Getting Started in Digital Photography

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My wife got a new digital camera under the tree this year, and she immediately turned to me and said, "What's next?" Since she wanted to know how to get the most out of her camera, I suggested that she brush up on her photo composition skills, which I wrote about in "Photo Composition Tips."

But she wanted more. So this week, I've rounded up the four most important things that every new digital photographer should consider.

1. Choose a Camera

If you already have a camera, you can skip to the next item. But I get e-mail each and every week asking what kind of camera to buy, so it seems that a lot of you are looking for a first camera or a second, "step up" camera.

If you're serious about taking great photos, I unequivocally recommend a digital SLR. The ability to control as much (or as little) of the exposure process as you want for each photo, RAW format support, interchangeable lenses, and the generally higher quality images that SLRs take compared to point-and-shoot models all contribute to my recommendation.

But which one should you get? Honestly, I don't think it matters a lot. You could throw a dart at a pile of digital SLR ads, find one in your price range, and end up with a good model. Don't get me wrong: I do have preferences. I'm a Nikon guy, for example, and I love my D200. But Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and other major camera makers all create superb SLRs, and it's almost inconceivable that your camera will ever be responsible for holding you back from great photography. So go to a store and play with different models. Explore their differences. But don't obsess over which camera is "best." There isn't a "best" one. Read more of my cranky "the camera isn't important" advice in "Which Digital Camera is Best?"

2. Read a Book

I'm a writer, so of course I want you to read. Let's prove Steve Jobs wrong.

You can learn a lot about photography by reading. There are a wealth of online sources, like this very blog, Ken Rockwell's Web site, and my favorite photo resource, Digital Photo Review. Also, don't forget about my compendium of online photo guides in "Treasure Trove of Photo Tutorials."

I love books, too. If you've already digested my own book, How to Do Everything with Your Digital Camera, then I suggest you scan the bookstore shelves for books that focus on the specific kind of photography you are interested in--sports, portraits, nature, and so on. You can learn a lot by seeing how the author captured the photos you see in the book.

3. Select Your Lenses

One of the best reasons to get an SLR is for 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--perhaps a bigger one than the camera body itself. Don't impulsively buy a couple of lenses the day you buy your SLR just because the salesperson recommended them.

Photographers tend to think about the focal length coverage they need. If you enjoy taking landscape, nature, and people photos, you may never need a telephoto lens, and buying one would be a waste of money. Alternately, you might want a macro lens for close-ups--something a sports and action-oriented photographer would never dream of buying.

A well-rounded set of lenses might include a wide-angle zoom that covers 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 all your bases are covered. But remember my advice: You might not need all of that glass, depending upon the kind of photos you typically take. And some people are perfectly happy with a single, general-purpose zoom like an 18-200mm lens. This type of lens has gotten popular because it packs such a wide range of focal lengths in a single package. However, such a lens won't perform as well as more specialized lenses.

In addition to focal length, you should think about the "speed," or f-number, of your lens. Though they are typically more expensive, "fast" lenses are prized possessions for many photographers. Fast lenses have bigger apertures (smaller f-numbers) and can shoot sharper photos in low light than their cheaper siblings.

For more information on lenses, check out "Demystifying Lenses."

4. Develop a Digital Workflow

Finally, it wouldn't be digital photography without the ability to process images on the PC. In the old days of film, serous photographers would modify their images in the darkroom. Even casual photographers wouldn't end up with un-retouched images, because the guy that developed the photos at the photo store would tweak colors and exposure during the developing process.

These days, that's all up to you. Any photo editing program can help you get the most out of your images by improving the color, exposure, composition, and more. For more information, read my series, "Establishing a Digital Photo Workflow, Part I" and "Establishing a Digital Photo Workflow, Part II."

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "A Sweet Drink," by Paul Bild, Vancouver, B.C.

Paul writes, "I took this picture with a Canon 40D with a 70-200mm lens while visiting the Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona."

This Week's Runner-Up: "Night Cactus" by David Gibbs, Phoenix, Arizona

Davis says that he shot this photo from the highway's edge using a Canon EOS 40D.

To see last month's Hot Pic winners, visit our slide show. See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

This story, "Getting Started in Digital Photography" was originally published by PCWorld.

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