I first began to dive into photography about 6 years ago. At the time, I didn’t know how seriously I would take to the hobby. So, when I first got my feet wet it was with an entry level DSLR camera and kit lens to make sure I didn’t blow too much of my savings. I got the camera to shoot landscape photos while traveling. Slowly, my travels became as much about coming home with a good batch of photos as about just seeing and experiencing where I was visiting. However, even though it began to become clear that my interest in photography had become very serious, there was plenty that I didn’t know back then that I know now.
My learning process in photography was without any serious mentors and, as a result, my learning curve was a fairly slow and circuitous. There are plenty of things I wish I had learned sooner than I did, a few things I wish I had done differently, and plenty of thoughts and opinions I had back then that have completely changed. For those of your who are just starting out, just know that your photography knowledge will eventually develop into something solid if it has not already. However, like with Swiss cheese, there will likely be holes in that solid block of knowledge. I’m hoping that by sharing a few of the items that I wish I had known sooner in the learning process, I can help accelerate your learning curve to a speed a bit faster than my own. Here are a few tips I wish someone had told me when I was first starting out:
Learn the Exposure Triangle as Soon as Possible
When starting out, I didn’t make a big commitment to learning the exposure triangle—that is, the relationship between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, and how those parameters affect your photo. I knew a slow shutter speed (having the shutter of the camera open for a long-ish time) could blur motion to the point I could get that silky smooth waterfall look, but I wasn’t sure how aperture came into play or how ISO affected my exposure.
Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are the three main things that help create your exposure, and each works together with the others to have different effects and trade-offs. For example, if you want to freeze the motion of something moving quickly passed your camera, you will want a fast shutter speed that is only a brief fraction of a second. However, depending on how much light is around you at the time, you may need to set your lens to a wide aperture (a low f/number), and/or raise your ISO. While making these changes can help you achieve that fast shutter speed, the wide aperture will mean less of your scene from front to back will be in sharp focus, and raising your ISO could introduce noisy grain into your photo. Each of these three items interacts with each other, and knowing their effects on your exposure will vastly improve your ability to produce good photos and be creative much quicker than if you stay in your camera’s automatic mode.
Your Lens Is Sharper at Some Apertures Than at Others
Camera lenses are a lot fickler than you might think. When I began traveling, didn’t think much about aperture and left it set at the widest possible option on my kit lens through an entire trip to Iceland. Not only did this mean that sometimes some of my scene was out of focus because a wider aperture has a smaller depth of field, but it also meant that I wasn’t taking as sharp of photos as I could have been. That is because lenses are not necessarily as sharp at one aperture as they are at another. Simply because of the physics of a lens and its ability to finely focus the light that it collects, optimum sharpness tends to not be at the widest or narrowest apertures the lens offers.
While it varies from lens to lens, setting your lens at an aperture that is a few stops narrower than the widest aperture available usually produces the sharpest photo. For example, if your lens’ widest aperture is f/3.5, the lens may be the sharpest at f/5.6 or f/8. Similarly, as you approach the smaller apertures such as f/18 or f/22, sharpness tends to suffer slightly. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use those apertures if you need them, but it does mean that you should know the sharpest aperture for your lens in case you want to make sure your photo comes out as clear as possible.
You Might Want to Shoot RAW Files
Most cameras can capture photos in two different files types. I won’t go into great detail because Jeff Harmon has a podcast episode of Photo Taco that explains RAW versus JPEG better than I can here. In short, RAW files are larger than JPEG and take up more space on your hard drive, but they provide you with unparalleled freedom to edit your photo non-destructively, meaning that you can do what you want to it without risking a loss in image quality.
Luckily, I made the decision fairly early on in my photography that I wanted to shoot in RAW. RAW files are fairly flat-looking and lack the contrast that JPEGs have, but they allow you interpret the data a camera provides you instead of letting the camera do it for you (like with a JPEG file). This way, you have a huge amount of creative freedom when editing the photo on your computer after you capture it. If you happened to make a mistake when capturing the photo, making it too dark or too bright, for example, a RAW file will give you the ability to change the exposure of an image to correct this.
Invest in Education Before You Invest in More Gear
Gear Acquisition Syndrome is more than just a fancy sounding pseudo-medical name. For many people, it is a way to get really good at depleting the money in your bank account without necessarily improving your photos. High-quality gear certainly has its place. However, if your goal is to get better at photography, spending a few hundred dollars on education is likely going to have a much more noticeable effect on improving your photography than if you spend that money on gear.
When you are tempted by a gear purchase, ask yourself why you need it and how it will improve your photos. Answer that question honestly, because you will be doing yourself a disservice if you do not. Had I been willing to invest in educational tutorials, or in-person instruction when I first started in photography, my learning would have progressed much faster than it did. Find classes in your area, get a mentor, or look into one of the many educational opportunities offered by Improve Photography like Photography Start.
