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Letter to a New Photographer

Jeremiah Rogers
Jeremiah Rogers
5 min read

I got an email last night from a friend of a friend, a new photographer, asking for advice on what to read, what camera to buy, and how to avoid having things stolen abroad. Here's roughly what I wrote back.

What to Read?

To take pictures you first need to learn how to use a camera. Ansel Adams covers that in The Camera ($18, paper only). Just buy it, it's awesome. He perfectly explains what aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focal length mean and how to combine them to get the effect you want.

"There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept."
  • Ansel Adams

Using the camera is really only the beginning. As Ansel Adams said “there’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Afterwards you will want to read The Art of Photography ($20 kindle, more expensive on paper). It's similarly great. I recommend a few more books on photography here but this is all you need to start with for good technique and composition.

The next step is to find photographers you actually like and try to emulate their work. Only draw inspiration from what you see circulated online if you want to. A friend of mine describes 500px as “mostly shitty over-edited stock photography.” I tend to agree. I'd suggest looking through either Magnum or VII Photo for inspiriation. Those photographers are outrageously good and you won’t get a photograph like theirs for years. That’s fine, but I think the higher you aim the better. My favorites right now are Alex Webb and Sebastio Salgado.

Camera Basics

I think you should probably use a fixed focal length lens, also called a prime lens. These are lighter and higher quality than zoom lenses and they teach you to move your body around to compose a photo. One of the less known facts about cameras is that zoom lenses aren't the same as walking closer or further away.

When you walk closer to something the perspective changes and the picture looks more three dimensional. If you zoom in from far away the picture looks more flat. Fashion photography is often done from far away with a long lens to flatten features like noses. If I got up really close and photographed you, your nose would look huge in relation to your face. It’s not flattering.

If you imagine a person standing in front of a statue, they will be smaller than the statue if you zoom in on them. If you get closer to them they'll appear almost the same size as the statue or larger. These perspective changes are all over photography and they communicate something even to people who don't understand them. A huge part of any creative endeavor is doing subtle things on purpose that people will never realize were done on purpose.

I tend to use short focal length lenses (50mm or lower, these days 40mm or lower) to show people the right perspective. I don't own any zoom lenses. Most of my professional journalist friends also only shoot with primes unless they are getting paid.

Primes are lighter and higher quality than similarly priced zoom lenses. If you have the time to move around and shoot, taking pictures with primes is rewarding. I’d suggest geting something at least f2.8 or wider (so f1.8 and f2 would be fine, f1.4 is overkill). My main lenses right now are a 35mm f2 and 40mm f2.8. I used to have an f1.4 but traded it because it was pointless.

What’s a Good Camera for Under $300?

Buying a good digital camera, one where you can really learn to photograph and take pictures of people, is difficult for under $300.

My top suggestion based on personal experience would be to get an old crop-sensor Nikon body (D40, D90, D3100, D3200, D5100, D5200) and the excellent Nikon 35mm f1.8 dx lens (hereafter called a 50mm equivalent lens). Shop around until you can find a body for around $100 and try to get a used copy of that lens for $150 to $180. It can be done.

If you’re skeptical about buying used equipment on Amazon I can suggest either buying from Amazon Warehouse Deals or buying from B&H in New York or the Adorama used department. All three of these sellers are reputable and allow returns.

That Nikon 35mm f1.8 lens was one of my best performing investments ever. When a major earthquake hit Japan, lens production stopped for a while, and I managed to sell it for $350 after buying it for $195 on the street in New York City.

Canon and Nikon are roughly equivalent. I like Canon's high end DSLRs and Nikon's low end DSLRs. Nikon makes better lenses for their entry level cameras.

You don't necessarily need an extra battery but I've always enjoyed having an extra. It eases my anxiety about a dead battery since I have never drained through two full batteries in a day. I have drained one full battery in a day, but only about 10 times in five years.

It also makes it easy to always have one battery in the camera and one in the charger — avoiding leaving the house without a battery in the camera. I generally use no-name third party batteries and they work fine.
My only camera for the first four years I took pictures was a D40 and that lens. With the super fast f1.8 lens the D40 was fast, light, and usable in all kinds of light.

The lens I recommended above is a "50mm equivalent" lens. Today I use 35mm and 40mm equivalent lenses more often than 50mm equivalent lenses, but 50mm is often better to start with. The compositions are tighter, you can stand further away from people, and the lenses are cheaper.

All Henri Cartier-Bresson used for his personal work was a 50mm lens. So I’d argue that it's good enough for anyone. I mostly use 35mm because I like to sit down and let people, especially kids, walk up to me. A 35mm is better when you can't back up.

Making Your Camera Look Cheap

I cover all of the logos and brand names on my electronics with black gaffer tape. The amazing thing about gaffer tape is that it doesn’t leave any residue when you remove it. Gaffer tape is about three times as expensive as duct tape and three times the quality. It’s used by lighting crews in Hollywood to secure and then remove cables.

I regularly have people ask me “what happened to your laptop?” and “why don’t you buy a nicer camera?”. That’s the benefit of coating my electronics in tape to make them look cheap.

In a developing country someone’s going to steal anything that looks expensive and fencible. You’ll need to protect your gear. I don’t even go to the bathroom at a restaurant I trust without my laptop under my arm. That said I think covering my new Canon 6D with gaffer tape and creating my own strap

Blacking out logos and using a cheap strap doesn’t make a camera any less expensive, but it makes people question the product they see and if it’s broken or even the brand they assume. Unless you read the inside of the lens this could be an old Pentax.

Shoot a Lot

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
― Henri Cartier-Bresson

My final advice is to shoot a lot of pictures. Having images in RAW is cool, and I do it, but I kind of hate it. RAW files take up a ton of storage and take a long time to edit. Those Nikon cameras will give you good enough JPEG files to print directly.

I wouldn’t worry about shooting in RAW for the first six months. Just go take pictures all the time, bring your camera wherever you can, and think carefully about why each picture works or fails.