Many web and graphic designers enjoy photography as a hobby, and some even offer both design and photography services to clients. If you haven’t yet taken much interest in photography or attempted to improve your understanding and appreciation for photography there are a number of ways that it can actually benefit your work as a designer.
In this article, we’ll take a detailed look at the subject of photography from a designer’s perspective, as well as providing some tips for how you can get started. We’ll also cover some basic and essential principles of photography that can serve as foundational knowledge and allow you to experiment and learn as you go.
How Designers Can Benefit from Photography
If you are a web or graphic designer you may be wondering how you can specifically improve your skills or benefit from learning more about photography. Well, here are a few of the most significant ways you can benefit.
1. Photo Composition and Design are Related
One of the most significant factors involved in quality photos is the composition, or how the shot is laid out. For graphic designers, and web designers specifically, layout and balance are critical. While photography and design are separate they do share some of the same artistic “rules”, and learning more about photographic composition can also help you with graphic design.
2. A Creative Outlet
As a web or graphic designer, you probably spend countless hours at your desk on the computer. Photography can serve as an excellent creative outlet that allows you to get away from the computer (at least, until it comes time to edit or process your photos). Even though photography can give you a break from your typical work, it still allows you to use your creativity and to do something productive while you are getting that break from your regular work. If you photograph landscapes, nature, or anything outdoors, photography can provide an excellent change of scenery that you will be sure to appreciate.
3. Colors and Color Theory
Something that photography and design share in common is the importance and impact of color. As a designer you are probably very familiar with color theory and the use of color in your design work. This experience and understanding will come in handy in photography, and chances are you will even learn more and improve your understanding of color through your photographic adventures.
4. Reduce Your Dependency on Stock Photos
Designers, especially for web design projects, often need to turn to stock photographs. Sometimes your clients may have photos to use in their projects, but the quality of those photos can vary greatly. Even if your clients do have some quality photos, chances are you will still need to use stock photos at some point in the project.
If you get more involved with taking your own photos and improve the quality as your learn and get more experience, it’s possible that you could wind up using your own photos instead of stock in some situations. Whether it be for your own websites and projects or for clients, being able to reduce your dependency on clichéd stock photos can be a good thing.
5. Photography Services are an Excellent Complement to Your Design Services
As I mentioned in the intro, some designers also offer photography services to clients. If you’re just getting started with photography this may not seem like a viable option right now, but with some practice you may be able to expand your service options to include photography at some point in the future.
Photography can be an excellent addition to your design services, and you may even be able to get started by serving some of your existing design clients. Both the photography and design industries are filled with loads of freelancers and other service providers, so many creatives have found it to be difficult to earn a full-time income in one of these industries. If this has been the case for you in the design industry, adding some part-time income from photography could close the gap that you need to earn a full-time income.
How to Get Started
If you’re looking to get started with photography today there are plenty of options. You probably already have a smartphone with a decent camera, and of course there are plenty of options for point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs. My advice for a designer who is just getting started with photography is to start small with an inexpensive camera and avoid the temptation to spend a few thousand dollars on a higher end option. If you buy an inexpensive camera and in a few months or even a few years you decide that you want to take it further you can always upgrade your equipment.
Spending a lot of money on a fancy camera won’t guarantee that you take amazing photos. In fact, starting with a basic camera can actually be helpful for allowing you to focus on the fundamentals like composition and lighting. In today’s market you can get a camera with all of the essential features at a reasonable price. Another good thing about doing it this way is that when it does come time to upgrade you’ll have a better idea of what you really need from your camera, and you’re likely to make a better buying decision.
Here are a few things that I recommend that you look for when buying a camera.
Related: How to Create a Photography Website
1. Manual, Shutter Priority, and Aperture Priority Modes
The most important thing is that the camera allows you to take control of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. We’ll look at these elements a little bit later, but for now you need to know that your camera will allow you the option to get off of auto mode and make some of these creative decisions for yourself. In order to take your photography to the next level, and even just to really get a solid understanding of photography, you will need to be able to have control and experiment. In manual mode you will control the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. In shutter priority you will control the shutter speed and optionally the ISO and the camera will automatically choose the aperture. In aperture priority mode you will control the aperture and optionally the ISO and the camera will automatically choose the shutter speed.
