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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.