When learning any new skill, it’s universally agreed that you need to put time into it to grow. There’s a popular theory by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill. That theory is pretty controversial these days, but the number of hours isn’t important. What’s important is that you must put time into learning a skill if you want to become better at it.
Photography is no exception. Ask any of the photographers you admire how long they have been developing their photography skills, they will all tell you that it’s taken them years.
So, how do you speed this learning process up? There are a few ways, but one of them is to learn from other’s mistakes and successes. Every photographer starts out as a beginner, so it would make sense that others have learned a few lessons along the way from which you can benefit.
I’m no photography master by any stretch, but I’ve learned a few valuable lessons in the 10 years since I picked up a camera. Here are a few of them.
1. Great light beats a great subject every time
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably had the experience of visiting a gorgeous location with grand visions of the stunning photos you’re going to come home with, only to be bitterly disappointed and wonder what you did wrong. On the flip-side, you’ve likely been pleasantly surprised by the beautiful photos you’ve taken of a very ordinary scene or subject.
So, what is the one thing that makes a great photo above anything else? Great light. This is the reason why I will often return to the same location to photograph the same scene repeatedly. The scene hasn’t changed, but the light will never be the same twice. Learn to predict, look for, and create great light.
2. Shoot for love, not likes
Social media has changed the world we live in, which is a great thing for photographers. Of course, there are negatives to this as well. The biggest drawback, in my opinion, is the eternal quest for likes. Not a single one of us is immune to it.
It’s flattering and gives a nice ego-boost when someone “likes” your photo on Instagram or Facebook. But it can become a dangerous obsession when you begin to shoot or edit your photos with the motivation of getting more likes.
Sure, we all change and develop our style over time, and this is partly influenced by current trends. Just try to stay focused on shooting what you love, and don’t let the desire for validation on social media make you shoot for likes.
3. Post-processing is part of your artistic expression – learn it well
It’s no secret we live in a digital age. Despite Photoshop having some pretty negative connotations at times, post-processing your photos in the digital darkroom is a necessity, and the sooner you learn it, the sooner your photography will really take off.
Capturing your photos well in-camera is only half of the process. As a visual artist, what happens to those RAW images is entirely up to you. If you don’t know how to edit them well, then you’re short-changing yourself.
You don’t need to become a professional retoucher, just start with the basics and learn them well. Post-production software is cheap these days, and you can learn how to use it for free. There’s no excuse. Your inner artist will thank you for it.
4. Keep your gear simple
My gear has fluctuated from a single point-and-shoot to a bag heavy enough to crush a camel, and everything in-between. When I switched from a large Nikon full frame kit to Sony mirrorless a couple years ago, I intentionally simplified my gear, and I’ve kept it that way.
There are three reasons for this. Firstly, as a landscape and travel photographer, I don’t want or need large or heavy gear. Secondly, I’m more likely to consider a new purchase more seriously. And thirdly, simplifying your gear (especially lenses) forces you to develop your creativity.
One of the best exercises you can do for your photography is to go out with your camera and only one prime lens and shoot with just that setup. You don’t need anywhere near as much gear as you think.
5. Make friends with other creatives
For most of us, photography is a solitary pursuit. That’s part of the attraction. Even for an extrovert like me, getting out by myself to explore with my camera is one of my favorite things to do. However, networking with other creative people has a number of benefits that you should try to make the most of as well.
You can do so online, but doing it in person is even better. These creatives could be photographers, but they don’t have to be. They could be filmmakers, painters, illustrators, cake decorators, or musicians. It doesn’t matter what their outlet is or how you spend your time together. Just find other people who will inspire and motivate you, and who you can do the same for. The benefits will surprise you.
6. Hold off trying to make money as long as possible
Do a quick Google for “how to make money with photography” and you will be drowning in the sea of photo-selling tactics. There’s no question, you can make money selling photography, but that doesn’t mean you should.
I’m not going to go into the pros and cons of trying to turn your photography into a business. I will say, however, that you should try not to rush into monetizing your passion. Turning a hobby into a business (even just a side-hustle) changes things. It can be very satisfying, but mixing art and money isn’t for everyone. Just keep enjoying your hobby as long as you can.
7. Comparison will cripple you and steal your passion
This is in some ways an extension of #2 above. If you spend any time at all on Instagram, you will see there is a massive amount of very talented photographers out there. It’s easy to get discouraged by comparing your photography to that of others.
Again, nobody is immune to this. I often catch myself being overly critical of my own photography because I’m not just viewing the work of others, but comparing mine to it. Nothing good comes from this.
It’s great to be inspired by the work of others, but if it’s stealing your love for your own photos, it’s turned into something else. Comparison can be a very useful tool, but only if you’re comparing yourself to yesterday.
8. Invest in your craft
Unless your gear was gifted, borrowed, or stolen, then you understand that photography will cost you some of your hard-earned pesos. You can spend a little, or you can spend a LOT.
There are some things that will give you a far better return on your investment than others, though. For example, good lenses are a far better investment than a new camera body. The thing that will give you the best return on investment, in my opinion, is photography education.
There are a lot of great free resources out there, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. You can learn a hell of a lot from very affordable ebooks and online courses. And if you really want your photography to flourish, take a workshop with a master. You’ll never wish you hadn’t made the investment.
9. Start a blog
You might be thinking, “The world doesn’t really need another blog”, and you’d be right. But you’re not doing this for the world are you?
When I started my travel photography blog back in 2010, I never had any visions of millions of readers, I just wanted somewhere I could share photos of my travels and stories of my adventures. I wanted a medium other than Facebook, where I could choose how it looked. It was one of the best things I have ever done.
It’s since grown into somewhere that I now teach travel photography, but it’s still my photo blog, and it’s been a hugely creative outlet for me. I recommend Pro Blogger’s free Start A Blog course (by dPS’s very own Darren Rowse).
10. Your best image is yet to be made
As I mentioned in #7 above, it’s easy to get discouraged from time-to-time in photography. This happens for a number of reasons, but there’s one thing that I have learned which helps me get back on the horse when I feel like I’m wasting my time. I remember that I still haven’t made my best photo yet.
Of course, there is no such thing as a “best photo”, because photography is an art, not a science. What I’m getting at is that if you keep going, keep learning, keep practicing, you will keep making images that you think might be your best image yet. There will be dry periods, but push through them, try something different, get out of the rut, and you’ll come out the other side and continue to make images that remind you why you do it.
I hope you can take away something to help you in these photography lessons which I’ve picked up over the years. Do you have any pearls of wisdom that you’d like to share with other dPS readers? What have you learned that has made you a better photographer?