Photographers vision, good light, tasteful editing and lens are more important than the camera body. Visiting museums, galleries and expositions, and developing ones style is more beneficial than recreational technofetishism. Pretty much any modern camera will be leagues more advanced than what masters of old could afford at any moment in history.
There is no “real” camera as they all do pretty much the same thing. Most people will not see any differences scrolling past on their social media feed. Different types and styles of photography will definitely help mastering ones craft and developing preferences, but some respectable photographers did well with first camera they had. Some don’t care about the device.
This article is just collection of my research I’ve done over past few months on photography.
Lots have been written on finding inspiration for photography. Some of it is outlined in further reading below, some of it in its respective sections.
As for personal experience I found it extremely helpful to look back at beginning my photographic journey. It helps immensely to reflect on instagram posts, shares, likes and collections I made before. Finding a perfect hashtag that inspires me no matter how lewd it is, #эстетикаебеней. Watch beautiful films. Follow artists that inspire you instead of replicating toxic fb feed. Visit exhibitions and explore great artist work. Notice the light, the shadows, the texture and mood of photography. Go on a microadventure.
During my journey I begun to appreciate arts I didn’t value much before - modernist paintings, constructivist art, Japanese pottery and ink wash paintings, haiku. I discovered great artists like I outlined in Great Photographers section.
Editing is usually overlooked by beginner photographers. It is strongly adviced to use RAW format and shoot between both extremes on histogram. There is
everything nothing wrong with shooting in JPG format if need be. Videographers use low contrast and low saturation for more flexibility in post-processing.
Commonly RAW editors and image editors are used simultaneously.
- Raw editors like Darktable allow importing and manipulation of RAW files, playing with color curves, shadows, highlights, perspective.
- Image processors like GIMP are better for adding and removing elements, enlarging moons, removing awkward people, adding fake planes.
How much editing is too much?
Good edit is invisible.
Most everything has been photographed in past 200 years.
Editing used to be frowned upon favouring realism in photography. But here are arguments against unreasonable reality purism to help you decide your personal artistic limits:
- exposition/cropping isolates moment from the rest of the world. It is easy to show dirty homeless person at a bank or protesters attacking police with rocks but context is important;
- adjusting colours is routinely done to fix white balance, exposure, give more cinematic mood. Camera cannot be trusted to provide real colours;
- removing objects is routinely done since the invention of film photography. Political events have had been altered historically. Nowadays some branches, poles, dirt, face imperfections are usually removed for better exposition;
- adding objects is considered photocollage;
- blatantly openly mix and match supersized things in surreal environments is a concept art
Generally make distinction in your style of photography if you intend to document events or display fine art. Adding or removing objects in documentary is highly inappropriate while really fine for most art photography.
- Types of Photography styles;
- 26 famous photographers to inspire you;
- 100 most influential photographs;
- Why did Soviet photographic avant-garde decline;
- Leningrad’s Lost Photographer;
- Complete editions of Sovetskoe Foto for free;
- Masterpieces of Soviet Photography;
- International Landscape Photographer of the Year Awards 2018;
- 7 truths of modern photography;
- Magnum photographers 35 advices for new photographers;
- 47 Essential Photography Tips for Beginners;
- 40 Tips to Take Better Photos;
- 12 Tips for Making It as a Magazine Photographer;
- People and Portrait Photography Quick Tips;
- People and Portrait Photography Tips;
- 194 of the best photography tips from professional photographers;
- Technique for snowflake photography;
- 10 simple rules to film your next adventure like a pro;
- Using sun flares and starbursts to create stunning photos;
- 15 mistakes of photographer;
- 40 tips to take better pictures;
- Once it comes time
- Lights shadow and highlight - how I lit this dramatic portrait;
Gear matters. Matters less than it ever has. Medium you choose is your artistic choice. A beer tin is able to take great pictures too.
Digital is obviously most popular way to make, edit and share photography. It is easy, cheap and nearly effortless and flexible. This article is written assuming everybody has experience with phone photography.
Mobile phone photography
The best camera is the one that’s with you.
