Getting Started in Photography

People come to a blog like this for many reasons.  But among beginning photographers, I suspect two are more common than all the rest together.  On the one hand, perhaps you're taking lots of pictures with your camera. You take pictures of your kids, the places that you go on vacation, and the great events in your lives.  But perhaps you would like to do more--you would like for photography to become a means of artistic expression.  On the other hand, perhaps you bought your digital SLR because you want to make photography a serious hobby and learn the craft.  You want to use the manual settings on the camera, and not just rely on the automatic shooting modes that do much of the thinking for you.

Of course, these two reasons are not unrelated.  They are intimately connected to each other.  Photography is a nexus of craft and art.  We must engage the right side of our brains to create artistic images, and we must use the left side of our brains to master the techniques of the craft.  This is both the beauty and the challenge of photography.  If you rely solely on all the automatic settings of your camera to concentrate on composing an artistic image, you'll be limited in the compositions you'll be able to achieve, and you'll be disappointed occasionally by an image with a great composition that was ruined by the fact that it wasn't exposed properly or wasn't sharp.   If you rely solely on an extensive and intimate knowledge of how your camera works and even learn the photographic theory behind your camera's operations, this in itself won't make your photographs beautiful.  You also need an attention to beauty.  Photography is about thinking as well as feeling, You need both to love the art and to learn the craft.

So what makes photography art? What's the difference between a snapshot you put in a scrapbook and photograph you hang in a gallery?  Ultimately, this distinction is arbitrary, so I won't even try to divide the two.  But I think there's a continuum at work here--some photographs stand out more as works of art than others--and I think there are three basic reasons why:
  1. Attention to detail.  Some photographs stand out because the photographer has successfully all the technical components of photography serve the composition.  The right things are in focus and out of focus.  The exposure preserves detail where it's supposed to.  The white balance is set properly so that people's faces look the right color, etc.
  2. Attention to beauty.  Some photographs stand out for their beautiful compositions or exquisite lighting. Some may be jarring, controversial or even offensive.  Beauty is more than pretty--even the ugly can be beautiful in a good photograph.
  3. Interpretive qualities.  You may say the photograph "tells a story" or has a "message" or even a "meaning."  It can't do this in the same way a novel can, but careful attention to a photograph will often give the viewer a lot to think about.
Now saying all this in a post entitled "getting started in photography" may make a beginning photographer feel quite daunted.  This is more than you can master in a weekend seminar.  There are concepts you can learn, but experience is the real teacher. Learning photography is a process where you learn what you can, but go out there and take lots of pictures, make mistakes and learn from them. Then go shoot some more.  If you do that, you're in the same boat with the best photographers in the world.  Photography is a life-long learning process, and none of us has arrived.  It's a journey that never ends, but that's okay because the scenery is great along the way.