It doesn't take much to make me happy, but then it doesn't take much to annoy me either.


CAMERA - The first thing to consider about starting photography is what kind of camera to buy. I have a Nikon D750 for now, but it was a bit of a circuitous route to get here and with mirrorless models becoming more ubiquitous, it will likely not be my only camera in the future.

My previous experience with cameras had been with a Canon Powershot G1X Mark II. I purposely bought this camera for 2 reasons:

  1. I didn't know what I was doing - HA!
  2. I thought it had a good image sensor.

When looking into why some cameras take better pictures I learned about image sensors. An image sensor on a camera collects light, and the bigger the sensor the more light to be collected. The more light collected, the better the picture. Now this is a very basic outline of the concept, and there's undoubtedly so much more to this that I'm not explaining or even able to explain. But generally a bigger sensor will deliver a better picture.

The G1X does indeed have a larger sensor than a lot of other cameras, and the pictures taken with it did turn out better. But after a while I noticed with pictures of a group of people, those on the outside of the group - the edge of the picture - would look fatter. Trust me on this - women do not like that. Men aren't too crazy about it either, but it's a definite show stopper among half the population.

The reason for this is the lens on this camera is trying to be good at many things while compromising on others. Again, this camera was a major step in upgrading my pictures. Unfortunately the lens on the GX1 is not replaceable - it's a fixed lens. So I was kind of stuck with it.

After a couple of years I decided that if I wanted to fix the lens problem I would need to buy another camera. But this time it would have both a better sensor and a lens I could replace.

Initially I decided on a Panasonic. I forget which specific model, but my decision was based mostly on what a friend had recommended. I was sort of comfortable with this choice until I started talking with one of my nephews, who is also into photography. We started talking about the kind of camera I wanted and I mentioned that taking video was not something I was interested in - strictly pictures, no movies. When he asked what camera I wanted, I mentioned the Panasonic. "That's a great camera, kind of expensive though because it takes great videos."

Aaarrgh - what an idiot! Here I had said I wasn't interested in videos and yet I had convinced myself to buy an expensive camera that took great videos! I was totally embarrassed. I also realized I needed to really work at understanding cameras and come up with a better reason to buy an expensive camera than "my friend recommended it".

So that started my foray into learning about cameras.

There are many things to consider when judging cameras, and not just about the camera itself. When choosing a manufacturer (Nikon, Canon, Sony... the exhaustive list is far more) you're buying into a lens family. You can only use lens that are compatible with your camera, so buying a camera means investing in "glass" that, if purchased wisely, can be used on future camera upgrades. Very often, your lens will be with you far longer than the first camera you buy.

I had heard Nikon was very good at maintaining compatibility with their lens for literally decades. A Nikon lens from 50 years ago would still work on a new Nikon today. That is impressive, and along with the fact that Nikon is such a well known name I took the plunge and decided on them.

After that, I considered image sensor size. As mentioned before, the bigger the sensor the better the picture. So I spent time learning about different sensors, 4/3 sensors, full frame, APS-C... there's quite a bit about sensors, not to mention new technology gaining ground in mirrorless model cameras. At least after this I understood the different sized sensors and so began to search for a camera that had a full frame sensor - the largest available in the "pro-sumer" models.

Now a new model camera with a full frame sensor will easily cost $2-3K. That's a lot of money for something that I wasn't even sure I would fully understand, let along be good at or even enjoy.

Long story short, the Nikon D750 kind of was perfect for what I wanted. It has a full frame sensor and takes great pictures but it has one small drawback... as far as cameras go it was getting kind of old.

NIKON D750 - Nikon released the D750 in 2014, 6 years ago, and as far as technology is concerned that's a lifetime. Many other models, some far less expensive, have better technology than the D750.

But over and over I kept reading that even though the camera design was old, it was so good that everyone still loved them. The model had even developed a sort of mystic because it was just so good. Not only did it take good photos, but other intangibles such as the buttons arranged logically, a menu structure that was not confusing, decent battery life, and nearly everyone said the thing just felt comfortable to hold. I even ran across a couple of people who went back to their D750 after disappointment from upgrading to a newer model.

