Rule 3: RTFM

You're being watched.

For the handful of you unfamiliar with the acronym, RTFM means, “Read The F’ing Manual.” Tech support people use the term pretty often, especially when they get a call (“How do I turn this thing on?”) that could be solved within seconds had the caller bothered to even skim the documentation that came with the product. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you have, what your level of experience is, or how you plan to use it, RTFM.

Some cameras are relatively self-explanatory, but others, like bridge cameras and SLRs,offer a plethora of buttons, controls, and menu options that are anything but self-explanatory. Some things you can teach yourself through trial and error. Sometimes, though, whether because of your own limitations (and I don’t just mean the limits of your knowledge; patience and time, also, are finite) or those of your gear, it’s best to know how to make use of the settings. Taking the time before you start putting a camera to heavy use means less time spent in the field fiddling with settings (and cussin’) trying to figure out how to make something happen.

There’s another good reason to RTFM: Sometimes it’ll help you to push at the limits of a camera’s capabilities (especially if, like a camera phone, those capabilities were pretty limited to start with); other times, they’ll give you a suitable workaround for the times you’ve gone past them. I’d venture to say that I don’t use most of my automaic compact’s scene modes, but some of them (macro mode, for instance) I use very frequently, and a few of the others (like the Sport mode, which on my Kodak boosts ISO and tries for the fastest shutter speed practical for the lighting conditions) have proved invaluable at the times I’ve needed them.

And let’s say you’ve got a system camera. While there’s nothing wrong with shooting in Automatic (and God knows I’ll get flamed for saying that), the point to having a camera with all those controls isn’t so you can compare notes with other camera owners about how much you spent. It’s to give you creative options and opportunites you would not otherwise have had. Navigating that maze of buttons and menu options can sometimes be daunting for even a seasoned user; if you’re still a greenhorn, there’s a pretty significant temptation to just say the hell with it and pick a scene mode. Don’t. RTFM.

In another post, we’ll be covering how and when to put your Auto and Scene modes to best use. For now, though, regardless of whether you plan on working your way up to full Manual, or you’d rather just put it on full Auto, know your camera. Know its limitations, its capabilities, and how best to use both. Like learning anything else in photography, it can be as brief as you’d like, or something you revisit and refine for a lifetime. Done correctly, though, it’s not only the camera that’s put to better use, it’s your talent.

Rule 2: Always Have Your Camera

You never know when a photo opportunity will present itself...

Sooner or later, it’ll happen — if it hasn’t already. Maybe it’s a gorgeous sunset, maybe it’s a funny-looking beachgoer, or your kids/nieces/nephews/grandkids doing something silly or adorable… and you think to yourself, “Y’know, I really wish I had my camera.” And you might even try to recreate the image for friends and family, telling about the vivid colors, the breathtaking lighting… ’til you sound like someone trying to describe this great song they heard, only they can’t remember any of the words or hum any of the melody.

While it’s better to be mindful about your photography, and to take the time to properly frame and expose a shot, you can’t even do that if you haven’t got something with which to take the picture. This should be too obvious to have to mention, but anybody I know who’s even halfway serious about photography (including me) has missed one or more great shots because they didn’t have their camera with them.

And listen: we’re photographers, not fishermen. Fishermen have it easy (seasickness and the occasional accident with fishhooks aside); they can always talk about “the one that got away.” It’s part of the allure (pardon the pun) of fishing. But if you miss enough photos, after a while it feels less like something to brag about than it just feels like a drag.

There’s really no excuse for you not to have your camera with you. As I mentioned last week, nearly everyone has a camera now, whether it’s on your Crackberry, it’s an automatic compact, or it’s a DSLR. If you’ve already got the camera, have it with you.

As an aside: if your only camera is a DSLR, do yourself a favor and invest in something smaller. It doesn’t have to break the bank, nor does it even have to have all the bells and whistles. It just needs to take a good photograph, and be reasonably portable, since you’re not always going to want the bulk of a system camera hanging around your neck, tiring you out or drawing attention to you at times you may want to be a bit more discreet.

Just the same as a writer should always have a pen (you can always find something to write on) or an artist should always have a sketch pad, don’t wander out into the world, where all those photos are just waiting for you to notice them, without something — anything — to capture them. If you allow them to, images will never fail to sneak up on you and surprise you. But if the only place they exist is in your memory, it becomes much harder to share them later… and after all, the sharing’s the point, isn’t it?

Rule 1: The First Ten Thousand

Not exactly my best work.

“Your first ten thousand photos are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson knew a thing or two about good photography. From the late 1920’s ’til his death nearly eighty years later, he was responsible for some of the most iconic images in photographic history… all of which is rather a longish way of saying, the man knows whereof he speaks.

Your first several (thousand) photos won’t be your best work, and that’s okay. Photography, from the act of making an individual photo, to the learning curve associated with being a photographer, is a learning process that, if you’re lucky, never ends. That’s not to say that you won’t have some keepers, and maybe even an image somewhere in that batch that knocks the socks off nearly anyone who sees it. What it does speak to is the discipline and sheer repetition you’ll have to go through to be any good at photography.

That’s the good news. The better news is that technology is still growing at a dizzying pace (well, it’s better news unless you’re the type who absolutely must have the latest and greatest everything; in that case, prepare to be broke more often than not), with the end result that photography is now a more democratic medium than it’s been at nearly any point in its history. Continue reading “Rule 1: The First Ten Thousand”