Photography: a beginners tale

Photo: Elf Statue in Botanic Gardens.
It’s the twenty first century and just about everyone takes photographs; on phones, on computers, on games consoles and of course on cameras. Photography is easy?

Well yes – on lots of levels it is – but what if you want to take more artistic or technically accomplished photographs? How easy is that?

Here are a few thoughts on my own experience of learning to be a photographer; an experience that made me feel that photography was a very hard skill to learn. That might just been me of course, however I suspect not. Hopefully this article will re-assure those going through the same learning process, i.e that they are not alone – and that there is light at the end of the tunnel (or the end of the lens).

Getting started with a new camera

I started taking photographs seriously (so to speak) when my wife Pat started a website about Glasgow West End; our local area. Being a typical puffed up male – it wasn’t going to be good enough for me to buy a cheap camera and take snaps – I felt a ‘need’ to take good photographs. The year was 1999 and taking decent photos was my goal.

So, aiming high, I bought a good second-hand SLR camera, a Canon T90 (built in 1986 and top of the range for the time). A fancy camera with all the required knobs. I thought a ‘real’ camera was what I needed to take real photos. Not something I think now I have to say; it turned out that the camera is not as important as I first thought, i.e. it’s more about how you use it, and more importantly, about having an eye for a good photo.

I very quickly realized that professional cameras are not just cameras built with better quality plastic than the ‘automatics’ I had been using – they are completely different machines. I was daunted by the camera – it felt like I would need the equivalent training to someone learning to fly the the Space Shuttle in order to understand it.

Trying to figure out how to use it

So my next task was to track down the Manual and buy a few photography books. A jargon and acronym fest ensued as I plowed my way through the manual; SLR, TTL, exposure, f-stops, exposure compensation, spot metering, Program AE…… and on and on – and all completely baffling. (As a side note – the T90 turned out to be a fantastic camera which had features that I came to rely on – and which no other camera I’ve had since has been able to match; i’m feeling nostalgic about that manual focus camera – and it used real film; just like in the olden days.)

Ok – got the camera – got the manual and read a few books, so what were the things that I found most difficult to understand?

Underexposed to the techniques of photography

Photo: Young guns play.
Undoubtedly I have to say that ‘exposure’ was one of the main things that first gave me a feeling of insecurity (yes there is a joke in there – but not from me); I struggled to understand just what it was; it felt like trying to harvest smoke, as I couldn’t get a handle on it at all.

In very simple terms, exposure turned out to be about how to actively control how light or dark I wanted my photos to be. That’s my short and stupidly simplified definition – you can read an article I’ve since written about it, which expands that idea in marginally more detail. To understand exposure I had to understand those two totems of photography, shutter speed and aperture; i.e how long should my film be exposed to light and how big should the hole that the light passes through be? In essence it’s no more complicated than that (I lie obviously).

(Rather than try to explain these topics at any length in this article, i.e. shutter speed and aperture – check out the two beginners articles I’ve written about these topics at, which you will find by clicking the other two links on this page related to beginners photography).

What did I learn of a practical nature?

To cut a short story short, in terms of exposure spot metering became my friend. Spot metering is metering from a very small area of the scene you are photographing , i.e. you calculate your exposure from an area that you can roughly guess the reflectivity of (i.e a person’s face which tends to be equivalent to approximately +1 stops). This turned out to be the most dependable way for me to control the exposure of my photos.

In our ‘face’ example – what you do is set the exposure compensation to plus one – set the camera to spot meter – and then point at the person face and use whatever button is on your camera to set the exposure from an area on the person’s face. The rest of the image will be darker or light in relation to the metering taken from the person’s face. (the traditional way to spot meter is to use a gray card and point your camera, or a light meter, at that with no exposure compensation – but I’m too embarrassed to carry a gray card around).

Once you having been doing this for a while you will learn to adjust the exposure a bit one way or another depending on the results you are getting. While out and about taking photographs I would take my exposure from a blonde sandstone building or a patch of grass; even though those weren’t the things I was photographing; however, because I knew what settings these related to I got fairly consistently exposed images.

I also use spot metering to take different exposures of the same scene; by spot metering from different areas of the image. An example would be taking photographs of a sunset and metering from different parts of the sky to get darker or lighter images; this way you can take lots of different images to find the one that works best.

