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what camera?

A friend of mine posted on Facebook, looking for advice about what camera to buy because she was interested in moving off her cell phone. As she’s been a working journalist for 15-20 years, she knows a lot of people and consequently had a lot of people giving her advice. Make that a TON of advice, most of it from people really looking to spend her money like no tomorrow.

Part 1 – Shoot like a Mother

My mom was the family photographer. She took pictures of everybody, everything, everywhere. If there was anything in her life that interested her, she tried to take a picture of it. Most of the time, she succeeded. Sometimes, she got just enough to remind her of the moment, the place, the person. In the last 15 years of her life, she owned at least 5 digital cameras and took somewhere close to 10,000 photos. She *loved* capturing the stuff that made up her life and she loved sharing it with the people in her life, whether in emails or in prints.

Did she consider herself a photographer? No. She just considered herself a hey-wait-a-minute-so-I-can-get-a-picture-of-that-er. And that meant she was able to do what she wanted and be happy without ever spending more than $150 on a camera. No lenses, no gadgets, no do-dads. And nothing that ever weighed as much as a grapefruit.

I think most people that get interested in photography could be as happy as my mom was. Here’s how:

Live within your means. A simple camera can easily take 90% of the photos you would ever want to take. The other 10%? Like sports or performance or portraits or other things that require special gear? Forget it. That’s a completely different conversation. Instead, learn how to make do with what you have.

Small and simple. You do not need a huge honking camera that creates monstrous files that will nearly choke your tablet or laptop when you download. To get started, you simply need something that will take a picture. The main difference between a cell phone and a camera is control. You can almost come close with a phone, but they just aren’t there, yet. Once you get a handle on just taking pictures, you can start to get creative. Once you start to feel your creativity is constrained, you can start throwing money.

Patience, practice, and persistence. Mom would go through her photos, separating the ones that turned out from the ones that didn’t. She would bring me her rejects to help her figure them out. What was wrong with them? Usually they were either blurry or under-exposed. My advice was simple. Depending on the situation, take your time and brace yourself and the camera, turn on the flash, and/or tell dad to stop the car.

Pause. Allow yourself enough time to not just try to take a picture, but to make sure you like what you have before you move on. Pay attention to what you are doing so that you can repeat getting it right.

Part 2 – Getting off your A

Every camera has an “A” mode. Automatic mode. That’s where the camera does all the thinking and all you do is the pointing. Once you get a handle on the pointing, you can start to think about stretching your camera’s creative capabilities. (This part is actually skipping ahead of the question “which camera?” because I like to work backwards from the end result so that I can figure out how to get there.)

First, know what floats your boat. Spend time looking at magazines, newspapers, books, blogs, instagrams, and other sources of imagery. Collect the images you would like to take and study them. What is it that makes them appealing to you? A travel snapshot, a family moment, a cat in a window – what would transform what you see before you into something you would find interesting as a captured moment? Is it the lighting? The perspective? The composition? The challenge is to have an idea as what you are looking for, then getting your camera positioned and set up to realize your vision.

In the end, a photograph is moment of light. Capturing that moment is no more than freezing what you’re seeing. Think of your camera an an eye. There are three parts that describe what a camera sees: aperture, shutter speed, and iso (typically pronounced eye-Ess-oh). Aperture is your pupil. The wider the pupil, the more light hits the retina. This is useful for low-light (think cat eyes and how wide their pupils are in the dark). Shutter speed is your blink. It controls how long light is allowed through the pupil. Iso is your retina’s sensitivity to light. It describes how your eyes adjust from walking out of broad daylight into a dimly lit bar.

Most cameras have automatic settings for these three controls – aperture, shutter speed, and iso – so that you don’t have to think. Whether on a dial or a menu, you can probably find modes for sports, portrait, macro, party, night scene, travel, and more. These pre-set combinations do the thinking for you so that you can focus your attention first on what’s in front of your camear and then on steadying your camera as necessary to take the picture. This is not a bad way to start.

When set correctly, these three controls will produce a properly exposed image. Set incorrectly, your image will either be over-exposed or under-exposed or unnecessarily blurry. Many cameras offer what is referred to as “creative mode” where you can manually adjust these three settings. By learning what to adjust and why, you can create vastly different, yet properly exposed, images of the same scene, setting, or subject!

Is it real? When you look at any photo, ask yourself, “Was that captured or created?” It’s one thing to have enough command over your camera that you can respond to a moment at capture it. It’s another to have the time and resources to compose, arrange, and/or direct an image production. Sure, there is some gray area when you take the time to arrange the fries and turn the plate for snapping that shot of your latest hamburger. All the same, there is a difference between on-the-fly photography that consists of you, your camera, maybe a tripod, and whatever is in front of your camera and working in a completely controlled situation. Why is it important to be able to tell the difference between the two? Because it affects how much money you need to capture the images you want to take. The former only requires a camera, maybe a tripod, and the time and effort necessary to acheive consistent results. The latter? That can break the bank. You probably don’t want to waste your time trying to recreate photos that are impossible without a lot of time, money, and equipment.

Part 3 – What’s it gonna be?

Ok, ok, ok. What does it take to get started? A point-and-shoot, preferably one that will allow you to go “full manual”. I highly recommend avoiding any type of camera with detachable lenses until you get to a point where you feel stymied and limited; otherwise, you’re back-diving into Moneysuck Canyon without a parachute.

Seriously. You do NOT need to spend a lot of money. You do not need the newest bigger, better, faster, badasser camera and/or camera stuff. All that is very tempting and sales people and gear-geeks can spout out endless justifications for spending your money when it comes down to one simple thing: get just enough camera to learn how to do what you want first. And keep in mind, no matter what you do, there will be a line of people telling you that you should have done something different…

What do I recommend?

A used Canon G-series camera from keh.com

Why used? If a camera is is in great condition, why not save a few bucks?

Why keh? They have an excellent reputation for customer service and standing behind their rating. If they say it is “like new” it IS like new. These guys have saved me boatloads of money over the past 10+ years and I do not hesitate recommending them.

Anything from a G-11 to G-16, rated at least Ex (Excellent) will get the job done. Stay away from the ones with an “x” in the name, like G7x. They seem to be newer and more gimmicky. Of course, they are loaded with things you can’t live without, but, in reality, you can live without them and save some money.

You’re looking anywhere from $150-700. Better condition, newer model = more $$

Yes, newer and more recent is better, but not critical to getting started.

With these cameras, you get what you need:

In addition to the camera, you’ll need to get a strap, a case, and some memory cards. For cards, I recommend 8 or 16GB cards. You don’t need huge honking super-ultra-extreme-titanium cards. At least not yet.

Here are some options.

Here are some sample images (G11)

Anyway, that’s what I would do.

The next thing I would do is get a photographer’s subscription to Adobe. It’s $10 a month and it gets you Lightroom and Photoshop, two indispensable tools for making the most of the photos you take.

There are a lot of other “next things”, but that will have to wait. The first thing to do is to get a camera that will allow you to get started on this new adventure.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate. I’ll be more than glad to share insights along the way. Photography is something I’ve enjoyed my whole life and it’s been very good to me. The least I can do is pass it along.