The Genius of Digital Photography

By Doug Sahlin

The genius of digital photography is the fact that you can take a picture with your digital camera and see it almost immediately on your camera’s LCD monitor. This, quite frankly, is also the curse of digital photography. The fact that photographers can get instant gratification and capture hundreds of images on a reusable memory card has a tendency to make them lazy and forget about the basics.

Photography hasn’t changed with the exception of the media on which it is captured. Light still passes through a lens and the camera determines the aperture and shutter speed needed to yield a properly exposed image. Your job as a photographer is to learn your equipment and learn some basic rules about photography.

Mastering your equipment

To create compelling images, you must first master your equipment. You should know what every button, switch, and dial on your camera is used for, and you should be able to use them to change settings without taking your eye from the viewfinder. Practice using your camera controls in a dimly lit room. After a while choosing the right button or dial will become second nature.

After you’ve mastered the camera controls, you need to know what settings to use to capture the type of image you’re after. Really try not to use one of the camera’s scene settings or leave the camera on Full Auto mode. Use Aperture Priority mode when your goal is to control depth of field. Depth of field is the amount of the image that is in apparent focus in front of and behind your subject.

If you’re photographing portraits, choose a large aperture such as f/4.0 or larger, which lets in a lot of light and yields a very shallow depth of field. Portraits can be shot wide open (the largest aperture setting for the lens) with something like a Lensbaby Edge 80 optic. If you focus on your subject’s eyes, you get a nice dreamy portrait with a soft, blurry background.

When you’re shooting a landscape, you’ll probably want a large depth of field. Use a small aperture such as f/11 or smaller, which lets a small amount of light into the camera and gives you a tremendous depth of field.

When you’re shooting objects in motion, use Shutter Priority mode. A fast shutter speed will freeze action. But there are times when you want to depict the grace and beauty of an athlete in motion. For example, when you photograph a racecar at speed, you can use a relatively slow shutter speed and pan the camera so that the car is in the viewfinder. The camera and the car are traveling at the same relative speed; therefore, the car is sharp, but the background is a blur, which does a good job of capturing the essence of speed.

When you pan, pivot from the waist and keep your camera level. You can do the same thing when you’re photographing runners in a marathon or an event like a horse race, but use a slightly slower shutter speed than you would when photographing a car.

This introduces the next part of the equation: the lens. Wide angle lenses with a focal length between 16mm and 35mm are best used for landscape photography, which lets you capture the big picture. When you’re shooting someone’s portrait, an 85mm or 105mm lens is ideal. When you’re shooting wildlife from a distance, a telephoto lens with a focal length of at least 200mm is needed. If you’re photographing birds, you may need a lens with a focal length of 500mm or greater.

Being in the moment

After you learn to use your camera, you’re well on your way to becoming a competent photographer. When you know how to use your camera and know which settings and lens to use, you can create a technically perfect image. Technically perfect means well exposed.

But a perfectly exposed image won’t make someone want to spend time looking at it. Thousands of technically perfect images are taken every year, but they pale in comparison to photographs created by a master photographer. Compare the snapshots taken every year in Yosemite to the work of Ansel Adams and you’ll know the difference between a snapshot and a compelling photograph.

Ansel Adams said he could visualize the image in his mind’s eye before taking the picture. Instead of just randomly shooting hundreds of images, stop and notice what’s around you, really notice what’s around you. Good subjects for photography are everywhere if you only slow down enough to see them. This is known as being in the moment.

Instead of thinking about what you have to do tomorrow, or what you’re going to eat for dinner, put 100 percent of your effort into your photography. If you slow down and notice what’s around you, you’ll be able to visualize images in your mind’s eye. When you can visualize an image, you’ll know exactly which lens and settings to use. You’ll also know what to leave in the frame and what to leave out of the frame.

The best way to create compelling photographs is to fill up memory cards with photos whenever you have the chance. If you work a nine-to-five job, this may seem difficult. But with a bit of thought and planning, you can always find time to shoot.

Leave for work a half hour early and bring your camera with you. Shoot pictures on your way to work and shoot pictures on your way home. Set a specific time or times each week when you’ll take pictures. Author Julia Cameron refers to this as an “Artist’s Date” in her book, The Artist’s Way. Schedule a couple of hours each week when you do nothing but take pictures.

When you go on your Artist’s Date, go with a specific goal in mind. Visit a place you’ve photographed many times before, but photograph it in a different way. Or visit a place you’ve never photographed before and capture the essence of the place with your photographs.

Something else you can do on an Artist’s Date is to “Go Commando.” This means packing one or two lenses instead of packing every piece of gear you own. This enables you to master a specific lens and to compensate for any shortcomings the lens may have. The fact that you have to physically move instead of zooming in or out makes you concentrate on exactly what’s in the frame, which almost always gives you a better picture.

Explore different areas to photograph. Take a different way to work or when you go on errands and keep an eye out for new places to shoot. Take the long way home and you’ll find more places to shoot. Many photographers think they have to go to an exotic locale to find good fodder for photography. With a bit of persistence on your part, you can find great places to shoot that are near your home.

Always take a camera with you. If you don’t want to carry a digital SLR with you whenever you go out, consider purchasing a good point-and-shoot camera such as the Canon S100. It’s small enough to slip in your pocket, yet it can still capture RAW images. When you see something that piques your curiosity, take a picture of it and note the location.

Even if you’re shooting in really poor light, you know you can always come back and get a good picture with your digital SLR. Carrying a camera with you at all times trains you to become a better photographer by being more observant.

Finding your unique style

After you master your camera and know which lens and settings to use to capture a specific type of image, you can create technically perfect images. The images are properly exposed and in focus. However, anyone with a point-and-shoot camera can get a good image. The trick is to get a compelling image, a visual feast that makes the viewer spend some time with the image.

Compare the incredible photographs Ansel Adams captured in Yosemite to the thousands of snapshots taken every year in the park by tourists and you’ll know the difference between a snapshot and a work of art.

Ansel knew Yosemite like the back of his hand and knew when the majestic waterfalls and mountains would be bathed in golden sunlight. But Ansel had something else going for him: he had his own unique way of looking at the world, which shows in his photographs. Ansel Adams had a unique style. When you look at one of his photographs, you know who photographed it. Developing a unique style should be your goal as a photographer.

When you’re just getting started in photography you may have a difficult time developing a unique style. The best way to develop a style is to study the work of the masters. If you’re a landscape photographer, study the work of Ansel Adams, Clyde Butcher, or David Muench. If you’re a portrait photographer, study the work of Greg Gorman or Annie Leibovitz. If you’re a street photographer who craves the gritty journalistic style, study the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. You can also find great examples of photography in magazines.

Be a sponge and soak up as much visual information as you can. When you look at a photograph, try to determine which lens the photographer used as well as the shutter speed and f/stop combination. You can often find this information listed on many of the photography sites like Flickr.com, photo.net, and smugmug.com. On these sites, you’ll find lots of examples of great photography and some bad photography as well.

After you study the work of the masters, use the information you’ve gained to take some pictures and emulate the work of the masters. Don’t copy the style of the master you’ve been studying; take what you’ve learned and put your own spin on it. In the beginning, your work will look like the master you’ve been studying, but after a while, your photos will have their own unique look.

It’s a great time to be a photographer. There’s lots of great gear on the market and camera and lens manufacturers are introducing new models on a regular basis. Embrace the genius of digital photography and create some great photographs.