Everything you've learned from (bad) photography websites is wrong.

Of course, someone's going to take that literally and write me to tell me that there are probably pages out there that agree with me, so here goes: I don't mean literally everything. You can sleep well now, without writing me, after you've ensured that all of your pencils are lined up with each other. So, I've noticed a whole bunch of pages cropping up talking about typical "beginner mistakes", or "things beginners need to know", and so on, mostly on tech/gadget sites and making a "top 10" list of these mistakes on your blog is a great way to get a bunch of hits and ad revenue from people who find it hard to deal with anything that isn't a neat numbered list.

(Actually, I almost called this piece "Top 10 photography mistakes of 'Top 10 Photography Mistakes' lists", but would be lame, and besides, I don't have the attention span to write 10 things.)

Anyway, I see the same old tired things come up over and over again, and they are all wrong. Here they are, but first, a picture of a cat:

Unimpressed Cat.

You need to shoot in fully manual mode

Holy shit no. Look, the 1970s happened for a reason, namely, that having to set your aperture and shutter speed manually is boring. Hey, if you want to disagree, I have a 1938 Ensign Selfix you can borrow any time. But that doesn't even have a meter! Well, exactly! If you're using your meter to gauge your exposure why are you making life harder for yourself by setting things manually?

Yes, there's a limited place for shooting fully manual; if you're one of the people that needs to do this, then I don't need to explain to you what this place is.

Better advice: Avoid the "Auto" mode on your digital camera (which usually does rude stuff like popping the flash without asking). Use P, which is a lot more flexible. Use the semi-automatic modes if you have a good reason to, or fully manual if you really know what you're doing, but don't think you should make life harder than it should be just because manual mode is "where the pros live".

You, too, can spend £5000 on gear to take boring photos!

Okay, they don't actually say this, but seriously, go to almost any gear website and fuck me. Has anyone else noticed that on almost all those sites, the sample images are totally boring? My mum regularly takes better photographs even though she barely knows how to use a camera! The beginner will come to one of three conclusions:

  1. Wow, I could take much more interesting pictures with my £100 point-and-shoot. Correct answer! Now go outside and take some photographs that don't suck.
  2. I need to go out and take shots like that. Wrong answer, but if you take enough boring photographs you'll probably have a career ahead of you as a writer for DPReview.
  3. I need to spend £5000 on gear to get shots like that. Totally wrong answer.

Better advice: The sample pictures on most photography websites suck so much because their authors are in a rush to get articles written so that they can be among the first to write about the cameras they're using, to get more hits, and therefore to get more ad revenue. It's the same reason most sites hit you with twelve books' worth of specifications, rather than awesome photography. Go out with whatever camera you have and take some shots that will kick those boring sample photographs in the head.

Raw vs JPEG isn't a completely boring subject

(Yes, I'm calling it "raw", not "RAW", because "RAW" is not an acronym. Neither is it a file extension, which might justify capitalising it; Canon use .CR2 and Nikon use .NEF.)

I initially titled this section "You need to shoot raw". I realised that my objection isn't with telling people to shoot raw, it's with people that actually like arguing raw vs JPEG on the Internet. To be clear: I totally understand the benefits of shooting raw, even though I typically prefer JPEGs for anything I shoot with a digital camera and oh god I'm actually falling asleep thinking about this and I'm going to stop.

Better advice: Shoot whatever you like. Either way, newcomers should concentrate on getting images right the first time. Pay attention to your LCD. Set your white balance properly. Make sure you're not overexposing (with their higher bit depth, raw formats have a little ability to recover highlights).

There were fields, Neo. Endless fields.

I'm cool enough for a digital SLR, and you are not.

I'll quote a particularly bad blog:

Too many folks see that the price of digital SLRs are becoming so close to point and shoot models that they assume the learning curve will be similar.

I hate to be harsh on this guy, since he's probably a better photographer than I, but this is wrong, wrong, wrong. Digital SLRs have exactly the same number of critical settings as their point-and-shoot siblings. You need to set white balance, exposure compensation, ISO, and (under the less-automatic-but-still-automatic modes) aperture or shutter speed on any camera. Digital SLRs just make it faster to adjust those settings. (I'm not counting Nikon's very cheapest digital SLRs like the D3000 and D5000, which require you to dig through menus to get to important settings like ISO and white balance, just like point-and-shoots. Just-as-cheap SLRs from Canon and Pentax have direct buttons for this, as they should do.)

