter speed is the last thing I manage.

How do you adjust white balance while shooting?

I do all my white balance adjustments in RAW during my post processing. I shoot AWB or auto white balance & correct later.

What are the 3 most important things to do when taking pictures of kids?

(1) high shutter speed (2) nail focus (3) pay attention to how you are cropping the image in camera. Be careful of cropping limbs & feet.

If i had to choose one, it would be focus. I am a HUGE stickler on focus. Sharpness & clarity in images is of utmost importance to me. I usually aim for the eyeballs. Unless I am deliberately aiming elsewhere. Nothing drives me more nuts than out of focus images. You will not see them here.

If you don’t quite get what I mean when I say “focus” what I am referring to is the sharpest part of an image. Your eye will go to the part that is perfectly sharp. So scan the image & look for the part you can see clearest…is it what you intended to be the clearest? If not, I dump the image. No matter how almost perfect the rest of it is. If it is out of focus, it is deleted. I believe this alone sets photographers apart from one another, as understanding focus & achieving it makes & breaks imagery. Focus MUST be achieved in camera. This is not something you can “fix” later.

What are your tips for night shots?

I do not ever use flash, and for night shots you will likely need a flash. I am no expert. You can crank up the ISO, but it will be noisy. I don’t mind noise in B&W.

You could also use a tripod & allow for a very long exposure if your subject is not moving…or you want to catch movement over a period of time.

What basic and more advanced lighting set-up would you recommend for a beginning portrait photographer?

I am 100% natural light. I either find the biggest window (newborns) or some open shade. Flash is not for me. Right now.

How do you blur background?

This has to do with aperture. Read more about aperture, find out what your lens can do and play.

BBF or back button focus.

No one asked about this, but this is something I highly recommend. For more on how & why, scroll to the bottom of this post.

How do you make the shot interesting (different angle, composition, etc) and do you do it on the fly, especially with small moving children?

I suppose this is a matter of personal style & practice. You start to look for certain things, well, I do. One BIG thing to really be careful of is camera tilt. I was corrected of this early (thank you SIL). My personal rule of thumb is this: if you have to tilt your head to look at the image & see it correctly, it’s not the best shot. I also tend to follow the rule of thirds.

But you know, what is beautiful to me, might not be beautiful to you & vice versa. Composition is often how a photographer defines their style, thus it’s very unique. I guess that is why there are a zillion photogs out there…we get to choose to work with the one who’s images we love.


Is there a computer program you would recommend for beginners?

I started with Photoshop Elements. If you cannot afford it, check out the free online site You can do some pretty cool stuff.

Should I stick with Adobe PS Elements, or use Adobe CS?

Elements is fine for a hobbyist. I could not live without my CS4 for professional use.

How do I know that what I’m looking at on the screen is what’s going to print on my printer/at the photo center? Is that just a matter of having your monitor calibrated? Or is there a photo center I can trust to not make my pictures look wacky?

Monitor calibration is EXTREMELY important. I learned this the hard way. I can now spot a photographer who does not use a calibrated monitor in a jiffy, just by looking at the pictures on their blog. There is a HUGE difference. Something as simple as the Spyder Express will do the trick.

It is also key to run test prints to make sure that your monitor is calibrated correctly to the printer. (This is mostly for pros) I always recommend for printing for my clients, but I DO NOT recommend professional images be color corrected. Mpix will color correct but color correction is subjective. My monitor is calibrated, my images need no correction. If yours is not, you are at the mercy the printer & what they think looks best. You will not find matched quality to Mpix at any local big box store.

What should I aim to do with the camera itself, and what is better done in post-processing?

I strive to achieve as much in camera as possible. Editing really is a drag for me, so the less I do the better. My PP always includes boosting saturation & sharpening. & that is about it these days.

DSLRs have a way to boost saturation & sharpening in camera. Read your manual & locate the “picture style.” Just by changing these settings, you will see your images improve drastically. Just know, that as soon as you start shooting RAW, none of these settings will apply.

Are there any easy editing tips?

My best editing tip is this: do as little as you can. Nail it in camera so you don’t have to “fix” anything. Boosting contrast, saturation & sharpening are three good things to start.

How can I learn how to edit?

I have heard that MCP has some really great training. Also check out YouTube. There are so many places to learn–you just have to figure out what you want to know how to do and what sources you trust to teach you. I learned most of what I know by playing & from The Secret Workshop.

How do you edit?

