Think back to the last time you tried something new. Did you “get it” right away, or did you go through a frustrating process of trial and error before you figured it out, and then think, “I wish I would have known that in the first place! I could have saved myself a ton of time and frustration.”? I'm sure you have – we all have. They say experience is the best teacher, but that experience doesn't always have to be yours. Other peoples' experiences can help point you in the right direction, and shorten the duration and frustration of your learning curve. There's a wealth of experience among the writers here at Improve Photography, and this article is a compilation of what they wish they'd have known when they were first starting out. You're sure to find some nuggets of wisdom here that can help you as you navigate your own photography journey, whether you've been at it a while or are just starting out. While the advice from the writing team covered a variety of topics, they generally fell into one of three main categories – Gear, Education, and Approach. Let's see what they had to say.
KNOW YOUR GEAR
Take the time to really get to know your gear, and understand what it is capable of and how it works. The owners manual should be your best friend when you get new gear. Greg Noel says he learned a lot of things the hard way. Once he learned about the light meter in his camera, his exposures got exponentially better. He said, “When I was learning manual I would take a bunch of test shots until I got the right settings. THEN I discovered the light meter.” Getting to know your gear inside and out will help you prevent unnecessary frustration.
RESIST THE TEMPTATION FOR GAS (GEAR ACQUISITION SYNDROME)
Resisting the temptation to have the latest and greatest gear was another bit of advice from our writing team. While it is super tempting to fill your Amazon cart with the latest doodads and equipment, Jeff Harmon recommends that you “Resist the temptation to upgrade your camera body until you have learned everything there is to know about it.” He says that, “Until you understand how to use every button and every menu option, it is not your camera that is limiting the quality of your images.” He acknowledges that investing money in better lenses will be beneficial, but “…beyond that it is better to invest in training and workshops for quite some time than it is to upgrade your camera body.” That may not be what you want to hear, but it is oh so true! You'll know when your gear is holding you back from better shots; until then, there's really no need to upgrade.
GET IT RIGHT IN CAMERA
With all the things to learn with photography, it's easy to get overwhelmed or sidetracked along the way, but getting the shot right in the camera should still your highest priority. All of the post processing knowledge in the world won't help you salvage an out of focus image, or one where the posing is all wrong. Michael Allie advises, “Get it right in the camera, as it is hard to Photoshop your way out of a poorly taken shot. We get paid for time in front of the camera, not time in front of the computer. Having the right equipment is important, but not as important as knowing how to use whatever it is you have.”
GET COMFORTABLE WITH THE EXPOSURE TRIANGLE
Just as having a solid foundation is necessary when constructing a home, so too is learning the foundational elements of photography. Getting comfortable with, and understanding the exposure triangle will help you assemble the solid foundation you need for your photography journey. Learn what each element – Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO, contributes to a photo individually, and how they all work together to help you create your best photos. Nathan Goldberg says, “Don't be afraid of the “priority” settings [on your camera] as you transition and get comfortable with using manual”. You don't need to make the transition from full auto to full manual in one step. Take smaller steps by getting comfortable with Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority settings first, and then make the move to full manual mode.
LEARN POST PROCESSING EARLY
The thought of shooting in RAW and then learning to process the photos yourself can be intimidating, but several of our writers say they wished they would have realized the importance of both early on. Rick Ohnsman said, “I wish I hadn't been so hesitant to learn to shoot and edit Raw. I figured I was getting good shots with .jpg images, so why deal with large files, complicated editing, and seeing images that looked “bad” (Prior to editing). Lightroom was the key to making me shoot and learn to edit Raw files.” Post processing can be the difference between a good and a great photo, and as Kirk Bergman offered, “The camera captures the composition, the computer brings it to life.” Andy Perkins also reinforced the value of learning post processing, saying “I wish I knew how much I would use and enjoy post-processing in Lightroom.”
ASK FOR HELP
We photographers are a prideful group, and we often spend too much time trying to figure things out on our own instead of taking a class, asking questions, or seeking out constructive criticism. When he was first getting started with photography, Brian Pex said he quickly realized that he needed more than You Tube videos to learn photography. He needed an organized approach to his learning, and found a great resource in the Improve Photography classes, podcasts, and one on one mentoring. When asked what he wishes he had known when he first started, he says, “I’d say the most important thing of all is PUT YOUR EGO aside and realize everyone has to start somewhere. Ask questions until you get it totally. Don’t push a concept that you don’t grasp aside until you fully understand it.”
There are many educational resources out there, but as Matt Gavin cautions, you want to “be careful what advice you listen to.” You've already discovered Improve Photography so you're on the right track, but do your homework and check references before you lay down any money or invest your time for training.
ATTEND A PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP
Many of our writers say they wished they would have attended a workshop or had one on one mentoring earlier. As Rusty Parkhurst told me, “Photography workshops are probably the best way to grow and develop as a photographer. After getting my first DSLR, I spent a lot of time watching tutorials and mainly just going out shooting on my own. It was nearly two years before I decided to attend a photography workshop. At first, it seemed like a silly thing to do. It was a fair amount of money to go, and I thought I could simply figure it all out on my own. That workshop ended up being the best decision I ever made for my personal development as a photographer. I learned so much in that week, primarily because photography was the only focus. There were no other distracting things to get in the way. Most importantly, however, was that I made many new friends, and we have kept in touch ever since. We communicate on a daily basis, sharing ideas, image critiques, and even do our own photography trips. That has made a huge difference in providing inspiration and helping me to stay passionate about photography.”
