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The Disappointments of a Newbie Photographer Nobody Talks About

Photography today is more accessible than ever before because cameras are everywhere: not only shaped as DSLRs, but in phones, tablets, laptops, and in the James Bond ball-point pen. It is easy to press a button a capture something your camera is pointed to. Lots of people are thinking about taking the snapshot game to another level: buying a professional camera and making professional photographs. Most of these purchases end with disappointments, but there's not much talk about them. This article will take a peek behind the scenes of the failures newbies face when they first try using a DSLR.

The Usual Suspects

You are like everyone else taking pictures with your phone. You want to be recognized as a photographer; maybe not professional, but at least a good one. Today all your friends have cameras in their pockets and also make photographs. How to be a "real" photographer? You buy a professional-looking camera.

The First Click

Unboxing a new camera is a sacred event, recorded and shared with the world. You feel how this box of electronics has something special in it. For sure it has AI (artificial intelligence), which connects with your brain waves. You don't waste time reading the manual. Manuals are for absolute beginners. You just need to concentrate on that shutter button.

You point the camera to a special subject around you, like your cat on the window, and click. The image appears on the back of the DSLR. Well... nice try, but it's not like in the magazines. The cat is a silhouette and blurred. The trees in your backyard are in focus, and you clearly see your neighbor in briefs.

Your usual first picture of a cat on a window. If you wonder where the neighbor is, he has been cropped out of the picture for obvious reasons.

You turn a few dials, take a deep breath, and wait for the AI to kick in. You feel the inspiration flowing and press the button again. The camera's mechanism sounds disturbingly slow. Everything's almost white except for a motion-blurred object, that is obviously your cat which lost interest in your art. If you didn't know this was your image, it could easily make it for a conspiracy news headline picture. The unfortunate truth is you have better photos of your cat taken with your cell phone camera.

UFO?

The Key Must Be In the Manual

You decide to read the manual, after all. Several hours later you understand that your camera is not slow or broken, but you have shot a picture with a slow shutter speed. The camera manual ends with some boring legal stuff just before you thought the next chapter would be "Settings for Creating Masterpieces." You recall the M mode. Professional photographers are usually sneaky and full of secrecy. You are sure there's a hidden meaning behind that M, which could stand for "Magazine" mode, or maybe "Masterpiece" mode, or most probably, "Magic" mode. You make a few photos with the dial set to M and the aperture set to f/22, because it sounds like a successful military technology. The images are pitch black.

Online Recipes

You start looking online for "best camera settings for portraits." You eventually land on this article, and without reading the beginning of it, you start searching for the holy trinity of the exposure: ISO, Aperture, Shutter speed. Just for the sake of getting your attention, I will share two of the multitude of "recipes" I have used in my career, that lead to professional correctly exposed images: f/5.6, 1/200, ISO 320. Another recipe for success is: f/11, 1/160, ISO 100. To prove I'm not lying, I'm including an actual image taken with the first recipe:

You try those "professional settings" and find they are not working at all in your situation. You put your cat against a white wall and try the first set of settings. Absolute disaster. The photo is quite dark. You try the second one, just in case, and the result is almost pitch black. Oh, I forgot to tell you that shooting a portrait on a pure white background requires at least one extra light that points to the white wall independently from your subject. That light can be anything: the sun, an artificial continuous light source, a studio strobe, or a speedlight.

Before you decide this article is making fun of you (it's not, I'm honest), read the remainder.

Photo Software

Your phone battery dies because it is still recording your unboxing video and unsuccessful attempts. Of course, the latter will be cut out from the final video. You download a trial of Photoshop and search for videos that may help fix the images you have taken. The first video is 10 minutes long, and you don't have the time to watch it. The second one is only one minute, but it shows how to do "professional" retouch of a portrait by using the Blur filter in just 14 seconds. The third one is six minutes long and ends with a link to a paid tutorial without showing you anything practical. Three hours later you are a master of Curves. No, I don't mean master of shooting boudoir. I mean you can almost fix the intensity of the images you exposed incorrectly. Finally, they look almost identical to your cell phone camera's images. Learning how to use Curves, Unsharp mask, and Photo filters seem to be the essential skill set for every photographer, and make all the difference from your usual cell phone images, you think.

Blue photo filter used for more drama. Added black bars for an authentic cinematic look. A good thing about retouching cat portraits is they don't require skin smoothing.

