SLIDESHOW

Getting Started in Digital Photography

Here's how to choose a camera and an image editor, along with important tips to help you begin taking great photos.

Digital Cameras Are Everywhere

Back in the 1980s when I was studying engineering in college, I used to joke that in the future every conceivable device would come with a built-in digital clock. I was right, in a way; but if I had been truly prescient, I would have predicted that someday everything would come with a camera. After all, almost everyone owns at least one camera and probably two (if you include the ones in cell phones) these days. In 1985, that would have seemed as strange as the thought of owning more than one television did in 1955.

Recording our lives with digital photography is so commonplace today that it has become second nature. In 1985, who would have thought to shoot a panoramic photo of a vacation spot or to experiment with an evening photo of a neighbor's yard light? Film was too expensive to justify such unlimited picture taking. These days, "film" is free, and you can capture images like this one all day (or night) long.

If we're snapping so many photos, though, shouldn't we try to take the best ones we can? Here's a primer on digital photography--how to get started, explore the world of photography, and start down the path toward becoming a better photographer.

Shopping for a Camera

How should you shop for a camera? First consider the kind of photography you want to do. If you're into action photography, you'll want a camera that shoots at very fast shutter speeds and has no noticeable shutter lag. If you primarily take casual snapshots or pictures of landscapes and city scenes, get a camera with the widest lens you can find. If you enjoy shooting flowers, make sure the camera has a good macro mode for close-ups like the one shown here.

Long telephoto zooms are great, but pay special attention to the focal length--a wide focal range will come in handy more often in day-to-day situations than a superlong zoom. Also, megapixel count is no all as important as it once was: Most popular cameras are 10 megapixels or more, wich is more than you need for large, high-quality prints. Watch "How to Buy a Digital Camera" for more tips.

Finally, read reviews that talk about image quality. My favorite camera review site is Digital Photography Review, and I highly recommend that you bookmark it--along with PCWorld's camera reviews, of course.

Consider a Digital SLR

If you're serious about taking great photos, I recommend investing in a digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera. Such cameras give you the ability to control as much of the exposure process as you want for each photo, and they provide RAW format support, interchangeable lenses, and higher-quality images than point-and-shoot models can manage.

Which one should you get? Honestly, I don't think it matters much. You could throw a dart at a pile of digital SLR ads and end up with a good model: Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Sony and other major camera makers create generally superb SLRs. So go to a store and see which models feel the most comfortable in your hands. Explore their differences, but don't obsess over which SLR is "best."

If you don't know where to begin, start with PCWorld's "Top 10 Digital SLR Cameras"; our current number one model, the Nikon D90, is pictured here.

Good Things Come in Small Packages

Digital SLRs are great, but not everyone wants to spend that much money or to lug around such bulky and heavy devices. Do you need that much camera to take great photos?

Absolutely not. Many superb point-and-shoot digital cameras are available today. You can find compact cameras with all sorts of compelling features, such as built-in panoramic stitching, image stabilization, the ability to shoot in extremely low light, and more. To see what these pocket-size cameras have to offer, check out PCWorld's "Top-Rated Advanced Point-and-Shoots" chart.

My favorite point-and-shoots are known as megazooms; they get their name from their astonishingly broad zoom ranges. For example, the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS pictured here has a 20X optical zoom. Go to PCWorld's "Top-Rated Megazoom Cameras" for more great models.

Your Camera Doesn't Take Pictures; You Do

When it comes to digital SLRs, a rivalry of epic proportion has arisen between Canon and Nikon fanatics. Think Mac OS versus Windows, Marvel versus DC Comics, Palm versus BlackBerry. Because that fanaticism spills into the mainstream, even casual camera buyers get caught up in the propaganda. Ultimately, Nikon and Canon cameras are more similar than they are different, and anyway no camera is better at photography than you are.

What I mean is that the camera doesn't makes eye-popping photos possible--the person behind the lens does. It may be comforting to think that "if only I had that new camera, that mediocre photo I just took would have been awesome," but the reality is that Ansel Adams could have captured an awesome image with the camera you have right now. Conversely, getting your hands on a superb camera doesn't make you a better photographer, any more than picking up a Stradivarius makes you a better violinist.

When it comes to taking better pictures, having access to additional features is a lot less important than studying photographic technique and practicing what you learn. Getting the newest, coolest camera is fun, but fancy hardware isn't the difference maker in image quality. That's why photography is an art form. For example; I shot the photo at left with a point-and-shoot camera that I had stabilized by balancing it on a railing. Taking the shot with a digital SLR on a tripod probably wouldn't have made a huge difference in this case.

