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9 Things I've Learned from 90 Days with a DSLR

It’s now almost exactly 90 days since I bought the Canon 50D along with a bag full of gear, and if you’ve been following me in places other than this blog, you’re probably already be very much aware (possibly to the point of discomfort) of how much photography has interpolated itself into my life. So here I am, listing down a grab-bag of various photographic truisms that I’ve come to understand over these first three months with a DSLR. I’m very new to all this, so many of the things on this list – indeed, likely all of them – will be common-knowledge to more experienced photographers. Please also be aware that I’ll be using my own work as examples throughout this piece, not for any reason other than that I need constant, unswerving affirmation that I'm not a total newb.

Also, I like lists. So should you.

1. Holy shit, Nikon really is better than Canon.

Ok, so let’s get the controversial item out of the way first: the more I improve, the more I wish I had gone with a Nikon body instead of a Canon one. Although this is arguably a consequence of my shooting style (i.e., to light the shit out of everything), in a much larger sense, it’s because Nikon is at the forefront of camera technology right now. I’m talking specifically about the Creative Lighting System here, which is built-in on most of their high-end cameras. Now, I’ve never personally used CLS because I’ve never used a Nikon system, but the fact that there’s no way to mimic it – even on paper, theoretically – with a Canon system says a whole frickin’ lot. Sure you can fire a flash wirelessly with any DSLR, but not without a bunch of external accessories. And there’s no way to manually-set your flashes wirelessly from your camera, which is a big deal when you’re working in a tight space and your flashes aren’t easy to reach. (There’s a longer discussion on this matter here, if you’re interested, and an even longer dissertation by the great Ken Rockwell here. There are specific situations, to be fair, where the Canon rigs shine, but in terms of flexibility and simplicity, it’s no contest.)

2. Av Mode = 95%

Nearly every pro I’ve read about defaults to Aperture-priority mode, and not full manual mode, 95% of the time when shooting. The theory behind it is that you’re generally more interested in controlling depth of field, than stopping motion (which would be the opposite mode, Shutter-priority). Even if you’re one of those guys who shoots nothing but running children all day long, opening up your aperture will have the effect of giving you fast shutter speeds anyway.

Why not manual though? Because it’s silly to spend several thousand dollars on a sophisticated camera system only to make all the menial decisions yourself. If you’re shooting a landscape in the daytime, you probably already know that you’re going to be closing down to F/16, punching in a low ISO and kicking up your shutter speed. Guess what, so does the camera, but you’ll do it slower. (Note that I said 95% of the time. The other 5% is for the scenarios that really require a human’s creative direction, which is when you would go full manual.)

3. Security guards are not your friends

The only place I feel relatively free to take as many images as I want are in small gig venues like Magnet, 6 Underground or Route 196, or on vacation at the beach. In nearly every other place I’ve spent any amount of time shooting at, the sight of a big DSLR (and especially a tripod) is enough to send building security into conniptions. It turns out that they are strangely blind to handheld point-and-shoots and gorillapods though. Because of this, I’ve learned to only whip the camera out when I already know what I'm shooting, as opposed to walking around with my lens against my face.

4. Noise < Shake

Trying to take a picture in lowlight will usually result in one of two things: excessive amounts of noise in your picture, or a blurry image due to camera shake. The noisiness would be due to the high-sensitivity ISO you picked to capture as much of the scene as possible, while the camera shake would be due to you forcing a low ISO and thus being forced to handhold your camera at un-handholdable shutter speeds. Traditionally, 1/60 is about the lowest shutter speed you can go without the aid of a strobe (see #6). However, advances in lens technology (Image Stabilization in Canon, and Vibration Reduction in Nikon) has allowed us to bend this rule slightly and still get great results at 1/40.

Now, if you happen to find yourself in a lowlight situation and you have a choice between kicking your ISO up to 3200 or throwing your shutter speed down to 1/10, choose the former. Allow your image to noise it up. It won't look pretty on your LCD, but as per renowned local photographer Jo Avila, “There are plenty of ways to reduce digital noise in Photoshop, but there’s no way to fix camera shake.”

5. Photography is not about showing what was there …

It’s about showing what you saw there. It’s a small difference, and I’ll make the effort not to wax too poetic here. People sometimes think that photography should be honest; in other words, it should capture a scene as it was, with little grooming or primping. This is because they confuse photography (in general) with photojournalism (specifically). In the words of the legendary natural-light photographer Jay Maisel, “The very nature of photography has always been to resemble something, but not to be identical to it.”

Part of the reason why I’m starting to really get into lighting is because it lets me emphasize the stuff I’m interested in within a scene while diminishing everything else. Here’s an example, featuring Mica Cabildo of one of my favorite local bands, Sleepwalk Circus.

