The holidays are over. Some of you may have been lucky enough to FINALLY get your first DSLR as a gift.....or maybe you treated yourself like I did many moons ago. I'm sure that you have been taking pictures of everything. Your dog, cat, kids. Probably in "Auto" mode. You may also be asking yourself why your images aren't as good as you may have expected. Sometimes the whole image looks yellow. Sometimes it's all blurry. What the heck is going on? This expensive camera is supposed to make all your images look "WOWZER" right?
Wrong. You CAN achieve rock solid imagery with even a low end DSLR but it is going to require a bit of work on your part. First and foremost, you've got to learn how your camera works but........that is NOT what this blog post is about.
Don't run, yet. I'm going to show you how to teach yourself how to use your camera on your terms. Mostly though, I'm going to help you avoid some of the pitfalls that I suffered myself and show you some of the things that you're going to want to buy to help set you up for success. Some of this advice you will welcome and some you will want to avoid.
I know EXACTLY which points you are likely going to ignore. Why? I know because they are the same ones that I avoided initially. All I can say is to trust me. I wasted so much time and money for no reason. Use my mistakes as your edge to get started on the right foot. Nobody tells you about this stuff in the beginning. So, lets jump into it.
First thing's, first. Set aside an hour or two. Make some coffee. Make sure your camera battery is charged. Sit down........and START READING YOUR OWNERS MANUAL!!!!! No, your manual isn't some amazing literary work. It is boring. It reads like stereo instructions. You will get bored by page two unless......you decide that you actually do want to improve your skills. This is a huge mental obstacle. That's it. You just need to put yourself into a learning mentality. You've got to trust me on this. Everything you need to know about your camera is in that book. Pay particular attention to the "manual mode" section. DO NOT SKIP TO THAT SECTION. You will miss important details and be completely confused.
I know what you're thinking. I was there. I didn't need that manual. I took decent pictures "most of the time" in "auto mode". Manual mode sounds like it is too complex and confusing. Trust me, it isn't. While I typically teach adults, I also teach middle/high school aged kids at summer camps. I've had 13 year old kids shooting in manual mode completely unassisted within an hour and a half. So, read that section of your manual. Put your hands on your camera and adjust the settings as you follow along. The sooner you figure this out the better. I wish I could go back in time, slap myself in the head, and scream at myself to read my owner's manual immediately upon purchase of my new DSLR.
Now, you need to practice. Start taking pictures.....LOTS OF PICTURES.
It's very easy to get discouraged early on. This doesn't happen overnight. In fact, you will become the eternal student. I know professionals who've been doing this for 20+ years who are still learning new things. Anyone who tells you they've mastered all of it are lying. So pick up your camera and start shooting. Play with different settings. Get out of your comfort zone. You want to know what does what and why.
After that, you are eventually going to have to get a few things. Photography isn't a cheap hobby but I will show you a few inexpensive ways to give you that edge and save you from making unnecessary purchases. You don't "need" any of of this stuff to get started but it will get you ahead of the curb and make the learning process a bit easier.
First, assess your inventory. You should have your camera body, probably a kit lens, (Likely an 18-55mm.), a battery, a memory card, a strap, and a USB cable. Some of you may have bought a "bundle" and ended up with an additional lens, (Likely a 75mm-300mm.), maybe another battery, and a lens filter.
Let's start with the lens situation. Cameras live and die by the lens. If you take a $10,000+ camera body and put a bad lens on it, your images won't look so hot. People will tell you that great photos come from great photographers and a great photographer can create great images with any camera. While this is true to an extent, gear goes a loooooooong way. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying or inexperienced.
Now's the part that's gonna sting a little. That kit lens that your camera came with......the 18mm-55mm? Yeah that thing is crap. Sorry. That 75mm-300 that came in your bundle or your local camera shop guy talked you into isn't so hot either. You likely won't figure that out for a bit on your own but that's why I'm here.
The problem, as I'm sure you've figured out by now......BECAUSE YOU'VE READ YOUR MANUAL is that you can only get so much "speed" out of those lenses. They're fine in broad daylight, (Though they aren't very sharp.), but they tend to underperform in low light. What you need is a lens with a bigger aperture. (This will increase your "creative" options as well. You know this because you've read your manual, right? Don't make me go all caps lock again!) Something with an f/2 or lower would be optimal. So you jump online and look at a sub f/2 lens and.......almost fall out of your chair.
"$2000?!?! I can't afford that!"
Don't panic. There are inexpensive options. Your first lens purchase should probably be the "nifty fifty". It's a 50mm lens that is not gonna break the bank, f/1.8, and is fairly sharp. You've gotta know that there are big differences between the $1600 version and this version but as a first lens, it'll be just fine.
This is the Canon version:
The much less expensive Yongnuo Canon clone:
And the Nikon version:
Something else you're going to need is a decent tripod. You'll think you don't. You do. If you want razor sharp images, you need one. No matter how steady your hand is, it's not as steady as a solid tripod. Don't skimp on this. Some of you won't listen and get a $30 tripod like a student of mine did. While shooting a long exposure shot in a snowstorm, the wind blew her "way too light" tripod over onto some rocks below her. The camera and lens didn't fare well. You want something sturdy. I'm not saying that you need to buy a $10,000 tripod. Anything around the $150 mark and up should serve you fine. All that said, if you have the means, a $300+ tripod is worth the investment.
This tripod by Manfrotto will be great for "entry level" photographers:
Now onto memory cards. If you got one bundled with your camera.....it's probably going to be a bit too small and/or too slow. I recommend at least a 16GB class 10 with a write speed of at least 80mb/s. You may be asking yourself what in the heck I just said. Let me explain really quick. Class numbers are based on write speed. Class 10 is the highest. Don't mess with anything else. End of discussion. 80mb/s is how fast the data, (In this case, your picture.), gets written to the card. If the images you take are 80mb each, a 80mb/s card will write one image each second. Why is this so important? If you are trying to catch action and you are shooting in "burst mode", (We know what that is from the manual, right?), the write speed could be too slow and cause you to miss an important shot. Memory cards are very inexpensive right now so just get the fastest and biggest one that you can afford.
This should be more than fine:
While we are on the subject, let's talk about that USB cable that came with your camera. If you haven't figured it out yet, (But you should have because....you read the manual.), that is how you are going to transfer the images from your camera to your computer. Problem is, that it's most likely very slow. Does your computer have an SD card reader? Use that. If not, buy a card reader. Again, it's inexpensive and will make your life sooooo much easier.
This should be more than enough for your needs:
This next one is a quickie. Buy an extra battery. If you shoot in the cold, your batteries may drain quicker. There is nothing worse than hiking a few miles to a waterfall to find out you have 10 minutes of battery life and no spares. Also, buy the manufacture's batteries. If you have a Canon buy Canon. A Nikon, buy Nikon. There are "knockoff" brands out there that may work fine or may turn your camera into a very expensive paperweight. Don't chance this one.
Now onto straps. Every new camera I buy, I take that annoying neck strap off and throw it in a box. So what's the right strap? That depends on you. Some people swear by wrist straps. I like them too while shooting but what do you do when you stop shooting and are engaged in another activity like shopping? That's why I opt for a single point harness/strap. When you're done shooting is rests nicely at your waist, hip, or back. This style originated as a military application for rifles and got adopted by the photo world. Blackrapid and various other companies make them of varying prices. The more you pay, the better the comfort level. I tend to go extremely low budget on this. In fact, I typically buy "knockoff" rifle single point straps off of eBay for $6-$12 and then buy the Blackrapid eyelet for $14 to connect it to my camera's tripod mount. There are also holster styles made by Spider. They're equally convenient but pricey.
Here is the easiest solution:
Now this is probably the most important thing to get. Software. You are probably going to think that this won't apply to you as got software with your camera or computer. Those will serve you just fine for about two weeks, (Depending on your level of seriousness.), but ultimately they're going to hold you back. I was you. I fought the software thing for waaaaay too long. Trust me on this, the sooner you become knowledgable on how to edit your images and develop a solid workflow the better.
There are some halfway decent programs out there but I'd highly recommend the Adobe products. They're the most commonly used. They're super inexpensive right now too. You can get a monthly subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud Photographers package for $9.99 a month. Even less if you pay for a full year ahead of time. That includes Lightroom for light editing and organization, Photoshop for heavy editing, and Behance which is a bit of a social page that allows you to get tips and image reviews from industry experts and peers alike. I don't use the latter much but Lightroom and Photoshop I use religiously. If you want to take your photography seriously, even as a hobbyist, you need these programs.
Here is a link to get the Photography package. There's even a free trial month:
So, those are my recommendations for some of the first things I think you need to do or get to take your photography to the next level even from the start. You don't need to do them all at once. You don't need to do any of these things. I will say this however, If I could go back and tell myself all this after I got my first DSLR, I would've saved myself a lot of time, money, and frustration. I certainly hope it helps those who feel a bit lost on what to do next and if you have any questions, please leave a comment in the section below and...........
HEY WAIT.......I told you to read your camera's owner's manual but that doesn't cover these programs I mentioned. They don't have an "owners manual". Maybe you want to learn more about how and when to use those products or your new lens, etc? Well you're in luck. I have a link for that too. Check out Photofern. It's a website built by photographers, for photographers. It has a wealth of various resources and training for photographers of all levels from beginners to professionals.