How To Choose The Best Camera And Photography Course

A brooding sky and a modern architectural element provides a dramatic view of Hohensalzburg Fortress in Salzburg, Austria.

I've had the good fortune to share the joy of photography with thousands of people over the years. Prior to beginning this site I worked as a photography teacher at a range of photography colleges and institutions in Melbourne, Australia.

These days I do a lot less formal, classroom based teaching and, instead, concentrate on online teaching with The Arcanum and running private, one-to-one courses in Melbourne, Australia.

Despite the change that's occurring in how folks learn photography these days, there's two questions that never seem to go away. And, because they're so important, I wanted to spend some time addressing them here.

Are You Troubled And Confused | Which Camera To Buy?

The first question, while easy enough to ask, is somewhat more difficult to answer. Recognizing that a qualified answer should be preceded with a number of return questions signals the beginning of our journey of understanding. In my case I'd be trying to determine all manner of things including, but not limited to, the following:

  • What's your budget?
  • What do you intend to photograph?
  • How comfortable are you with potentially complicated menu structures?
  • Beware the Biased and the Guilt Ridden 

If you were to ask this critical question and the reply, when not preceded with a range of qualifying questions, was a Canon xxx or Nikon zzz you should probably be asking yyy, by which I mean why, why, why.

The answer is likely going to be because that's the camera that the other person (e.g., well-meaning friend, tutor, etc) users. And that's probably a good time to leave that particular discussion.

Clearly the issue isn't what they use, but what camera would be best suited to your specific needs and budget. You might be surprised as to how few people providing recommendations actually understand that simple concept. After all, you wouldn't want your money being spent to either support someone else's brand bias or otherwise justify their own purchase.

Angels trumpet Christ's rise from the dead in this niche in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Bruges in Belgium.

What Camera To Buy? | Help Is On The Way

While I can't help everyone out there wanting to buy a camera, at least on a one-to-one basis, I do have a solution which I've been working on for a considerable amount of time. I'm nearing completion of a major project which should help folks identify the right camera for their needs and budget. Details will be announced on this site ASAP. What's more it's FREE!

Do I Have The Right Camera For This Course?

Another question that tends to be directed to me is whether the photographer in question has the right camera for a specific course. This is an important question to which tutor and customer service personnel alike would want to provide the right answer. But there are a few problems that continually arise which make this task harder than it would otherwise seem. I'd summarize these problems as follows:

Looking back towards a magnificent skyscape above South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

There May Not Be A Course Ideally Suited To Your Camera

This is a common problem for folks looking for a course that will help them understand how to use their camera. And that's true for DSLR, Mirrorless or Micro Four-Thirds cameras. Most cameras on the market fitting that description are really good cameras capable of helping you produce excellent photos. But they're all so different from the other in relation to specific features, menu structure and short cut buttons that it's tough participating in a group-based camera course having to filter out information that's just not relevant to your own camera and your very own, specific creative needs.

Should you make the choice to attend such a group based course try to remember that your tutor has a duty to deliver information as advertised in a manner appropriate to the needs of participants with a wide and varied range of camera makes and models. It is group based study, for better and for worse. And what you may not know is that features, menu structures and short cut buttons vary considerably not just from brand to brand, but from model to model.

There's lots of advantages associated with group based study. But if you want to spend the entire lesson/s concentrating on your own camera and your own, individual creative journey then you really should consider a one-to-one private photography course.

A monkey with a large piece of fruit in the Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali.

Enthusiasm And A Desire To Help Others

At the end of the day a tutor probably has very little control over who attends their class. In my own case I've worked extremely hard to try to provide all participants with a vibrant, informative and fun learning environment. In the world of group based learning that means providing an experience that engages all manner of people, including the following:

  • Teenagers to retirees
  • Male and female
  • A diverse range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds
  • Varying degrees of education and, on occasions, folks with learning difficulties
  • A range of experiences in photography from complete novice to serious enthusiast
  • All manner of personalities
  • A range of expectations, often outside of that detailed in the course outline

All are welcome but in no way is it an easy job. Yet it's an area that has rewards far beyond what I consider to be the barely adequate (warning, controversy alert) remuneration paid to tutors in this sector.

Actually, I'm always impressed by the fact that folks make the effort, often at the end of a hard day's work, to attend one of the more formal courses at which I still, on occasions, teach. No more so than when they're balancing family and work needs to be there.

The fact is I still get a real buzz when I see someone's face light up with the realization of new knowledge. It's probably the greatest joy a teacher can have. That, and the fact that we are able to both inspire and educate participants towards investing themselves in this most creative art form.

It's actually very common for folks to enroll in courses to which they're not ideally suited. They may have the wrong camera or be enrolling in a course for which they're not quite ready. Here's some common reasons I'm given when folks end up in my classes.

I Know I Shouldn't Be Here But Hey, It Suits Me

I was advised to do another course, but it’s on Tuesdays. Tonight suits me better.
— Anonymous

Boy oh boy, this is a comment I regularly hear, though wish I didn't. It the sort of comment that folks enrolled in a relatively advanced course make, ever though they know almost nothing about photography or how to use their camera. We tutors simply have to bend like a reed in the wind and adapt, on the fly, so that these good folk are looked after while still staying true to the information that has to be delivered and to the needs of the rest of the group.

The Curse Of The Photographer, As Celebrity

I was told that this course isn’t suitable for my camera, but I liked your website so much that I thought I’d sign up anyway.
— Anonymous

I get this one all the time and, while flattering, it's hard not to feel somewhat compromised. As explained earlier, attending a class that is not designed for your camera or abilities is problematic and it's neither appropriate nor possible for your tutor to alter course content or delivery based upon the needs of a single participant.

