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Austin, TX 78703

A place to share prose and photography not in a spirit of hubris or sense of it being worthy--but as a discipline to keep me constantly improving.


I started as a hobbyist a few years ago and have found photography to be a wonderful way to come to see and understand the world.  I have learned so much--but have so far to go.  To help accelerate your learning journey, I wanted to pass along a few things I have learned so far.  Please send me feedback with your own tips

Getting the right gear. 

Gear can be really expensive; I have found that--in general--the more expensive the gear, the better the pictures. Keep in mind that your photography career will be long--so think about acquiring new gear over time. Out of the gates, I'd suggest you get a full frame camera body and one high quality zoom lens.  I'd suggest the Canon 6D ($1,600 new; $1,300 used) and 22-105mm L Series Lens ($1,100 new, $750 used).   If you'd rather start out closer to $1,000 total, I'd buy a used Canon 5D Mark II (can be closer to $800 if you find an older one) and get a fixed 35mm used Canon lens. Several year old Canon gear is often still very good; if you are uncomfortable shopping on eBay, consider going to your local camera shop--they often resell used gear and usually their staff is helpful and photographers themselves. 

A good camera body:  you'll probably replace your camera body every 2-3 years and spend $800-1500 on it.  I use the Canon 6D, an upgrade for me from the Canon 5D Mark II.  The 60D is great as it's $1,500 new (1/3 the price of the Mark III), very light, wonderful video quality, and has onboard GPS and Wifi.   The major distinction in cameras is 3/4 frame versus full frame: this refers to the size of the sensor inside the camera--the element that receives and processes the light. The bigger it is, the more it senses.  Full frame cameras have become so inexpensive that you really should start at that level.  A great option is always to buy a used camera body from your local camera store or eBay.  I used a Canon 5D Mark II for a year and recently sold it on eBay--those cameras will last at least four years.  (Side note: eBay is a superb place to buy and sell camera bodies and lenses.) 


A solid zoom lens: the biggest problem with any camera other than an iPhone is that you'll never have it with you. And you certainly wont want to have a bag of lenses with you to tote around.  So pick a single zoom lens that you can leave on your camera for general shooting.  I use a Canon l-series 24-105mm.  It's got a great range, solid image stabilization (great for anytime you are not using a tripod, which is always for me), and isn't too large a lens.  Easily found on eBay for $600. 

After you get the basics covered, lenses are really the thing to splurge on.  The great thing about lenses is that you'll keep them forever!  I've met pros who have 20 year old lenses they'd never give up!  After a solid zoom lens, you should get lenses in this order: 

Prime portrait lens: "prime" lenses are a fixed focal point--meaning, they don't zoom.  This means that the lens does not need to have any moving parts inside it, which for a bunch of reasons makes your pictures WAY sharper.  Also, prime lenses often have larger apertures--letting in more light and giving you brighter pictures.  The fixed Canon 50mm lens is often called "the best $100 you'll ever spend."   But not all 50mm are made equally.  I started out shooting the 50mm 1.8 ($100), then moved up to the 1.4 ($355), and eventually got the 1.2 ($1,300).  Basically: to get the same brand lens with a bigger aperture, things start to get WAY more expensive, but the pictures are dramatically better for a host of reasons I don't fully understand.  When you set the 1.2 next to the 1.8, they appear to not even belong to the same recreational activity; the 1.2 lens is 3 times the size and about 4 times the weight; it is the Bugatti to the Nissan.  For the money, the 1.8 at $100 is hard to beat.  Start there, and you can always upgrade.  Portrait lenses with large apertures give you a very nice "portrait look" - a soft background that draws attention to the subject.  Consider this one of my daughter; the "depth of field" is so shallow (this one shot at 1.2) that literally the hair on her head is not in focus whereas her eyes are.  


Longer zoom lens: wedding photographers love the canon 70-200mm--it's the "big white lens" you might see carried around.  It's great for capturing portraits or any detail shots at events.  Such a zoom lens lets you be much further away from the subject--allowing you to capture more intimate and natural moments from afar.  The downside to this lens is that it is HUGE.  

Wide angle lenses are also handy for landscapes and architecture--but honestly the 24mm of my zoom lens does the trick for me.  

TIP: LensRentals.com.  This amazing service lets you use the world's best lenses for about $50 for 4 days.  So in advance of your next event or vacation, rent a lens you've been dying to try.  

A flash: I use the Canon 430 EXII flash. The 530 EX is nicer but a big bulkier. Once I learned how to use a flash, I almost always shoot with one unless I'm outside in perfect lighting.  Flash - when used correctly - does what software only tries to do--it fills in the shadows on a face, especially the eyes, and allows you to capture much more detail in your original shot.  You should always use a diffuser - any of a large, bulb contraptions that sit on top of your flash and diffuse (e.g. spread out) the light emitted from your flash; this creates a more natural look. 