Mica has played bass for Sleepwalk with a distinctly stoic expression on her face every single time I’ve seen her, and I wanted to capture her doing something, anything else just once. In this frame, her mouth opened slightly. OH. MY. GOD.

Jokes aside though, throwing the strobe at just her face forces everything else in the image to become secondary. You can still see the bass, and you can tell that you’re seeing a 105.9 event, but the point of the image is clearly to highlight her facial expression. Or in this case, the lack thereof.

This brings me rather conveniently to my next point, which is largely a technical one:

6. Get that strobe off your camera!

The whole emphasizing/de-emphasizing strategy is really hard to pull off if your strobe is attached to your camera. If your light is always going to be coming from 4 inches above your lens, the chances that you’re going to be able to do anything fancy is going to be pretty limited. This is why I feel so strongly about #1, because Nikon’s CLS would let me do this, with no additional commander unit and no extra batteries. With Canon, we’re talking about an additional US$200 device, at the minimum, or a whole new bag of radio triggers, cables and battery packs if you want to go all-out.

Here’s a fun image from last night to illustrate, featuring Gelo Lagasca of The Lowtechs:

If you’ve ever been to Sa Guijo in Makati, you’ll know that there’s no spotlight in that bar from that angle. In fact, there are no lights at all coming from that side; the lead singer’s left is almost completely in darkness. The “spotlight” is actually a single strobe that I’m holding in my left hand while shooting with my right.

Here’s another strobe trick, featuring Edong Bareng, also from the Lowtechs:

Strobe coming from high above, my camera at eye-level. As he swoops downwards, you release your shutter, and everything that the flash hits is frozen in sharp focus. Everything else will blur or be visually diminished. This is because the speed of your flash is so much faster (1/1000th of a second or more) than your shutter that it can usually only illuminate the subject either at the beginning of the exposure or at the end. It’s this quirk that allows you to handhold your camera at speeds less than 1/40 without experiencing excessive camera shake. (I believe my shutter was at 1/4 for this image.)

7. Gear makes a big difference

That title, btw, is cribbed from Scott Kelby’s The Digital Photography book. Many people argue that equipment is secondary to photographer skill, citing examples of photographers with five-dollar cameras winning awards and all sorts of accolades. While I don’t disagree that that’s possible, I will point out that for every one photographer who takes award-winning, one-of-a-kind photos with 5-dollar cameras, there are 99,999 photographers who take them with 5,000-dollar camera systems. If you consider yourself to be an auteur of that level (one in a hundred thousand), then by all means, take your 5-dollar camera out and kick everyone’s ass with it. Scott Kelby puts this another way:

Give Jay Maisel a point-and-shoot, and he’ll take point-and-shoot shots that could hang in a gallery, but the problem is, we’re not as good as Jay Maisel.

Now, I don’t mean that you should buy every piece of equipment you can get your hands on. There’s a deliberate, cognizant path to accumulating the proper camera system over time, and it really depends on where your various photographic interests lie. Unfortunately, I didn’t take that path myself and instead bought as much stuff as I could get my greedy little paws on early on. Apart from the fact that it took a good long while before I learned how to use all that crap, I also ended up amassing things I didn’t need. I’ve taken steps to fix this now though, selling some lens and consolidating my gear as much as I can. But I digress.

I should mention though that nowhere is the aforementioned difference felt more than in the glass. I’ve had the good fortune to play with a couple of Canon L lenses these past weeks and it’s startling how huge the difference in visual acuity is between these and the regular line. Depending on which ones you buy, you could spend anywhere between $700 to a few thousand, but the sharpness, speed of operation and solid build quality is just awe-inspiring.

And as a corollary to this:

8. There are only two types of tripods …

... Those that are easy to carry, and the good ones (as per renowned travel photographer and author Bill Fortney). Advances in high-end tripod technology (carbon fiber bodies, for example) have allowed us to create tripods that you could travel to outer space with, but they haven’t gotten any lighter. This is by design, because you need something that can support your 2- or 3-kilo DSLR/lens package even in the most precarious of positions. Lighter tripods get knocked over by the wind, topple over in uneven terrain, and experience camera shake when you press the shutter.

The other thing about tripods is that they’re the kind of purchase where you absolutely must buy the most expensive one you can afford. The reason is that tripods don’t go through the same cycle of forced obsolence that cameras do. You could buy that US$400 tripod today and still be using it 10 years from now, so if you look at it that way, you’re only really paying $0.10/day for it.

