I'm a hack photographer, about as far from a professional as you can get but I thought maybe some of you who are getting into this would be interested in some of the things I've learned along the way.
1) Don't worry about Photoshop, camera effects, fancy filters or gadgets.New cameras do some crazy shit - auto focus, auto exposure, auto white-balancing, exposure bracketing, real-time image preview and a whole shitload of special effects and filters. Good pictures and great photographers existed long before all this shit. Just like expensive tools don't build bikes, fancy technology don't take good pictures. Don't get too caught up in the fancy things your camera does!
2) Learn the basicsYou may luck out and take a good picture now and then, but you won't understand how to repeat your luck until you understand the following concepts:
Exposure time: It's a crude analogy, but think of a picture as an empty five gallon bucket that you've got to fill with water. The goal is fill the bucket with exactly five gallons of water, no more no less. If you want a perfect fill you need to know how fast the water flows (diameter of the faucet) and how long leave the faucet on.
Exposure time is just the length of time you leave the faucet on - leave it on too long and the bucket floods, not long enough and it's not full. An overexposed picture (too much exposure time) will be washed-out, underexposed pictures will be dark. Exposure time is measured in fractions of a second (1/2, 1/10th, 1/100th, 1/4000th, etc).
For more see Wikipedia - Shutter Speed
Aperture: The pupils in your eyes control how much light hits your retina. In dark situations your pupils dilate to let more light in, in bright situations they close back up to let less light in. Camera lenses have pupils too, and the measurement of the diameter of that pupil is known as aperture. In the bucket analogy aperture is nothing more than the diameter of the faucet. Aperture is always expressed as a reciprocal - an f2 (1/2) aperture is a fire hose while an f20 (1/20) is just a drip. All else being equal, a large aperture setting (wide, low f value such as f2, f3.5, f4, etc) will require less exposure time than a high aperture value (narrow, high f value such as f8, f11, f20, etc).
In addition to influencing exposure time, aperture also effects something known as depth-of-field. The depth of field in a photograph simply means how much of the picture is in focus. Portraits usually have a shallow depth of field - the subject is in focus while the background and foreground are blurred. Newspaper shots usually have a wide depth of field - most or all of the shot is in good focus.
Let's say you've spent all winter out in garage building you're new chop. Spring has finally arrived, the weather's getting nice and your bike is finally done. To mark the occasion you decide to go out and snap a few pics of your brand new ride. Since it's spring and things are really getting green you decide that the old lonely forest on the edge of town would be a good backdrop for your shots. You tell your ol' lady to put on her sexiest dress, you grab your faithful dog Fluffy and you load up the trailer. Once you get to the forest you get everyone positioned - Fluffy is standing right in front of the camera just a few feet from you. The bike and your ol' lady are about 15 feet in front of you, and the forest is 50 yards or so ahead of you. Finally you take two shots; one with an aperture of f2, the other with an aperture of f20. Here's what your two shots might look like:
WIDE APERTURE SHOT - f2
NARROW APERTURE SHOT - f20
Wide apertures (f2, f3.5, f4, etc) result in shallow depths of field (portrait style). Narrow apertures result in a wide depth of field where most of the shot is in focus.
For more see Wikipedia - Aperture
ISO/ASA/Film Speed: The final piece to this puzzle is your ISO setting or film speed. You can think of this as adjusting the camera's sensitivity to light. In the bucket analogy ISO speed would be the size of the bucket. Up until now we've just assumed a five gallon bucket, but what if we wanted to fill a ten gallon bucket? Higher ISO values (faster film speeds, smaller bucket) require less light to create an exposure. This allows you to shoot in low light situations and still use a reasonable exposure time. There's a price for this though - because higher ISO values makes the camera more sensitive to light the resulting images will have more noise or graininess than low ISO shots. Low ISO shots are high quality, very clean and devoid of noise or graininess but they require more light.
For more see Wikipedia - Film Speed
Here's a cheat sheet to help you keep track of it all:
Short Exposure Time (1/4000th, 1/1000th, etc) - Less light is "consumed" to make the picture. Image may be dark if underexposed. Motion is stopped (look at the helicopter blades).
Long Exposure Time (1/20th, 1/5th, 2 seconds, etc) - More light is "consumed" to make the picture. Image may be washed out if overexposed. Motion is captured, creating streaks or blurs (lights of passing cars).
Narrow Aperture (f8, f11, f20, etc) - All else being equal, a narrow aperture will require a longer exposure time. Narrow apertures have a large depth-of-field (much of the image is in focus).
Wide Aperture (f2, f3.5, f4, etc) - Will require a shorter exposure time, will create shots with shorter depth-of-field (foreground and background out of focus, portrait-style).
