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It’s Not The Camera (I)

Self-Portrait in Nantes, France

A lot of you have been asking me questions about photography and how to achieve certain effects. While I’m by no means an expert, I’m an avid photographer and I had to chance to experiment a lot. I’m also always a teacher at heart and yes, I like talking about photography, because I’m sure I can give you some tips and learn from you as well.

So I decided to start the Saturday Series again, this time with a focus on photography. A new “lesson” will be published every Saturday, for a total or ten posts. Enjoy the “Ten Photography Tips“!

Digital cameras are now widespread and the price of both DSLR and compact camera went down quite a lot. Pretty much everyone has some kind of camera these days, whether it’s a small camera phone or a high end DSLR. But few people realize that it’s not that much about the camera – it’s about the photographer’s eye.

I became addicted to photography when I bought my first digital camera, in 2006. I went through a couple of film cameras before that: one of them was stolen in Panama, I still have the other but I was hesitant to experiment with it since developing films was quite expensive. But in January 2006, on Boxing Day, I walked into Best Buy and saw a small Kodak EasyShare C743 Zoom camera for less than $200. The price alone sealed the deal – I hadn’t planned to buy a camera that day and it looked like a sweet deal. It didn’t think twice and bought it.

It turned out to be a great camera, by my standards. I started experimenting, taking a lot of pictures, trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Sure, the zoom was limited, I kept on feeding it batteries and the shutter was someone to slow to capture quick action but it didn’t matter. It was a great camera to learn the basics. And it took great pictures too: this is the only camera we had in China, during our first two French trips and in Latin America. I feel terrible when people ask me what camera I used to capture that or that because they expect me to start bragging about my gear when in fact, these were taken with old outdated camera. I used it again last year to take pictures at the Metallica Concert (I was searched and my DSLR wasn’t welcomed…) and I was quite happy with the result.

Eventually, in June 2009, I decided to buy a DSLR and got a Nikon D-60 with a couple of lenses (35-55 mm and 55-200 mm). This is the camera I now use. But let me tell you: I’d suck as a photographer if I hadn’t learned with a compact camera first!

Indeed, compact cameras teach you to think outside the box. First, they are easy to master, this is why they are nicknamed “point and shoot cameras” This is what I did at first: I pointed and I shot. Didn’t like the results much, though. So I started experimenting. I learned that the best way to take night pictures wasn’t to use the “night setting”, but the “fireworks setting” which triggered a longer shutter. I learned that the “sports setting” was the one with the faster shutter, so it worked for all action scenes. I understood how important a tripod (or any steady surface) was for night shots, otherwise the pictures would be helplessly blurry. The zoom wasn’t bad (albeit limited), but I learned not to rely on it too much and to get close to my subjects to fill the frame.

When I finally bought my DSLR, I was used to being inventive and I knew the basics. It still took me close to six months to be comfortable with it – I wasn’t used to have control on everything, from shutter to aperture! It was frustrating at first: I had this beautiful camera in my hands and my pictures sucked. I had to take it one step at the time and learn everything from the scratch.

Of course, I now find having a DSLR very rewarding. It allows me to do so much more! Yet, I can’t help feeling sorry for the people who invest in a high-end camera expecting it to do everything – it’s not about the camera, it’s about the photographer. Enough of the “how many megapixels does yours have” and “how far can you zoom” silly little war. It-does-not-matter. What matters is your eyes and how you see the world through your viewfinder. That’s it.

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