2. Ability to Shoot in RAW format
If you’re just getting started with photography, chances are JPGs are the only file format that you have ever worked with coming straight out of the camera. Cameras don’t actually capture images in JPG format, they are converted into JPGs during the export process. Some cameras, like DSLRs, allow you to export photos in their RAW format. Each camera will have it’s own RAW format (for example, Canon’s is different than Nikon’s). One of the reasons JPGs are so popular is because they are universal and every program can work with them.
In order to be able to work with RAW files you will need a photo editor that is compatible with the RAW file format of your camera. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is an outstanding option and they are always adding support for new cameras, so just about any camera from a well-known manufacturer will be supported. You can even work with RAW files right in Photoshop thanks to Adobe Camera Raw. Lightroom does offer some additional organizational tools and features that you won’t get in Photoshop, so I highly recommend Lightroom. And if you are already a Creative Cloud customer you will have access to Lightroom.
You may be wondering why you would want to shoot in RAW instead of JPG. Well, when a camera converts a photo into a JPG during the export process some details are lost. By having the RAW files you will have greater flexibility when it comes to editing and post processing. Simply put, RAW files allow you the potential to get better end results. Most cameras that give you the option of exporting RAW files will also give you the option to shoot in both RAW and JPG. This means that every time you will take a photo the camera will record two versions of the image. This takes up a lot more space on your memory card or hard drive, but I recommend starting out this way until you are comfortable working with RAW files in Lightroom or Photoshop. The downside to RAW files is that they often come out of the camera looking a little dull or flat. During the camera’s process of converting a RAW file into a JPG it may add some contrast, vibrance, saturation, or sharpness that help the photo to have a little more life. Almost every raw file will need some sort of editing in order to look its best.
3. Macro Capable
In you are buying a point-and-shoot or a bridge camera, I recommend looking for one that has a macro mode. If you are buying a DSLR you will have the option of buying a macro lens or extension tubes. By having a macro-capable camera you will be able to take extreme closeups of subjects like textures, flowers, insects, etc. This isn’t absolutely essential, but it is a nice option to have.
4. Tripod Ready
Almost every point-and-shoot camera, all bridge cameras, and all DSLRs will be ready to be screwed in or attached to a tripod. Typically this really only eliminates smartphones, although there are even some types of small tripods that can be used with smartphones. A tripod may seem unnecessary, but there are a lot of benefits, and some shots are even impossible or extremely difficult without one. If you want to do landscape photography, especially at sunset, night, or in low light you will need to use a tripod. Tripods are also needed for some macro and still life photography. And tripods can do more than just hold your camera steady. They are also helpful for forcing you to slow down and think a little more, especially when it comes to composition.
Now that we’ve covered some of the things that you should look for in a camera, here are the basic options that you’ll have.
The point-and-shoot will be lowest in price (in most cases) but also may lack some important features, like the ability to work with RAW files and/or the ability to shoot in manual mode. Point-and-shoot cameras will be small and lightweight, and generally they have controls that are simple and easy to use.
2. Bridge Cameras
Bridge cameras “bridge” the gap between point-and-shoot and DSLRs. They are generally larger and bulkier than smaller point-and-shoot cameras, but typically they do not have interchangeable lenses like a DSLR. Appropriately, bridge cameras are also typically priced in the middle.
Most bridge cameras will allow you to shoot in manual, shutter priority, and aperture priority in addition to auto. Some, but not all, bridge cameras will also give you the option to work with RAW files. For these reasons I recommend starting with a bridge camera if the budget allows. You can still learn a lot about photography with a point-and-shoot, but with most of them you will quickly reach some limitations. Bridge cameras are not all that much more money than above average point-and-shoot cameras, but the added options can be a big difference.