Try Different Genres of Photography
Too many photographers specialize in a certain genre such as portraits or landscape too early in the learning process. Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with specializing. However, the more you put on blinders and learn about only one type of photography, you are missing out on opportunities to 1) see if there is another genre of photography you may also enjoy, or enjoy more, and 2) cross-train in other genres of photography and learn skills you could creatively incorporate into the type of photography you focus in later.
I find that focusing on only landscape photography can sometimes get me into a rut when it comes to my compositions and creativity. I’m realizing now that if I had tried other genres, I would likely see scenes in a different way, know more about different types of light, and perhaps see in creative ways that I currently do not. It is great to be an expert in your field, but don’t forget to be well-rounded in your learning so that you can enjoy the benefits.
Seek Out Independent Criticism
I get it, your mother thinks that you take the greatest photos in the history of ever. My mother felt the same way about my photos. Clearly, one of our mothers is wrong (it’s yours…)(…just kidding), but that isn’t the point. The point is that, while it is nice to hear words of encouragement and affirmation regarding how great our photos are, it’s also a great way to stunt your growth as a photographer.
It can hurt to receive criticism. However, if you are serious about improving as a photographer, learning to let others evaluate our work honestly and using those critiques to improve can be huge in speeding up the learning process. It was a few years before I decided to approach other photographers for opinions of the photos I was taking, and when I finally did, I realized there was a lot I could still learn. Think about getting your work critiqued as a positive and an opportunity to grow.
Learn to Post-Process
Allow me to start off by contradicting myself. You can be a photographer that gets it right in camera, processes very minimally or not at all, or outsources your editing. Some people just don’t like post-processing, and I get that. However, having a good base of knowledge when it comes to post-processing opens up an endless amount of creative opportunities.
When I started in photography, I remember being averse to post-processing, thinking that I was going to find a way to make my photos look like those on the front page of 500px without conducting the sometimes in-depth Photoshop techniques needed to get those looks. I slowly warmed up to the idea, and the more I learned in Lightroom and Photoshop, the more I got excited about the limitless options I had in making my final product. Learning post-processing allows you to develop your own style in ways that simply composing and capturing a photo cannot. It doesn't mean that you need to spend two hours editing a single photo, but it is beneficial to have those skills handy if you need them.
There Are Better Ways to Network Than Social Media
This one obviously has nothing to do with capturing a great photo. However, social media permeates our digital culture, and it will likely be the place most people put their photo once they are happy with it.
Social media is the go-to way for most people to get their work out into the world, and for good reason. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram give everyone the ability to get their work in front of thousands of people that would never see it otherwise. However, consistently posting on social media and replying to those interacting with you can be a part-time job in itself, and for most photographers, the benefits are rarely proportional. If you want your photos to be seen in a meaningful way (as opposed to most on the internet who will scroll past it within literally two seconds), network the old fashion way. Join camera clubs, reach out to other photographers, and meet with prospective clients.
Spending five minutes to write an email is usually much more beneficial than spending 5 minutes responding to Instagram comments. I’m not going to keep beating this dead horse since I already wrote about it more here, but don’t waste all of the time I did on social media when starting out. While it’s nice to show that you have a following online, social media platforms come and go and you can’t control them. The relationships you make through more personal means have ways of lasting longer and being much more beneficial to improving your photography over time.
Yes, I’m encouraging you to fail. I have a fear of failure. Many of us do. It’s something that is learned as we age. I wasn’t afraid of failing when I was a kid, yet somewhere in my growth as a person, it became a habit that I developed. A fear of failure can stunt creativity and prevent you from trying new things, thereby limiting your possibilities and your progress as a photographer. If you want to improve your craft, be willing to try new things and be willing to fail at them. If you do fail, it means you have a great opportunity to learn where you went wrong and apply that knowledge to your photography in the future. If you don’t fail, keep trying. Eventually, you will, and it will be a valuable learning experience.
When I bought my first camera six years ago, I had no idea how big of a part of my life photography would become. It started as a hobby that I slowly learned through trial and error. And make no mistake, there isn’t anything wrong with doing that strategy. Discovery through trial and error is a completely acceptable way to learn. However, since I feel that my photography learning could have progressed more quickly than it did, keeping the things mentioned above in mind should keep you on track to become a better photographer more quickly than I did at first.
For those more experienced photographers who have made it this far, please share your thoughts as well. This is far from a comprehensive list of the nuggets of knowledge that can help a beginner advance their craft, and every insight may be able to give budding photographers what they need to continue to progress.