The Camera That’s Taught Me Most

Being more of a hands-on kind of person, rather than meticulously studying an instruction manual before using something new, when it comes to cameras, I’ve learned most by experimenting, by trial and error.

Meaning my photography learning has predominantly come from practical experience, rather than reading.

The camera that has been my greatest teacher in this is the Nikon Coolpix P300 I bought in November 2011, my first “proper” camera, after a five or six year run of camera phones had fanned the flames of my growing interest in making pictures.

I researched the Coolpix extensively before laying down my cash – this was a big investment for me, both financially and symbolically.

I wanted a camera that was going to give me far better results and experience than a camera phone, plus I wanted one good enough and expensive enough that it sent a clear signal to myself that photography had become a serious pursuit, and a hobby I wanted to take to another level.

To some, the £299 I paid for the Coolpix will probably seem a drop in the ocean, but for me then as my first camera it was considerable, especially as a perfectly capable compact could be had for about a quarter of that cost.

Researching and purchasing done, once the P300 arrived, the learning could begin.

I started out using just the P (Program) mode, one step less automated than the fully auto mode with the green camera symbol. But beyond that I didn’t change anything from shot to shot. And I just shot and shot.

I’d learned from my camera phone experiments that my favourite images tended to be close up, with the subject in sharp focus, and a blurred background.

Achieving this look on a consistent basis was challenging with the camera phones as virtually everything was automated, with little user intervention allowed.

With the Coolpix, by trial and error, I worked out from which images I liked best, and from the camera’s EXIF data, what kinds of settings would create these.

I realised, of course, that a larger aperture meant a more shallow depth of field, even if I didn’t know why, or the technical terms involved at the this point.

I knew enough to start experimenting with the A (Aperture priority) mode more, so I could open the aperture wide (handily, the P300’s lens started at f/1.8, again a figure that had no meaning for me then, but in time I realised was pretty fast for a compact camera lens, and indeed any lens), focus close with the “macro” mode enabled, and more regularly get the pictures I wanted.

The little Coolpix also had a few specialist scene modes.

On my camera phones I’d always avoided anything like these, as one they seemed gimmicky, and two they didn’t give me results I liked anyway.

But one on the P300 caught my interest. Amongst all the usual modes of the day, such as “Fireworks”, “Pet Portrait” and “Food”, there was one called “Special Effects”. Within this, was a sub menu, including “High-contrast monochrome”.

Shooting in this mode not only made the images black and white, it upped the contrast too, giving deep inky blacks and bright whites.

I’d always had an interest in black and white photography (as a viewer), but this high contrast style I loved instantly, with its increased drama and stark simplicity.

Which I think taught me another important lesson about what and how I like to photograph.

I would later learn to love colour photography with certain 35mm film, and early CCD sensor DSLRs like the Pentax K100D and K-m, but in the years since first using the high-contract monochrome mode on the Coolpix, it’s the look that’s dominated my picture making, across dozens of cameras. And a mode or setting common to virtually all of my favourite digital cameras.

Finally, what the Nikon taught me perhaps more than anything else was how to frame and compose.

My camera phones had been a good starting point with reasonably large screens (very different to the simple optical viewfinder window many cameras of the era had), but the Coolpix took this to the next level with its large, crisp screen, that allowed me to simply move the camera around until what I saw in that screen was exactly the composition I wanted.

Plus of course with that monochrome mode applied in real time so I could see what the scene looked look in that mode before I click the shutter button too, it taught me how to see in black and white also.

Of course I’ve learned plenty about photography since – and still am learning, it’s a lifelong process – but no single camera taught me so much, in such a short space of time, as that trusty little Nikon Coolpix P300.

How about you? Which camera has taught you most about photography?

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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10 thoughts on “The Camera That’s Taught Me Most”

  1. To me it was that camera was the Olympus SP550 uz. Water or humidity damaged it a time I went to the beach, and only the P mode worked. There was a young lady in her blog posting the exif data and used the settings to apply them in similar conditions, it helped me a lot that Ken Rockwell publishes the exif data. A haunting web of drops in your photograph, Dan. Looks quite geometric in an organic way.

    1. Thanks re the photograph Francis. I love the geometry in nature, and don’t get me started on the beauty of natural fractals…

      Your Olympus looks similar in spec and era as my Lumix FZ38, another bridge type camera.

      Some Flickr images I browse have detailed comments about the settings (for film cameras) and I wondered why they noted them, let alone shared them. A photograph should just stand on its own, regardless of what settings were used. But… I can see how it’s helpful for others to learn from.

    1. I think partly it’s a design thing, I think that if something is well designed, it should be easy to use. Partly that I just think I should be intelligent enough to figure something like this out. And partly just laziness at not wanting to read pages of dry text in a manual!

