Teaching photography

I was pleased to spend some time around the Swansea Marina with a work colleague last Saturday, and give him an introduction to photography with a DSLR camera.

Swansea There is much more to photography than learning the mechanics of operating a camera, but it gets much easier to start to learn the art of photography once you have gained a decent basic understanding of how to operate a camera and how to control the elements of an exposure to achieve certain desirable outcomes. It is somewhat akin to learning to drive a car. Whilst a fully automated car (yet to arrive) may well get you from A to B, until you have learnt how to operate a car, it is hard to develop the skills necessary for making good and safe progress, recognising and avoiding dangerous situations,  enjoying the freedom of a car and the travel and convenience benefits it gives you.

I have now taught a good number of people the basics of photography. They are all IT technically minded people (not necessarily the most creative types around, but who knows what the will produce in the long term). I have found all of my students, as is the nature of technical people, very keen to get their heads around how to use the camera (without reading a manual) with a little bit of guiding experimentation and lots of information (the sheep-dip approach) only some of which they can possibly absorb.

I put my main camera, a Nikon D300, into his hands from the off, with a 50mm prime (fixed focus) fast (large aperture) lens and we left my work flat (located on the Marina) after a quick explanation of the three main components of exposure: shutter duration, aperture, and sensor sensitivity/amplification. I felt the 50mm lens was less intimidating than most, relatively light, and very capable. Learning to move backwards and forwards rather than relying on zoom is an important technique to learn.

I set the camera to manual exposure mode (but automatic focus). There are some that would say only professionals use manual mode, or you are no good if you cannot use manual mode, or manual mode is not necessary these days. (No doubt, there are a lot of other variants.) My view is that you gain a much better understanding of exposure settings more quickly by starting with manual mode than you doing using any automated modes and that includes learning how and when to use automated modes. It also means you gain an understanding of what the various scene modes on many cameras do, so enabling you to take better control of such cameras (including using an inappropriate mode to achieve a particular outcome).

Swansea Swansea My colleague’s very first shots were of a floatation ring. I had him work his way towards roughly identical exposures with different depths of field. Larger aperture on the left f1.6 @ 1/2000 and smaller aperture on the right f6.3 @ 1/125. Clearly the image on the right has more things in focus.

SwanseaOne thing particularly striking about doing this on an afternoon in late November was that the light changed very quickly and my colleague, working hard to set exposures correctly (for the desired effect) for a number of subjects recognised how rapid the changes were once I pointed it out. This was especially challenging with the above statue as a subject (subsequently converted to black and white).

Once he had mastered using a prime lens, I introduced him to using zoom lenses and wide angled lenses. He learnt that all the controls were the same. Sadly we did not get to cover compression effects from telephoto lenses though.

AlexTo fight the cold, he treated me to a hot drink in one of the Marina coffee shops. Whilst there, to show him the ability of a decent camera to be able to produce decent results with higher ISO settings, I took a quick snap-shot portrait shot of him He was rather impressed by the photo – said he had never had a decent portrait picture taken in recent years. Later, I did a little air-brushing on the image, and replaced the background with black rather than the original wall. That’s the picture at the top of this post.

SwanseaHe was particularly pleased with one of his longer exposures taken later on (in very cold conditions) using a tripod to support the camera. Just before we froze completely, I showed him the effects of even longer exposures with a return to one of the earlier subjects, a statue of Dylan Thomas.


I enjoyed the afternoon. I enjoyed watching understanding and realisation come to my friend. He clearly enjoyed things and I hope he invests in a DSLR soon and starts to develop his creative skills.

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