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.

GEAR

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.

LEARNING YOUR GEAR

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! 

SHOOTING

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.

POST PROCESSING

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 picnik.com. 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 Mpix.com 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!!!

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Hi! Hello! I am Shawna, the founder of Styleberry Blog. This creative corner of the internet has become a learning haven for moms and creatives, offering a warm and encouraging nudge to those who wish to be better and do better, but often don't know where to start. From Decorating to DIY to Diapers and Paleo-ish Dishes, I strive to make the complicated simple and empower women to take action beyond their personal comfort zone. I subscribe to the Shine Theory & so strongly believe that we shine when the women around us shine and mutual support—lifting up instead of tearing down--will always be the culture here. Are you in? I hope so! Beyond the computer, I run Styleberry Creative where I work with clients to create low fuss, high function spaces that are pretty and practical in San Antonio, Texas and beyond. I LOVE making a house a home. My own studs out renovation is now complete and I am now back to working with clients. Please don't hesitate to drop me a line if you'd like to work together! I hope you’ll join me on this fun new adventure! Xo.