Obsession: Taking Better Photographs, Part 1

I’ve never been confident with a camera. I’ve always had ‘point and shoot’ models – fully automatic cameras that make all the decisions for you – and I’ve never practiced enough to get a sense of how to compose and shoot a good photo.

Case in point:

Poor framing; bad light; hard to see the sock detail; also boring.


Funny story: at Sock Summit last year, I took Franklin Habit‘s amazing photography class. I was such a novice that I didn’t even know whether my camera had most of the options he was talking about, let alone knowing how to use them. (Turns out my camera didn’t.)

I’m doing a lot of blogging and designing and I need to improve the quality of my photography.  With help from some knowledgeable friends, I’ve dipped my toe into this exciting – and sometimes a bit scary – world.

The first issue for me was even learning what questions to ask and how to understand the answers. That took a bit of research, but once I had a bit of knowledge, it became a lot less daunting and a lot more fun. I suspect that there a lot of knitters out there in the same position I was, so I thought I’d share some of my learnings with you.

Step 1: Do Some Reading

Before I ventured into a camera shop, I did a bit of reading so I didn’t feel quite so silly.

Get familiar with the categories and price ranges: How to Choose the Perfect Digital Camera for Your Needs

Key concepts, explained beautifully: Photography’s Three Basic Tenets in Eight Bits and Nine Minutes.

There’s a ton of great stuff on the Lifehacker website photography section, (some of it from sister website Gizmodo, which is also wonderful) although it can be a little overwhelming.

Step 2: The Camera

Just what I needed.

Up until now, I’d only owned fully automatic models. These are great cameras, and aren’t expensive, and are perfect for everyday snapshots and vacation pics and the like. Someone with a good eye can take great pictures with one, no question. What they lack is the ability to control how the camera takes pictures.

What I needed was a camera that could be automatic, but could also let me play with the various options – shutter speed, aperture, focus – to change the photographs I was taking.

I chose a Canon G12. Canon was the unanimous recommendation for photographers of my level – that is, someone looking to move up from a fully automatic. They’re very high quality cameras, and can be operated in fully automatic (i.e. the camera decides for itself what to do), fully manual (e.g. I know what the heck I’m doing and can set the exposure and focus myself), and various semi-manual modes. This allows me to learn to control one element at a time, to really understand it. It’s also got lots of clever pre-programmed modes for things like shooting fast-moving subjects (e.g. the dog at the park), in low light (e.g. knitting at night), and the one I’m most excited to use – for shooting fireworks!

There is a very similar model, the Canon S100, that’s a little newer a little smaller, and a little less expensive – but just as powerful. I definitely recommend that you look at both if you’re shopping. I ultimately chose the G12 because I like how it felt – more important than you might think! And I like that it’s operated with dials; the S100 is controlled more through the software. What became clear to me is that either choice was a very good one, the decision is entirely about how the camera feels to you.  This means that when you’re shopping, it’s important to actually get your hands on the cameras. I can’t recommend highly enough that you get yourself to an actual camera shop, if at all possible. Go to a store with a knowledgeable staff and ask questions, and touch and feel.

When I was camera shopping, I took some knitting with me so that I could show the salesperson what I would be shooting, and so that I could see how the camera handled those kinds of shots.

Note: I learned pretty early on in my research that the term ‘point and shoot’ is a bit misleading. My G12 is considered a ‘point and shoot’ because it can be operated in a fully automatic mode. You’re looking for a camera that offers manual control in addition to  automatic modes. (When I told the sales staff initially that I didn’t want a point and shoot camera, they pointed me to professional level multi-thousand-dollars cameras.)

Step 3: Start Taking Photos Immediately

I got the camera home, I charged the battery, I read the quick start booklet, and first thing the following morning I starting taking pictures. I had no idea what all the various buttons and dials were for, but that was ok: I made sure that everything was set to ‘automatic’ and starting taking pictures.

Sounds like a silly thing to do, but this was an incredibly useful exercise for a few reasons: it helped me get over my shyness about carrying a camera: I look ridiculous! They’ll think I’m a tourist! These photos will be terrible!

Yes, all of these things might be true: but so what? Carrying a good camera will make you look like a knowledgeable tourist. And if they think you’re a tourist they won’t judge if you spend twenty minutes taking pictures of a bike rack. And most important of all: you can’t take good photos until you’ve taken bad ones.

My first day with my new camera I took about thirty pictures of Dexter playing with his friend Daisy…

Not a great picture, but not a bad one.

To Be Continued
Next week, I’ll write more about my adventures and I’ll show you some more of the shots I’ve taken.

(524 Posts)

16 thoughts on “Obsession: Taking Better Photographs, Part 1

  1. Brandi

    I think you’ll get the hang of it. One of the first things I conquered when taking pics for my blog and etsy store what the art of good pics and I’m still evolving.

  2. Adventures in Dressmaking

    I agree that good pics make all the difference. Mine used to be SO terrible, and even now I struggle with them but they’re much better. It’s cool how blogging teaches us skills like photography!

    I think the biggest tips for me are, NO FLASH and always make your pics X-LARGE in your posts!! Makes it look so much better!

  3. Gina in the San Francisco Bay Area

    What a wonderful new camera! My first (very inexpensive) SLR camera is still my favorite. I took my best picture ever with my first roll of film – chalk it up to beginner’s luck.

  4. Sylvie

    I got the S100 recently and I pretty much adore it. I like that it shoots in RAW, has lots of manual control, but is still small enough to fit easily into my purse.

  5. Robbie

    You got a great creative compact. It’s definitely NOT a point-and-shoot. Here is to years of joy and creativity with it!!!

  6. Julia

    Learning more about photography, not just about the technical aspects but framing and background and light and whatnot, can make such a huge difference for taking all sorts of pictures.

    For me, it was more realizing that I could use knowledge I already had, instead of just taking cell phone snaps of stuff I was making and uploading them to Ravelry. It might be silly, but I like the way my project page looks a lot more now. =)

  7. syd

    I’ve also signed up for the tips at http://digital-photography-school.com/tips and they are UH-MAY-ZINGLY helpful. I just got a DSLR for mother’s day and am trying hard to learn what the heck all the buttons are for… mostly so that I can take stunning pictures of knitted items – or people wearing my knitted items. 🙂

  8. Helen

    Learning something abuot composition definitely helps me, even when I am taking pictures with my cell phone. But if you have to resort to photoshop to ‘fix’ something, even as simple as cropping or reformating a picture for a website, take a look at http://www.photoshopelementsuser.com/.

  9. Rae

    I have this camera and LOVE it. I can capture light on the lake with it. It is amazing and it has made me a better photographer.

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