Two models that allow you to shoot in RAW and also offer a manual mode are the Panasonic Lumix FZ200 and the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS. These cameras are currently priced at $400 – $500.
If you are willing and able to spend a little more money, another option is to go with a DSLRs. Unlike point-and-shoot and bridge cameras, the DSLR will use interchangeable lenses. This gives you more options and possibilities, but lenses can also be quite expensive. DSLRs will give you all the creative freedom that you need. The only reason I recommend starting with a bridge camera is because I think it is helpful to gain some experience before going to the expense of buying a DSLR and some lenses.
When it comes to DSLRs there are a few major brands that dominate the market. The brand of your camera may not seem like a big factor in the buying decision, but it can actually be quite important. The brand will impact what lenses you are able to buy, and in some cases the other accessories as well. If you do a lot of photography you may upgrade to a new camera body every few years, but ideally your lenses will last a long time. So you’ll want to be sure that you are buying a brand that you’ll want to stick with, otherwise you may need to replace lenses and other gear down the road when you switch to a new brand for the camera body.
The major players are Nikon and Canon, with Sony and Pentax also being good options. DSLRs can get quite expensive, but if you are just getting started the entry level models with be more than capable of doing what you need.
Canon’s EOS Rebel SL1 is a good option at around $599 for the camera body, or around $699 with a kit lens included.
The Nikon D3200 also comes in at under $500, and that includes a kit lens.
The Sony A3000 and the Pentax K-500 are also entry-level options.
Other Helpful Accessories
Aside from the camera (and the lenses if you are going with a DSLR) there are some accessories that you should consider buying as well. When budget becomes an issue, consider buying used gear. Many local camera shops will sell used cameras, lenses, and accessories, and there are a number of websites where you can safely buy used equipment. Among the best sites for used gear are Adorama, B&H, KEH, and Borrow Lenses.
A tripod is one of the first accessories you should buy. They come in all different price points, and you can also easily buy a used tripod if you want to save some money. If you’re doing a lot of travel or landscape photography you will want to make sure that you have a sturdy, lightweight tripod that you can easily carry with you. If your tripod is heavy or bulky you’ll wind up not taking it with you, and it won’t do you any good. Carbon fiber tripods tend to be lightweight, but they are not cheap. I use and recommend Manfrotto tripods, but there are plenty of other good brands as well. Manfrotto tripods start at $60 and up.
2. Lens Hood
A lens hood can be helpful for reducing the amount of light that gets to the camera’s sensor. If you’re doing a lot of outdoor shooting you will probably want a lens hood. Many cameras and lenses come with a lens hood, so you may not even need to buy one separately. If your camera or lens did not come with one, or if you want a better one you can buy them for pretty reasonable prices.
3. Cable Release / Remote Shutter Release
A cable release will allow you to take photos without pressing the button on your camera. If you are working on a tripod and you need the camera to remain completely still the cable release is a great accessory to have.
A polarizer will attach to the end of your lens and will work similarly to the way polarized sunglasses work. It will reduce glare coming from water or metal, and it can also help to increase the contrast between blue skies and white clouds. If you do much photography outdoors you will probably appreciate having a polarizer handy.
5. Cleaning Kit
It’s also important that you keep your camera and lens clean. There are specially fluids, cloths, blowers, and brushes that are made specifically for gently cleaning your photography equipment. You can get a full cleaning kit for relatively low prices.
Now that you have a camera and some accessories you will need a bag to hold it all and keep everything safe. There are a lot of different types of bags available. You could get a shoulder bag or a backpack, which can be helpful if you will be hiking with your gear.
Later in this article we’ll cover some photography basics to get you started, but there is so much more than can be covered in this one article. There are a lot of resources online that can help you to learn and master photography, and some of them are free. Here is a look at some helpful resources.
1. Learn Photography Concepts by Cambridge in Colour
Cambridge in Color has a section on their site for learning about photography. The Learn Photography Concepts page has links to 15 different introductory articles.
2. Photo Editing 101
PhotographyPla.net offers free courses that cover photo editing in Photoshop and photo editing in Lightroom. If you want to learn how to take your good photos and make them great, learn how to master Photoshop or Lightroom.
