Every time you read an article or a book, a blog post, or a tutorial, there is always something new to learn about photography. Technology is always moving forward, software being improved, new features and functionality released. Someone has a new technique or tip to share. So many things to learn, yet it is one of the joys of photography as well. Your boundaries are in many ways limitless, it is an artform you can take and develop and make it your own.
Still there were many things on my journey that had to be learned the hard way, as is often the case. There are some fundamental things it took a while to understand, mostly because no one shared these nuggets of information. Maybe they just thought it was so obvious, that everyone would figure it out?
Hopefully these tips from my experiences will help you in your photography journey.
1. Photography is hard to learn
Your camera is a marvel of modern technology and science, with lots of buttons and dials, and all sorts of fancy features. To have control over how it creates your images, you need to learn how to use it with some level of skill. Then there is the art side of the equation; composition, framing, mood, telling a story. So, many new concepts and ideas to learn, both technical and creative.
Dropping $3500 on a fancy new DLSR and lens doesn’t make you a capable photographer, any more than buying a set of chef knives makes you a Michelin starred chef. Your camera is a tool, which needs thousands of hours of time invested into learning how to use it. If you aren’t prepared to read books, watch videos, and go out again and again to shoot, then your rate of improvement will be minimal.
2. Photography is an expensive exercise
It starts with the really expensive bits, the camera body and the lens. Before long you will want more lenses. A camera bag is necessary to carry it all. A tripod to hold it still. Filters for long exposure shots. Wireless remotes, flash or other lighting gear, the list goes on. There is always something new and shiny to spend money on.
Don’t forget things like decent footwear and outdoor clothes. Gas and accommodation costs for travelling locally, plus fees to get into parks also need to be accounted for. Travelling overseas is a luxury for many people. Don’t forget insurance too. It all adds up to a lot of money.
3. Camera gear is heavy
Good quality lenses are full of optical quality glass, and as a result they can be quite heavy. By the time you have two or three of them, and a DLSR body and other accessories, your kit can easily weigh 5kg (11 lbs.) or more. The more gear you have, the more you have to carry with you. This is one of the reasons the four thirds (mirrorless) technology is becoming so popular, the cameras (and lenses) are much smaller, and therefore lighter.
4. Having the right gear matters
Long lenses are necessary for wildlife and bird photography. Special gear is needed for astrophotography. For that super close-up shot, a macro lens (or filters) are a must. Studio portrait work means soft-boxes and professional lighting gear. Tripods, filters, wireless remotes etc., it all makes a difference, and having the right gear for the job is important.
5. Gear doesn’t matter at all
Composition, framing, creative or artistic imagery, all elements that you, the photographer, bring to the image. It could be shot with your phone or the latest DSLR on the market, but without the creative input, your image may be missing that critical ingredient. Being in the right place at the right time (e.g. sunrise or sunset) or travelling to exotic locations, climbing a mountain, driving for hours to be in just the right spot, these are all things you have to do to capture the image.
6. It takes a long time to get competent
When you first get your camera gear it’s exciting and fun, so you take lots of pictures. Eventually you may get frustrated at how your images look, compared to those seen online, and one of two things will happen. The most likely outcome is that you give up because it’s too hard. The alternative option is you work even harder at learning your craft, you read more books, maybe join a club, or attend some workshops.
Someone clever (quote attributed to Malcolm Gladwell) worked out that it takes 10,000 hours of effort to master a new skill. Ten thousand hours! That’s over a whole year! You have to fit that in around work, sleep, and time with friends or family. That means it could take you years to get good at this.
7. Social Media is not your friend
When you first start sharing your images, your friends and family will like them. That’s because they like you and want good things for you. Getting likes is an instant form of gratification that can be addictive.
The problem with social media is that most of the people viewing your images are not photographers. They cannot give you useful technical advice or critique on your images, the kind to help you improve. If all you want is to get the most likes, then that will have an impact on how you learn and grow as a photographer.
There are groups and forums online, full of photographers who are often willing to give feedback. But accepting criticism is not something most people are comfortable with, and it can be really challenging. Some people are nicer about it than others too, so you might have to spend some time finding a place that you feel comfortable.
8. If you want a sunrise, you have to get up before the sun does
Yeah it’s easy to read it and nod your head, and go, “Sure, I can do that”. It’s a different story at 4am when your bed is nice and warm, but outside it’s cold and dark. Plus you might have already gotten up 10 times in the last couple of months to go shoot, and none of those mornings paid off.
Want to travel to exotic destinations? You have to save up to be able to afford it, take time off work, maybe travel with non-photographers and have to make some compromises when you travel. That incredible shot in a remote location means you have to hike in, carrying your camera gear, a tent, food, and everything else as well.
Photography requires a lot of commitment to your craft, learning it, and then going to the places you need, to capture the images you want.
9. Post-processing is just another tool
Little is more divisive in the photography world than the question of post-processing. If you shoot in RAW then it’s necessary to edit the files with some form of software. There are many options available – Photoshop, Lightroom, OnOne, DXO, and the list goes on. Some people prefer the “get it right in camera” and shoot JPG approach instead.
If you do choose to shoot RAW and want to edit your images, that means learning to use the software. Like everything in photography, it isn’t quick or easy to figure out, but once you do learn it, the value it brings to working on your images is valuable. It’s not necessary to spend hours on every image either, with some handy presets or actions, it might only take a couple of minutes for most of them.
10. Are you a follower of fashion?
There are noticeable trends and styles in photography, which are in fashion at any given point in time. Astrophotography, long exposure, HDR, silky waterfalls, light painting, and other special effects are all styles seen a lot at the moment. By all means learn from them, there will be valuable skills to obtain, but be careful to keep within aesthetically pleasing limits.
It can be easy to do the same as everyone else, which limits your ability to learn and express yourself. Do you want to travel to an amazing location and stand at the usual viewpoint and capture the same image already taken by thousands of other photographers? If you have time, and there are options for other viewpoints, and it’s safe for you to explore them, consider doing so.
Don’t be afraid to try something different, and whatever you do, make sure it gives you images that you are happy to have in your portfolio.
Some of this will seem perfectly obvious, and some of it you may well disagree with. There may be some uncomfortable ideas in here, or some other things you would have included instead – feel free to share your thoughts in the comment below, as others may well agree with you.
The one thing you can be sure of is that learning anything new is hard work, and the longer you do it, the more there is to learn. There is one more secret to share with you though. If you do the work and keep learning and pushing yourself, it does get better. Once you master the basics and understand your tools, you have a whole new opportunity to have fun and try creative things, experiment with the really cool concepts.
One last final tip – Everybody starts at exactly the same place – at the beginning.