First Steps On Your Journey In Photography

Many of you are just beginning your journey in photography with cameras you received or bought for yourself over the holidays. 2011 may not go down in many record books as a banner year, but it was a great year for discounts on high end camera equipment. Many of you are now carrying in your hand some of the most advanced and sophisticated optical imaging devices ever created!

Starting out is an exciting time. Every photographer remembers their first really amazing image the same way romantics remember their first kiss.

So, from those of use who have been in the business for many years, here are some suggestions for your first steps in your new passion of photography.

Learn About RAW

Jared Polin from looks at the difference between RAW and JPEG. Raw photos save more info about the image, allowing greater control when editing.

While many of you may have a fantastic new camera, you may not have an editing program capable of handling RAW images. It’s okay if you can only work with JPEGs at first but, if your camera supports it, do shoot RAW+JPEG even though it will burn through your card storage space like wildfire. Even if you can’t work with RAW images right away, save copies of your images in RAW format so you can revisit them in the future.

RAW images are everything your camera sensor records while capturing an image and much of that data is discarded by the compression to JPEG. Once that data is gone, it’s gone forever if you don’t have a RAW backup.

Compression artifacts are not the problem they were a few years ago. JPEG compression has improved dramatically over the years but it’s still a good idea to keep those RAW image copies around in case new imaging technologies arise in the future.

Read The Manual

I know I sound like a broken record when it comes to reading the manual, but cameras are so sophisticated today, packed with so many features, that it really is time well spent. You don’t have to memorize where every feature and menu item is located, just know they’re in there. You can always drag out the manual later if you need to look up a particular feature.

Get A Skylight Filter

photo by Ondra Soukup

Look on the barrel of your lens or check the manual (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) for the filter size of your new lens and order a skylight filter right now. It’s really just a clear piece of glass, but it can save your lens.

Every photographer in the business very long has a cracked or crushed skylight filter on a shelf somewhere that would have been their lens without the sky filter.

Get a Rain Sleeve

Photo by Rachel

While you’re ordering your skylight filter, add a rain sleeve like this or this and keep one in your camera bag or jacket pocket at all times.

Weather happens and, even though most new DSLRs have fairly good weather sealing, the amount and quality of that sealing can vary widely. Why risk your camera when rain covers are so cheap? Some day you’ll thank me for that advice when you get back to the car soaking wet but your camera is safe inside its rain sleeve.

Now get out there and take pictures!

Fun With Filters

neutral density filter
A neutral density filter is one that you'll still want to have in the digital age

In the old days film photographers always carried a little wallet full of filters. You had an 81A for a warm up that made photos in full daylight a bit warmer, and an 80A, FLD, and 85C for correcting different types of artificial lighting. If you’d been in the business for a while, you may have had one of those boxy filter holders more common on movie cameras and a set of the square glass filters that might have included gradient filters for making the sky more dramatic when the foreground was lighter colored.

Digital cameras have done away with most types of filters. White balance on pictures in RAW format can be made after the fact and there’s little need for filters to correct lighting. Gradients and other effects are now easier in post-processing and few photographers bother with gradient filters anymore.

Yet, even in the digital age, there are still a few filters that are nice to have.

Skylight or Sky 1A

broken filter photo by Patrick Lauke

When is a filter not really a filter? When it’s a sky filter. A skylight or Sky 1A is really just a clear piece of glass, yet it’s one of the most important investments you can make. A sky filter isn’t on the lens for your photos, which it doesn’t change at all, it’s there for the lens. Specifically to protect the front glass of your lens from dust, dirt, sand, scratches and forward impacts. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the cheapest insurance you can buy for a lens.

Polarizing Filter

Polarizing filters are a big help getting the sky colors more saturated on a sunny day with haze. It also helps saturate other colors and cuts reflections from glass and metal.

Polarizing filters come in two flavors: Circular and linear. A linear polarizer is a rotating element that lets light aligned along a single axis into your lens. A circular polarizer has a polarizing element, just like a linear polarizer, but behind that is a quarter-wave scrambler that depolarizes the light.

Photo by Doug Kukurudza

The circular polarizer is the most common, but I use them both. The circular polarizer is supposed to be more consistent for beam splitting cameras, but really it helps the auto-focus more than the exposure. I use a linear polarizer when I don’t care about predictable results, when I want to shake things up and get a different perspective on a scene.