Modern phone photography has became a genre in itself. National geographic provides tips on photography, there are mobile photo awards, magazines feature phone photographs on their covers and Steven Spielberg shot a movie entirely on a phone. Phones even killed compact cameras. Phone software is leagues ahead of most camera manufacturers and support third party apps to emulate film photography imperfections and provide many other services. Phones feature decent cameras for good lighting conditions, photography can be edited and shared with millions of people with only one device.
No camera has sane syncing with phones, not to mention any third party app support. With phones generally more expensive models will feature better camera optics as well as better performance. I personally check wirecutter for reasonable phone - higher-end devices provide incrementally less value for the price.
Phone photography is enough for most tasks.
Usually overlooked upgrade from mobile phone photography and choice of countless street photographers.
Compacts retain size and stealth advantage, feature larger sensors and better optics and reasonable price. Masters like Daido Moriyama, Charlie Waite, Wlada Schuler and your grandfather have produced great work with less than sexy technology. It gets the job done and doesn’t get in the way.
Modern mirrorless enthusiast cameras allow most professional camera features and performance at a fraction of size and cost.
What you get by upgrading form phones and compact cameras:
- APS-C size sensors provide visible photography improvements over phone and compact cameras;
- Mirrorless cameras allow to attach grandfathers old Zenit/Canikon lenses;
- All controls of professional cameras - sensitivity, aperture, shutter speed;
- RAW files for lossless editing;
- allow using professional accessories for lighting, sound and video recording;
- better ergonomics than compact cameras and phones.
Note that enthusiast cameras usually have sensor crop factor around 1.5/1.6. Therefore your pops old 50/1.7 lens will be 80/2.8. This may impact wide angle lens selection as difference between 12mm and 18mm can be dramatic, but you get classic 80mm portrait lenses on the cheap and usually native 30-35mm lenses are easy to come by on a budget.
Enthusiast cameras are preferred choice for vlogging, traveling, casual shooting. Most of them are really similar in size, quality and function. One can pick just based off feel in hands or native lens selection. Sony or Fuji are reasonable choices but all of them will have cheap adapters for old lenses.
The final upgrade provides excellent quality products, better customer service, better performance in low light and typically slightly better, large prints.
New DSLRs are still produced but these don’t really provide many advantages over newer mirrorless cameras. Used market is great for good full-frame DSLRs and lenses to begin photography business.
Choosing used DSLR over mirrorles will give:
- larger body;
- access to plenty of native lenses;
- lower price for used cameras and accessories;
- considerably better battery life;
- considerably less frames per second;
All big manufacturers now offer comparable products at competitive prices. It is already possible to find used mirrorles full-frame cameras for aps-c camera price.
With mirrorless full-frame cameras you get:
- more autofocusing points over DSLR;
- lack of mirror allows for considerably faster frames per second and better reliability;
- noticeably smaller size;
- ability to mount most lenses ever made;
- electric viewfinder - what you see is what you get;
- better video capturing abilities;
Niche format for better image quality at the expanse of size, battery life, price, lens choices. Nobody who wonders about this format needs one. Most people will not notice difference from aps-c format and medium/large format cameras.
Analog photography is not obsolete, but a deliberate creative choice.
Analog camera is just a box of controlled darkness. One advances the light sensitive material and lets in precise amount of light at certain speeds. That’s what analog cameras are. Some people are extremely particular in their dark box brands but honestly as long as it is dark it will do.
Analog photography allows to slow down the work flow, shoot more deliberately, use metal devices that capture slightly unpredictable results on limited medium you can hold and preserve for years. It is easy to digitize the results shot on analog devices or keep them private in a box. And they look classy.
Analog full-frame, medium and large formats allow to make casual photography cheaper than getting obscenely priced digital equivalents.
Cost of shooting film per frame and format
|Format||Film||Cost per frame €|
|Instant||Fuji instax SQUARE instant film||1.1|
|Pinhole paper||Harman Direct Positive FB glossy 4x5||1.3|
|8mm||Same price for all on Macodirect||0.69|
|35mm||Ilford HP5 Plus 35mm||0.16|
|120mm||Ilford HP5 Plus roll film 120||0.32|
|4x5||Ilford HP5 Plus sheet film 4x5||2|
|8x10||Ilford HP5 Plus sheet film 8x10”||5.56|
TLR, SLR, Rangefinder, WTF
Camera ergonomics can seriously impact end result of photography
SLR - Single Lens Reflex - Classical camera and easiest to use. Composition is done via the lens and usually gives predictable focusing, lighting and compositional result.
