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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Basic Photography Q&A

We get a surprising number of e-mails that contain photography related questions. As much as I love taking photos, it is just a hobby and I don't really know that much about it. I took two college courses back when I was a senior in high school (in one of those dual-enrollment programs that our school had) but other than that I have no real knowledge except what I have learned through lots of trial and error. I always feel very insecure answering the questions because I am worried I will tell someone the wrong thing. Because of that I want to make sure I preface this post by saying that I absolutely do not consider myself a "real" photographer and that I do not by any means feel qualified to answer any really in depth questions, but seeing how we do get asked regularly about what camera I use, lenses I use, and photoshop actions I thought I would do my best to post some of the answers I give here as a sort of guide if you are just starting out. I will answer the three main questions we get asked in e-mails first (camera, lenses and tips) as well as some other questions.

Q: What kind of camera do you use?

A: Up until last week I used a Nikon D3000 (shown in the first photo with the text on it). I got it as a gift about two and a half years ago. I have to say I have been 100% completely happy with it for an entry level DSLR! I HIGHLY recommend it and would buy one again in a heartbeat. I just looked online and you can purchase one of these for anywhere between $300 to $500. There now is a D3100 which is essentially a newer version that I would recommend as well.  Now, if I have been so happy with my D3000, why would I buy a new camera? Well, as happy with it as I have been it is still an entry level camera and the noise when I had to crank my ISO up always drove me crazy. I almost never use my flash so that was a factor. I also wanted to make the leap to a full frame camera. I got a D700 (shown below) on Ebay and so far I have been loving it but I can't really give a real review on that because I have only used it about three times so far, and I am using it right now with my two DX lenses until I have enough saved up to splurge on a FX lens - I am hoping by Christmas. I plan on using it for alot of my interior photos and for planned outdoors shoots. I keep my D3000 in my purse and will be still using it for a lot of my shots.

Q: What are your go to lens? How many do you have? 

A. I only have two lenses so they are both my go to lenses. =) I have the one that came with my D3000 (shown in the first photo with the text) which is a 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens and then I have a 35mm 1:1.8G lens (shown below).
Q: Do you have any tips for a beginner?

A: Here are a few tips:
  1. Try to use natural light whenever possible. Indoors open you blinds and let the light shine in! Outdoors try to shoot in the early morning hours or in the evening if possible. 
  2. Don't use your flash unless absolutely necessary. I haven't used a flash on my camera in well over a year, maybe two. 
  3. Learn to shoot in manual. You will be AMAZED at the difference. 
  4. Start playing around with your aperature (F-stop). For portrait-type shots have your F-stop as low as you can while still keeping the person in focus. I shoot with my F-stop under 2 probably 75% of the time.
  5. If you are taking photos of children takes tons of them! When I am trying to get a good shot of Lillie or Lola sometimes I might only have one or two usable ones and about 50 awful ones. You can always delete the ones that are out of focus or their eyes are closed. 
  6. Move around! If you just stand at eye level and snap you will just have a bunch of boring shots. Crouch down, get up on a chair, lay on your stomach in the grass, etc. Your shots will be so much more interesting and visually appealing by getting in the right position for the shot. 
  7. Along with moving yourself around, sometimes you need to move around the objects you are shooting to get it to look right. For instance, when shooting a vignette in real life it might look better with a little space between some of the objects but often when photographing them you will need to tighten things up a bit to look best in the photo.
  8. Be creative! Try new things. Even if it doesn't work it's not a big deal. You can delete your images and try again. Photography should be fun.
  9. Edit your photos. You can take an mediocre shot and turn it into something you really love sometimes with the right editing.
  10. Practice, practice, practice! 

 Q: I want to get a new camera ... one that takes more professional ones than the ones on my blog. What camera would you suggest. One that is easy to use and some what affordable. 

A: I highly recommend the D3000 (or the D3100). If you just take a little bit of time to shoot in manual I think you will be surprised at how professional looking you can get your photos to look! Especially if you do some editing to them. I have found it to be very easy to use and although it isn't cheap it is considered an entry level DSLR and you won't find anything a whole lot cheaper.

Q: What are some of your go-to camera settings? 

A. I don't know that I necessarily have any "go-to" settings but I always shoot with my ISO as low as possible and I generally have my fstop pretty low too - the majority of the time it is below 3 and then my shutter speed I just adjust to work for the proper exposure. That works well for me because I mostly take portrait type shots or other close-up style photos. I had to switch things up a bit when I did the tree swing shots seeing how Lillie was in motion.

In these photos you can see the focus is on her face but the rest of the picture is very blurry. 
This was achieved by having my F-stop very low!

 Because she was in motion for this shot I had to have a higher F-stop to make sure I focused on the right area, and my shutter speed was much faster too so that she wouldn't be blurry. Too achieve that I had to bump my ISO up a bit.

Q: I was wondering how you get your white backgrounds in your dessert photos? 

A: I plan on doing that for my next photoshop tutorial!

Q: Do you have any tips for me? I just got a new camera and am not sure where to start.