A polarizer can also function similarly to a neutral density filter on sunny days, cutting the exposure up to two stops.

Speaking of Neutral Density

A Neutral Density (ND) filter is very handy to have, particularly on bright days. It will cut the available light and let you select a wider aperture on a sunny day. ND filters come in multiples that provide a predictable reduction in the amount of light staringt at 0.3 (one stop),

A neutral density filter can make water look silky-smooth. photo by Paul Bica

and go in steps like 0.6 (two stops), 0.9 (three stops) and 1.2 (four stops). ND filters go all the way up to specialty filters like the 3.6, which is a whopping 12 stop reduction. You need a really bright scene for a 3.6. Think white cat on a snow field in broad daylight using an arc welder as a fill.

Those of you using your DSLRs for video, this is not an optional investment. You’re limited in your selection of shutter speeds and the only way you’ll get the f-stop you want in some shots is with a neutral density filter. Very seldom have I needed more than a 0.9 shooting video and, if that situation arose, you can stack ND filters for even more light reduction. Most of the video shooters I know carry a 0.3, 0.6, and 0.9.

So, there are still places for filters in modern digital photography, just not as many as the old days and the filters serve a different purpose.

Before and after with a neutral density filter. Photo by Ram Toga

Brand New Camera? Take a hike

Photo by Loic Dupasquier

Thousands of people around the world are beginning to understand that getting a new camera does nothing to make their pictures any better. Many are being struck with the realization that even with a brand new camera they’re still stuck with the same old bad pictures.

It’s really not all that hard to understand. The number of features and selection options on new cameras is bewildering. Over the holidays my mom asked me to help get her Canon point-and-shoot menu settings back to normal and it took me 10 minutes of fiddling with the controls and scrolling the menus to figure it out.

Reading the cameras manual, which I highly recommend, will tell you where the menu options can be located and what they do, but that won’t help you take better pictures because it doesn’t tell you when to apply the settings. It won’t help you figure out when it’s okay to shoot with the camera on auto and when to seize control and how much control to exercise in a given shooting situation.

A monkey takes self-portraits

Anyone can point a camera and push the button, even a monkey can get decent photos. Owning a camera doesn’t make you a photographer any more than owning car makes you Mario Andretti. It take practice and a lot of bad photos in order to learn the ropes. The late French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is considered to be the father of modern photojournalism once said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”.

Step one toward being a better photographer will be learning the basics about composition and framing. Then brush up on exposure and color.

One of the best thing you’ll be able to do to improve your photography is as simple as taking a walk. Find a local photowalk in your area and sign up. Photowalks are sponsored by photo clubs, local professionals, professional photography associations, art schools, nature clubs and photography institutes. Most of them are free, a few charge a small fee depending on the venue. There are also guided photowalks where you pay a local photographer to take you around.

Photo taken during a recent photo walk by Snapsort employee Phil Davis

Don’t scoff at shelling out a few bucks to take you on a guided photowalk.  If you’re in an unfamiliar area, they can be a great resource for finding the most photogenic spots.

It’s really not anything fancy, just a group of photographers getting together and walking around taking pictures. Really, that’s it. Most are fairly loosely organized. You might start out as a big group, but most end up with photographers filtering back in small groups or on their own. Some walks have models that volunteer in return for portfolio images, most are just wandering around taking pictures on a lazy afternoon.

Photo by Brian Yap from flickr

And yet you’ll find many local professionals go on photowalks themselves. I use them to network with local pros and advanced hobbyists on a regular basis. The last one I went on had about 20 shooters, maybe half of them pros, I came back with cards full of shots and a handful of business cards. I’ve worked with some of the pros I met there on other projects.

So when it comes to learning how to get the most from your new camera, if someone tells you to take a hike, that’s probably good advice.

Tips For Shooting Dramatic Silhouettes

silhouette example
Exposing for the daylight beyond the door got the look I wanted in this photo

A silhouette can add dramatic flair to an otherwise average shot by providing a bold subject and sharp contrast. A silhouette turns a solid thing with depth into a flat, two-dimensional cut out that brings back memories of shadow puppets.

Modern digital cameras make shooting silhouettes a lot easier and what the camera can’t do for you, you can always touch up in post processing.