The Hidden Disappointment

Your friends start to ask you to share images you have taken with your new "professional camera." "How is it," they ask. What would you answer? The honest reply would be: I purchased gear that doesn't make anything different than I used to do with my cell phone. The key seems to be somewhere else.

Who dares to confess that? Not many, but when the next new camera comes on the market it's purchased because the M mode is probably more magical.

The Good News

Gear is important and helps indeed, but only if you know what you are doing. Before returning the camera, buying a new one, or answering your friend's question "How's the new camera?" with a lie, better take some time to learn the secrets. It requires patience, but it's worth it. A great start for both new and established photographers are Fstoppers' tutorials. Pick yourself one and learn how to keep your neighbor's briefs blurred.

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64 Comments

Anonymous's picture

"A great start for both new and established photographers are Fstoppers' tutorials. Pick yourself one and learn how to keep your neighbor's briefs blurred." :-)

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I'm glad you appreciate it :)

Anonymous's picture

I value humor above almost anything else.

Kenneth Jordan's picture

Being an "advanced beginner" I've advanced completely to the next level of understanding why I need to give it another year or two to learn to do my part! 😎(Before attempting to claim being an enthusiastic)

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

It's been the same for all of us.

Deleted Account's picture

Oh the memories! The one I never understood was asking people the specific setting for one shot thinking it will be this magic setting to make every photo perfect.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That's why a magic trick is called "a prestige," which has the original meaning of "a delusion." It's a perfect example of how prestigious information related to camera settings works :)

Deleted Account's picture

We should not be surprised that it is easier to capture a "good" photo with a cell phone or a point and shoot set on auto than with with something like a Canon 5D IV set on manual. Even with some experience and skill one can only capture photos using a semi-pro camera that are approximately as good as those taken with a cell phone or point and shoot... and only then with some difficulty.

All those buttons on a "fancy" camera are just opportunities to screw something up. However, given an appropriate level of training and experience a semi-pro camera can be used to create photos that can't be created with a cell phone or point and shoot.

Many of us have been told by people who know nothing about photography that our fancy gear "must take really great photos", when in fact, an idiot could take better pictures with a cell phone than with our fancy gear. (This doesn't change the fact that a good photographer doesn't need the most expensive equipment to take a good photo, but that is different topic.)

Most people born after man first walked on the moon and graduated high school after fully automatic cameras were mainstream will never learn how to shoot photos with a cameral using all manual settings. (Thus they will never understand what the camera is doing for them, whether it is set on AV, TV or full auto.) They will be much happier in their ignorance, if they buy an inexpensive point and shoot.

Anonymous's picture

"Most people born after man first walked on the moon and graduated high school after fully automatic cameras were mainstream will never learn how to shoot photos with a cameral using all manual settings."

Most people, certainly but certainly not most photographers. I guess I don't understand your point since most people, born at any point in history, would have the same difficulty. Lest you think I have a personal interest, I was born some years before that "small step".

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

A lot of people I know shoot in fully manual mode and are not professional photographers. Some of them even claim that it's easier for them to get what they want when the camera is on M.

The true professional competes on idea + execution level, not on a technical level. That's why the tech-fighters vs. the true professional is like comparing a private soldier vs. a general.

Anonymous's picture

Agreed. I was responding to Michael's comment about technical knowledge, not photographic expertise. Although, I think I would include technical knowledge along with ideas and execution.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yes, I know you were responding to him. I just wanted to interrupt the conversation :)

Anonymous's picture

How rude! ;-)

Ralph Hightower's picture

Unless I'm shooting action, I'll shoot most of the time in manual mode on my Canon F-1.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

You can use it shooting F1 too.

Deleted Account's picture

While having a lot of FUN?... I tried...

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Pros should also be happy because of that ignorance, because this places them lots of miles ahead of the expensive-camera owners.

Gillian Gahagan's picture

Ah yes, I remember this.
The learning curve is steep! I got into photography about a year ago. However, instead of buying an expensive DSLR right away, I dipped my toe in the water first with a really nice Fujifilm bridge camera from the pawn shop for a hundred bucks. It had all the advanced shooting modes, including manual, but was less complicated than a DSLR. I watched the video tutorial for that particular camera on YouTube, and that helped me get a handle on the camera. Within a month I was shooting in manual almost exclusively.
After that camera went belly-up, I decided to go for a pawn shop DSLR --a Nikon D90. From my previous experience, the first thing I did was watch another tutorial for that camera. Before I did that, that camera was a black box of Mystery that I could barely make heads or tails of, lol.
I am by no means in advance photographer, but my skill has definitely improved through persistence, and the number one piece of advice I give anyone getting into photography, is to find a tutorial for their camera on YouTube, and go through all of the buttons and settings along with the presenter--two or three times if necessary!
That was the single best thing I did to get me on the right track.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Your story has a nice start.

