DSLRs can be the worst enemy of an apprentice photographer.

Ooooh the troll title ! Yes, but I do have a solid point. Keep on reading :)

I started photography with a "premium compact", a Olympus C5050. It was slow, and rather automated. Then I got a job, and a bit of money. I went for what was appealing: a DSLR. Wooow, big and all technological, people were impressed, grrrr... That did make me happy back in the days. However, I felt very limited. I was under the impression photoshop allowed me more creativity than the camera itself. I actually believe the very nature of DSLRs lead people to actually work in photoshop instead of working on the camera. 

They, I got a Mamiya RZ67. Full manual film camera. Not even a light meter...I actually wonder what the batteries are for? And then only I learned how to master a camera. Proper photography came after. Why is that? DSLRs can be dangerous for someone who intends to learn photography. They trick you into doing all the wrong things. A Jedi Master would tell you they push you to the dark side, to easier, more appealing choices. 

1st Danger with DSLRs
Automation. You can go all manual with a DSLR, but how many of you shoot in full manual mode with spot metering? I bet less than 5%, ballpark figure. Well if you have never done it, you can't say you master your camera. You can't say you understand exposure, depth of field or any lever that allow you control of your creative approach. A DSLR makes choice based on a software. If you let it do it, what is the part of you in the picture you create? There are so many things to influence when shooting. Good photographers intend the result they obtain. They set up the camera the right way, shoot a few rolls of 10 shots each only and get 50% great shots or more on a total of 30 images. I don't know one DSLR only user who can claim such results. The big problem is: you have no constraint. You can just shoot tons, photoshop what can be, throw away the rest.  It takes me to my second point.

You surely won't get that ouf of a DSLR unless you force it into doing it. 

2nd Danger with DSLRs
Digital = shoot as much as you want. As said previously, without constraint, you have very low expectations. Know that when you show a portfolio to an editor or a gallery, you come with maximum 20 shots. All of them need to be equally good, you are only as good as your worst picture. When I started shooting film with 10 shots on each roll, I realize each picture was costing me about 1$. That makes you think twice about what you shoot ! You start framing, paying attention to details, exposing better etc. 

3rd  Danger with DSLRs
Digital sensors. Yes, they make it cheap to shoot. Yes they allow nice post processing. Yes they are astonishing in low light. However they have one massive weakness: dynamic range is rubbish. It means they are poorly capable of rendering an image that has very high contrast, with bright and dark zones. It also is so neutral color-wise that it naturally comes out boring. Film has a personality, it doesn't allow much margin but it surely doesn't come out boring. It also has tremendous dynamic range, positive film in particular.

Velvia 50 film: notice how the dark rocks anr bright sky both have great detail no matter how strong the contrast is. 

4nd Danger with DSLRs
Kit lenses. They are rubbish, expect in the case of very premium kits (on full frame cameras mostly). Apart from very specific cases that require flexibility, an actual photographer uses prime lenses only, i.e. lenses that are optimized for one focal length only and have much wider aperture. On larger format cameras, the physics is different, you can get superb depth at F5.6. On a 35mm camera, you need wider aperture to benefit from shorter depth of field, F2.0 or below.

So what should you do to make sure your DSLR doesn't not become the enemy of your photographic evolution?

1st thing to do
Either get a film SLR with no other automation than an aperture priority mode. It costs 100$ (nikon FE or anything equivalent if you have Canon lenses, Minolta or else). However I don't expect many of you will do it, so if you don't want to go thru that, simulate it: buy a 128MB memory card (it should cost about 20 cents now ^^) and go out to shoot only with that card. You'll have so little to shoot with, you'll have to pay attention and be very selective.

Olympus OM1

2nd thing to do
Use your camera with spot metering and aperture priority or full manual mode. At first it will suck. But then only you'll have to learn what does what. How to influence the camera to deliver what you want. You will learn how to control your camera to make it a simple intermediary between the image and your creative intentions.

3nd thing to do
Luckily, newest cameras have an HDR (high dynamic range) mode, use it. I don't mean to push you to do those horrible photoshop HDR effects that make your shots look like a poorly painted clown. I mean use the built in HDR that is supposed to simulate the dynamic range of film. The end result should look totally natural. 

HDR used properly: dark and bright elements show properly. Courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/47550048@N05/

4th thing to do
Don't buy the kit lens. If you really need a versatile lens, get a zoom, but not the kit lens. Get a better one. Appart from that, get 2 primes lenses. It will cost you less than one zoom, and it will allow proper shooting. I recommend a 35mm and an 85mm (full frame). Or just a 50mm. Then play with all the aperture range, and see what it does. 

This cost 120$, you have no excuse. 

5th and most important thing to do in order to become a better photographer.
Make a portfolio, even a virtual one. You might have a blog, a site, a flickr account. When making that portfolio, respect one rule: no more than 20 pictures in total. Keep only the best of the best. If you have only 5 pictures you would qualify as really good, then so be it. Make it 5. Talented photographers might have a 5 series of 12 great shots, but that's after 20 years of careers. 60 shots only... They probably shot hundreds of beautiful images, but they decide to show only the best. The exercise of being very picky is crucial. If your image is close to being great, but is not (focus on the wrong part, disturbing element, exposure not so good), use it as a baseline for an other attempt. Shoot until you have it perfect, then show it.

Check my site, I have many galleries with 5 or 6 shots only. And trust me, I know i'll get rid of a lot over time. I personally have a hard time keeping less. Working on it. 

If you upload all your 400 raw files in flickr every time you shoot, kill yourself. You're a lost cause.

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