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?
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