Back to Basics: The Five Things Beginning Photographers Should Have

Let’s face it, when you first start taking pictures it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. In fact, I assume that because you are reading this article you know exactly what I’m talking about. Have faith though! The fact that you are reading this at all is good because it means that you have some initiative; I like that. Without further adieu, here are the 5 things I wish I started with (along with some tips and pitfalls to avoid!).

1. A good tripod
If you want to get serious about photography, you are going to have to get used to not always shooting in ideal lighting. In fact, the best shots most often happen when you have very dramatic lighting (such as the afterglow of a sunset, or a dimly lit room with a single window, etc…). This means that at some point or another you will have to deal with some low-light situations; and this makes a tripod indespensible. Tripods eliminate camera shake from slow shutter speeds and can allow you to lower your ISO, which is good (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out this article). I can’t tell you how valuable it is to do your research before you buy a tripod. From personal experience, I can tell you that paying $60 at Best Buy or any mega-mart will get you a flimsy, mediocre tripod. I would highly recommend you look around amazon.com where you can get a really solid tripod for $40 or less (like this). It is important that the tripod is made of metal so that it will last. There are ultra-light carbon fiber tripods as well, but at this point in your career they are overkill (so save your money!). This is not a place to skimp, but it is also not something you should spend all of your money on.

2. A bag to carry everything
Accessibility is key! If you are constantly struggling to get all of your equipment organized, it is very easy to forget a lens, batter, charger, et cetera. This makes it all too likely that you will miss a shot. Getting a bag that makes switching lenses easy is also important if you have more than one lens already. Unfortunately there are some trade-offs here… Over the shoulder “messenger bags” will undoubtedly make changing lenses easier because you can access the contents of the bag while the bag is still on you and the camera is around your neck (less to hold at once). These bags can even provide a good platform to place lenses while swapping if they are big enough. However, many of these shoulder bags are not as big as traditional backpack-like photo bags (unless you shell out some serious money). So here is the question: do you care about accessibility or volume? Personally, I choose to bring a backpack photo bag with me to most of my shoots because I never know what I will find and I like to have as much of my gear as possible. I want to always be ready and with the right lens to capture whatever strikes my eye, whether that is a landscape (kit lens), bug (macro lens), bird (telephoto lens) or person (50mm prime lens). Although this is mostly a personal preference, it is important to think about the future. For you, does the future mean more lenses and gear that will be tough to fit into a small bag, or does the future mean running around in the city doing street photography or some other type of photojournalism where moment to moment changes are everything?

3. A filter kit
Now that you have invested in some nice glass, protect it! A UV filter should be put on pretty much every lens that you own because they will stop the glass of the lens from getting scratched. Trust me, it is much easier to replace a <$10 UV filter than the front element of a lens. Another cool filter that I especially liked when I first started taking pictures was a CPL filter, otherwise known as a circular polarizer. Circular polarizers darken the hue of the sky when you are looking perpendicular to the sun, and make for really dramatic landscapes. CPLs also cut back reflections from non-metallic surfaces. This means that you can look through clear waters and reduce lighting on show-room cars. There are other filters too, like red, blue, yellow, fluorescent, and infrared filters (just to name a few). Most of these are more important for film photography where you don’t set the white balance, or where you want a really special effect. Although these filters can be cool, I don’t recommend going out of your way to buy them just yet. If they are included in a bundle with a UV and CPL filter, then go nuts!

4. A prime lens
A prime lens is a fixed focal length lens. This means that you cannot zoom in or out, you actually have to move around to compose your shot and frame your subject. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is because it will force you to look for new perspectives and try to find cool angles and develop and eye for good composition. I strongly recommend getting a 50mm f/1.8 or 35mm f/1.8 as soon as you can, and then only use that lens for a month or two (CAVEAT: some older versions of these lenses may not autofocus with entry level Nikon DSLRs! Do your research! Any “G” model will work, but “D” or “E” models will not). If you want to know more about composition and learn how to make the most of your prime lens, I suggest looking at this book. I’m not trying to shamelessly plug this author, I just found his book amazingly helpful and I know that Roman did too. Another benefit to these prime lenses is their large maximum aperture. Again, if you don’t know what this is please check out our back to basics posts here and here. In a nutshell, these lenses will do great in low-light, and will have very shallow depths-of-field that can be artistically employed.

5. A friend!
I know this is cheesy, but I honestly believe that a little healthy competition never hurt anyone, that the best way to learn is by teaching, and that feedback is a key component of improvement. It is of utmost importance, therefore, to have an honest friend who will tell you what they like and don’t like about your pictures. A friend who will go on all of these crazy photoshoots with you. A friend who will model for you (and vice versa). Also, I’m sure you know how much more fun any hobby can be when you aren’t in it alone. I can honestly say that without Roman or Emily, I would not be where I am today. So, sorry for being so corny but I hope this helps and you can make a great friend through ludicrous camping trips in the middle of winter to take pictures of stars, or through hikes in the middle of the night to watch the sun rise from a mountain top, or through countless hour-long drives to and from a nearby lake to watch the sun set. Just remember, always have your camera with you and always be looking! Not every shot you take will be your best (or even worth showing), but every shot does make you that little bit better!

What are you waiting for?? Get out there and start shooting!

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