Rangefinder - typically more popular with consumer market of the time due to compact size. Composition is done through special window rather than the lens so composition might be only approximation of the end result. Also these cameras are responsible for millions of shots taken without removed lens caps or fingers covering the lens.
TLR - Twin Lens Reflex - is a box with two lenses and waist-level-viewfinder with ground glass on top. Usually awkward and cumbersome to use and always require 120mm film. Mirrored image on ground glass can be extremely confusing at first but it is easy to adjust after a couple of rolls. These do look classy tho.
- Why Shoot Film?;
- Guide to Choosing the Best Black and White Film;
- 10 professional photographers who still shoot film;
- 50 outstanding film photographers on Instagram;
- Alternative photography techniques;
- World’s Fastest Darkroom;
Unpredictable, instantaneous results in trendy format - the new lomography for young people tired of digital life.
- What You Need to Know About Instant Film: The Beginner’s Guide to Polaroid Film, Fujifilm Instax, Impossible Project, and More.
8mm / 16mm
Niche film for old camcorders, Minox and odd Minolta camera. Film is obscenely expensive but one could always make some from 35mm or 120mm film with some palletwood and razor blades
Check out subclub for more culture around 8mm.
Uses 35mm film but exposes only half a frame at a time. You will take 72 photos at the expanse of grain and quality, but this makes for an interesting artistic choice. The idea is to take 2 photographs subsequently to present at once as visual haiku - something abstract and concrete to tell a story in a single frame.
Many cameras are available now but most of them relied on now hardly functioning light meters which I’d suggest to avoid. The format calls for more expression and vision rather than technical perfection. Chaika 2, Robot, Agfa half-frame cameras are solid choice. Half-frame club is prime source for half-frame culture.
Robot cameras are an odd beast on the market. Universally praised for quality, cutting edge design, interchangeable lenses and probably worth saving, but they are not true-half-frame - they produce square images.
The standard of modern film and digital cameras to measure against and source of resurrected analog photography culture.
Advent of mirrorless cameras brought not only old lenses back into action but allowed us to reflect on film medium we have left behind. As of now film market is experiencing major changes with c41 color development processing becoming standard in smaller photography labs, film and development stocks discontinued or changing ownership, rising gear prices because of non-existent camera and lens suppliers. But most people have relatives with an old stashed film camera.
Kodak still produces legendary Kodak color, Ektar, Portra colour film, monochrome TRI-X and has resurrected Kodachrome, T-max 3200. Ilford is popular modern manufacturer of beloved black and white film - HP5 and FP4, developing chemistry and photo paper. This is worthy ally to support if you are into bnw film.
One should beware of new brands popping up like Kosmofoto and JCH rebranding existing stock. While harmless shenanigans one must be transparent in his intentions and have viable future plan to contribute to the community.
Pretty much any western and Japanese 35mm camera will be great companion for life. Considering older cameras one must be aware of its technical faults - working shutter on all speeds; some cameras are fully manual without any electronics, others rely on obsolete batteries to meter light or power shutter; some use usually faulty selenium meters; fully analog cameras will hold their value better than electronic ones. One should choose working, reasonably priced camera that feels good in the hand and can attach existing lenses. There is no reason to own more than one 35mm camera. m42 is a nice mount to have on a camera with many cheap, quirky lenses you can’t get new anymore. If you are considering buying Zenit for the sweet m42 mount - get a Praktica…
One more thing to consider is - SLR or rangefinder type. Both have their own advantages but I prefer SLRs for ease of composition and use.
There are plenty of communities around 35mm photography, but I enjoy reading 35mmc. Macodirect is the most popular but not the only place to get your film in Europe.
At this point it is more about the nostalgic feel to do something real, analog, to slow down and enjoy the experience rather than spray & pray. Results, when successful, can be stunning, but one must be able to produce great results in any format before wasting film.
Usually larger, more expensive and even harder to commercially develop and scan than 35mm. Most important film is available for medium format shooting but cost per photo increases considerably, yet it is much cheaper for casual use than digital medium format.