A: First, I would recommend reading the manual at least a little bit to get a feel for where things are on your new camera. Then I would just start playing around with it. The more you practice the more comfortable you will become using it.

I really recommend using as much natural light as possible! I don't know that I have ever posted a photo on this blog where I used my flash. I try to strictly use natural light. The best time to take photos is generally early in the morning or in the evening when the sun is not so harsh. This time of year, my favorite time of day to take photos outdoors of Lillie and Lola is between 7 and 8 in the evening. The sun is so pretty then and I don't get squinting eyes or too many shadows on their faces. As we are nearing the end of summer though it will probably be more like 6:30-7:30.

These were all taken during that "golden hour".

Q: I would LOVE to know if you keep your lens on auto or manual? I keep mine on manual, but for some reason, most of my pictures turn out blurry, it might have to do with the fact that I don't have perfect vision ;) 

A: It's funny. I always, always shoot in manual mode as far as my aperture and shutter speed but as far as my focus goes I got back and forth between auto and manual. It really depends on the situation. If I am shooting interior shots for a blog post I use manual focus. I much prefer to have control over what I am focusing on. However, If I am running around chasing Lola or Lillie I have it on auto because that's just easier for me.

Q: I'd love to have you share what are some typical things you do with your pictures, as in, do you always run a certain action?

A: Hmmm.....although I do run at least one action on every photo you see here on the blog there isn't one specific one I always use. I often use "Boost" by Pioneer Woman and also her "Sharpen This" action. As far as other things that I typically do - I just about always crop my photos to get the image to have the feel I want. I also use my clone tool a lot to clean things up or remove random unwanted things (shadows, weird patches of grass,  red marks, etc. )

Q: What are some of your favorite go-to actions?

A: My favorite black and white action is Pure Sugar from Annie at Paint the Moon. I am absolutely in love with it and want to use it on every photo I take these days! One of my favorite color actions is Teatime by Florabella Collection. I've also been using Rainbow Bright and Summer Air quite a bit lately from Paint the Moon.

Q: Do you always shoot in RAW?

A: I am almost embarrassed to write this, but I literally just started shooting in RAW. So, the answer to that no. Because I just started I don't know enough to give any tips - I still haven't figured it out myself yet.

Q: What is your favorite setting to use in your camera?

A: I love being able to have my ISO as low as it goes and then shoot with my fstop quite low too - I LOVE having beautiful bokeh in the background!

Q: What is your favorite lens to shoot with?

A: Of my two lenses I definitely prefer my 35mm 1:1.8G lens. That is what I generally use although I sometimes will switch back to my other lens depending on what it is that I am shooting.

 Q: Any tips for capturing the sun flares in some of your shots?  

A: I don't really have any tips necessarily except that I take almost all of my shots that are set up during the "golden hour". I try to face the sun but am careful not to get it to directly in the shot. If I do then I end up having to do quite a bit of work in photoshop which always drives me crazy. It's better to get it right SOOC.... I have to admit, I am still working on that though!

Those were all natural sun-flares. This one is clearly photoshopped in. 

Q: Would you recommend taking a photography class to learn more or read tutorials and teach myself? 

A. I think that would really depend on your learning style. For me, I learn better watching and reading tutorials and then lots of trial and error. I know other people, though, who do much better in a classroom type setting where they can ask a teacher questions and get one on one type help.

Q: I have the same camera as you and was wondering what your go-to manual settings are? I'm having a hard time adjusting my settings so that the photo isn't "grainy" so I just end up using "auto" I also can't seem to figure out how to get the fstop lower than f4 can your nikon d3000 go lower than f4? 

A. If your photos are too grainy make sure you have your ISO set as low as you can for the setting and light. For instance, most of my outdoor shots I have it set on my D3000 at 100. My indoor shots I tend to have to go a little higher. If your photos are grainy your ISO is probably up pretty high. As far as not being able to go lower than f4 - are you using the lens the camera came with? It is the lens that controls that, not the camera so if you are using the one that came with the camera then you aren't going to be able to get it to go any lower. If you want it to go lower you will have to purchase another lens like a 35mm 1:1.8G one.

Q:Are you the type of photographer who strategically clicks or do you have you camera set so when you press the button it just continually takes pictures until you let go of the button? 

A: I strategically click but I do take a TON of photos during each shoot almost as if I was just holding the button down...way too many, in fact! 

Q: Do you use a tripod when you take all those candid type shots?

A. No, I have never used a tripod for any of my candid shots. In fact, I have really only even used my tripod two or three times when I was taking indoor shots. I am always in such a hurry that I never take the time to get it out...and then wish later that I had! 

Q: Did you change your camera settings for each photo? 

A: Not for each photo, but I do check my settings pretty regularly during a shoot and adjust accordingly. 

Q: Do you photoshop your pictures?