I use Adobe Bridge & CS4. I organize & rate everything in Bridge. I do nearly all my editing in RAW. I am a fan of Totally Rad Actions & Itty Bitty Actions. I also use actions that I have made myself. But It is very rare for me to use more than two on any image. My recipes seem to be constantly changing–the simpler the better. I do love TRA’s Bitchin’ B&W & their sharpening tools.

Oh, and I also LOVE my wacom tablet. I have the small one & it is amazing. Will never go back to a mouse!

Whew. You still with me? Enjoy this? Did it help? Got any other helpful books or websites? Did I miss something? If so, comment to let me know. It will likely be the last time I do something like this because it robs me of my joy! Time to go make something crafty!!!

Related Posts with Thumbnails
  • Kevin Walters - I love the post! Isn’t it great to track your progression through this wonderful yet expensive yet awesome thing we call photography?

    If I may add one little nugget that was shared with me at a time when I was starting out in photography regarding the great brand debate (canon vs Nikon). I was told that it all comes down to one thing…

    Poll your photographer friends and see who will let you borrow their lenses and then choose that brand!ReplyCancel

  • Leslie - Shawna- This post is just what I needed! I feel so motivated now. I think one of my biggest obstacles is feeling like I might not measure up to other people, but now I can just compare against myself and as long as I’m learning and improving, I should be happy :)

    I also realized that I’m not going to have it all mastered right from the start. I think I’ll mainly focus on aperture first (since I want to be able to blur backgrounds) and get a good handle on that before I move on.

    And I am glad to know that you only use natural light. I can never make a picture look the way I want it to when I use flash!

    Thanks so much for doing this post; I can only imagine how much time you put into it!! Much appreciated :)ReplyCancel

    • -shawna- - @Kevin–such a journey! & great point! @Leslie–also read up on Av mode. I never shot aperture priority, went straight to manual, but you can set the aperture wide open & the camera will adjust the other settings accordingly! @ Chelsea–do it do it do it! @Christa–so glad it helped! @Tori–shutter speed is measured in seconds. 1/30 means the shutter is open for one thirtieth of a second. the higher the denominator, the faster the shutter flies open & closed which means less time to get a blurry exposure!ReplyCancel

  • Chelsea McCown - THANK YOU SHAWNA! Wonderful post… now I need to get crackin’ and finally start shooting in M!ReplyCancel

  • Christa - Thank you for sharing that!! I could not get Aperture!! I always thought that a slower shutter speed created the background blur but my kids’ photos were always coming out blurry!! We played around today with some of what I just learned and I’m really happy with the results! Your posts are always so relevant, thank you again!!ReplyCancel

  • Tori @ - Thanks for the great post!!!

    My Rebel T1i is VERY noisy at 3200 but I can take the pic! I am struggling w/ what to do in dark situations. Use ths crappy stock flash or get an external flash just for that? That’s some research I need to do next…Wished many times this year I had the 5DMKII for that very reason, but don’t want to spend that mind of $$!!!

    Me Ra Koh is great. She appears on Nate Berkus also! Love that show! She gives simple, great tips that are really helpful and hard to find elsewhere. I have not purchased anything from her site yet.

    Love the cute tips on remembering ISO, etc! I would add on to the shutter speed what fast is? Higher? Lower?

    Back button focus – still totally confused and I read some more. I have more to read! Great tip you gave me about tilting the camera to make an interesting shot being a rookie mistake! :)ReplyCancel

  • Stacy of KSW - Wow, you weren’t kidding that is ALOT of info. You did an amazing job on this and such a quick turnaround. I love taking photos but have yet to open my manual (I know, i know) I have heard form many people the definitions of ISO, aperture and shutter speed but your analogy about the bees finally made it click in my head.

    I am …. almost ready to try it.

    Thanks for answering my question about photo composition. I like to use the rule of thirds too.

    I didn’t ask before and see no one else did either, but if you ever get the inkling to answer more questions I would love to know more about shooting RAW. For instance, why? What’s the difference and as an amatuer how much additional work will it make for me.

    Thanks for including your story, it was inspiring and makes me think my personal goals with the camera aren’t that far off.