If you are unaware of what spot-metering is and therefore the above explanation makes no sense, I recommend you spend some time researching it and then using it. I’m confident it will give you much more of a feeling that you are in control of your photography. Google ‘spot metering tutorial’ to find some useful articles.

Photo: VW toy car.Getting control of depth of field

Up next on the confusion stakes was the ‘depth of field’ thingy and the associated ‘in and out of focus’ thingy. In other words controlling the blurry and sharp bits on a photograph.

Though I instinctively grasped what that was about; controlling it was another matter. I was keen to really understand this as I could see that many photographs in magazines used the ‘get the background out of focus’ trick to make the subject stand out. I was very pleased with myself when I could accomplish this. In fact in my early photographic attempts I was a bit obsessed with it and took hundreds of photos of flower with nice soft out of focus backgrounds; I still like this effect more than I should.

Although I could understand what depth of field was – it wasn’t the simplest thing to control – as the particular part of a photograph that can be completely in focus is reliant on the size of the ‘aperture’ used. This is made even more complicated as the control you have over these things is dependent on the available light, i.e., in very dull light I might want a very sharp photograph but because there isn’t much light I have to have a very short lens and a big aperture which translates to a very narrow depth of field. The large aperture makes it much harder to have a photo that is sharp in all areas. (Note: These remarks assume you are not using a tripod; as that would help you take a photo with a smaller aperture in low light situations.)

What did I learn of a practical nature?

Big apertures produce a very narrow depth of field (i.e the depth of the part that is in focus). For example, you you could use a large aperture for portraits, as you get the person nicely in focus and the background out of focus (and therefore soft). This is handy as it makes the person stand out against the background.

As a side note: portraiture isn’t of course just about depth of field; very short lenses for example can give a photograph a bit of a convex look that isn’t desirable (hey my nose looks awfully big in that picture) so a slightly longer lens can give a more pleasing result.

On the other hand a very long lens flattens the image (don’t call me flat face) so you want something in between; 60mm up to 100mm would be in the right ball-park. Portraiture isn’t just about the size of your lens either, it’s about artistic considerations among a million other things; too many things to discuss in this particular article.

Small apertures produce much sharper images; for example you might want to use a small aperture for taking landscapes; were you want the entire photograph to be sharp.

The wonder of being a beginner

Photo: Cirkis fashion.
You might not think it at the time but the when you are new to photography and learning about it, this is the best times you will have with your camera. I remember having the feeling that I was seeing the world afresh as I stared at it through a camera lens. I had never really been aware (to the same extent) of the shadows, the abstract shapes and the sheer beauty of the world around me as I was when I started taking photographs.

Strangely, shadows took on a new importance; one because the light and shade was what made the shapes in the photograph and two, because with a scene where the difference between the dark and light regions was large, it may be impossible to capture a decent image.

Film (or digital sensors) are not capable of capturing the range of light and shade that our eyes can. This is one reason why photographs at the beginning or the end of the day tend to be nicer; the shadows are both softer and more visible, i.e. they define the elements of the image more as they are longer.

The other thing that makes photographs taken in the morning or evening more attractive is the ‘colour of the light’. Again this isn’t something I had noticed to any great extent before; light has colour (although I know we are all taught that in physics class at school). Take a photograph indoors with only a lamp as a light source and you’ll notice a colour cast on your photograph; that is the colour of the light in the room – which you hadn’t noticed before; because your brain had adjusted your perception of the light.

Morning and evening light tends to be ‘warmer’ (i.e more red/orange) than that during the height of the day; and that nice warm colour makes photographs very attractive – particularly when combined with long soft shadows. The colour of the light is warmer because it has traveled through a greater amount of the earths atmosphere on its way from the sun. Handy for photographers.

The most important thing I learned

One of the most important thing I have learned is that ‘it’s all about the light’. Good light makes a photograph – bad light can mean there is no photograph worth taking. However, good and bad light cannot be simply defined; high contrast photography can make a career – as it did with the crime photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig), whose photographs were to a large extent defined by the bright light from his flash.

Nothing excites a photographer more than looking out of the window and noticing that the light is fabulous. Time to grab the camera. Sheer bliss

Happy snapping.

Jim Byrne, Jan 2011

Photo: Jim at Melrose Abbey.

See also these photography articles

Photography for absolute beginners: how do I take a photograph that is correctly exposed?
Jim's West End Photo Diary April 2015: Spring Tulips, Cherry Blossom in Kelvingrove, Italian Centre, Pavement Art, Park Area

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