The Disappointments of a Newbie Photographer Nobody Talks About

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.


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:

Headshot on a white background

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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Previous comments

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 :)

Dan Howell's picture

You have apparently never shot transparency film.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Apparently I haven't.

Dan Howell's picture

I strongly disagree with your statement. Quick and constant feedback that digital provides is a vastly more powerful educator than the restraints of the cost and limitations of film. Your criticism of today's workflow of taking a photo, observing its flaws, then correcting them is exactly what the rest of the world calls LEARNING.

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.

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.

user-134633'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 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

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!

<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 :)

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'…

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I knew it. The guys who were (and are) related to Formula 1 (F1) never had problems with balance (whether it's white, black, or other hue).

There will be an article on colors very soon. Mainly for those who are not in the racing cars business.

I kind of had the opposite experience. I loved the results of my first couple shoots. Hell, there are shots from those that are still in my portfolio 4 years later and they got me offered paid work straight away. This is too easy, I thought at the time. I figured absolute mastery of this will just require me to sit back and take more photos. Which is what I did and so for the next 3 years I did not progress at all from my first shoot. At all. The first shot I took with my fancy camera was still the front page of my website years later. It took a long time to drum into myself that I was going to have to put in some study if I wanted to improve.

My first ever edited shot. I still like it.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

My first shoots were also nice looking, because I spent time to read about the craft many months before I bought my camera. However the first shots (not shoots) with the camera were... not like in a magazine :)

Amusing article. I know I made many mistakes with my photography, still do, but practice really does help. A lot more than a new camera does too. At some point I seem to have settled into what you might call a style, good enough to be publicly displayed at exhibitions, but if you asked me to pinpoint just what that moment was, I couldn't tell you. It's cumulative, and never stops. I think much of the fun of photography lies in that process - certainly, just as much as getting a satisfying result.

Enrique Page's picture

When I attempted to use the camera on M, everything was black on the lcd screen, I couldn't fix it, so I was afraid I had broken our new camera. When I tested again in auto mode and photos were ok, I realized I had simply screwed up, and looked for online articles about ISO and shutter speed, just like you said.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Hahahahahahaha. Very funny story indeed.

Possibly the biggest lie is AF.

Like any auto device it is right only a certain percentage of the time. In the hands of a beginner that can be close to zero.
Even today the raging disputes about who has better AF is pointless as none are magical and some suck only slightly less than another.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I still find auto focus the best auto-feature in the camera. I don't use it only when shooting video.

Peter Murphy's picture

Yes, I have some auto-focus & some manual focus lenses. But one time I put on my manual focus 18mm lens pointed the camera & fired. Got a lovely exposed blurry photo. I was so used to the auto-focus that I forgot to turn the focus ring with my manual fingers lol.

Leif Egil Hegdal's picture

I get the same experience over and over when I lend my camera to someone in the family who says they want to take a portrait of me with my camera. There is no automatic function. The photos are usually out of focus, and either under or over exposed. Unless I do all of the settings ahead of time with and over explain focus points.

The reality of professional vs beginner DSLR's is that they are often more difficult to use because you are expected to understand more about creating images. When I went serious with my first dslr I was fortunate to be part of a camera community where I got guiding and very good critics about my shots. I also learned to use the manual settings (shot mostly birds then) and I was eager to learn and spent a great deal of time doing it.

The key where I think many new photographers stop at is the expectancy that they will take great pictures right away. That they do not give themselves time to practice.

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