Select Your Lenses

One of the best reasons to get a digital SLR is to take advantage of the opportunity to change lenses. One photo may benefit from a wide-angle view, while another shot demands a telephoto lens. But lenses are a significant investment--in some instances a bigger one than the camera body itself.

A versatile collection of lenses might include a wide-angle zoom to cover the range from 12mm to 24mm, a general-purpose zoom that goes from 24mm to 120mm, and a telephoto zoom in the range of 100mm to 300mm. Throw in a 100mm macro lens, and you've covered all your bases. It's important to keep in mind the kind of photos you typically take, however. For example, if you enjoy taking landscape and people photos, you may never need a telephoto lens. Some photographers are perfectly happy with a single, general-purpose zoom like an 18mm-to-200mm lens.

In addition to considering focal length, pay attention to the "speed," or f-number, of your lens. Fast lenses have bigger apertures (smaller f-numbers) and can shoot sharper photos in low light than their cheaper siblings can. For more information on lenses, check out "Demystifying Lenses."

Do Some Research

You can learn a lot about photography by reading. Among the online sources I recommend, aside from my Digital Focus blog, are The New York Institute of Photography, 5minArts, Photo.net, Geoff Lawrence's Photography Tutorials, and Tutorialoutpost.

Need some fun photo projects to get you energized? Check out Photojojo, which is packed with tips and tricks, plus interesting ideas for tantalizing photo projects.

I love books, too. If you've already digested my own book, How to Do Everything with Your Digital Camera, you might also want to check out The Digital Photography Companion, Digital Photography Masterclass, and Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers.

Finally, I suggest that you scan bookstore shelves for books that focus on the particular kind of photography you're interested in--sports, portraits, nature, or whatever it may be. You can learn a lot by seeing how the photographer captured the images you see in the book.

Choose an Image Editor

Of course, it wouldn't be digital photography if you couldn't process your images on the PC. In the old days of film, photographers modified their images in the darkroom. Even casual photographers wouldn't end up with unretouched images, because the guy at the one-hour photo shop tweaked colors and exposure during the developing process (whether you wanted him to or not).

These days, everything is up to you--you just need a photo editing program to get started. Even if you don't know much about photo editing, you've probably heard of Adobe Photoshop--the full version (Adobe Photoshop CS4) is a $600 professional editing tool, and it's probably more than you need. Photoshop Elements 8 is a far more affordable, consumer-friendly program that has plenty of editing muscle for polishing your photos. Another popular contender is Corel's Paint Shop Pro X2.

You don't have to buy a program to start editing, though. Microsoft's Windows Live Photo Gallery containssome rudimentary photo editing tools, and it's free. Also free are programs like GIMP and Paint.Net, both of which are superb and powerful photo editors.

Set Up a Digital Workflow

Any photo editing program can help you get the most out of your images by improving the color, exposure, composition, and more. Whatever image editor you choose, I suggest that you perform your edits in this order:

  1. Cropping
  2. Color balance
  3. Brightness and contrast
  4. Sharpening
  5. Noise reduction

Read "Photo Editing Basics: Working With Layers" for more tips on getting started with an image editor.

A Word About File Formats

In the old days, there were more graphics file formats (BMP, PCX, TIFF, TGA, and more) in use than there were languages spoken at the United Nations. These days, you knowing about JPEG is usually sufficient. All cameras save photos in this format, and every photo editing and viewing program can read it. It's one of the few truly universal file formats.

JPEG is called a lossy file format, however, because it compresses photos to save disk space. The more severely a photo is compressed, the lower its quality will be--as in the right-hand image shown here. (The original is shown on the left; the version on the right has been saved several times at medium quality.) Because of this characteristic, you should save JPEG files at the highest quality/lowest compression possible.

Some people who learn that saving JPEGs can affect image quality worry that simply viewing a photo can be hazardous. Don't worry: Opening a JPEG file doesn't affect its image quality. You can open the file in a photo editor, view it, and close it without altering its quality--just don't click Save.

You may hear about a format called RAW. This isn't a single file format, and you'll never see a file with a .raw extension. The term RAW refers to unprocessed file formats that store all of the information that your camera's sensor captures when it records digital images. Nikon uses the NEF format, for example, while Canon uses CRW and CR2. For details on working with RAW, read "Using Your Camera's RAW Mode."