A Journey From Novice to Natural Light Portrait Photographer

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A Journey From Novice to Natural Light Portrait Photographer

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I’m here to share my photography journey that started few years ago as a novice, to where I stand today. As am amateur or hobby photographer, you may relate.

The journey from novice to advanced photographer

About two years ago, I bought an entry level DSLR, to use it as an expensive point and shoot camera. The camera decided the fate of most of my pictures. On innumerable occasions, the pictures were blurry, under or overexposed, and were of poor quality.

The urge to work on my photography skills blossomed, when I was blessed with a little girl. An utmost desire to take only the best pictures of my angel, had taken roots in me. As you may also do, I started searching the internet fervently, for ways to capture the best shots.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy

This is the kind of natural light photography I do now, but that’s not where I started. Read on to find out how I got here, and you can too.

I realized, other than going through basic photography tutorials on YouTube, the thing that helped me the most was Flickr’s discussion groups. It has large community of knowledgeable professionals, and semi-professionals, who love to take a look at your picture and provide valuable feedback. Positive suggestions and encouragement I received on the forums, helped me to experiment further, and escape out of automatic mode. If you are in the same mode as I was two years ago, I strongly recommend getting feedback for your photos, through the online forums.

Moving out of auto mode and kit lens limitations

The very first step towards improvement for me, was shifting to Aperture Priority (Av/A) mode. Initially, pictures were blurry even in Av mode, but I could see that inside my home, my kit lens at f/4.5, ISO 6400, was still unable to shoot faster than 1/30th of a second. Such a slow shutter speed caused the motion blur. Shooting outdoors normally helped me to avoid blurry pictures, but I was not sure why my images didn’t have a blurry background like I saw online. Eventually, I understood the limitations of my kit lens, in not being able to shoot at a larger f-stop, to achieve shallower depth of field.

500px Photo ID: 53404702 -

This image is very noisy, focus is on her dress rather eyes/face, the out of focus raised hand actually distracts the viewer a lot.

One thing I would realize after many months of shooting, is that the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) is easy to comprehend theoretically, but really hard to apply in the field. I went out for a shoot almost every day, and started experimenting with aperture and shutter speed to get a more desired shot. On returning home, I always got an impression I should have used a different aperture or shutter speed for a better shot. The ability to learn through your mistakes is a major milestone in your journey.

Branching out

Once you are bit confident in your understanding of the basics, you start enjoying it – which is what I experienced. I started devoting time to reading topics such as composition, photography tips, and subscribed to sites like Digital Photography School. Another thing that helped me a lot, was connecting to local events and activity pages via Facebook. I started showing up at many local events and offering free photography to the organizers.

The experience of shooting events was quite chaotic and challenging, especially when there were far more people posing in front of the camera, and many arbitrary things happening – kids running around, or folks dancing to tunes of the festivities. Every such shoot gave me lot more insight into concepts of understanding concepts like plane of focus, controlling focus points, exposure compensation, tips to hand hold the camera firmly, etc.

One of my early event photos. The face and overall image is poorly lit and the face looks orange. Overall image is noisy and the eyes are not in focus. The person behind her is very distracting.

One of my early event photos. The face and overall image is poorly lit, and the face looks orange. Overall, the image is noisy, and the eyes are not in focus. The person behind her is very distracting.

Upgrading gear

It’s very easy to get overwhelmed when reading about, or watching, the type of gear that pros are using in the field. My advice would be to start with minimum possible gear, and upgrade only when you clearly understand the limitations of your existing gear. Be it body, lens, tripod, or anything. After understanding that I couldn’t shoot with very low noise in ambient light during evenings, or achieve huge shallow DOF with my canon T3i and a kit lens, I moved up to a 6D after few months, and bought a prime lens. Though I love to shoot 100% natural light, I added a flash to my gearbox as well, to use as a fill light in some situations.

Here are few things I learned so far, that you can also apply in your photography. Then I will move on to what kind of work I produce these days, and some explanation about how the results are achieved.

Understand the basics:

Read a lot about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and other beginner tutorials. Apply them as much as you can. These concepts are simple but take a lot of hands-on practice to start making some sense.

Very noisy, Focus is on the shoulder, a very bright area in the background is a huge distraction, very messy environment.

Very noisy, Focus is on the shoulder, a very bright area in the background is a huge distraction, very messy environment.

Participate:

Do share your everyday shots and learning, to online discussion groups and forums, without worrying about the quality of your work. Google knows a lot. Give it a try by typing the question the way you would ask someone in person. Once you get some clue, make sure to try it out, to experiment and confirm your understanding. As I said earlier, do volunteer photography for local charity or non profit, etc., as that is a sure way to learn, and it is much more fun.

Avoid GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome):

Avoid the mindset that you cannot do good photography without expensive gear. In the beginning, your cheapest camera is enough to get you started. Photography is not 100% driven by expensive gear. There are way many areas to catch up like composition, understanding of light, angle of shooting, etc. Learn the basics and how to use the gear you have first.

Shoot, shoot and shoot:

There is no shortcut to get good at photography. You have to keep shooting to learn, and learn more to confirm your understanding and get better.

Understand Light:

Taken in the middle of the day when sun was overhead with caring about harsh shadows. From composition point of view the image has a very busy background and viewer will be completely distracted at other elements of the image.

Taken in the middle of the day, without caring about harsh shadows when sun was overhead. From a composition point of view, the image has a very busy background and viewer will be completely distracted by other elements of the image.

It doesn’t matter what genre of photography you shoot; you need a firm understanding of light. This is a key ingredient for a good picture. So, read about the direction and quality of light, and how it affects the shape, size, shadows, and contour of objects it falls upon.

Master your camera:

This tip is especially important if you aim to shoot events, happening at fast pace like kids photography, birds, action, sports, etc. You will really miss opportunities if you are unable to change settings quickly on the fly, without looking at the controls.

Go Manual:

This needs to be your ultimate destination in terms of shooting modes. It’s true that 80% or more time you may be happy with Av mode, but ideally you should have no hesitation in switching to the manual mode in a blink.

Depth of Field:

Technically, in simple terms, aperture controls the depth of field. However, this is the area that took me the longest time to get a good grip on. It’s very hard to stop the desire to shoot at f/1.2, if you own a lens capable of that. However, lenses are not the sharpest at so small f-numbers, plus the depth of field is so thin, that it could be unusable if you are not at the right distance from the subject.

Though there is a nice catch light but looking at the distance it has been shot the f stop should have been chosen higher. The face is not completely in focus and the image does not appeal the viewer. The subject should have been moved a bit to get rid of uneven shadows.

Though there is a nice catch light, but looking closer, it has been shot with an f-stop that should have been higher. The face is not completely in focus, and the image does not appeal the viewer. The subject should have been moved a bit, to get rid of uneven shadows on his face.

Positioning the Subject:

Another key point I have seen even very mature photographers lacking, is realizing the importance of where you should ask the subject to stand. Key mistakes are: placing subject in front of a very busy background, having undesired points of interest in the frame, a brighter large light source behind the subject, etc.

I hope you find the above tips useful. In the final part, I would like to show some images, and a bit about my thoughts on post-processing. All the below images have been published in one or the other magazine.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy 5

85mm, f/1.6, 1/1600, ISO 800

Location: Milwaukee, WI. This was taken at golden hour, with the sun facing the subject. The trees with some fall colors, are very far behind her.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy 3

85mm, f/3.2, 1/400, ISO 400

Location: Redwood Shores, CA. This was taken at golden hour with sun facing her. The intensity of the light was low, as only partial light was passing through the tree. It was shot from above at about a 45-degree angle.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy

70mm, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 800

Location: Los Angeles, CA. This was taken in the middle of the day, in an apartment, where model was facing window light.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy 6

135mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO 400

Location: Palace of fine arts, CA. Taken in the middle of the day, where plenty of ambient light was available. Behind the subject is a little darker area, due to trees and pillars. I positioned her at a spot where light was just right to avoid on her face which were too dark.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy 484

85mm, f/1.8, 1/6400, ISO 100

Location: Fremont, CA. Again taken during golden hour, with a bit of shade from the door structure.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy 4

85mm, f/2.8, 1/2000, ISO 800

Location: San Jose, CA. Taken in the middle of the day, using the shade from the ceiling above the model, and avoiding sunlight falling directly her.

Importance of Post-Production:

As a beginner you will surely hear or read a lot something similar to these statements, “I love straight out of camera pictures” or “I hate editing pictures”. However, I have found that you can delay getting into the post-processing of images, but cannot avoid it.

The extent you go to post-processing an image, is totally a different debate. Some do it to enhance the existing elements of an image, and others do it to make it into a totally different image. I am in the first category, and spend time doing things that improves the overall image appeal.

For beginners, I would advise that you stay away from it until you are comfortable with your gear and the basic concepts of photography. Always aim to get the image right in the camera.

The first step for post-processing, you can start with Adobe Lightroom, which is a great piece of software to enhance your images. Spend time in achieving mastery with Lightroom, and, once you understand its limitations, then start exploring Adobe Photoshop on a need only basis. In my typical workflow, all the images go through Lightroom, then for some final touches in Photoshop.

Your journey

So where are you in your photography journey? Did you just pick up a camera and can relate to my early experiences? Have you been practicing for a while? What is your experience, please share in the comments below.

 

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Vik Kumar is a photographer and a software engineer. Hi started his photography a couple of years ago as an amateur landscape photographer. The hobby became serious portrait photography fun. His images are used by reputed hotel brands like Hyatt. He has been published numerous times in various fashion magazines like ICON, PUMP, Surreal Beauty Magazine, etc. See more of his work on his website or on his Instagram profile. His landscape photography work can be explored on 500px.

  • Brian Bayless

    Why such a cyan bias on the girl with the red dress? Was that intentional, or is it just reproducing incorrectly on this article? It does not have the nice, warm skin tones of most of your later pictures. I would expect to get that type of color rendition out of a local minimum wage Walmart print center. Just wondering.

  • Vik Kumar

    Not sure why cyan looks so much prominent. I would admit it has more cyan than normal in post but here it looks too much

  • That’s how it was, if you want me to replace it Vik just email me an updated copy.

  • Colette Carbonell

    Thanks for a really constructive (and encouraging) article.

  • Vik Kumar

    you are welcome!! glad you liked

  • David

    20 years ago, we went to live overseas and bought a SLR+kit and flash but had no idea how to use it. The flash always seemed to blow out and so it all lived on a shelf. We started using point and shoot film which worked well and then digital P&S when they came out. Got a dive housing and shot underwater which sparked the flame.
    Going on a trip to the Caribbean 6 years ago meant a present of a 7D and 24-105mm f4L which started a fast trip to the future. 10-22mm lens then opened up landscape in a big way (together with a active group in Sydney called “Focus”.
    DPS, DRPreview etc provided a huge amount of education and now I have a 5Diii (after the 7D got hit by a wave) 16-35mm f4 + filters (landscape), 24-105mm f4 (general), 50mm f1.4, 70-200mm f/2.8 (sport), 600ex flash and recently a 14mm Samyang (astro/special). I regularly use them all.
    Main thing for me was not to upgrade until a) I hit the limit of what my current kit could do and b) had the money to buy it.
    Keeping track of my thoughts from when I first got my 7D and the stuff I have bought since makes for very interesting reading! Good glass is a good investment long term.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidmarriottsydney/

  • Vik Kumar

    absolutely! hope this article resonated with you then!

  • pete guaron

    Vik, when I read articles like yours, I find myself thinking of a film I once saw, called “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. It was about a teacher who fell foul of the Scottish School Board, because she saw her role as “educating” the children, in other words “drawing them out – helping them to develop themselves”. And not (as she suggested the traditional method was) “instruction”, or “driving stuff into the kids”, like rote learning.

    Your article is very frank and refreshingly open. Perhaps a little too self critical – none of us know everything at the start, after all.

    And I was delighted at your love of natural light. I have always preferred natural light although, like you, I have from time to time been forced to use some form of supplementary lighting – flash or whatever. And from time to time, people claiming to be professional photographers have suggested that this is a form of laziness – a lack of willingness to learn what we apparently all should, and to use flash, floods, reflectors or whatever. Since much of my photography is landscapes or architectural subjects, I have often stood there composing my next photo wondering whether they meant I should have trucked in some army searchlights to bathe the scene in artificial light, as there was no possibility of my flash gear doing it!

    Your DSLR and kit lens were most probably “built to a standard” – well able to satisfy the needs of “most amateurs”, but not able to satisfy your needs as you developed and sought to raise the bar – move to a more advanced style of photography. When you try running a top of the range professional camera for a while, it is actually very relaxing and quite good fun to pick up a half frame cam with its kit zoom and go off for a shoot – it’s refreshing – everything’s just THERE, and the features are quite surprising. And convenient – the total weight would be a fraction of the weight of a pro full frame with several primes and a zoom.

    I was glad to see your comments on avoiding GAS – the reasons for avoiding it include:
    1 – Spending more money won’t improve a person’s photographs – there’s a ton of stuff on the net, which is accessible and mostly free, which we can all read and learn from, and which provides a HUGE amount of guidance on improving our photography, and that would be FAR more useful than “a better camera/lens/whatever”.
    2 – If someone spends BEFORE they learn more, and before they know EXACTLY what it is they “need” to move forward, then they will almost always simply “buy” something and be just as dissatisfied afterwards. There’s a tragic amount of second hand junk (cams) and glass (lenses) on sale on Ebay, Amazon and so on.

    I had an example of that recently – I needed a different tripod for macro work – my specification was one with “less vibration”, and if at all possible, NO vibration, because I am using live view focusing and extreme magnification of the image, to get pin sharp focusing – with manual focus on my macro lens. Everyone I asked recommended that I should spend over a thousand dollars, and buy the most expensive carbon fibre tripod I could afford – because, as they put it, “good” carbon fibre tripods absorb all the vibration. But I didn’t want to have any vibration in the first place. I eventually found a pro in England, who gave me sound advice based on decades of experience, and ended up buying a noticeably second hand, 15 year old Linhof tripod – with a dried up bubble on its spirit level – it cost almost nothing, and it works almost perfectly for my purposes. The carbon fibre one would not – mine has virtually no vibration to absorb, and there’s the difference!

  • pete guaron

    Vik, when I read articles like yours, I find myself thinking of a film I once saw, called “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. It was about a teacher who fell foul of the Scottish School Board, because she saw her role as “educating” the children, in other words “drawing them out – helping them to develop themselves”. And not (as she suggested the traditional method was) “instruction”, or “driving stuff into the kids”, like rote learning.

    Your article is very frank and refreshingly open. Perhaps a little too self critical – none of us know everything at the start, after all.

    And I was delighted at your love of natural light. I have always preferred natural light although, like you, I have from time to time been forced to use some form of supplementary lighting – flash or whatever. And from time to time, people claiming to be professional photographers have suggested that this is a form of laziness – a lack of willingness to learn what we apparently all should, and to use flash, floods, reflectors or whatever. Since much of my photography is landscapes or architectural subjects, I have often stood there composing my next photo wondering whether they meant I should have trucked in some army searchlights to bathe the scene in artificial light, as there was no possibility of my flash gear doing it!

    Your DSLR and kit lens were most probably “built to a standard” – well able to satisfy the needs of “most amateurs”, but not able to satisfy your needs as you developed and sought to raise the bar – move to a more advanced style of photography. When you try running a top of the range professional camera for a while, it is actually very relaxing and quite good fun to pick up a half frame cam with its kit zoom and go off for a shoot – it’s refreshing – everything’s just THERE, and the features are quite surprising. And convenient – the total weight would be a fraction of the weight of a pro full frame with several primes and a zoom.

    I was glad to see your comments on avoiding GAS – the reasons for avoiding it include:
    1 – Spending more money won’t improve a person’s photographs – there’s a ton of stuff on the net, which is accessible and mostly free, which we can all read and learn from, and which provides a HUGE amount of guidance on improving our photography, and that would be FAR more useful than “a better camera/lens/whatever”.
    2 – If someone spends BEFORE they learn more, and before they know EXACTLY what it is they “need” to move forward, then they will almost always simply “buy” something and be just as dissatisfied afterwards. There’s a tragic amount of second hand junk (cams) and glass (lenses) on sale on Ebay, Amazon and so on.

    I had an example of that recently – I needed a different tripod for macro work – my specification was one with “less vibration”, and if at all possible, NO vibration, because I am using live view focusing and extreme magnification of the image, to get pin sharp focusing – with manual focus on my macro lens. Everyone I asked recommended that I should spend over a thousand dollars, and buy the most expensive carbon fibre tripod I could afford – because, as they put it, “good” carbon fibre tripods absorb all the vibration. But I didn’t want to have any vibration in the first place. I eventually found a pro in England, who gave me sound advice based on decades of experience, and ended up buying a noticeably second hand, 15 year old Linhof tripod – with a dried up bubble on its spirit level – it cost almost nothing, and it works almost perfectly for my purposes. The carbon fibre one would not – mine has virtually no vibration to absorb, and there’s the difference!

  • Vik Kumar

    Thanks you liked my thoughts and learnings on this journey to become better! Yes absolutely agree what you said. but with increasing in buying power of the consumer and people simply saying your $500 cam cannot do this type of shots then people simply stop shooting thinking its only for rich people who can afford $10K for a hobby like this.

  • lori

    I found this article insightful, helpful and enjoyable to read – thank you!

  • pete guaron

    Vik, it’s the person holding it who takes the photo – NOT the camera. Left to itself, the camera is incapable of doing ANYTHING. David’s journey, posted below, is FAR more sensible than some of the things I’ve seen people doing. And the ironical part is this – he’s probably a far better photographer, than they are!

    Think of it like an aeroplane. Can you possibly imagine anyone being allowed to jump into the pilot’s seat of a Boeing 747 or an Airbus, just because he thought he’d like to try flying a “better” plane? Of course not – it would be too daft altogether, until he’d done his time in smaller aircraft.

    I do use a full frame “professional” Nikon – I also have a half frame, and I also have a compact. I use ALL of them. And the full frame is more demanding, so it would be a silly choice for someone still learning the basics.It also came at a far bigger price tag – and for an amateur, that extra money would be far better spent on buying a different lens for his or her half frame.

    As David says at the end of his comments, “Good glass is a good investment long term” He has other gear, too, as I do – but we’ve both done our “apprenticeship” – he started 20 years ago, and I started over 60 years ago. He also says – after listing his gear – “I regularly use them all”. I think I said something like that, in the previous paragraph – LOL

    And he also points to DPS and DRP to provide “a huge amount of education”. Bang on – even if I have read the same stuff before, I still read the articles – I treat them as a refresher course, if it’s something I already know – and I’m still pleasantly surprised every week when I find someone has published something I was previously totally unaware of. We NEVER stop learning!

  • Michael

    Vik, your article has many good points. However, you are too critical on some images taken in crowded environment. Please do not fall into quality type of photos taken in a studio where you can control everything with many fancy additional equipment and accessories. I am proud owner of the Canon 6D like you with the kit lens EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM and having 10 years of experience in DSLR photography can tell you that you do not need any other lens to take great photos in at least 90% situations. Another thing, why do so many photographers think that they must have wide open apertures in many shoots? I am very happy with my maximum aperture of f/4 taking all the portraits and having reasonably blur background when your subject is position further away from background and when you use somewhere around the maximum 105 mm focusing length. I do have the prime EF 50 mm f/1.8 II lens I use very seldom because it’s not very flattering for the portrait photography on a full frame camera like ours plus who wants a portrait where the eyes are in focus but the ears and the nose are not? The DOF is so shallow at f/1.8 or even f/2.8 that is not for my taste. The f/4.0 is just perfect and even f/5.6 is great too. Plus these apertures give you better sharpness anyway.
    Now going back to your complains on some of your photos taken in crowded people places. What are you going to do when you are on a vacation where you can’t control the lightening, object positioning, people walking around you and so on? You do your best of taking photos the way it is coming to you. One thing I like to do is having my Speedlite with me attached to my flash bracket with my camera all the time and I use it when I shoot against the sun at individual subjects at about and up to 15 feet or indoor when the lightening is too dim and for fill up lightening. I love my flash and I have mastered the flash photography. Do not be afraid of this little portable sun it will greatly improve your photos, just make sure you know how to modify it so the light is soft. In conclusion I always use Adobe LIghtroom for all my photos as I shoot in RAW only and all the images must be sharpened and tonally corrected to make them stand out more. Good luck!

  • Vik Kumar

    yes agreed!

  • Vik Kumar

    Hi thanks for taking time and providing your valuable inputs. Yes indeed it happens to me all the time that i cannot control anything like the crowd, time of the day, the lens i have put on. and as you mentioned family vacation is the best example.

    But, then I was trying to make a point on awareness about environment. I did not had it in the very beginning. In the early days all i did was just pointing the camera towards the subject and knowing it a good or bad pic only after doing the playback. So, my emphasis was on developing an eye to analyze the surroundings before pressing the button.

  • Vik Kumar

    thank you very much lori!

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