If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard this question! As of February 2017, I have 20 years of SLR experience. I started in film back in the 90’s, and I have seen the proliferation of consumer-grade DSLRs take over the market in the last decade. All one needs to do is visit any grade school event, soccer game, or zoo to see someone with a D3400 on full auto with the pop-up flash and a 18-55mm lens attempting to capture a subject 50-100 feet away in less than ideal lighting conditions.
Equipment is important; there is no denying that. The right lens can make or break a shot depending on the look one is trying to achieve or the light available. I was fortunate enough to take a photography class while completing my undergrad, and I saw time and again technique trumping equipment.
Following a curriculum, whether it’s in a classroom setting, on Creative Live, or finding a list of assignments and shooting a lot, is the best way to start your photography journey. Topics such as light and shadow, depth of field, and motion capturing a variety of subjects will do wonders for anyone wanting to explore past “Auto” or “P”. Understanding how different combinations of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed create different looks at an equivalent exposure is key to achieving the look any photographer is after. It’s the difference between a creamy waterfall and a boring stream or a subject that jumps out of the frame vs being lost in the scene.
In addition to the technique required to capture the image, understanding post-processing is extremely important. For those of us who learned in a darkroom, complete with different enlargers, contrast filters, papers, and real dodging and burning, tools like Lightroom and Photoshop give us creative control that was discovered through a ton of trial and error (and cost!). Overexposing a roll of film is a thing of the past, and with today’s RAW files, a photographer can easily cover up technical errors in capturing images through an exposure slider.
To me, the bottom line is if you want to make a hobby or a craft out of photography, take the time to learn the fundamentals before shelling out thousands of dollars in equipment. There are a ton of resources out there, and many photographers enjoy sharing their knowledge with others. The best thing anyone learning can do is put the camera on M and go shoot a ton!