Last one, and then let’s call it a day:

9. Don’t take the obvious shot

Whenever possible: Don’t shoot down at flowers. Don’t shoot up at buildings. Don’t shoot people from eye-level. This is already how 99% of your viewers see the world, and showing them the same thing isn’t photography, it’s reportage. Choosing a different angle can make a normal subject look kinda cool (if I do say so myself :P) :

One of the most magical things about photography is that it freezes time around these small visual miracles that are occurring right under our very noses, and that we would otherwise miss because we just don’t bother to look down:

Or look up:

The way we look at the world is what separates “photographers” from “guys with cameras,” and though I consider myself still more of the latter than the former, I am certainly working hard at the transition.

If you liked this post, check out my Flickr photostream here, and follow me on Twitter here.

[UPDATE] Check out the comments for some important bits of info from other (more experienced) photographers who happened to stumble on this entry. For the sake of fidelity, I'm not going to change anything I wrote in the above piece, so please see the handful of mistakes or misconceptions pointed out by commenters.

Reader Comments (28)

A lot of good comments here. Though, I would have to disagree with your first comment. I am a professional photographer who has shot extensively on both systems, and I have to say, each system has its pros and cons and that both camera systems are very well made.

For Nikon, remote triggering and creative lighting may be more simple. However, currently the 5D Mark II's low light high ISO performance is much better than Nikon's D3/D700 performance as the Canon does a much better job keeping the images naturally colored while the Nikon tends to turn everything green/yellow at high ISOs.

Also, Canon's professional level glass is also 10-15% cheaper than Nikon's and gives you a better variety of overall lenses. Anyway, both systems are great. I just wanted to add that note.

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPyeman

On #3:

Eastwood is a prime example of this. It's like the guards' primary responsibility is to prevent people from taking pictures there.

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPau


That's certainly a valid point about Canon's better high-ISO performance, it's definitely something to consider when not using artificial lighting. I think in the area of natural light, Canon has a slight edge at the moment, but in the area of artificial light, it's just woefully behind.

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterluis

You lost me at "the great Ken Rockwell." Useful and generous as he may be (I've certainly read many of his articles), he is not great, and his photographs are far from great. O.k., I did read on. You learned some great things.
The rule of thumb for handheld is not 1/60. It's 1/(focal length of lens). You can shoot a 24mm at 1/30, etc.
I guess to each their own, and it's great that you love Nikon for their lighting system. I am a big fan of natural light, so that naturally brings me to Canon, who make faster pro lenses than Nikon. Wide angle your fastest choice is 1:1.8! I guess with Nikon sometimes you need the artificial light, while with Canon (who has 50mm and 85mm at 1:1.2 and not so long ago marketed a 50mm 1:1.0) you don't need it as often. Also, Canon's most recent DSLRs have much better low-light capabilities than Canon. So if artificial light is your thing, Nikon might be the way.
It looks like you learned a lot. I would disagree with your "shooting people from eye level" comment though--being "different" doesn't make you a photographer. Henri Cartier-Besson usually shot from eye level. He was a photographer. A really, really, really good photographer. And about people who shot from waist level (e.g. medium format photographers) he said something like "if god meant us to shoot from the waist he would have put eyes in our navels." Check out Winogrand and Friedlander for other photographers who shot "from the eye" to great effect.
Thanks for the post!

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

"I’m very new to all this..."

Took half a paragraph and the insertion of "Ken Rockwell" to figure that out.

Keep learning... keep shooting... stop writing. You're not there yet.

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Thawley

John, David: thanks for the comments.

David, The Cartier-Besson quote is a real keeper, and made me laugh. No wonder my portraits always seemed kinda funky, the angle was totally wrong!

John, I appreciate the frankness, although I wish you had read past that first paragraph. Perhaps then we could have actually discussed something. I will say also that I will write about Anything I Damn Well Please, thanks very much.

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterluis

Very interesting read.

Pondering on #1 because I'm torn between getting a Nikon or a Canon as well. I'm inclined to get a Canon because I like the features and how their cameras feel in general, BUT I've taken a lot and gotten good photos with a Nikon (borrowed).

#3 - So true. They're so sensitive about DSLRs. They think everyone who uses one is out to make money. We had a" rel="nofollow">funny encounter with a guard during a concert, not involving a DSLR but it's related.

#5 & #9 - Taking note of these two items most of all. Need to keep them in mind while I'm a newbie in photography.

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFrances Yeo

Had an interesting discussion with @JThawley on Twitter about this article, which I've taken the liberty of capturing. I don't want it to get lost after all; I think it's important as a newbie to recall the first few times you were slapped down by a pro." target="_blank" rel="nofollow">" border="0" alt="Image and video hosting by TinyPic"/>

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterluis

Man, that JThawley guy sounds like a prick.

