What do I need to know to successfully operate a fancier camera?
You must know thyself, young padawan.
The key principle that muse be employed for any photographic equipment purchase is this: be able to articulate exactly what you are trying to achieve, why your current gear is unable to achieve it, and what gear would allow you to achieve it.
Here's an example of this principle in action:
Monsy currently shoots with an iPhone and has found that she really likes taking photos of animals at the zoo. She's hoping to start hiking more and to start capturing wildlife out in the actual wild in addition to getting better zoo shots. She's not happy with having fences in most shots nor in the phone's inability to "zoom in" - since the animals like to hang around the back of their enclosures when the zoo gets busy.
Here's what Monsy should be able to clearly articulate:
What to Achieve: photographs of animals, including those farther away, and during dusk and dawn hours when they're more active.
Problems With Current Gear: a phone camera gets a bit noisy for dusk and dawn shots or ends up using a slow shutter speed and both subject movement and camera shake become a problem. Subject distance is also a problem because phone cameras do not zoom in.
Gear Needed: a camera that has the ability to zoom in, whose autofocus can handle animal movement in decent but low light, and whose noise is not bad in those low light environments.
Now, that's still a bit ambiguous - because a camera with some zoom can come in many shapes and sizes: bridge cameras, mirrorless, DSLR...the exact system that would best fit is determined by Monsy's unique constraints:
- Use for other photographic needs
- Interest in learning more of the details of photography
But, no matter what camera system ends up best fitting Monsy's needs, she'll need to understand:
Focal Length - to understand exactly how much reach is needed to get the shots that she wants
ISO/Aperture/Shutter Speed - to understand how these three interact, especially in constraining times of day like dawn and dusk
How to Approach Animals in the Wild - hey, I did say she wanted to leave the zoo
This would be a base level of understanding allowing Monsy to choose a camera system and use it. She can easily get by using Auto modes, and as knowledge of the Exposure Cuboid accumulates, she'll be able to take advantage of Semi-Auto modes like Aperture and Shutter Priority, if not full Manual.
Now let's take a real life example in this image:
This image was shot on Kodak Portra 400 color negative film using a Pentax 645N and 200mm f/4 manual focus lens. It was scanned with an Epson v850.
In order to replicate this shot using this gear, one would need to:
- Be okay with hiking with a large and cumbersome brick for a camera
- Understand how to calculate a proper exposure manually
- Understand how to work within the constraints of a fixed ISO and limited shutter speed range
- Know how to manually focus and understand Depth of Field
- Know how to work with film
Note that in the above section, one could end up making a determination as to the type of gear needed to achieve some photographic goal. But, in this section, I am trying to point out that having the gear is not always enough. In my shot above, it could have easily been captured on Auto or Semi-Manual using a digital camera and an equivalent focal length of 135mm on a full frame - which is a gear combo available using a bridge camera, mirrorless, or DSLR.
Monsy could easily get by taking similar shots with less technical skill required by using different gear.
Sometimes the goal dictates the skills needed; sometimes the gear dictates it; most of the time: both.
Exactly what technical skills are needed is highly variable, though any photographer worth their salt will tell you to start by understanding exposure. Photography is the art of capturing light, after all, so learn how to read a scene and figure out all of the possible exposure combinations that will net you a perfect exposure...then learn to pick the best one.