If you are willing and able to spend a little bit of money on learning, BetterPhoto.com offers self-paced courses that you can take online.
BetterPhoto Basics is a book by Jim Miotke (founder of BetterPhoto.com) that provides an excellent introduction to digital photography. The book is a few years old but still very relevant. Jim does a great job of explaining how a camera works in ways that you can understand. Another great thing about this book is that it is not specific to DSLRs, so you can benefit from it with any type of digital camera.
This section isn’t intended to be an all-inclusive resource for learning photography, but we can get started by looking at some of the basics and provide some resources for further learning. If you want to master photography these are all things that will need plenty of attention.
1. The Exposure Triangle
A properly exposed photograph will involve a combination of three different factors: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Shutter speed is the amount of time that the camera’s shutter is open. Fast shutter speeds can be used to freeze motion (as you might want to do when photographing sports, animals, cars, or other moving objects), and slow shutter speeds can be used to blur motion (such as moving water, car headlights at night, etc.). Long shutter speeds are also necessary at night or in very low light situations.
Aperture refers to the size of the opening when a picture is taken. A larger aperture will let in more light and a smaller aperture will let in less light.
ISO is the measure of the camera’s sensitivity to light. In low light situations you can increase the ISO to get a better shot, but as you increase the ISO you will also begin to add digital noise. As a result of the increased noise you will generally want to keep ISO as low as possible.
The relationship of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO is known as the exposure triangle because they all impact each other. For example, if you want to use a faster shutter speed to reduce blur from a moving object you will need to either use a larger aperture to let in more light or increase the ISO to offset the change in shutter speed.
If you are shooting in auto mode the camera will automatically make the exposure decisions. In some cases the camera may get it right, but in many situations the camera won’t know exactly what you want to accomplish with a particular shot. In order to have control you will need to work in manual, aperture priority, or shutter priority modes.
The exposure triangle and the basics of proper exposure is something that is best learned with practice, but for a more in depth explanation of the topic please refer to this article from Cambridge in Colour.
2. Depth of Field
Depth of field is the distance between nearest and farthest objects that are in focus. A shallow depth of field can be used to focus on a close object and throw the background out of focus. You’ll want to learn how to use depth of field to create the effects and mood that you want in a particular photo. For example, in the photo below the flower in the foreground is in focus and the background is out of focus. This photo would look drastically different if everything in the photo was in focus.
To achieve this type of effect you would use a large aperture (represented by a low f-stop number like f/4) and focus on an object that is close to you. For a more detailed explanation please see the Depth of Field tutorial from Cambridge in Colour.
3. Understanding Light
Light is one of the most important elements in photography, so in order to improve your results you will need to understand light and shoot in the best light possible. When shooting outdoors the hours after sunrise and before sunset (the golden hour) tend to produce the best light. Mid-day sun can produce harsh lighting that is difficult to work with.
Light is a complex topic that has entire books dedicated to its explanation and understanding. If you want to learn more Digital Photography School has a series of articles that cover various aspects of light.
4. Composition Basics
Just like graphic design, photographic composition also has several “rules” that can be used to help you create effective and attractive photos. Of course, these rules don’t need to be followed all of the time, but if you think about them while you are photographing you should see the quality of your photos improve.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds involves breaking your photo down into 9 equal segments, divided by two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. You’ll place the most important element in your photo on the lines or at the intersection of the lines.
Fill the Frame
In general, get closer to your subject (or zoom in if necessary) in order to get a better picture.
Use Leading Lines
Perspective and leading lines can be used with great impact to lead the eye of the viewer. This usually involves taking some time to think about what perspective will give the most interesting view.
For a more detailed look at composition rules please see 18 Composition Rules for Photos That Shine.
Do You Experiment with Photography?
Our audience mostly consists of designers, but it would be interesting to know how many of you already have some experience with photography. If you have not spent much time on photography, do you feel that it could benefit you as a designer? Please feel free to leave a comment.