Belive me or not, I've never read the manuals of my cameras. The only thing I know is setting it to manual, and changing aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, and a few knobs related to video. Everything else is useless to me and I don't feel the need to know it exists.

Dominic Deacon's picture

I've always been the same. It's caught me out a few times though. Recently I lent my camera to someone and they totally changed the auto focus settings. I didn't notice til I was mid shoot with a client and then all of a sudden realizing I wasn't going to be able to get through the shoot with the way it was set up. There was much button pushing, frantic calls to the shooter who borrowed it and general frustration until we had a break and I could find the time to take in a quick youtube tutorial on the settings. Not a real great, professional look.

Another time I handed the camera to the client to view some images and when they gave me the camera back it was only shooting in cropped mode. Couldn't find anything in the menus to fix it. Eventually found that there was a button on the front cryptically marked "FNC" that toggled the modes.

I should definitelly read the manual at some point...

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Or don't give your gear to anyone else :)

Elan Govan's picture

Part of the issue here is the way cameras are still being sold to us by retailers. It has not changed much since the 70's. I have been to many mega stores and little ones both in the UK and Asia. The sale pitch is still the same and there is very little opportunity to put the product through its paces before buying it and taking it home. It is no different then buying a washing machine.

It would be great if retailers would consider offering a few basic on-site photographic lessons as part of their integrated customer service and be in a position to point them in the right direction for further learning.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Retailers have to bump their prices up if they start offering lessons, as someone has to be paid for supporting those lessons. I think they did it right by offering just a camera manual and leaving some meat on the bone for the real tutors.

Elan Govan's picture

Of course, nothing is free these days, and it should be driven by customer choice. It no different from buying a set of golf clubs at the local pro-shop (as beginner) and asking for some lessons. Unless of course this whole article was designed to promote fstoppers tutorials, than be honest about it.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I added a link to the Fstoppers tutorials, because it came natural as I was thinking about a conclusion of the article. The point of the article was to shout out loud the common behavior of the newbie and making fun of it, so they can wake up and get sober from the "gear wine" they are drunk with.

Elan Govan's picture

I understand. No worries. Unfortunately I have met individuals who have bought expensive gears from eBay and all of sudden these issues become quite real.

dred lew's picture

Still one of the best graphs ever created ;)

Michael Mellen's picture

Omg, this is funny but so true

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I like the "How good you think you are" in the beginning of the graph.

Robert Nurse's picture

LOL at "Death" being on the timeline!

Michael Mellen's picture

Probably one of best ways to learn photography is to shoot an all manual camera using film. Each shot you take costs you money so that makes you think about what you are shooting, what light you have to work with, and understanding how the camera works along with the film you are using. Today, all one has to do is take a shot, and if it doesn't look right, take another.... taking the shot costs nothing but time, and probably the loss of light.

An inexperienced photographer can't take any better photos with an expensive camera than a cheap one. What matters is knowing that camera, knowing what it can do, and understanding the basics of composition, lighting, and exposure.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The advice is good but overexposing on film is impossible and that's why people going from film to digital will have a hard time nailing the highlights :)

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Apparently I haven't.

Peter Murphy's picture

I agree with you Michael. In the beginning I learnt on a Kodak Instamatic 233. It had some manual control on the lens for distance & aperture, but not at the same time??. Frustrated with it I progressed to a Pentax Spotmatic SP-500 with a built in light meter and with that I bought 100 foot rolls of film & filled my own film canisters, so I shot a lot & because I processed my own film my cost were low. What really made me slow down though was when I purchased a used Mamiya Press 6cm x 9cm camera. 8 shots to a roll of 120 film. You had to remember to advance the film & cock the shutter before taking your next shot, always advance the film after the shot, because if you forgot you could double expose the last frame. I had a label stuck to the back that I crossed off the frame number after I took a shot. Oh and you either had to use a hand held light meter or guess the exposure - very manual.I did progress through Minolta Slr's & now Canon Dslr's with lots of wasted auto functions. I still shoot predominately 1 shot at a time, moving around , recomposing before taking shot and for landscapes I will still use my hand held light meter. It all makes me think about the shot and not just take a stack of useless photos.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

