My history with digital photography has never been particularly illustrious.

It started in the late 90s with… something that I suppose can technically be called a digital camera? It had no LCD for viewing pictures. It had no slot for a memory card. It held about 30 exposures in internal memory at roughly a 640x480 resolution, with the only affordance on the camera itself being a tiny display that showed the remaining battery life, and the number of shots you could take before the camera was full. If you wanted to see the photos it produced, you had to plug it into a computer and wait.

That camera was no more advanced than a point-and-shoot film camera at the time; in fact, it was arguably worse! But digital photography was a young field back then, and basically all something needed to qualify as a "digital camera" was to be able to get photos onto a computer more easily than developing film and scanning them.

Sunset over Silicon Valley

In 2002, I upgraded to something a little more reminiscent of today's point-and-shoots: an HP PhotoSmart 318 (remember when HP made digital cameras?) whose reviews boasted about its 2.3MP sensor and ability to hold up to 1,000 images at its lowest quality setting (more 640x480).

After that, in 2004, it was the Kodak EasyShare CX6330, which not only featured a sensor with a whopping 3.1 megapixels, but it also knew when you turned it on its side (!!) so it could correctly orient portrait photos. It was also my first camera to support an SD card.

That camera lasted me until August of 2006, when I upgraded to the first in that line of cameras that wouldn't be laughed at today: the Nikon Coolpix P3. With a pretty solid 8.1MP sensor, optical vibration reduction, a 10-shot burst mode with automatic "best shot" selection, and Wi-Fi to transfer photos instantly as they were taken, it's by far the coolest camera I've owned to date.

On April 28th, 2009, at Colt State Park in Bristol, RI, I pointed the camera towards the sunset, and released the shutter. I don't think I realized at that moment that I would never release that shutter again.

Brambles at Castle Rock State Park

See, a funny thing happened on June 29th, 2007: I bought my first iPhone.

Now, that original phone never did take the best pictures, so I would still defer to my faithful little Coolpix when a proper photo was needed. Over time, though, and because the best camera is the one that's with you, the number of shots in my iPhoto library taken by the iPhone slowly started to eclipse the Nikon, until one day it was never fired again.

And that was it! From Spring of 2009, all the way through the end of 2014, I didn't take a single photo with anything that wasn't an iPhone.

To some extent, that's not a bad thing: iPhones (especially the new ones) are actually pretty awesome at taking photos, and they certainly satisfied my needs for the longest time. At least, that is, until I moved to California and bought a car.

Don't get me wrong, Rhode Island is a properly gorgeous state; living in California, though, was the first time that I was within hours of some of the most jaw-dropping vistas I've ever seen. Not only that, but I get my kicks on twisty mountain roads, so the views that I was getting were even cooler than the ones you get to see from the ground.

So that's when something clicked.

Yellow Petal on San Gregorio State Beach

Somewhere towards the beginning of December of this past year, an idea started to form. I love to drive to interesting places — specifically, on roads that lots of people don't like to drive on — which puts me in a position that not everyone has the opportunity to be in. Having always had a deep-down desire to get into photography, but never having a reason to do so, California at long last seemed to offer up an answer.

So I made a decision: I bought a DSLR.

I can't tell you how many times over the past 7 or 8 years I've secretly added a Rebel to my Amazon shopping cart, only to say "oh that's a silly thing to spend your money on, what would you even take photos of? Put it back." California, though, has provided the inspiration, the subject, and the excuse, and the new year has provided the opportunity.

I started studying in earnest a few weeks ago — researching all of the different cameras on the market, learning how to read the name of a lens, looking at the effects of photos taken with different apertures, figuring out how to use Lightroom, and finally (FINALLY!) getting my head around ISO Sensitivity.

Pinecone on a Fallen Tree in San Francisco

I also consulted with some of my (surprisingly plentiful and unsurprisingly helpful) friends who are really into photography to get their advice when picking out a camera. And as one might imagine, since all of them are Canon fanatics, I bought a Nikon (and it had nothing to do with being a Paul Simon fan).

The Nikon D5300, to be exact, selected for its big, beautiful sensor, stunning dynamic range, awesome (I mean awesome) low-light/high-ISO performance, and a built-in GPS that makes cataloguing photos taken while out driving a whole lot easier.