Another point in its favor is that since the D750 is an older model, it is also in my price range. Sweet.

So what did the newer models have that I would be giving up? Well on the D750, frames per second (how fast can it take continuous pictures) could be better. If I took action photos that might bother me - but I don't. Newer models also have more pixels on the sensor, but I'd also read that above a certain amount it isn't noticeable unless you're blowing up pictures to poster size - I'm not. And it's certainly not instantaneously responsive... when pressing the menu button I have to wait a couple of seconds instead of the "immediate on" that I know other models enjoy.

But that's okay because after 6 months of using this camera I've begun to appreciate all the good things mentioned earlier. It does feel good to hold - I only recently put the camera strap on because it just fit so well in my hand.

I've started mastering the buttons without having to look for them, because they are just where your fingers can reach them while still looking thru the viewfinder.

And the pictures! Good Lord - I've said over and over and over that this camera makes me a much better photographer than I actually am!

All in all the D750 was the perfect camera to learn photography. And that's what I began to realize needed to be done - I had to learn photography in a way that you know your camera inside and out. Learning meant knowing what all those buttons and knobs do without thinking about it - being able to adjust something while still looking thru the viewfinder. Understanding all the functions, changing ISO or aperture or shutter speed, metering adjustment, how to time automatic shots, multiple exposures, reviewing photos to make sure you got the focus, reading a histogram - knowing all of this without having to spend 20 minutes going thru a manual. In trying to understand all of this, I ran across someone who said in order to learn photography one needs to spend thousands of hours taking thousands of pictures. I realized I'd need to use this thing every single day, testing what I knew and trying something new.

MANUAL MODE - One of the first things I did was learn to take a picture with a blurred background. That. Was. Cool. A blurry background will make the focused foreground image jump out - it's a very nice looking photo.

 I found this could be easily done in aperture mode. Run the aperture as low as it will go while letting the camera automatically adjusts everything else. The background will be blurred while the thing you've focused on is crystal clear. I don't care what you're shooting, for a beginning photographer that was sweet succulent sugar. I took pictures of everything using the lowest aperture setting.

Then I started to notice noise in my pictures. Noise is when darker sections begin to break down and look grainy instead of smooth. This can happen when ISO is compensating for low lighting and still trying to keep the shutter speed up. At this point I started to notice how one function would affect another. Raise aperture and shutter speed can go lower. Increase the ISO and aperture can go lower. All of this had been explained in articles and videos and charts, but it wasn't until I started experimenting on my own that it finally was beginning to make sense.

Now it took a while - I was stuck on aperture mode for a long time - but I finally started to venture into completely manual mode. I struggled for a few days, but once I got it I was absolutely bursting with pride. One of my goals in buying a nice camera was to not rely on Auto mode - I wanted to learn more. And now, finally figuring out how to use manual mode was just an ultimate point of satisfaction. I actually drove my wife nuts because every time she turned around I was trying to explain how manual mode worked!

LIGHTROOM - I don't know if it's good or not, but Adobe has such a great deal on Lightroom & Photoshop that I couldn't pass it up. It's not good because we all hate the subscription model for software, but it is good because $10/month is pretty damn cheap for both these packages. I suppose if I didn't use Lightroom as much as I do it would be a problem, and frankly that concerned me before my purchase. But Lightroom has turned into an invaluable tool for fixing or enhancing photos. The difference is startling:


In the photos above, the one on the left is straight out of the camera and the one on the right has been processed with Lightroom. The yellows and greens have been enhanced, but other subtle changes including exposure, contrast, texture and clarity have also been adjusted. In the Lightroom "basic panel", there are 13 adjustment sliders - and there's a half dozen other panels with even more features. I'm still not clear about every single one but spending a little time watching online videos and trying various features has paid off well. To me, the results are more than worth the cost of the software.

