Photography: Agh, you got art on my beautiful lens! What kind of camera did you take that with? This is the single most common question I'm asked when people ask me about photography. It's a fine question, to be fair, but I find that all too often it leads down the dark path of "Gear Lust." Gear Lust, as I define it, is the perpetual feeling where if you only had the "better" camera, or lens, or gadget, that your photography would be so much better. Then you would be able to take photographs like the pros and get National Geographic caliber shots. I understand where it comes from - photography is marketed as a hobby where the quality of one's photographs are directly correlated to the quality of your equipment. Those sports and nature photographers take great shots because of their huge lenses, right? Absolutely not. Nothing could be farther from the truth. And, I want to tell you why. So, in this post, I'm going to cover: What photography truly is What makes a "good" photograph How to avoid the pitfalls of the photography marketing machine And, finally, how to take downright awesome photos using the gear you already have. All the photographs used in this post are my own, for reference. So, grab a cup of coffee, and let's get right down to it! What is photography? Photography, first and foremost, is an art. It is the art of composition. It is the art of taking an every day scene and composing it in such a way where it becomes something more. A well composed photograph is a powerful thing. You fixate on the subject and are pulled into it. You can envision seeing it with your own eyes and how beautiful it must have been. It can make you question the mundane and find beauty in things you would never otherwise look at. Photography is also, at it's heart, a very simple process. You're focusing light onto a sensor. Whether that's a piece of light sensitive film or the latest and greatest ultra high definition CMOS sensor the concept is the same. Plus, to make matter simpler, that sensor can only properly record light in a very very narrow band. So, you put a lens in front of that sensor to focus and restrict the light to exactly what the sensor expects. You have direct control over how much light hits the sensor with a handful of variables that work very closely together:1: Shutter speed: The duration with which the camera is letting light hit the sensor. Faster shutter speeds freeze action while slower shutter speeds blur action. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. So, a shutter speed of "1/15" would mean the camera's shutter was open for one fifteenth of a second. Slow shutter speed. The water is blurred and looks soft. Fast shutter speed. The action is frozen and the bike looks stationary. 2. Aperture: Lenses have aperture blades which form a circle within the lens. They can contract (or "stop down") to change how much light can flow through the lens. This affects two things. First, the more a lens is "stopped down" the less light can get through. That part is obvious. What is less obvious, however, is that the more a lens is stopped down the greater it's "Depth of Field." Depth of field is the measurement of which parts of a photograph are in focus. A photograph with "shallow" depth of field will have very little in focus. So, if you set your lens to use a small aperture number (f/2.8, f/3.5) then your photographs will have a smaller depth of field. If you set your lens to a larger aperture number (f/16, f/32) then your photographs will have a larger depth of field. Shallow depth of field Only the tip of the Chanterelle mushroom is in focus Deep depth of field The entire city is in focus What makes a "good" photograph? [ Taken in San Francisco outside a random liquor store one smoggy afternoon. ] Friends have told me they find beauty in this shot. Why? I'm sure those that live in San Francisco see scenes like this all the time. It's just some guy watching a smoggy sunset between the haphazardly hung power lines of his neighborhood. Yet, somehow, the human brain finds picture like this interesting. It's familiar, yet different. It turns reality (filled with all the ugly noises, sights, and smells of humanity) into this strange picturesque moment - frozen in time forever. You can, from the comfort of your desk, imagine what brought him up there, what he was pondering, and if he ever found an answer. It's serene. You're pulled out of the dirty San Francisco streets and pulled into a quiet moment with a stranger you will never meet. It's pretty powerful stuff. So, what makes a good photograph? It's all about the composition of the shot. Forget camera bodies, forget lenses, forget all of that. Photography is about capturing a scene the way you see it with your mind. If I had, instead, taken a chaotic shot that encompassed the street, all the power lines, the muni bus flying by, the people giving me a strange look for taking a photo of the sky and my friends standing their awkwardly waiting for me to finish, it would just be another mundane moment in a city. Even if I had the very best equipment money could buy it would still be a chaotic and boring shot. No amount of money thrown at photography gear will fix a poorly composed shot. But, instead, I chose to single out exactly what caught my attention and capture only that. I didn't care about the city, or the people, or the muni bus, or the power poles. They weren't what made the scene. What I saw was a man, standing above the city, staring out at the sunset. That was neat - and I wanted to capture that so I would never forget the moment. So, I carefully composed a shot that contained exactly what I found interesting and nothing more. And that, to me, is what makes a good photograph. A clear subject, a good scene, and a lack of distracting elements. Wait, but what about the gear! So, now that you have a brief definition of what photography is and what constitutes a good photograph, where does the expensive gear fit in? That expensive photography gear is simply the tools with