Random things:

  • Batteries: always have extra camera batteries charged and ready
  • Polarizing lens filter: this screws on the end of your lens and is an insurance policy for you!  Anytime you hit your lens into something, it will damage (or scratch) the $5 filter, not your $750 lens.  
  • LCD glass protector: the most expensive thing to repair on your camera (if it falls) is the LCD. So consider a $8 piece of glass that sticks to your LCD on the back of your camera.  If you happen to drop it, you'll be thankful.  
  • Strap: I have loved my Op/Tech sling strap which has held up great for over 3 years.  It's $22, sits across your neck as a sling, and has 2 clips for easy switching cameras.  On a walk in the park I wear the sling across my body and let the camera dangle at my side.  

Learning to take great pictures:  now that you have the gear, what on earth do you do now?  Nothing can replace getting out in the field and shooting - a ton.  I try to take the same picture with a bunch of different settings so that I can control a few variables and really start to understand how the camera works.  In all honestly, I pretty much always shoot in "A" - aperture priority mode; in this mode I really only change the aperture itself, which I do in to control the depth of field; for fuzzy backgrounds as with a portrait I open the aperture as wide as possible (the lowest number possible); and for landscapes or group shots I usually shoot at about 8.0 to make sure it is all in focus.  

There are two wonderful books that gave me a lot of inspiration and practical advice: 

The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore - this is the definitive text on photography as an art; though it starts at the theoretical, it moves toward the practical, providing me a delightful context for understanding the art form. 

Digital Photography by Scott Kelby - this 4 book box set is filled with wonderful and very practical advice; each page is essentially a tip/trick with the actual instructions on how to pull it off.  I love reading these and picking up practical tips. 

Learning to edit your pictures. I learned a dirty little secret: "It's all in post."  Meaning: a lot of the "making your pictures look good" happens in "post production"--the time after pictures have been taken and you are editing on your computer.  Though to many people this is depressing--"so now I have to go learn photoshop to become good at photography?"--it should be good news for two reasons:  1. I used to get depressed when I compared my pictures to those of a professional; I thought, "goodness they are simply so much more talented than I am."  In reality, they most likely just had the photo processed in a lab to fix color, skin tone, and lighting.   And 2. the software has become so good and easy to use that you can easy get up to speed in a few hours. 

I strongly recommend getting "serious" photography software, which probably means either Apple Aperture or Adobe Lightroom (my personal choice).  This software serves two important functions.

  1. Organizing your photos.  Once you start shooting a lot, you'll need a way to quickly navigate and prioritize thousands of pictures.  I can easily shoot 1,400 pictures at an event--but in Lightroom I can sort all of them in about 15 minutes--choosing to delete about 50% of them and marking 5% of them as worthy of editing.  By using flags and color tags, it makes finding my best photos really easy once I'm ready to actually do something with them like post to the web or print them. 
  2. Batch editing your pictures.  Software just makes pictures look a lot better--almost by itself.  I have about 10 adjustments built into what is called a "preset;" these settings are applied to every picture I bring into Lightroom automatically.  So just by importing them they are already looking better. Then I pick one of my favorite pictures from the series to do some more refined editing too--color correction, shadows, tones, etc.--and then I take that profile and apply it to the other dozen or so pictures taken in the same setting.  These tools make edits super fast and really awesome.  

TIP: If you are into landscapes, consider playing around with HDR photography.  This requires using "bracketing" on your camera--which just means your camera actually takes 3 pictures: one at -1, one at 0, and one at 1 stop in exposure.  You then dump these three pictures into an HDR software to create some really neat effects.  The picture below is of a cloudy sky in Vancouver; the richness and detail of the clouds as well as brights of the dock in the foreground are clear signs of this being HDR.  Some pros would scoff at this being "too digital." For me, I think it looks amazing.  I use a software program called HDR Efex 2; it is basically a plug in for Lightroom and works interchangeably.  


TIP: shoot in JPG for a while.  RAW files are 5x+ larger and more of a pain to deal with. Once you get the basics of your camera down, you should start shooting in RAW as it allows for much more granular editing once you pull it into software. 

Do something fun with your pictures. This is probably the area I need to grow the most in.  Too often I do some edits, post a few to facebook, and call it a day.  Some ideas I have: 

  • Post to 500px and get feedback from professionals.  It is actually pretty gratifying to get followers and sometimes feedback from professionals on your work.  
  • If shooting a friends' event, print 10 of your best pictures in black and white and mail them a physical copy.
  • Post beautiful pictures you take of friends to facebook--and tag them.  Everyone loves to look good. 
  • Print and frame in your home.  I've created a few small displays of Ikea ribba frames in our home.  These are great as you can mix/match sizes and even frame colors.  I like to use 3M Command velcro mounts to the wall to make it easy to take them down and even move the installation if needed.  For more color, consider painting the mats themselves with a bright solid color. 
  • Join the local photography hobbyist community.  There are likely some real pros from whom you can learn. Community events can be great sources of inspiration--and soon enough you can enter them yourself!

Good luck in your endeavor.  The world around us is so beautiful--I hope you enjoy capturing it.