NOTE: This was originally a longer piece, but I felt the second part had a different tone to it so I decided to break it into two different articles. You can read the other one here.
One of my favorite feelings is the sense of accomplishment that results from overcoming a personal challenge. When you pit yourself against something way out of your comfort zone you come out the other end changed. Improved. I love that sensation; it tickles just the right areas of my nerdy brain. A good example of that is photography. I’ve always found it profoundly interesting, but to me it was a bit like magic: fascinating and mesmerizing, yet obscure and impenetrable at the same time. I have a few photographer friends, and every time we met at a party I would listen to them talk about photography and their gear in such a passionate way that I couldn’t help but be amazed at their words, even though I understood very little of what they were saying.
I’ve always been intimidated by photography. For some reason I felt the barrier to entry was just too high for me and I would need to invest huge amounts of time and attention to learn my way in. As a result, over the years there were probably a million wonderful pictures I didn’t take. My Erasmus year in Finland. A week-long trip to New-York with my brother back in 2011, on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. The month-long trip to Australia I took with my girlfriend a couple years ago. The 21 days I spent in Brazil with my good friend Daniel. These and many other special moments in my life that were committed only to my memory.
It’s not that I don’t have any pictures to remember those moments. Sure, some of my friends had nice cameras, and I also took a few pics with whatever phone I had at the time. They’re mostly OK to look at, but that’s not the problem. It’s the pictures I didn’t take that haunt me. The opportunities that went right by me because I was too afraid or discouraged to try and take them. This self-doubt has crippled my memories and it has made me depend on other people’s pictures to remember. Now when I look at those photos, part of me feels like I’m remembering someone else’s life instead of my own. To me, the thought and care that goes into composing a picture is as big a part of the magic as the picture itself: Photography is an active, creative process and if you’re missing that part then you’re only seeing half the story. It’s taken me quite a few years and a little help from my friends to finally realize that I’m not OK with that.
Shawn Blanc has been very forthcoming lately about his ongoing love affair with photography. His recent series of articles about his own experience was great to read, and it was the small push I needed to get me started. We’re always less scared to try something new when we’re not alone.
So I was determined, but were to begin? I decided I didn’t want to rush into things: first of all I would do my research, learn about basic technique, different camera types and so on until I felt confident I could make an informed decision. Then and only then would I spend any real money on buying my first camera. It seemed like a good plan, but when you’re trying to learn about something on the Internet, the only thing worse than finding no information about it is finding way too much information about it. Part of what makes photography so intimidating is that there’s an endless ocean of resources available: online courses, photography-for-dummies books, ultimate guides to photography and so on. For someone looking to dip their toe in for the first time, those certainly are some scary-looking waters.
Luckily, after some research I found what many people consider to be the best introductory book for the aspiring photographer: Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure.1 I read it cover to cover in a couple days, and it was a revelatory experience. Many of the myths I had feared for so long were quickly and definitively busted within the first few pages, and it only got better and better from there. I cannot recommend it enough.
With that out of the way, it was time to get my hands dirty and actually buy a camera. Which, of course, is easier said than done. This could be an article by itself, since these days there are so many great options that it really takes a lot of digging to find out what works best for you. Fortunately my requirements were fairly specific:
1 - The camera should be as small and light as possible without compromising on image quality. 2 - It should be affordable: I should be able to buy the camera body and at least a nice prime lens for under $1000. 3 - There should be a good enough selection of lenses, wherein I define “good” as being high-quality enough that they will not limit my creativity, and affordable enough that they won’t break my bank. 4 - It must have enough features to allow me to grow into it, but not too many bells and whistles that I’ll end up never using. Since this is about learning, a fully manual mode is a must.
With this in mind and after doing some reading, I quickly started leaning towards mirrorless cameras, and specifically towards the Micro Four Thirds format.2 A couple weeks ago I ended up buying a brand-new [Olympus OM-D E-M10](<a href=), following Shawn’s recommendation. I’ve been taking it out and trying my hand at it, and so far I’m very pleased. I got the kit with the new 14-42mm EZ lens and I must say it’s a nice lens, but after trying the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake lens and the Olympus 45mm f1.8, there really is a noticeable difference between them. The prime lenses are so much faster than the kit lens; they really make it a lot easier to hand-hold the camera and capture great images without the aid of a tripod or flash, not to mention the much nicer bokeh and the incredible sharpness they provide, even when wide open.
The E-M10 is a fantastic camera (easily the best I’ve ever owned) and I’m already taking pretty good images with it, which is very encouraging. I’m still mostly getting to know my way around it and trying some of the exercises from the book, but already there’s a satisfying feeling whenever my prediction for how a composition will turn out is confirmed by the actual image. It still feels like magic but now, I know how the trick is done.
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There’s plenty of information online about all the different mirrorless formats and their respective virtues and shortcomings so, again, this was what worked better for me. Your mileage may vary.↩