which to capture the scene before you. Your camera is your paint brush. It's the vehicle with which to capture what you saw with your mind. But, wait, that's not what the marketing brochure told you, is it? The photography industry has spent millions of dollars to carefully build an elite luxury brand out of their equipment. Gone are the days where people would consider buying a five year old camera. No, they say! I need something new! Better! With more megapixels! More zoom! I need anti vibration technology and self cleaning sensors! I can't take a photograph without it! My cherished memories will be sullied by this ancient equipment. Bullshit. All of it. It's damn profitable to give every budding photographer the pipe dream that a $1,700 camera body, a $1,000 lens, and a $1,500 tripod will just vomit out beautiful National Geographic photos all day long. It keeps people from being happy with what they have and constantly pining for what they don't. It also keeps them upgrading every three years. You know, the American Consumer Dream. Okay, you may be saying, but clearly you must have fancy gear! How can you preach the merits of cheap gear when you clearly use all that fancy pants stuff? Well, I'm the first to admit that when I decide to take a photograph I carry around a backpack full of gear and a heavy tripod. But, I've also carefully selected each piece of equipment for it's value and utility in my creative pursuits as a photographer, not because a marketing brochure told me to. And, that's the entire point I'm trying to make. Do not buy the $1,000 digital SLR because the sales person, magazine, or web site told you to. Why? You'll end up owning a camera that's entirely too expensive, a camera you're afraid to take anywhere, and a camera that has more features you don't understand than you do. A much more intelligent approach when getting into photography is to buy a used digital SLR that's a few generations old. Sure, it won't have that fancy whizbang gadget the new one has - but you won't be afraid of it. You'll be much more likely to take it with you, use the crap out of it, and become genuinely interested in the content of your photography rather than the toys you get to play with. I shoot with a Nikon D50 digital SLR I bought five years ago. You can find these on Craigslist or EBay for around $250 to $300, likely with a lens. It's a fantastic camera body and I've produced tack sharp 20x30" prints from it that people have hung in their homes. Yes, it's a "consumer" camera. No, nobody but you will ever know the difference in quality. I buy my lenses used off EBay and Craigslist whenever possible. I also try to avoid the most recent iteration of a lens, if I can avoid it. It's a hell of a lot cheaper and it's quite likely you'll never know the difference. My trusted macro lens is almost as old as I am, for example. Well maintained mechanical parts and ground glass do not spontaneously deteriorate with age, just because they're old. A twenty year old well cared for lens is just as wonderful today as it was when it was produced. You do not need the fanciest version. Also, be honest: What are you going to do with your photos? Chances are you're ust going to post those fancy shots of yours on Facebook and Flickr - where they'll be truncated to some 500 pixels wide. Goodbye, high resolution! So, please, don't waste your money. Buy something reasonable. Buy something you don't need to open a new line of credit for. The best camera is the one you have with you, after all. Well, how can I take better photos with the camera I have? Easy! Stop fixating on the center of your viewfinder. Look at the corners of the viewfinder before you click the shutter. Did you cut your subject off at the legs? Is there a tree growing out of their head? Is there something bright and colorful in the corner that's distracting? Recompose the shot without those elements in it, then click the shutter. A photograph is more than just the subject. Unless you're in a studio with a white backdrop that subject you're interested in is surrounded by an entire world. Cut out as much of the distracting elements as possible. Get closer to your subject, squat down to get a new perspective, do anything you can to create a great scene surrounding your subject. The human eye disproportionately magnifies what it's fixated on. That tiny thing you see in the center of the viewfinder will also be a tiny speck on your monitor - only it will be surrounded by all kinds of things you didn't see in your viewfinder when you clicked the shutter. Think about your exposure before you click the shutter. Like I explained, there are (fundamentally) two aspects of your exposure that will affect the photograph. Do you want shallow depth of field? Set your aperture correctly. Freeze action? Set your shutter speed. Take an extra three seconds and confirm before you click. As a side note, your camera's viewfinder is always showing you a scene with the shallowest depth of field possible - this makes a brighter viewfinder. If you like what you see, keep your aperture set to the smallest number (f/2.8, f/3.5). And, finally, ask yourself if it's worth it. Stop for a second and look at the picture as a whole. If you saw this photograph somewhere else would you even like it? Is there anything genuinely interesting happening? Is it poorly composed? Is the scene simply too busy to translate to a photograph? If so, let it go. Find something more beautiful to document. You'll always have the memories. In conclusion, I hope this post has been of some use to you. Nothing saddens me more than people eager to get into photography yet convinced it's hopeless because they can't afford the gear of their dreams. Whatever digital camera you already have can take art gallery capable photos. Yes, even your cell phone. You just have to think a little bit before you click the shutter.

Alex Bain

Some blend of software engineering, photography, and cognitive science.

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