Medium format cameras come in many different ratios and shoot different sized pictures which may add more to cost.
This is least practical and most expensive format for true masochists. One usually finds these cameras in photography museums displayed as centerpieces, in niche photography studios and old people selling these in flea markets. This kind of photography offers much more customization and freedom of choice than any other camera.
With LF cameras one can shoot:
- film - excellent film quality and conventional ease of use;
- daguerrotype - silver on brass considered the best quality work;
- ambrotype - silver on glass with black backing;
- tintype / ferrotype - silver on tin/aluminium plates;
In any of these standard formats:
- 4x5 - 10x12cm, crop factor of 0.25 from 35mm
- 5x7 - 12x17cm, crop factor of 0.2 from 35mm
- 8x10 - 20x25cm, crop factor of 0.12 from 35mm
- 11x14 - 28x35cm, crop factor of 0.086 from 35mm
And any portability:
- field camera - relatively small, folding camera, usually fiddly to use;
- monorail camera - larger camera;
LF lenses come in graded sizes with smallest
Copal 0 for 4x5 to largest for larger formats. Lenses are mounted to a lens board, which in turn is mounted to front standard attached to bellows to rear standard bearing glass plate and film holder. All focusing is done by adjusting distance on rail between standards. The device is rather simple and can be replicated with basic woodworking skills and tools.
Cheapest way to get into LF is to buy lens separately, taking in mind crop factor, and build the rest using wood/metal working skills, ordering bellows or lens boards online. Note that some lenses come without shutter mechanism, some use specific DB boards, others are just a chunk of old brass with some glass in them. It depends what you want to do.
- This article sheds light on LF brands;
- An introduction to large format photography;
- Best source of technical information on LF photography;
- How Tintype Portraits Are Made;
Pinhole photography is another extremely customisable way to shoot film or even plain photographic paper. Essentially anything can be pinhole camera if it is box of darkness with a small pinhole for light.
One usually requires a stable surface or tripod to take typically much longer exposures up to several minutes.
Solargraphy is extremely fun way to take insanely long pictures. Easy way to construct pinhole photography is to put photography paper into beer can and make a small hole in it. It can be placed rather discreetly in public places but you always risk to have bomb squad called on site.
Many small manufacturers caught on the trend of making small wooden cameras for 35mm and medium film. Construction is not that different from standard rangefinder cameras which hold film and take-up spool in a light sealed box but instead of lens use simple rotating shutters. Typically these cameras have about 25-30mm focal length because film canister diameter is 25mm, but it is possible to construct pinhole camera with extending focal range.
One advantage of keeping it wide-angle is stability and certainty that vibration will not spoil the end result.
- 7 Pinhole Photographers to Inspire You for World Pinhole Day;
- About pinhole photography;
- Solargraphy – The art of catching the sun’s path through a pinhole camera
I made a few calculators for Rodiynal and linked everything of interest there.
Lenses are much more important than bodies and will greatly affect final result.
It is deceptively easy to buy into hype of owning nearly every lens as they all provide their own optical and mechanical characteristics and ergonomics, but in reality most lenses of their decade will be awfully similar to one another. Not many people will see distinct difference blind-testing 1970’s and will hardly see any differences with modern lenses at f5.6.
IMO most reasonable approach for modern photographer is to own one good native lens of favourite focal length with autofocus and a couple vintage wide, standard and telephoto lenses.
I personally enjoy 28mm, 135mm and 50mm in that particular order. I find unusual perspectives much more engaging than a regular 50mm.
Focal length is simply distance from lens to sensor. Focal length and sensor crop factor affects the feel of an image.
Ultrawide angle (< 20mm) - these are used in architecture, landscape and astrophotography. These capture a very wide scene and commonly have characteristic fisheye effect. It is extremely easy to focus and shoot in high speed. These don’t produce much bokeh and distort subjects at close range;
Wide angle (20mm - 35mm) - commonly used for street photography wide-angle lenses provide minimal bokeh and still greatly distort subjects. These are really common and usually are close to “standard” lenses on aps-c sensors;
Standard (40mm - 58mm) - usually referred as human natural sight. These are really plentiful as they provide most realistic perspective on the setting, do not distort subjects at close range and still provide pleasant bokeh;
Telephoto (~60mm - 200mm) - is old time favourite focal length for many professional portrait photographers. At this point faces are slightly slimmed down, perspective is much closer to the subject and provide plenty of background blur to separate subject from background without any creativity. This focal length is also loved by many professionals who can’t be too close to their subjects like sports, wildlife and creep photographers;
Super telephoto (>200mm) - is already length for specific sports, wildlife photography. These usually do need a tripod and location/event in mind.
