Well, the first thing I would suggest that I found very helpful is...and this may sound kind of dumb so bear with me...but play with the camera itself and see what everything does, how it works and how to make it work for you.
As I've said many times, a lot of people own cameras, but very few seem to know how to use them. In my mind there is a very big difference between "snap shots" and "photography". Most people go out and buy a camera, leave everything on automatic and just take pictures. A photographer on the other hand, uses all the tools he has available to create his/her images. Part of this is understanding some basic principles such as composition, lighting, the rule of thirds, yadda, yadda, yadda, but a big part of it comes down to knowing how the tools work. A carpenter can't build a house without a hammer, a saw, wood, etc., etc., and a photographer can't make great images without a camera. You can bet your booty that the carpenter KNOWS
how to use his tools and the same should be true of the photographer.
For example (and I'm not sure if this is really a good
example or not), I recently got a new Canon lens for the holidays...the 50mm f/1.8 II. Instead of trying to get some "great shots" right off the bat, I've been experimenting with the lens with subjects that I'm already familiar with...the critters at the nature center, sunsets at a local beach, etc.. I'll do a series of shots at various apertures and such, not really worrying about "artistic quality" and then go back and look at them on the computer and see what's working and what's not.
I'll do stuff like this in my back yard too. Since I shoot mostly animals/critters, when I get a new piece of equipment such as a new camera for example, I'll take a bunch of stuffed animals with color and textures similar to real critters, out in the backyard and do lots and lots of test shots to find out how the new equipment works. With lenses for example, this is a great way to find out if and where the "sweet spot" is. It's also a good way to really learn your equipment.
I believe...at least for the type of work that I do, that photography is about artistic expression, but as a painter needs to know a little about brushes, canvas and paints (or my carpenter analogy above), so a photographer needs to know about the equipment he/she is working with. In my mind, the "technical aspect" of photography should really be second nature...you shouldn't have to think about it when you're shooting and this especially goes for equipment. If you're standing there trying to remember which button works the ISO or how to set a focus point on your DSLR, then you're not really paying attention to your subject or things such as composition.
Heres another way to look at it... Let's say that you're looking to take a picture to enter into a photo contest and you have 2 cameras available. One of those cameras is a new, high end DSLR that you just bought last week and the other is your 5 megapixel p&s that you've been using for 3 or 4 years. Even though the DSLR is probably going to be a much superior camera, chances are you're actually going to get a better shot from the p&s simply because you know the camera better and know how to get the most from it. Make sense?
In my case, again I shoot mostly animals and very simply if I have to sit there and thumb thru menus or try and remember how to change the aperture or shutter settings...I've already missed the shot. For me it really pays to not only know what each button on the camera does, but to know it instinctively
. Shooting animals is challenging enough as it is...often they don't stop moving and usually you can't tell them "ok...lift your nose just a little to the left...now hold still while I adjust the lighting"...it just don't work that way! LOL!!! Regardless, when I'm shooting, the main things I want to concentrate on are framing & composition, in the case of animals, facial expressions, lighting, etc.. Of course if I want my images to come out sharp and in focus, it goes well beyond that, but I don't want to have to think
too much about it when I'm actually taking the pictures, so it really pays to know that side of it ahead of time.
Alrighty...that's about it for now. I hope that somehow that made some sense! LOL! I'm sure I'll have some other things in a few days as I like to talk and I like to type! For now though, I'll let someone else have the soapbox and see what others have to say
Great topic there Chris...good suggestion!