  2. To me it was the K20D… everything I had before, I used like a point and shoot. I learned to actually put thought into the pictures, with the K20D. Manual lenses were also an integral part of this learning process – I learned as much from the K20D’s manual controls as I did from the lenses aperture and focus rings…
    The Sony DSC-P200 that I had before, actually gave good results, but it wasn’t a “pro camera” so I didn’t feel that I needed to “take pro pictures” with it and snapshots were just fine.
    I used to have an Olympus Stylus film camera that was even more of a point and shoot experience…
    That P300 seemed like a handy camera… the P330/340 with its larger sensor seems even more capable of some very good results. But I’m still thinking of an Olympus XZ-1 for a pocket camera… just haven’t pulled the trigger on one.

    1. Interesting that you learned so much from the K20D with manual settings and lenses. I imagine who use any DLSR are far more likely to use an AF lens and shoot an Auto or Program, without ever paying much attention to the settings the camera chooses.

      My Nikon is still going – the zoom got stuck for a couple of years, it’s just wouldn’t zoom when you moved the switch, but this wasn’t a massive loss as I usually used it at its widest anyway. But then it just started working again. Yeh they’re very good cameras, and for all the digital cameras I’ve used since, I can see the way I used the Coolpix and the images it was capable of hasn’t really been improved upon for me. Obviously a DSLR or something is going to open up your options, but for a compact, the Coolpix does all I need and delivers.

      That Olympus looks interesting, and in the same kind of arena as the Lumix LX3. Have you ever had an LX3 or LX5?

      1. I have not had an LX3 or LX5. I came close to getting the LX3 a few times. Now they seem a bit more rare, I have seen online articles praising it and I think that is driving up demand…
        With regards to the DSLR experience, I was in a very tight spot financially at the time I bought the K20D – otherwise I would have bought a D7000 which was 3x time price back then, and was the camera that my wife really wanted. It came with the kit 18-55mm lens (which I did not find impressive) and 3 primes – the cheap SMC-M 50mm f2, a Takumar-A 70-200mm f4 (not a bad lens actually) and a Sigma UC 70-210mm f/4-5.6. I quickly found an SMC-M 50mm f/1.7 which was quite better than the f2 version, and a couple of Rikenon XR lenses – 50mm f/1.4 and 28mm f/2.8, all for very cheap. Seeing the results I was getting from these fast lenses especially, compared to the slow f/3.5-5.6 lens, really made me a believer. But I had to learn to use them, to be able to get the best out of them…

      2. Once I got over the handling (always a big factor for me with a camera) and modified the LX3 so it felt good in my hands, I fell for it.

        I really like Lumix cameras generally, they’re a class act, and the LX3 is my favourite I’ve used. I only have about a dozen cameras now and four of them are Lumix. Same number as Pentax, which is saying something!

        The lens is really special with the LX3, and I love the dynamic b/w mode, as I do with other Lumix cameras.

        The D7000 is a Nikon? You can’t really beat a DSLR with a fast prime to really learn about framing, aperture and depth of field.

        I know most DLSRs come with a “do-it-all” zoom, but for me it gives too many options, and zooms are nearly always too slow aperture wise.

        With something like the M 50/1.7 (or the cracking DA 35/2.4) straight away a decision is taken away, ie which focal length to use, as you only have one. Then you can really get to know how the world looks through that one lens, rather than always wondering about how far to zoom.

        In fact a 50mm prime stuck on f/5.6 or even f/8, aperture priority, so all you need to do is frame and focus, is a fantastic way to start shooting.

  3. I think my first DSLR, the Nikon D40, taught me the most about photography. I bought it with just the kit 18-55mm and later on got the 55-200mm after a lot of research into how to get those nice bokeh shots without breaking the bank! Plus I wanted the flexibility of zoom (how times have changed!). After a few months, I got into vintage lenses and never looked back. Playing around with aperture and shutter speed, whether I was indoors or out, taking note of the settings I used and how each photo looked was a huge part of my learning. Flickr helped massively as well, I was always checking out other people’s exif data.

    1. Funnily enough, I was just looking at Nikon D40s today. I had them on my wishlist a while back as an old CCD sensor DSLR similar to my Pentax ones. I saw a Nikon film camera and a couple of lenses in a charity shop and thought about buying the 50/1.8 to put on a D40. Would like to try one but I don’t think they’d offer anything my three Pentax DSLR’s don’t. Plus I have far more lens options already for the Pentaxs.

      It’s so much easier learning with a digital camera than it must have been years ago when film was the only option, and you had to manually note your settings, and wouldn’t likely see the results for days! Very slow learning curve…

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