A: Yes, I do! I use Photoshop CS5. I don't photoshop all of the photos I take and keep (because I take thousands every month) but I do photoshop pretty much all of the ones you see here on the blog - even if it is just a slight color boost or sharpening. I also use it for fun things like removing the hand that was holding up Lola in the bucket picture and cloning an arm where I removed Jamie's hand (will see if I can find the before shot of that but don't have it right now) and making it look like Lola was sitting on top of Jason's Jeep.

Q: How do you recommend learning Photoshop? My computer has Photoshop Elements 9 built in. Do you recommend the tutorials? The library has lots of books about it, but they all have different approaches. I'd rather take a class, but can't find any in my area. Any tips would be appreciated!

A: I would definitely recommend tutorials! They are so easy to both read and watch. I enjoy ones that show a step by step process and also video ones! I wish I had more time because I would love to sit down and watch some video tutorials on some things I am trying to figure out. The handful of ones I have watched I found to be extremely helpful!

If you go to our tutorial section and scroll near the bottom you can find four different photoshop tutorials.

If you want to read a post from Annie who is an amazing photographer that I greatly admire I would recommend clicking here.

And Miss Mustard Seed recently posted on her growth as a photographer. That post included some great info as well as links to her previous photography posts as well as some other wonderful bloggers photography posts so I would definitely recommend clicking here and checking that out!

I hope you all have a blessed week!



  1. Thank you so much for all the q&a and tips! I always look forward to your photography tutorials, because I love how all of your pictures look. This was extremely helpful, and I can't wait to try some things out. Good luck learning your new camera, I'm sure it won't be too hard for you.

  2. What a helpful post- both the text and examples. :)

  3. Photography is a very powerful medium and a very difficult craft. Excellent photos don’t only display some facts — they tell stories, awake feelings and manage to share with the audience the emotions a photographer experienced when clicking the shot button. Taking excellent pictures is damn hard as you need to find a perfect perspective and consider the perfect timing.

  4. A book that was recommended to me at the beginning is called "Understanding Exposure." It's for the basics - and understanding how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed all work together.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to answer so many questions. Very helpful. Happy Week~enjoy!

  6. Thanks for such a great Q&A post, Jennifer!

    I saw the new "As for me" pillow cover and love it! Do you know if Jennifer will be doing the same one but with white letters? Thanks!!!

    1. Hi - We definitely do plan to make a batch with white lettering as well, but it probably won't be for a little while. If you send us an email with "white as for me" or something like that in the subject line one of us will email you when they are eventually ready.

    2. Great!! Thanks so much!

  7. This is SO SO SO helpful!!! Thank you! :-)

  8. Jennifer you do have such lovely photos. Technology aside, you are an artist and have an amazing eye. I have a very nice Nikon Coolpix...I'd love a 'big girl' camera, but until then I've learned that lighting can make all the difference. Thanks for all your tips. Truly!
    Hope your week is Extraordinary!

  9. I have been using a Nikon D60 for 3 years or so and am ready for a new one. My dream camera is the new D800 but at $3000 I just can't justify it. I think it might be the new D3200 it's 24 mp and has been getting good reviews.
    I have wanted to try actions but when I looked at how to download them from a video tutorial I almost fainted. WOW lots to remember.
    Thanks for all the tips. You are a pro to me but I like your humility.


  10. Thanks for the tips Jen. I purchased a Nikon D3100 earlier this year, and in addition to the 18-55mm kit lens, I also bought a fixed 35mm lens...but am ashamed to say that I'd never tried it (and just stuck to the kit lens). Your post inspired me to swap them over, and I'm now enjoying being able to get my aperture down to a much smaller number!

  11. You shoot with a D700? Me too! I absolutely love mine, although I'm upgrading to the D800 soon.

    One tip I always give newbies is to invest in the book Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. It totally demystifies shooting in manual, and is a great resource.

    Enjoy your camera!


  12. One more thing...I agree about the flash thing, but you will probably want to invest in a speedlight with a diffuser. That comes in handy for interior shots, and does not create the harsh, artificial look of the on-camera flash.

    E-mail me Jen, I love to talk cameras, especially Nikons!

  13. Ack, i'm completely intimidated by the camera... but i love your photos,andI am intrigued by your skills with the camera and photoshop. I do wish i had time to figure it all out, but i'm not very young, and i'm pretty sure i'd die of old age before i became good at the whole thing. I love love that photo of Lillie with the dirty face. And was amazed to learn you shoot into the sun, i always thought one was supposed to have their back to the sun, so thanks, that was an informative post!


  14. May I ask why you use dx lenses on a full frame body?


  15. Sorry... I need to read more carefully.
    You just got my hopes up for a while - thought there was some clever idea behind the Dx vs. DC.


  16. Thanks for the information you've given in this post. I found them very helpful! I've linked this post to my blog. I'm looking for a new camera and did a post on point and shoot cameras vs DSLR. If you'd like to see the post it is at


  17. I really love your style and eye! What a great blog to stumble onto! Give us a visit over at - you can definitely bring something to our table and we've got a lot to offer, too!

  18. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. It's 6:41 am and my husband is up with me and I have my Nikon D3100 ready to follow your tips.


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