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God help the photography novice


Hi my name is Steph and I’m crap at photography. The good news is that I’m fixing that.

Now, I have an art and design background, but I never got into photography because it seemed like a pursuit for gearheads. To be fair, there is a lot of obsessing over specs and shelling out thousands of dollars in order to produce technically beautiful yet artless imagery. But how is that different from any other medium? My point is, I regret not taking any photography classes. It’s fun and it never stops being a useful skill.

bad sydney

I had a point-and-shoot for years and I felt pretty comfortable with my so-called skill set until I got a DSLR two years ago. My friend Kylie was upgrading her camera and she sold me her older one. I was all ready to cut my teeth on a real camera… but it took me a while to really begin.

For months, I only used the kit lens and shot in auto, and I was dismayed that all of my photos looked terrible. Everything was blown out, grainy, or out of focus. Usually all three. My old point-and-shoot photos looked like Pulitzer material compared to these sorry shots. Kylie had given me a crash course on how to use the camera, but I didn’t really know its functions. I was embarrassed about my crappy photos and it made me reluctant to bring the camera anywhere.

I didn’t start to understand until several months later, when a friend of mine in Sydney explained the three major variables of setting up a shot – aperture, shutter speed, ISO – and pointed out the obvious fact that the little meter in the viewfinder tells you whether the photo will be under- or over-exposed. You don’t say! I’d done some reading, but none of it clicked until after I began adjusting the settings manually and seeing how they affected the photos.

banksia focal lengths

Birthday candle banksia. Wide aperture + longer focal length = stronger background blur (bokeh). 80mm focal length on left, 125mm focal length on right. Both f/5 aperture.

bhw sharp

Shot from Port Arthur, f/16 aperture. The nearest and furthest parts of this scene are all in focus. Since the aperture was so narrow, I had to lower my shutter speed to 1/80 sec to allow more light.

bad bhw

Wish you had a disposable camera instead of a pricey DSLR? Want that grainy Instagram quality for your perfectly metered and composed snapshots? Well allow me to recommend a crappy old kit lens!

A few months after I started shooting exclusively in manual, I attended an auction and put a lucky bid on two working Canon EF telescopic lenses. (When I looked up how much they were worth, I felt like I’d just found a couple hundred bucks lying in the street.) The two lenses are older, basic lenses; there’s no stabilizers or other settings besides zoom and auto-focus, but the two of them cover a good range – 35-80mm and 80-200mm. I’ve been using those two lenses this last year and I like them both. Most importantly: the lenses demonstrated what a piece of garbage my kit lens is.


(A photo of Ralph, because I can. He’s a working dog along with Scout, the kelpie in the first photo.)

So here’s my gear list right now: a Canon 300D and three zoom lenses. It’s a 10 year old camera body; a friend saw it and asked if I have a full-frame camera. Ha ha nope, I do not have a professional-level camera, it’s just bulky and old. Thankfully camera parts are interchangeable (well, within any one brand) and built to last. I’d like to upgrade this camera body eventually, and my current lenses will just snap right in.

I like this camera, it’s been a great learner camera, but here are a few of its limitations:

Limited megapixels and ISO. I take a lot of photos indoors, what with this being a house blog and all. The low light indoors makes it difficult. Even when I use a tripod and set a long exposure, my photos still turn out grainy because it’s only a 6.3 megapixel camera and the resolution will always be limited.
Shots per second tops out at 4 per second.
No high-definition video. Newer, mid-range Canon cameras shoot HD video, and we all know the internet needs more cat videos. I know I can help fill that void.

One more thing: let me show off my new lens! It’s a Tamron 17-50mm lens and this bad boy gets some wide angles! I took some photos around the yard and I can’t believe how much fits in the frame.

yard 35mm

35mm focal length, Canon EF lens.

yard 17mm

17mm focal length with the Tamron. Whoa. At the shortest length, it does take on a bit of fish-eye distortion, but I’m happy to make that tradeoff in order to fit more in my photos.

In brief:

  • Photography is awesome and useful
  • Don’t use that kit lens, it’s garbage
  • Learn about aperture, ISO and shutter speed; get lots of practice in manual mode
  • Wide aperture = more light and shorter depth of field
  • Long focal length = stronger background blur; good for portraits
  • High ISO = more grain in photos, but brings in more light and allows for a faster shutter speed
  • Camera bodies and lenses are interchangeable; figure out what you want to get out of either one

This post isn’t intended to be solid camera advice – I just wanted to write about my experience so far with baby’s first DSLR, is all. I’ve only scratched the surface and I can’t wait to learn heaps more.

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