    Thanks Shawna!ReplyCancel

    • -shawna- - @Stacy–I shoot RAW because I can edit so much more efficiently in RAW. Once you get to a JPEG image the only thing you can do is destroy an image as you edit it. In RAW you have so much more editing freedom, especially if you are off on your exposure. It is labor intensive until you understand how much faster you can edit & learn how to be efficient! @Vanessa–ooooh you will love it!!!ReplyCancel

  • Vanessa - Very helpful! I have my camera out as I write this practicing away, so fun!! Thank you for taking the time to do this. I may have found my xmas present with that lens…….ReplyCancel

  • emily ramsey - Thanks Shawna! I know you worked really hard on this and it was totally worth it for me :) I got a DSLR when Ellie was born and have just been using it like a point and shoot! I feel like I will be more confident now playing with the ISO shutter speed and apeture and am excited to start shooting!ReplyCancel

  • Lisa Willis - LOVE IT! THANK YOU! Such great info – a ton to think about & explore.ReplyCancel

  • The Up North Writer Mama - Thank you so so so much for writing this! I’ve only just scanned it, but am hoping to get a “real” camera in the near future so I know I’ll be coming back to this. (My husband almost got me a nice camera on Black Friday, but my aunts talked him out of it! Can you believe it? They said how bulky it would be, but like I told him, I already have a slim camera that I can pop in my bag if I want to.)ReplyCancel

  • Lauren - Thanks for taking the time to write this post. I’m definitely going to check out some of the different resource links you posted. I also really liked what you said about not comparing yourself to other photographers. I think it’s so easy to do and can be very destructive. Thanks for sharing!ReplyCancel

  • Casey - I’m behind the power curve on reading this post..but it is FABULOUS!!!ReplyCancel

  • Life with Kaishon - What a great post filled with so much great advice. I absolutely love that you took the time to write all of this out : ) Thank you so much! Off to twitter your wisdom right this second!ReplyCancel

  • -shawna- - glad you all found it useful! & thanks for spreading the word, @lifewithkaishon!:)ReplyCancel

  • Rosina - Thank you so much for this wonderful post, Shawna. I really love to read how people get into photography. I also like your honesty, especially the part when you said weddings are not for you. I’m also glad you found your own niche. I’ll have to say, I’ve tried NB photography and it is NOT for me.

    ps. I loved my 28 1.8, too! I use that for almost anything. Now I need to save me some money to get the 24L.ReplyCancel

  • Amal Salama - Hi Shawna! Just put my little girl to bed and got online when I decided to click on your old blog and it forwarded me to the new blog spot. Anyway have been thinking about a new camera for a while and your post astounds me. What knowledge you have in this area. Thanks so much and congratulations on your beautiful daughter!ReplyCancel

  • Jennifer - Thank you so much for writing this helpful post! Some of it I already knew, but some of it was new too. I loved the Understanding Exposure book — great place to start!ReplyCancel

  • kellie - shawna! great post(came from rosina’s page)! i am going to send some of my FB fans over here…i get so many questions like these and it looks like you have covered everything for a beginner. thanks so much for sharing, it’s always so cool to read about other photogs journeys!ReplyCancel

  • Marylin - Is monitor calibration vital for photographing my family? It sounds like something I need to invest in but I wanted to make sure since it’s soooo easy to spend some big $$$. I’m just starting to get into photography so I want to make sure I spend my money wisely. I have a rebel t2i, the 18-55mm lens it came with, a 50mm f/1.8 lens, & an external flash. What else would you recommend for me to be able to take great family photos? BTW, I’m shooting just manual and LOVING it! And thank you for all the great info you share!!!ReplyCancel

  • Sunray - I have a book to recommend! Photo 101 by Nicole Gerulat is really good! She covers all of the points you mentioned above. It’s a small book, quick read and she gets to the point. She also teaches all over the country. I took a class with her and am now shooting exclusively in manual…never look back! :)



  • Chelsea - What a great post! Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge, as annoying as it may have been or you. :) Can’t wait to check out some of your links. I’m so impressed with your composition in all of these photos. I’m starting to wonder if that’s something that I will ever be able to improve on (maybe it’s a God-given talent that I just don’t have?!)…though I do like the suggestion to only compare my photos to one another. Thanks again!ReplyCancel

  • Lauren Jamison @ The Barn - I could say and ask a million things about the rest of the content of this post, but honestly I just want to talk about the first sentence.

    I just found your blog. I can’t even remember where now. Anyway, we are in our first Air Force assignment, my husband is a military lawyer (JAG). We live in Rapid City, South Dakota, and recently visited Omaha for a TDY week. I bought my Canon Rebel XSi off of ebay with a mild interest in photography a few years back, and have since purchased the 28mm/1.8 lens. And now I’m working as best my tech-challenged mind can at taking my photography to the next level.

    My point is, my mouth literally dropped after reading the first paragraph. So weird where life shows you it’s coincidences.

    I will most definitely be lurking around your site! I’m in love with the color!ReplyCancel

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