The Most Important Photography Lesson I’ve Learned

My initial forays into photography were via phone cameras.

Back then, some 16 or 17 years ago, I knew nothing about cameras really, other than you needed to press the button to capture the picture.

From some phone manual or other I found early on that holding the shutter button part way down locked the auto focus on the central square in the screen.

You could then use that feature, and recompose with the button half pressed, if your subject wasn’t in the middle of the composition.

This was one of the most important lessons I learned, but not the single most important.

That came a few years later, or at least the understanding behind it did.

I’m talking about controlling the depth of field – how much of the overall image is sharply in focus, how much is out of focus, and to what degree.

With those early camera phones I’d made pictures where I’d stumbled across a look I liked. A subject in the foreground in focus, and the background rapidly dropping off into a blur.

In other words, photographs with a shallow depth of field.

But I didn’t know how I’d created them, or why they looked like that.

I could repeat what I thought led to these kinds of images, but the phone cameras with their auto exposure were very hit and miss in achieving this.

It wasn’t until a few years on, with my first “proper” camera, a Nikon Coolpix P300, that I figured out how to control the depth of field in a consistent way.

Even then it started by chance.

At first I just used the camera on Program mode, the one that most closely emulated how I’d got used to using the Auto Exposure camera phones previously.

The crucial difference was firstly that the Coolpix had a far superior lens, well, superior everything, and secondly, it showed you a few very informative numbers on screen during, and more importantly after, each shot.

So I worked out that the images I liked best, with a shallow depth of field, were the ones where the F number was lowest.

In time I experimented further by using the camera in Aperture Priority mode, and set the aperture to the minimum I could each time, to force the most shallow depth of field I could.

What I didn’t understand until much later still was how zoom lenses – well at least those on nearly all compact digital cameras – didn’t have a continuous maximum aperture throughout the zoom range.

I couldn’t comprehend why, if I had the lens zoomed right out to its widest (24mm equivalent, with the Coolpix), then set the aperture to its maximum f/1.8, when I zoomed in again, that maximum aperture figure rose.

How frustrating – I just wanted to shoot at f/1.8 all the time!

What I learned of course is that most zooms have a maximum aperture that decreases as the focal length increases.

In other words, the more you zoom in, the smaller your maximum available aperture.

But nonetheless, I knew that using the P300 at its widest zoom – 24mm – and its largest aperture – f/1.8 – then focusing on something close, I would get the blurry dreamy backgrounds I wanted.

Later still, with SLRs, then DSLRs, I found this control and potential magnified further.

Plus I had the benefit of wider apertures at longer focal lengths – for example any number of 50/1.7 or 50/1.8 lenses – instead of the f/1.8 of the Coolpix being limited to 24mm, and all the inherent distortion such a wide lens incurs.

But the fundamentals of controlling depth of field had been learned there by trial and error with the trust old Coolpix P300, shooting at 24mm and f/1.8.

And that remains the single most important and influential lesson I’ve learned since I’ve been a photographer.

How about you? What’s been the most important photography lesson you’ve learned?

As always, please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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8 thoughts on “The Most Important Photography Lesson I’ve Learned”

  1. Manual mode for me was a fantastic discovery, my brother had gifted me an Olympus SP-500uz. Once I went to the beach with it and the automatic mode stopped to work. I found a blog, the author was a girl that liked to experiment with the same model of Olympus and wrote the settings she used, as she had very nice photographs it was nice too to try to replicate her experiences with long exposure, low light and so : ) It is almost strange to read that you had a time where you did not know about cameras, Dan; I guess is the advantage of digital, to be able to use it without thinking much in its inner works, or to learn very thoroughly thanks to the fast experimentation.

    1. Thanks Francis. Yes I’ve learned so much overall with digital cameras because you can learn purely by trial and error. Which is fun too, like playing.

      I came to film photography partly due to the charm of film images, and partly the pleasure of using old cameras. But I already understood the fundamentals fro shooting tens of thousands of images with digital cameras. I can’t imagine if I had come to this enthusiasm for photography 20 years earlier how I would have been able to learn like that with film, with the inherent delay in feedback between shooting an image and seeing the results. I don’t think I would have shot even half a dozen rolls of film without that basic understanding already embedded to give me a head start.

      And yes I kind of evolved from using digital cameras without thinking much about what they did, and concentrating on the composition and image, to gradually learning many aspects of photography through experimentation and instant feedback. There’s a very fast and short feedback loop that means accelerated learning. Ironically you can then go backwards and simplify the experience again as you know pretty much how to set up a camera and trust it to deliver what you want.

      I remember learning salsa dancing, how alien it felt at first, but by learning the basics inside out it so it becomes instinctive, then eventually gave you the freedom to improvise and it feels so free. But still within the framework of the music. If that makes sense!

  2. I learned how not to make photographs of dimly lighted scenes look like they were taken in brighl ight. That’s what a typical reflected light meter or a camera’s auto exposure will try to do. Instead I expose so the brightest element in the scene – usually a window, a lamp or another light source – is not overexposed and let the rest of the scene take care of itself. This is easier to do with film than with digital.

    1. Thanks Doug. I really like dark, inky blacks in photographs, so often choose a scene with a single bright light source, then expose for that to make the bright part look “normal” (and not blown out), and everything else that deep mysterious black.

      I remember shooting sunsets over the recreation ground opposite our house with the Coolpix again. I was amazed at how different the image came out depending on which part of the sky I pointed at (and therefore the camera (auto)exposed for. As with the black shadows mentioned above, I loved forcing the camera to expose for the brightest part of the sunset, pushing the skyline into blacks so far it was purely silhouettes.

      https://www.flickr.com/photos/danjamesphotography/8044117093

    1. Yeh I don’t know why I have a general reluctance to read instructions. I think I believe that good design means it should be simple and intuitive enough to figure out without needing to read a novel of a manual!

  3. I think composition has always been the most important thing I’ve learned and I’m still learning.
    Depth of field is just a subset of that.
    Things like choosing what is in the background, what colors does it have, how much do I want in focus, and what does the image as a whole tell about the scene, are still the principles that I look for when shooting.
    But that hasn’t even been for 10 years yet. For the first 15 years or so that I have been interested in photography, all I did was point and shoot…

    1. Chris, when you did “just” point and shoot, you must have still been making conscious decisions about what you were pointing at and what you wanted to capture though?

      I think point and shoot can be used as derogatory term to suggest people don’t really know what they’re doing with a camera, and they’re letting the camera do all the work and make all the decisions. But I also see it as a very positive term, where you’ve mastered your camera enough (via finding that sweet spot between the simplicity of the camera, and being experienced enough with it to know how to get what you want) to only need to point (ie compose) and shoot, and all other decisions are already made. It’s a liberating and evolved place to be as a photographer, I feel, whatever camera you’re using.

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