When it comes to post processing, Photoshop has long been the dominant default application. But Adobe came out with Lightroom, which is like Photoshop without all the complexity. In a way, it's Photoshop lite, which sounds like it would hold less value. But in making the software easier to use, Adobe has created a wonderful package that stands on its own for post processing.

As with all software, you have to spend some time learning it. There are a plethora of web sites demonstrating how to use all the features of Lightroom.

Out of all the features and videos I've watched, the biggest lesson I've learned is less is more.

A typical mistake when starting to use Lightroom is to over process photos. Early on I fell into that trap, but it wasn't until I went back and looked at pictures taken months ago that I noticed they were way over processed. Skin that had been softened too smooth, golden tones that were too prevalent, or bright colors that become far too dominant in the photo.

Tutorials would also caution against this, and after seeing the results in my pictures I realized small adjustments are most often better than extremes. So now if I'm playing with a feature I'll run the slider bar to either extreme and note which looks better. Then whichever it is, I go back and only make a very minor adjustment in that direction. This has helped me to not go overboard with a particular feature. And using this method has given me confidence to try other adjustments while maintaining a reasonable approach.

Now I'm far from an expert and there are many things about Lightroom that I still don't know - but at least I have an idea and know not to blow out my pics with adjustments that do more harm than good. Lightroom is a very good application. I'll still make an attempt to learn Photoshop, but that's not as important now that Lightroom is here.

WORK FLOW - When taking pictures with a digital camera the thing that immediately becomes an issue is what to do with all those photos. I knew right away that I was going to have to come up with a process that both saved pictures in an archived backup as well as filter them quickly to determine which to keep.

Cameras these days have a function that will automatically take pictures as long as the shutter button is held down, and this can be a great feature when looking for that perfect picture with a moving subject. Maybe a ball player on the athletic field, or a bird about to take flight, or kids in the backyard - press the button and take a million pictures hoping one of them is the perfect shot.

I realized early on I would need a way to satisfy the hoarder in me that doesn't want to delete anything, and the efficiency part of me that doesn't want 25 pictures of the same damn thing. Fortunately there's a function on my camera that allows me to hold on to both of those concepts without too much effort or pain.

The function I'm talking about is dual memory card slots on the camera. Card 1 is my main card, Card 2 is my backup. Every time a picture is taken it automatically writes a copy to both cards.

Card 1 will be used to transfer photos to my computer, and once that's done it is reformatted so everything on the card is deleted. It continually repeats this process - copy the pictures just taken, and reformat the card once copying is completed.

Card 2 never gets deleted. It just keeps collecting copies of every picture taken. If I get to my computer and realize a photo is missing or damaged, I can go back to card 2 and look for the backup. When Card 2 fills up, I pull it out and save it with my other memory cards. Maybe one day I'll wipe it out and reuse, but for now it remains as my archive of every picture ever taken.

Right now I have a 128Gb SD flash card with over 4000 pictures on it stored in my drawer. The current 128Gb card in my camera is on track for the same... it's 85% full with 3500 files. Maybe I'll reuse archive cards, maybe not - it likely depends on whether I want to spend $35 on another flash card. And if history is a good indicator, that price should drop over time.

Now once photos are on my computer they're backed up like every other file using OneDrive to a 2nd computer. The 2nd computer is backed up with 2 external hard drives, and at any point in time one of those hard drives is stored offsite. Yeah... I take my backups seriously.

But still, there can be a lot of photos collected and it takes some effort to make sure they are reviewed in good time to make sure the job doesn't get too overwhelming. I use Lightroom to quickly process photos, most of which are not that great so it's easy to delete them - especially knowing Card 2 is my backup.

For pictures that I like where there are multiple copies, a closer examination takes place. Low ISO, low shutter speed, and best focus identify the keepers. But even then I may have to choose - maybe there are 6 identical photos all the same good quality. At that point I simply have to choose - there's just no need to have more than 1 copy of the same photo even if it is a good one.



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