Zoom - typically made to perform much better on one side of focal length than the other
- ~10mm - ~30mm - wide lens for specific purposes;
- ~20mm - ~80mm - very versatile, good all purpose focal length for most occasions;
- ~50mm - ∞ - super zoom for wildlife and sports focal length that costs exceed any reason for most normal people;
Adage is the lower the merrier. Benefit of lower minimum aperture is thin focus area and better out of focus background. Benefit of larger maximum aperture is longer focus area.
Realistically many lenses wide open will give a very soft focus on the subject. Closed/smaller aperture will bend light and create rather horrid image quality with diffraction and fringing.
All lenses perform better stopped down anywhere from f4 to f8 on standard 35mm format. Some older lenses have marked red dot on a sweetspot of the lens. Focusing is much easier and image quality improves drastically past f4.
There is nothing wrong with slower lenses like f2 or f2.8. Many awesome standard lenses of the seventies were f2/f2.8 like Helios 44-2, Industar 50, Pentacon 1.8/50, Zeiss Jena 2.8/50, Rokkor MC 2/45 are loved by many artists.
It is common to adapt vintage lenses to modern mirrorless cameras. Vintage lenses offer usually lower price, character (read: vintage imperfections in lens design) and great optics at fraction of the new thing. Many budget artists rely on legacy bodies, lenses and usually one or two native lenses.
Benefits of vintage lenses:
- usually cheaper than modern equivalent;
- usually well made with bare metal and great glass;
- vintage imperfections in glass design allow for interesting characteristics, bokeh, lens flares;
- fully manual control of aperture and focusing;
Drawbacks of vintage lenses:
- sometimes horrid quality control and sample variance;
- improperly stored lenses may have balsam separation, fungus, haze, damaged coatings, scratches, stuck aperture blades, broken mounts, stiff rings, etc;
- fully manual control - no fancy autofocus will work with them;
- absent, damaged or bad coating taht will impact sharpness, flares, etc;
Shooting vintage lenses is trivial with modern electronic viewfinders. Manual focus mode highlights focused area by matching contrast sharpness. EVF is generally reliable but still I’d advice setting custom button next to shutter release to focus magnifying to be sure subject is in focus.
Getting used equipment
- attic probably contains a hidden gem ready to be cleaned and used right away. I feel it is most important to save once loved family tools;
- thrift stores are getting more analog-savvy. Some have excellent devices priced less than a price of lunch;
- ebay auctions has too many people watching auctions but sometimes it is possible to bet justly on some gems;
- ebay listings have no competition. Read description carefully, be sure to check all pictures and inquire the seller if need be;
How to pick a camera
Generally difference between cameras in every generation is negligible. Some niche cameras have interesting quirks that make them desirable - halfframe cameras can produce 72 smaller images per roll of film, Smena 8 is best for double exposures, some have fancy brand names, others offer great versatility. Pick the one that feels solid, is manageable size, and works correctly.
I personally value fun and reliability.