April 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLizz

With respect to JThawley, he is a great photographer and has a couple good points. Mainly, speaking in absolutes is generally not a good idea. In fact, in photography lectures, I tune out as soon as someone drops the line to the effect of, "this is the only way to get it done." There are just simply too many ways to get to the same result in photography.

However, I disagree heavily with the elitist photographer mentality. Everyone has to start somewhere and I believe everyone has something to share regardless of how long they have learned. Not to mention everyone has something to learn regardless of how long they have shot.

That being said, keep up the good work Helloluis, just be careful with the absolutes =).

April 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPyeman

I'm a Nikon and avid CLS user, but I still think Ken Rockwell is a quack. Well, most of the time at least. Perhaps the only time he isn't crazy is when it's in terms of practicality and frugality.

April 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarlo Roderos

look at how JThawley lovingly holds his camera, like it's the only thing that gives him validation in his entire life. not to mention his pansy-ass expression. bet he couldn't get laid if he wasn't paying for it.

or maybe i'm just imagining things.

either way, what an elitist ass he is.

April 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertundra

Being bullied on the web?

Personally, I see a lot more value in learning about stuff from people who are in the process of learning themselves, because then I'm not daunted by the whole "he's a pro" mentality.

I agree with Lizz.

April 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

For only having 90 days under your belt, you have a wealth of knowledge. You have a great eye. I will disagree with you, if I may about manual mode. That's all I shoot with and invariably see the difference, even while shooting my kids in action.

It's great that the camera has all those modes in circumstances where you're still learning but once you can think like your camera you've reach master photographer rank. I'm still learning, I'm making many mistakes along the manual way, but even some of the bad shots have surprisingly been some of my favorites.

Keep it up! And can't wait to see your shots by this time next year. You'll see a world of difference.

Talking with you soon...

May 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLiza

Anong stoic? hmph.

Nice article

May 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermica cabildo

Great post. I'll disagree with your point about gear making a difference. I have a colleague that thinks a DSLR will improve his images. No, it won't. They suck because you can't shoot, not because of your P & S. If you can't use it, $5 Gs in gear ain't gonna help.

The learning curve from a P & S to a DSLR is huge. My first (hundred) images from my 400D were awful. The same when I moved up to a 40D.

I arrived via Ron's Weekly Buzz. I'll be back.

May 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStevo

Thanks everyone for the comments!

Liza: I suppose that the main reason one would go all manual would be so they can become intimately familiar with exposure, instead of relying on the camera to make those decisions for them (however menial they may be). On that level, I agree that it's certainly very useful. Generally though, I find that I simply don't have the time to be fiddling with aperture/shutter/ISO combinations while worrying about lighting and interacting with my subject.

Stevo: I totally agree that the learning curve is deceptively huge. The point I was trying to make was not that your images would suck regardless of the equipment you chose (if you don't know how to use it), but that your equipment can make or break you assuming that you _do_ know how to use it.

Mica: Hiiiii :D

May 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterluis

Luis: I agree. Sometimes I wish I hadn't have given my wife my P&S, it was fun and easy.

May 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStevo

I became immediately suspect when you referred to Ken Rockwell as great.

May 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKurt

Пора переименовать блог, присвоив название связанное с доменами :) может хватит про них?

May 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarinkina

Хм… даже такое бывает.

May 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCederash

Просто замечательно - очень интересные мысли

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFerinannnd

I completely agree with #3
Since I was not able to really leave my house for 6 months because I had to be at my fathers side while he went Chemo and Radiation treatment.
I would spend time taking macro photo's of insects and such well heck because of that everytime I walk out of the house with a camera in my hand some of the new neighbors in my neighborhood either A. Accuse me of taking pictures of their kids and going to neighborhood watch meetings telling everyone that I am some sick pervert. Giving me no choice but to tell them look I enjoy Nature and I may not be the best looking thing in the world but your kids are to god damn ugly to even concider taking pictures of and then I bring up Defimation of Character. However it makes me feel like I am a prisoner in my own home.

And situation B.
Walking outside and having 6 or so guys trying to pick a fight and beat the crap out of me "short skinny guy missing half his right lung, and is facing some partial lung removal of my left lung".

Still have my P&S, however with it being a Canon Powershot S3IS just the looks of it gives the same impression.

May 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLaser_PewPew

splendid photographic tips , i would say . it would be more so if all that "name dropping"
be dropped from your highly-readable prose , Luis .
by the way , it makes one wonder at why you would collectively call your articles just that...guttervomit ... as i find nothing so objectionable as to bear that nomenclature .

cheers !

May 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCHENCASSANDRA

i love the lowTechs, man. digital photography is the shit. \m/™

June 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdamncoolasice

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