Julian Baird also wishes he would have realized the importance of workshops and one on one training earlier. He said, “I wish I'd known that spending money on photography workshops and 1-2-1 training would be the single best thing I could do for improving my photography. More so than any bit of gear, magazine, or book. The first workshop I attended gave me the confidence and skills to start taking my photography really seriously.” Similarly, Bastian Bodyl encourages you to,”Invest in a phototrip or photocourse rather than in gear.”
If you're ready to take your photography to the next level by attending a workshop, join us in Charleston next March for the 2018 Improve Photography Retreat. Whether you've been shooting for two months or 10 years, you'll come away with an improved skill set and friendships that will last a lifetime.
DON'T GET CAUGHT UP IN COMPARISONS
Several of our writers say they wish they hadn't gotten caught up in comparing themselves to others. As I've said before, comparison is the thief of joy, and Jim Harmer's insight on what he wishes he had known five years ago validates that. He said, “I wish I would have realized sooner how meaningless a “like” is. I spent too many years chasing being the most popular photographer. I eventually got ranked in the top 40 most popular photographers online by social media mentions, and it ended up making me hate photography for a while. It’s taken me a long time to come back to my groove and really ENJOY being out in the field with a camera again. I now care far more about the likes I get from my PERSONAL FRIENDS AND FAMILY, or the photographers who I actually know from connecting online who see my work than the thousands of likes I get on my IP profiles from people I don’t know. I’m a happier person because of it. Life is too short to focus on things that don’t matter.”
Alex Lawson's advice follows a similar path. He says, “I wish I had been taught early on that comparing my photography to others' work will only leave me feeling discouraged and dejected. I need to learn from them and move on.” Comparing your work to other photographers' work is one of those traps that is so easy to fall into, but it's dangerous because you don't know where they are at in their journey. You don't know how long it took them to get to the point they are at today. As Jon Acuff says, “Don't compare your beginning to someone else's middle”.
LISTEN TO THE VOICE OF EXPERIENCE
Tracy Munson says she was given a lot of advice early on that she didn't listen to, and in hindsight, wishes she would have. Advice like 1) invest in full frame lenses early on, 2) start with Adobe post processing software, 3) don't buy cheap gear or you'll regret it, and 4) taking photos is a very small part of running a photography business. She says she learned that, “I am not an exception to any rule and neither are you. Listen to those who have gone before you.”
GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
Put yourself “out there” before you think you're ready. Whether that's entering a photo competition, giving a photo as a gift, or taking photographs for pay, just get out there and do it. If you never get out of your comfort zone, you'll never know what you're truly capable of. Brenda Petrella said she put herself “out there” before she felt ready, but that “It's been very educational and rewarding to go beyond my comfort zone and get feedback.”. It may be hard to do at first, but the lessons you learn will prove invaluable in the long run.
Get closer to your subjects. Frank Gallagher spends the majority of his time photographing landscapes, and says he wishes he had been told to just get closer with his wide angle lens. He told me, “Too many of my foreground element were too far away and, thus, not significant enough to anchor the image. What I was afraid of I do not know. Like I’m going to hurt the rock or offend the flower? The fence needs its space? The puddle with the reflection is shy and scared of strangers?” I love his sense of humor and it's excellent advice for all types of photography. Getting close can really make an impact on your photos, so don't be afraid to try it.
PHOTOGRAPHY IS A JOURNEY, NOT A DESTINATION
“Photography is a journey, not a destination.” I love these words from Kirk Bergman. He says, ” You aren't going to wake up after 2 months of shooting and be like “ok now I can retire.” You'll get better with each photo you take but it will take time to get to the point where you start getting strangers telling you how great your shots are.” It's important to remember that learning takes time, and most “overnight sensations” spent years working their tails off before anyone recognized their achievements. Commit time to learning the craft, and the results will speak for themselves. Brad Goetsch advises, “Slow down, take your time. Allow yourself the time to work your process and tell your story and most of all, enjoy the experience of capturing your images!”
CLIENTS JUST WANT GREAT PHOTOS
It's easy to get caught up with gear, post processing techniques, marketing, and everything else associated with running a photography business, but at the end of the day, your clients just want great photos. To that point, Pete LaGregor says “Clients can't tell the difference between a 5 year old crop sensor camera and the newest full frame, they just want good photos and a great experience.”
I've included a lot of valuable advice here from our writing staff, so I guess it's time to share mine. When I think about what I wish I would have known five years ago, it would have to be the value of an online community for helping me learn and grow my photography business. The IP Community alone has helped me navigate so many things that I would have struggled with on my own, from backup strategies and lightroom issues, to gear purchases. I belong to a number of online communities that help me with specific areas of my business as well, and they have become an invaluable resource to me in my journey through photography.
To sum it all up:
- GEAR – Buy the best gear you can afford, but know that expensive gear doesn't guarantee better photos.
- EDUCATION – Invest your time and money into good, quality education and workshops, and you'll be able to make better photos no matter what gear you're using.
- APPROACH – Remember that photography is a journey, not a destination.
- Invest the time to learn, but don't get caught in up the comparison game.
- Learn what you need to know and move on.
- And last but certainly not least, don't be afraid to put yourself out there. Sometimes the best things happen when we get out of our comfort zone.
What's the one thing you wish you had known when you first started out that would be helpful for others? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.
Special thanks to IP writers Jim Harmer, Jeff Harmon, Rusty Parkhurst, Nathan Goldberg, Kirk Bergman, Matt Gavin, Brad Goetsch, Alex Lawson, Andy Perkins, Rich Ohnsman, Tracy Munson, Michael Allie, Bastian Bodyl, Greg Noel, Brian Pex, Pete LaGregor, Julian Baird, Brenda Petrella, and Frank Gallagher for contributing to this article.