The best way to learn to use that DSLR camera

I've had a Nikon D90 camera for about 3 years now and I love it.  But until just a few months ago, I really never took it off the auto mode.  The guy at the camera store said it was a waste of such a great camera and that I owed it to Nikon and myself to learn to use it.  And then the camera store where I planned to take lessons went out of business.

I've taken some great snapshots over the years but when I look at those cool websites that sell photography, theirs are always so much better.  I wondered what it was that I could learn to do so I could get those amazing shots.  Nothing I've ever done is National Geographic worthy.  I've gone through a number of learning experiences trying to find the best way to learn more.

First I tried a correspondence course through NYIP, the New York Institute of Photography.  There was a groupon where you could get all the lessons, which included books, DVDs, and some CDs along with instructor evaluation of your photos.   I browsed through the books and listened to a few of the DVDs, but never finished it because it requires discipline and time.  Neither are my strong points. You can go to their website for free tips on their e-zine, which can be especially helpful if you're interested in a specific topic, like how to photograph holiday lights.

Then I took a travel photography course on-line with a local college.  It was a good course with on-line lessons and I learned a lot about how to pack for a trip and what equipment would be helpful, but it was annoying that they would only release a lesson per week and then we actually went traveling, and I missed a few lessons and was unable to finish the course.  So if you go this route, you might check to see how the lessons are distributed.  Plus, the lessons were only available during the course, so if you didn't print them, you lost the information.  I've found it's nice to keep those reference materials for later use.  You also don't need to use a local college since everything is on-line, even communication with the instructor.  You can google for this and find lots of options.

I did a photography city walking tour that taught me about looking at different ways to take the same photo.  You can read about that experience at my previous blogpost, Milwaukee Photo Walking Tour. I had so much fun with this that I would definitely look for one when we're out traveling.  It's a quick way to see the sights with a local and pick up some tips for how to make a particular place stand out.

I have been taking night classes with University of Milwaukee's adult photography education program and they have proven most helpful.  There are a series of 3-4 classes and it's just once a week.  The instructor is a professional photographer with immense experience and teaches several different courses.  The advantage to this is that you have to show up, and when you do, you are going to learn something.  It's a class size of about 20 people, so you can ask questions and get personal help.  In order to make the most of this, you need to bring your camera and owner's manual because I've found there are as many different DSLR cameras as there are students, and it's crazy to expect any instructor to know how to operate all of them.  In most cases, they prefer a major brand and all of their equipment is that brand. There is also the added pressure (which is a good thing) to actually go out and take some photos every week with whatever mode you've learned about that week.  It forces you to do something with what you've learned, and if you don't, you won't be able to join in the conversation.

This weekend I participated in a day long workshop sponsored by Living Social but given by a traveling duo of photographers from Shoot Like a Pro.  There were 50-60 participants and it was held at a Brookfield hotel.  The classroom portion was great.  I learned a lot, but I think the best part is the repetition when you take classes over and over.  It's hard to learn everything in one day, like their program suggests, but since I had already tried some other courses, I got more out of it.  It included a 2 hour outdoor session where you could try some manual modes and the instructors were there to answer questions.  Really, I thought the group was too large to do this type of 'field work', and it was really just a parking lot so it wasn't much fun.  I had hoped I would come away with some awesome photos, but only got some guy waving his hands and a few cattails.
Here we were supposed to blur the background
And here we should make the cattail stand out
The point here was to make his hand blur to show motion
All of these classes were helpful in different ways.  I think the repetition of the lessons is what has really helped, as I said earlier.  Another important lesson I took away from all this is that probably about 90% of those really great photos are doctored using after the fact software like Photoshop.  The instructor yesterday sang the praises of photo shop elements because it's generally cheaper and can manipulate most photos to make them look better.  And he mentioned that it is often available at Sam's Club or stores like it, in case you want to pay even less.  If you really have the software and some time on your hands, you can shoot in the raw mode and do amazing things with the photos you've shot.  I'm not at that point yet, but I'm proud that I can finally take some photos using what I've learned.  


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