Better advice: Get a digital SLR if you can afford one; you'll love their speed of operation and their brutally fast and accurate autofocus. You definitely need one for fast-moving subjects. But this has nothing to do with their alleged complexity. If all you have, or can afford, is a compact, then don't worry about this.

Red and blue, II
Red and blue, II. Plastic Nikon F55 and plastic Nikon AF 50mm f/1.8D shooting Kodak Portra 400VC. More from this plastic-craptastic camera right here.

You need a pro camera.

This so often comes up in the context of people asking advice on buying a real camera, or less often in the context of buying a digital camera, that I have to smack these people down: If you're not a gear-abusing idiot, you will not break your camera. Even if you are a clumsy, gear-abusing idiot like me who drops plastic cameras onto concrete, you will not break your camera. I promise.

Cameras like the Canon F-1, and the single-digit F and D series Nikon cameras (like my beaten D2H), are designed to take the worst abuse that professional photographers can throw at them. This includes people who work in war zones who have to dive to the ground to dodge bullets and RPG rounds, with the camera around their neck. It means people who are out there crawling around in mud taking pictures of birds, in the rain.

You are not doing that. Well if you are, then go for it. But if you're just wandering around in any place trying to find great shots where A-10 strikes aren't going to happen any moment, then go for any cheap-ass SLR you can. I've gotten as many winners-per-roll as I have from any other camera from my stupid plastic Nikon F55, for which I paid a third as much as I did for my last camera strap, and about 13 times less than I did for the lens I attached to it.

Better advice: If you're shooting a real camera, get the cheapest plastic piece of crap that you can find. It'll work exactly the same, and it'll save you a hernia, too.

Dandelion!
Dandelion. Shot with a Canon EOS D30 and Pentacon 135mm f/2.8, and no tripod, because tripods suck.

You need a [good] tripod.

Man, Thom Hogan loves this one, and you should probably listen to him rather than me because he's an awesome photographer and I'm not. But if you're silly enough to listen to my opinion: meh. Did you know that, before I got my Kiev 88, precisely three of the pictures in my gallery were shot on a tripod? Out of those three, did you know that two of them were shot from a £15 plastic tripod, and that the other was on a borrowed pseudo-branded 1980s aluminium one? Did you know this was shot hand-held on ASA 50 film at last light with a slow 28mm f/2.8 lens? Do you care? You shouldn't, and I'm not sure I do, either.

Honestly, I find it hilarious watching people with digital SLRs equipped with VR lenses setting up a tripod in broad daylight. For one, when you're out there on your feet for hours at a time (as you should be if you want to get great shots), every gram counts. If you're lugging around a heavy tripod you'll want to walk around less, which means you won't see things you would if you were carrying one camera and a couple of lenses in a tiny shoulder bag. Plus, tripods are crippling; there's only so low you can get with them, and there's plenty of places you simply cannot get with a tripod. Even if you did, you'd probably miss the moment setting up your tripod if you're shooting anything that moves.

Better advice: Hey, buy a tripod by all means if you really need to (hi wildlife guys with big telephotos!), but leave it at home if you're shooting in daylight. If you must take one, take the cheapest, lightest tripod that'll support your camera.

Mutant tree thing
Mutant tree thing, shot with an utterly obsolete Canon EOS D30.

Don't buy "obsolete" cameras.

How about this: try picking up any glossy colour sports magazine from about 2001. Look good? Guess what! They were shot on "obsolete" digital cameras, probably a Canon EOS 1D, or a 2.7 megapixel Nikon D1. Same for much of the wildlife photography from the era. Were the results great then? Do they still look good to you now? Do the results stop looking great just because several generations of cameras have "obsoleted" them?

I've had a couple of people asking me about why I write about old stuff. Well, partly because I don't like spending money, partly because I find it amusing (hey, anyone got a Nikon D1 they can lend me?), but also because I'd like to think the results I get from old crappy cameras are good enough that people might stop and think before blindly buying stuff just because it's new and/or not crap.

Better advice: If there's something older that suits your needs better on your budget than a new camera does (I avoided Nikon's cheapest new cameras just because they don't have ISO and white balance buttons and ended up with this heap of shit), then don't worry about the fact that it's obsolete. I'm not saying you shouldn't buy the latest and greatest. By all means go right ahead, if you can afford it and the camera does everything you need. But don't get forced onto the upgrade treadmill.

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