Slow Film Speed / Low ISO (50, 100, 200) - All else being equal, will require a longer exposure time or wider aperture. Will create high-quality results with very little noise or grain.
High Film Speed / High ISO (400, 800, 1600) - Requires less exposure time, narrower aperture. Will create noisy or grainy shots. Higher ISOs allow you to shoot in low light conditions with reasonable aperture and exposure values.
So how do you get started with all of this? Turn OFF the automatic mode on your camera! Even the cheapest point-and-shoot cameras these days have a fully manual mode where you can set the values you want for exposure, aperture, ISO, etc. Experiment with these different parameters and see what results you get. Most cameras will also have exposure priority and aperture priority modes as well. In these modes you manually select one value (aperture or exposure time) and the camera selects the corresponding value to create a balanced shot.
When the camera isn't automatically making all the exposure decisions for you it forces you to pause for a minute before taking a shot. That pause will cause you to think twice about the shot, its composure, its mood, etc. That small pause will end up making a big difference in your photos over time, trust me.
3) Shoot B&W for at least six monthsFor some reason this is something that a lot of people just can't discipline themselves to do; I have no idea why. By default we don't really separate out form and color from what we see, we just see things. Scientific studies have shown the subliminal effects different colors can have on the exact same forms (women find the same man more sexually attractive when he's wearing red). These studies should drive home just how integrated color and form are in our normal mode of vision. The goal of shooting in B&W is to learn to separate form from color in your mind. Switch your camera to B&W mode immediately, and leave it that way for at least six months! DON'T shoot in color and convert to B&W later, shoot in B&W! Every camera should have a setting for this, my five year old cell phone with a super-shitty 1 megapixel camera still has a dedicated B&W mode. Can't figure it out? Try Googling your camera model and "black and white mode".
4) Take a lot of pictures, of everythingIf you're getting into photography now you have a tremendous advantage over those of us who got into this thing before the digital age. It used to take me 20-30 hours to shoot, develop, process and view a roll of 35mm film (containing 36 images). This created a tremendous lag time between when I took the shot and when I saw the results. It was really tough trying remember back to what was in my head when I pressed the shutter, I made progress but it was slow.
Today I can go out with a digital box, shoot 500 pictures in an afternoon and review them all that evening on the couch over a High Life. I can see what worked, what didn't, and I can go out the very next day and start all over again. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS! Start shooting EVERYTHING, it's the only way you'll develop a sense of what works and what doesn't. It's also the only way you'll ever develop your OWN style and sense of aesthetics.
Give yourself a goal of shooting at least 100 images everytime you pick up the camera. Going to the local hot rod show? Don't come home without 100 images. Throwing a birthday party for grandma? They won't be exciting pictures, but you better take 100 of them. Need a break from turning a wrench? Take 100 pictures of your scoot from various angles, you'll get a lot of good build ideas this way too...
5) Watch moviesMovie cameras are just like film cameras, only they take multiple shots at a high rate of speed. The rest of the fundamentals (exposure time, aperture, depth of field, film speed, composition, etc) are exactly the same. Next time you're sitting around watching a movie pay attention to how the shots are composed and how that composition effects the "feel" or "mood" of the scene. Is the shot clear and focused or is it grainy and blurred? How much of the shot is in focus? How is the shot cropped? What lines do your eyes follow when looking at the shot? How is the shot framed? Where was the camera positioned (high, down low, moving on a platform, etc)?
6) If you're going to spend money on gear, invest in good glassFinally, if you're determined to throw money at the problem make sure you're spending your money on good lenses and not fancy camera bodies. If you get into this enough you'll probably find yourself wanting to graduate beyond a point-and-shoot to a true SLR camera (single lens reflex). All SLR camera systems consist of a body and a collection of lenses. The lenses can be interchanged onto the camera body for shooting different types of situations, whereas most point-and-shoots have their lenses permanently attached.
When it comes time to buy an SLR resist the temptation to buy the camera body with the most technology. Remember, technology won't make you a good photographer it'll only make you a poser. Buy the cheapest acceptable body you can live with and spend the rest of your money on a high-quality lens or two. Lenses can make the transition from camera body to camera body as you upgrade and good glass never becomes outdated. Spend $5,000 on a camera body today and in five years all the same features you just paid dearly for will be obsolete. High quality optics never go out of date and a top-shelf lens today will most likely cost you the same amount in five years as well.
I believe in this so much that I would advise someone on a tight budget to buy an old used manual focus lens with good optics from the 70's over a brand new modern auto-focus lens with mediocre optics.
Well, that's it. Like I said before, I'm not a pro and this is all just stuff I've pieced together along the way. Don't take it for gospel, and if I'm wrong about any of this or you've got a better way than share it with us!
Now go take some shots!