Find The Scene

A silhouette is basically an underexposed subject framed by a brightly lit background. Look for situations where you’re shooting from the shadows toward the light, like the photo of the man and his son sweeping out the garage.

photo by Kol Tregaskes from flickr

Another trick with silhouettes is to get low and in close to the subject and shoot at a slight upward angle. Shooting slightly upward lengthens the lines and makes the contrast bolder.

Any bright background will do. Daylight, stained glass windows, bright lights, or a sunset sky are all great backdrops for a silhouette.

Turn Off The Flash

Munich in Silhouette by Werner Kunz from flickr

This is one time you want to be in a shooting mode that gives you at least some manual control and in auto mode your camera is going to try and fire that fill flash. I’d shoot the scene both ways: One as a silhouette, the other with the fill flash, and see which one you like better.

Expose For The Background

There are a number of ways to do this. Many cameras will let you point the camera at the brighter part of the picture, then press the shutter release button half-way down to lock the exposure and reframe the picture before pushing the button all the way down. Other cameras, like the Nikon D5100, have a special exposure lock button.

There’s also the old fashioned way of using your camera to meter the brighter part of the photo, then dial the exposure in manually.

bird silhouette
A fairly average looking shot is improved greatly by taking the detail out of the foreground subject
Focus For The Subject

The only problem for some cameras when it comes to using the half-way press on the shutter button is that it also freezes the auto-focus. Not so much with modern cameras, like my Canon 7D, which will adjust the focus even if the exposure is locked. Just be aware you may have to tweak the focus manually on some older cameras.

Clean It Up In Post

photo by Brenden Sherratt, used with permission

If the exposure isn’t perfect in the camera don’t sweat it, a silhouette is fairly easy to clean up in post. Since you’re not trying to preserve any detail in the subject, you can usually make the adjustments with just the brightness/contrast tools, which almost every image program on the planet offers.

Worst case you have to use the selection tools to outline the silhouette and selectively drop the brightness.

Silhouettes are a good exercise to get familiar with your camera’s exposure compensation features and you’ll end up with some great shots as well. Happy shooting.

Shooting In Direct Sun

sun flare
The sun shoots a giant X class solar flare at us - by NASA

It would be great if we could schedule every shoot for golden hour or other times when the lighting is most dramatic, but the demands of scheduling don’t always cooperate with our desires as photographers. Sometimes you have to go when conditions are less than optimum and shoot with the helium ion key located 96 million miles from the subject and filtered through a 100 mile water vapor diffuser just where it is in all it’s harsh, sharp-shadowed glory.

No need to be distressed, there are always alternatives if you’re prepared.


It seems obvious but is often overlooked. The best shade for photography shades the subject while still leaving most of the background in daylight. Then you can use a fill flash to evenly bring out the subject, yielding the best of both worlds.

A beach umbrella also works well as portable shade when there are no natural sources.

The idea is to get your subject to lose the sunglasses so they don’t look like a mob boss and not have to squint.


Also called “rags” if you’ve been in the business a long time. The film business is famous for using rows of giant scrims, sometimes called “scrim the planet”.

For photography the standard sizes are 6×6, 8×8 and 12×12 and come in a wide variety of colors, weaves and patterns. Scrim cloth can act as a diffuser or you can get different material and use them like a giant reflector. Most often a scrim will be positioned overhead to diffuse sunlight. Scrims can cover the entire scene, or just part of it and there are even gradient scrims available.

One word of caution when using scrims outside, particularly at the beach, a 12×12 piece of fabric on frame is also called a “sail” in nautical terms and that’s just what you’ll be doing after a gust of wind. Clamp them down tight and weigh the c-stands with sandbags or free weights, even if it’s calm.

Neutral Density Filters

This is one of those things anyone using their DSLRs for video will have in the bag but not every photographer carries.

For photography, I find an ND 0.9 is generally enough to bring full daylight into line. Again, you might need a fill flash and you also might want to add a warm up filter or set your camera’s white balance to “cloudy”.

I use an HD ND filter that has warm up built into it. I know just where I must have dropped it a couple weeks ago, so if you’re walking on the beach in South Florida and find a 72mm ND filter with a warm tint, I’d appreciate getting it back. Thanks!