Though, of course, a good tutor does all they can to help. Needless to say spending a few minutes in a one-to-one during breaks is hardly going to replace hours of content that the learner may not be ready for. And this is no more apparent than when the course is based upon image post processing and you're dealing with someone who can barely use a computer. Clearly, missing classes only accentuates the problem.

I guess one of the problems that folk's have in identifying the most appropriate course for their needs, and the camera they use, is the way some courses are described. For goodness sake the terms DSLR, Mirrorless or Micro Four-Thirds are hardly helpful to the uninitiated.

Definition Of The DSLR Camera - I Really Hope This Helps

The term DSLR is used to describe a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera.

Welcome to the world of the acronym: individual letters that, when placed together, stand for something that doesn’t seem to mean very much at all.
— Glenn Guy

Now let's try to make some sense of the term DSLR.

Clearly digital tells us that it's not a film-based camera, while the words Single Lens Reflex refers to the fact that the camera is designed for a single lens to be mounted, these days via a bayonet thread (much like some of the old fashion light bulbs), to the front of the camera. You see the image, formed by light passing through the lens, reflected off a series of mirrors and up to the viewfinder where you compose the photograph. 

Actually the term digital can be used to refer to the chip or sensor onto which light falls. It is here that the image is recorded, though it has to be processed before it makes sense to the human eye. The result of in-camera processing is usually a JPEG (e.g., 00001.jpg) image.

To fully benefit from a course designed for DSLR cameras you'll need an interchangeable lens camera that incorporates a mirror system allowing you to see what the lens sees and, as a result, achieve more accurate metering, composition and focusing than would be possible with a traditional point and shoot camera.

However, it's not quite as simple as that. A number of Mirrorless cameras, including models from Sony, Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic and Leica, while they do not include mirrors like a DSLR camera do, nonetheless, include most of the features and functionality of DSLR cameras and, as such, would probably be acceptable for most DSLR camera courses. If in doubt check directly with the institution that's actually running the course.

For what it's worth, these days I choose to use a mirrorless camera system from Sony. However, while I believe a mirrorless camera is likely to be the best option for most folks, price, size, ergonomics, menu structure and the kind of photography in question need to be considered before making a purchase.

Okay, not let's get back to describing a DSLR camera.

Most digital single-lens reflex cameras, commonly referred to as Digital SLR or DSLR cameras, use a mechanical mirror system and pentaprism to direct light from the lens to an optical viewfinder at the back of the camera. This optical viewfinder is positioned above and in addition to the LCD panel on the back on the camera. It's this system of mirrors and the pentaprism that are referred to by the 'R or Reflex' in the term DSLR.

OK, but what's the relevance of a 'SL' (single-lens) in the term DSLR?

Back in the day there were Twin Lens cameras made by companies such as Rolleiflex and Yashica. Here's how they worked.

The lens closest to the top of the camera passed light, by way of a mirror, up to a viewfinder or eyepiece for composition and focusing. The lower lens would pass light, through a variable lens opening (i.e., aperture), onto the film for an amount of time controlled by the shutter speed.

One of the disadvantages associated with this system was the phenomena known as parallax error which would occur when photographing at a relatively short camera-to-subject distance.

What appeared to be sufficient space at the top of the frame, from the viewpoint provided by the camera’s highest lens, might result in a portrait with part or all of the subject’s head cut off.

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Medium Format Folding and Twin Lens Reflex camera.

The phenomena of parallax error was also shared by film-based box, point-and-shoot and single-use (i.e., disposal) cameras and by some of the less expensive rangefinder cameras.

The fact that a DSLR camera provides a far more exact means by which you can frame, compose and focus your image are examples of the tangible benefits provided by this type of camera.

Without wanting to confuse the issue mirrorless cameras don't need mirrors. They control light, passing through the lens, to form an image on the camera's digital sensor. That image is displayed  directly in the camera's viewfinder so, in addition to being able to accurately control focus and composition, mirrorless cameras also allow the photographer to assess and, where appropriate, adjust exposure and white balance before the image is made. This is a critical advantage offered by the mirrorless camera, which should not be understated.

A portrait of a well feed and content Koala sitting in a tree near Cape Otway in Victoria, Australia.

Basic Operation of a DSLR Camera

The basic operation of a DSLR camera can be described as follows:

  • To enable the photographer to see what the lens sees the mirror reflects the light coming through the lens upwards, through a ground glass screen, into the camera's pentaprism and then back, through the viewfinder, towards the eye.
  • As an aid to composition, framing and focusing the lens is automatically set to its widest aperture.
  • During exposure the aperture usually closes down to help achieve the exposure (i.e., brightness) required.
  • The mirror assembly swings upward and the shutter, a visually opaque curtain or blind, opens allowing the lens to project light onto the sensor where the image is recorded.
  • A second shutter then closes, ending the exposure and preventing more light from reaching the sensor.
  • The mirror returns and the lens’s aperture is set back to its widest opening.
  • The camera writes the resulting digital file onto a memory card.
  • The camera is now ready to make the next picture. 

All of the above occurs, often within a fraction of a second.

Learn How To Use Your Camera And Explore Your Creativity

With the right attitude and reasonable expectations you should finish the course happy and with a far greater understanding of your camera and how to employ it in a way that taps into your own unique creative nature. But remember that a hammer is still just a hammer and, at the end of the day, camera's don't make photos, people do.

The best photography courses and tutors meet customer expectations for how to use their camera with information that explains how to create compelling and engaging images. No matter what camera you own, you can't make art without heart and effort.

Completing such a course should see you gain a reasonable level of proficiency with your camera. You can now concentrate on the more important aspects of image making as you embark on your exploration of the beauty of our world and its people through the art of photography.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru