The Unicorn Academy Guide to Amateur Photography (Lesson Two): "So, you got a new camera. Now what?"


You unwrapped some paper patterned with holiday icons surrounding a mysterious box. As you peeled it away you saw the Nikon or Canon or Sony logo appear behind the torn wrapping. You knew exactly what this gift was, you wanted it terribly, and someone delivered. Congratulations, you got a new Digital Single Light Reflex (DSLR) camera!  Whichever winter holiday you celebrate, a DSLR is one of those gifts that can make it one to cherish forever. Or maybe you’ve scraped and saved all your hard-earned pennies to finally click “checkout” on Amazon. Regardless, you have an amazing tool to capture your world with, and that is so incredibly exciting.

I remember what it was like when I had finally managed to scrape together $400 after a couple years and finally had my first DSLR (a Nikon D70s) in my hands. I was in college and it took forever to save that money given I had the typical financial status of most college students, but it was finally there. That experience was like Christmas in itself. I know how expensive these things are, and if you were finally able to afford the camera you want, then you deserve a round of applause.

Before you start snapping the shutter too much, there is a quote I want you to know about:

"A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures - they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’ He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: ‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific stove."
-Sam Haskins

Now, I’m not saying that you aren’t going to be an amazing photographer. Hell, you might already be gifted at this craft and this just so happens to be the first camera you own. It’s important to remember, however, that this awesome new gift you’ve been given is a tool, and you will get what you put into it. Are you a beginner? Awesome! So, okay, now what?

Read the Manual.

It’s boring but necessary. There are a lot of buttons on your new toy with which you will not be familiar--it’s good to familiarize yourself with the interface and hardware available on your camera before using it. I personally have not read my cameras' manuals; and I will say that I have accidentally hit an unfamiliar button, after which my camera ends up in some weird mode that I don’t know how to turn off. Skim it, keep it around. All manuals are typically available online in case you ever lose it or prefer reading the information electronically.

There are also great resources such as Fro Knows Photo and F-Stoppers on YouTube that will walk you through your camera model. Ken Rockwell has also reviewed every camera known to man on his website and talks more about what your camera is capable of more than you will ever need to know.

What do YOU want to learn to shoot?

Do you want to take pretty pictures on trips? Pictures of flowers in your garden? Portraits of family members? Ask yourself why you got this camera and what pictures you want to take with it--this will help you narrow down what you need to learn. You may find this will change and evolve over time; this is a never-ending journey with every photographer. Weddings used to be my bread and butter, but now they’ve taken a backseat to portrait and product photography.

Learn the basics.

Composition, ISO, White Balance, Shutter Speed, F-Stop, Aperture, Manual; these words may sound like a foreign language to you now, but learning the “Glossary of Photography” is key to shooting correctly and confidently. There are many online resources, local photography groups, and community colleges and camera shops that offer classes. We will get into the basics in this series, but it’s good to familiarize yourself with these terms and have a decent understanding of them once you get out shooting.

Don’t get caught up in gear.

There are so many different kinds of lenses, lighting, and accessories for cameras out there, but if you’re just getting started then shoot with what you’ve already got. Over time you may realize the tools you really need, and build a custom kit that is uniquely you as a photographer. For example, since I am primarily a portrait and product photographer, I have only one zoom lens right now. I have a fixed-focal, prime glass lens that does the work I want to do. Depending on the style and route you decide to go with your pictures, you will build a kit that works for you. If you’re going to go out and photograph birds while hiking, you may find you just want a couple zoom lenses. Maybe you’ll take your camera up north to take pictures of your dog, so the one lens that came with your camera is the only one you will ever need. One lens that I love and think everyone should own is a 50mm 1.8. They’re easily under $200 and can be used for 90% of tasks. You’ll find out how nice it is to have decent glass with a low aperture setting. Trust me.

Don’t get caught up in the rush of Facebook business pages.

As a photographer, it feels like a lot of people get this new camera for christmas and then “set up shop” on Facebook. It’s easy to take decent pictures and set up a Facebook business page. Know what’s NOT easy? Running a business! There is a reason that my creative business is not full-time. I’ve tried it, and it is easier for me to do my design work and photography for an awesome establishment that I am happy to be a part of, and then take the jobs that are the right fit for me on the side. That could change, but I love the setup I have right now. Maybe owning your own photography business is the dream job you never knew you wanted, but take your time. You will need a business license, liability insurance, equipment insurance, a business banking account, an accountant...yeah, it’s not all the frills and pretty flatlays you see on Instagram from full-time independent contractors. If your goal is to go full time, also keep in mind that there might be a long road of working for clients that might not be the right fit in order to maintain a consistent income. Pump the breaks as you are learning and do your homework before you start charging people for your images. *Gets off soap box* Sorry, I just know that wonderful photography bug can bite hard and cause us to not be on Earth sometimes. It still happens to me all these years later. Always keep your ultimate goals in mind and make careful decisions along the way to get you there.

Consider finding photographers whose work inspires you.

We’ve all said things like “I wish I could have X’s life or X’s job.” I’m definitely guilty of this. For me, discovering the work of Jamie Beck (Ann Street Studio) and Jonas Peterson fueled me to go out there and shoot and learn more. I don’t want to copy their work, but I see them doing things I’d like to be good at and put my own twist on. Artists have always been influenced by others whether it be in music, fine art, theatre, writing, or photography. It’s what makes our creative world go round. A good way to find your photography heroes is by reminding yourself of what kind of work you’d like to be shooting. You can use this to do your own research on Google, Instagram, Pinterest, Stumbleupon; maybe even check out the photography section in your local library (I certainly could take advantage of this more). Being inspired can be what gets you started or keeps you going. Your inspiration could be from a local family photographer. It doesn’t matter, but it’ll help drive you as a creative.

Get out and shoot.

You learn by doing. Practice makes perfect. There are many cliche phrases for this floating around out there, but they’re repeated as much as they are for a reason. You can read up on all this, learn the fundamentals, but when you actually get out there and are able to apply these skills to your images.

You might feel discouraged by your first 50 or even 100 images. That’s okay, we all start somewhere! Just think about how in the future you will look back at your first photographs and see how far you’ve come. Looking back at my first photos may be a bit of a terrifying experience for me, especially in times where I feel uninspired or like I’m not good enough, but I find that looking back helps to remind me that I’ve grown and I’m going to continue growing as a photographer. Practice patience with your photography, and you will see your reward in the pictures you take.

We will get into the actual act of taking pictures next time, but just as a friendly reminder that if you are following along with this series and choose to take pictures you’re willing to share online in the process, please tag them with #UNICORNPHOTOACADEMY so all the other unicorns can see what you are working on. Let’s inspire each other!


The Girl in the Unicorn Pajamas