Conveniently, I had a good friend who was able to loan me one (and some awesome, way-out-of-price-range lenses) for this past weekend to take it for a test drive. I took just a few shy of 450 exposures over a four-day shooting period; my favorites from each of the four days are above.

For the curious, all four of the photos above were shot with the Nikkor 17–55mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED, which is a truly remarkable piece of glass. I left all of the Exif info intact on the above photos, so feel free to dig in for more specifics (download them yourself, or click on them to see the deets on Flickr).

I also got to play with the 70–200mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED VR (the "legendary" old one, not the new one), which is mind-blowingly cool, and I will never own one. This article's cover photo of the Golden Gate Bridge was shot with that lens — from nearly two and a half miles away (really).

I learned a lot from my four-day weekend with a DSLR, and it'd be selfish not to share:

  1. I should never become a surgeon. I've already invested in a tripod and remote shutter release, because my hands just don't cut it with even slightly low light.
  2. Adobe Lightroom is simultaneously the worst and best software product I've ever used. If you've used it, you know what I'm talking about.
  3. I thought I'd have the most fun taking photos of sweeping landscapes from awesome vantage points. Turns out I actually really like macro. Who knew?
  4. Lenses make a far bigger difference in the outcome of a photo than the camera body.
  5. Pointing a real camera directly at the sun hurts. (And, according to the Nikon's users' manual, can start a fire inside the camera.) Then again, this is the same manual that warns users not to poke themselves in the eye while adjusting the viewfinder, so I'm thinking maybe they're the super-cautious type.
  6. The iPhone 6 takes really awesome photos. Not "for a smartphone," just in general. In my experience, 9 times out of 10, I found that if you put the Nikon in Auto (which, granted, you have no business doing), and shot the same scene with both it and the iPhone 6, the iPhone would produce a more aesthetically pleasing exposure. In fact, if I were taking photos that I had no intention of editing, I'd reach for the iPhone every time. It's that good as a point-and-shoot. Which brings me to:
  7. Great photos happen in post-production. The camera, the lenses, and your decisions about how to compose your exposure produce the raw material for something beautiful, but it isn't until you start twiddling the sliders during editing that your photos really come to life.1 At the time of the actual photograph, your job is to set yourself up for success in Lightroom later on: shoot in manual mode, get the exposure right for your camera's sensor,2 figure out what artistic elements you want to bring to the composition (focal points, depth of field, shutter speed, etc.), and get it captured. The preview on the camera is always going to look "just OK." If you exposed it correctly, trust that your camera captured all the detail you actually want, and plan to bring it out to suit your "artistic vision" (ehem) in the editing room. And to make your life easier with that:
  8. Always shoot in RAW. I don't care how many external hard drives you have to buy, the flexibility it gives you during post-production is always, always worth it. If given a choice between 12- and 14-bit RAW (like on the D5300), go with 14-bit.

I'm just getting started with photography as a hobby, and I've still got loads to learn (read: some of what I just said could be bullshit), but I'm pretty eager to get started! I'll probably post about it on the blog as I pick up new tips; hopefully my software engineering background can bring some interesting perspective to the "digital" aspects of digital photography.

In the meantime, keep an eye on my Flickr, which I've just recently revived, and feel free to shoot me any tips you can offer! I'm even giving some thought to the idea of a summer roadtrip, so with any luck, I might have some interesting photos to share in the not-too-distant future.

Until next time!

Some of my favorite shots from this weekend's shoot.

  1. Or, you know, maybe I just suck.

  2. I made a comment about exposing for your sensor. There's a relatively prevalent exposure strategy for digital photography called ETTR (Expose to the Right), which basically says that, when shooting RAW, you should aim for something that appears slightly overexposed because, mathematically, a higher proportion of sensor data is captured in the highlights than the shadows. In a number of instances with my camera, however, I found that, because the dynamic range of the sensor is so great, it was actually easier to recover shadow detail than highlight detail, particularly when the highlights were "uninteresting" (like on an overcast day). Your mileage may vary; figure out what your camera likes, and go with that.