The "Beginners Questions" section on Dpreview is full of pictures like this. People asking question whether or not their camera is broken, statements of disappointment, blurry, fuzzy pictures, unsharp etc.
And almost all of them as you describe. Dark room, late at night, ISO very high, extremely slow shutter speed and the weirdest f stop. Some of those people want to learn and will learn and some don't want to learn and so never will.
You would get very rich if you got a dollar for everyone out there with a d-slr or mirrorless who don't have a clue what aperture or iso do.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

There's still money in being a photography teacher then. Even a teacher who is not a professional photographer but knows the basics.

Eric Robinson's picture

Not sure what to make of this. One point however is the issue around M. The only time I really shoot in M is in the studio or trying something like ICM.. When out in the world 75% of the time it’s A as what’s important to me the majority of the time in each shot is controlling depth of field. If light conditions are a bit challenging switch to auto ISO. ......but all the time keeping an eye on those settings. If image is too dark or if the lighting conditions are tricky, use your exposure compensation. If my subject is moving, shutter priority, choosing the speed to match the action and the shot you’re after. For example In motor sports shooting at a 1/60 or less while panning to get sharp vehicle and blurry wheels, or if it’s horses 1/800th at least to freeze the action. Other things to bear in mind is both focus settings and the area of your image your choosing to focus on and and exposing for. Having said all that it depends what you are trying to achieve. For me there is no magic dial in recipie that will guarantee great images. The only advice I could offer is try and visualise what shot you’re after take control of your aperture and choose the right point of your frame to focus on. Other points like using a tripod in some situations can be good as it helps to slow you down and consider what’s in front of your lens and the nature of the shot you’re after. I’m not sure if the make of camera these days really matters, but lens choice is or can be an important factor, having a say in some situations on that final aesthetic. Disclaimer......this is just my opinion for what it’s worth, but above all enjoy what you do.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

There's no problem in using semi-automated modes when you know what you are doing. The problem is worshipping the camera as an absolute god who knows how to make a picture better than you. We are preaching against that idolatry.

Deleted Account's picture

I totally agree with this. Photography is not that much different than any skill or art form, in that there are always people looking for an easy way to become a "photographer". ON the other hand, If they are happy taking pictures of flowers in their back yard and animals in the zoo they will be happier with a point and shoot or cell phone than with a camera that forces errors. A better camera won't magically convert them into a better photographer, unless they invest the time to learn more than how to lock the camera into full auto mode.

My earlier rant was directed at friends who have purchased expensive cameras, often spending more than I would budget for myself, and then asking me to explain how to take great photos...in 5 minutes. If they don't want to understand the relationships between aperture and DOF, shutter speed and camera shake .... they are never going to care about composition, hyper focal distance or histograms.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Money can't buy instant skills. And I'm glad about that.

Eric Robinson's picture

Agree.

Eric Robinson's picture

I’m my opinion you need to reach a stage in photography where the camera becomes transparent and your not thinking about it as your full attention is on your subject, the composition and achieving the shot(s) you have in your minds eye.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Exactly. The professional career starts there where you don't compete on technical level, but with ideas and smart execution.

Jorge Cevallos's picture

Hahahaha. This was me! I remember this part of my biography!

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That was me too.

Ralph Hightower's picture

<HUMOR>I thought that "P" Mode was for Professional</HUMOR>

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Rummors suggest it stands for [P]athetic but only for over-$1000 cameras. Otherwise I don't see a problem a user who doesn't know anything to shoot in [P] on a cheaper camera.

After all we shoot on [P] with our phones :)

W8post Guardian's picture

Love the article. Not so much because the contains, but the way it's written. WHY does one need a manual, right? HOWEVER, many manuals [today] one has to download from the WWW and for many [?] that's a hassle. UNTIL they find out, 'better read the instructions first'.
BTW, I [eye] am still fighting to get my white-balance correctly; NO manual can help me with THAT!
But, believe it or not, I've worked 15years as a 'professional' (meaning, making my living out of photography) photographer (Canon F1 + 85/1.4 and some help of a Broncolor) and NEVER had a problem with 'White-balance'…
Cheers!

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