- All cameras are good cameras;
- How to choose your first mirrorless camera;
- Best current cameras,
- What analog camera to get;
- A normal person’s guide to buying an old film camera;
- Classic Film Cameras under 100;
- Cool Compact Cameras;
What to look out for in analog cameras
I have listed my priorities in order of importance before making a decision. If camera passes all important inspection then it is ok to use:
- if camera has battery check:
- if the battery is still produced or camera can work without needing one. Some cameras use obsolete batteries only for light meters which can be substituted with a phone app or Sunny 16 rule;
- battery pins for corrosion. The part will might need to be replaced and usually is more trouble than it is worth;
- check if camera shutter works on all shutter speeds. This is one of the most common issues with old cameras both mechanic and electronic and usually not worth repairing;
- camera’s curtain or gates - they should be clean (opposed to oily or dusty); not have any tearing or holes. Some cameras might have dimples on the gates - that is normal;
- doors of the camera should have light seals and should be snug when closed. Light leaks will damage the film but some people are going for that on purpose. Easy fix if doors are not damaged;
- SLR camera mirror should move out of the way on shutter release. Some older cameras do not return mirror back until shutter is winded again;
- film should be widely available. One can still find less popular film cameras;
- mount should not be broken. I haven’t seen one with broken lens mount but one never can be sure;
- viewfinder should be clean and reasonably bright. Older cameras might have dust inside and bits chipped off and some of it can be fixed;
- visual appearance can tell a lot about handling of the camera but for many Japanese and German cameras dents are harmless.
It is great if camera leatherette is in good condition but it can always be changed with aftermarket leatherettes or one can be fashioned out of tapestry.
What to look out for in digital cameras
If the camera obviously turns on and works is already a good sign. Some dents should be take more seriously as electronics can go out of order after months of being knocked about. Some really old digital cameras are not worth anything as phones can provide better quality than any early digital camera. Generally refrain from considering over 10 years old tech - many advances have been made over the years and electronics might not be top notch.
- sensor is the most important factor. Pictures of something dark or bright should not have spots or smudges. One can clean the sensor but I’ve seen all youtubers setting worrying trend flailing cameras about with exposed sensors. I wouldn’t consider any camera with anything wrong with the sensor;
- check lens mount for damages. If it is visibly bent the camera has fallen lens down and ruined second most important thing. Broken mounts may let dust inside the sensor and lens mount pins might not work at all;
- be sure it uses universal SD cards. I’ve seen old people buying cameras that store data on Memory Sticks and disks;
- if lens is non-removable be sure it is not bent, scratched and is free of fungus. Usually these lenses should be able to move when device is switched on and retract back, zoom should be possible;
What to look out for in lenses
Lens fungus, broken diaphragm setting (aperture) and hazing are most common faults in used lenses.
- lens should not have balsam separation - it looks like glue inside a lens. That is not repairable;
- lens aperture should work well on every stop. Diaphragm leaves should be uniform and contain no oil spots;
- all lens elements should not have fungus growing on them. You can check it by opening up aperture and looking at middle and edges from both lens ends. It is fairly easy to fix but most certainly lens coating has been damaged or will be after removing the fungus;
- lens mount should not be bent or disfigured;
- focusing and aperture might not change smoothly or even be stuck. In most cases analog lenses can be opened up, cleaned and lubricated fairly easily but that might require specialized tools and helicoid grease. Grease should be applied very lightly to avoid excess on diaphragm or glass. I usually apply a droplet of grease and turn focusing until I feel is sufficient. I would advice not to substitute lube for any other;
- if lens screws or spots around the screws are scratched it means somebody who shouldn’t have opened it and probably “fixed” before.
- Daido Moriyama - noted for his images depicting the breakdown of traditional values in post-war Japan;
- Mathew Brady - civil war photographer;
- Lewis Wickes Hine - urban photographer;
- Paul Strand - modernist photographer;
- Alfred Stieglitz - modernist and gallery photographer;
- Edward Steichen - modernist photographer;
- Edward Weston - experimental photographer;
- Ansel Adams - black & white landscape photographer;
- Jerry Uelsmann - photomontagist;
- David Attie - commercial photographer from Brooklyn;
- Milton Greene - fashion and celebrity photographer;
- Mary Ellen Mark - intimate portrait photographer;
- Sally Mann - experimental family portraits;
- Nicholas Bell - minimalist landscape photographer;
- Eugne Adget - Paris street and architecture photographer;
- Bill Brandt - dramatic photography;
- Henri Cartier-Bresson - humanist photographer;
- Imogen Cunningham - botanical, nude and industrial photographer;
- William Eggleston - color photographer and curator;
- Brassai - evening photographer;
- Ernst Haas - early color photographer;
- Sebastiao Salgado - documentary photohtagpher;
- Gustav Klutsis - propaganda artist;
- Miroslav Tichý - took candid photos of women with self made cardboard cameras;
and many others