It seems photography should be easy, buy a camera and take photos, right? Except it’s not just a camera you need, there are other accessories and things you need to know as a photography newbie. Which lens do you buy and why? What do you shoot? How do you set the camera up correctly? What is the best way to process RAW files?
Walk into a good camera shop and there are walls covered in bags, cabinets full of lenses, banks of accessories, and tripods arranged in an artistic installation on the floor somewhere. It can be hard to know what extra things you really need versus what the salesperson tells you to buy. The internet offers lots of options for research in advance, but sometimes you just have to find things out the hard way.
Plus the salesperson can’t help you once you walk out the door, get your camera home, and you try to make sense of the camera’s user manual for the first time. Suddenly you are on your own with so much possibility and opportunity in front of you, but not really sure how to tackle it.
These are the top 25 things I learned as a photography newbie
Gear related things
- Buy at least one spare battery and memory card, two if you can afford it. Remember to keep those spares charged!
- Check your camera gear and settings before you leave the house – preferably the day before (so you can charge batteries). Realizing you left your memory card plugged into your computer, and your battery on the charger an hour into your trip is less than ideal.
- The perfect camera bag is like the Holy Grail. You will go through several bags trying to find the best compromise for your requirements.
- New gear doesn’t make you a better photographer. Many people are under the impression that buying a fancy expensive DSLR body somehow guarantees their images will be amazing. A new lens might enable you to shoot subjects in a better way (e.g. a macro lens lets you get close to small things, a long zoom makes it easier to photograph birds or animals) but these things are a tool that you, the photographer, has to make work.
- Buy a good tripod and get comfortable using it.
A tripod is an absolute necessity for shooting in the dark, especially when it’s a long exposure as well
Gear isn’t just about cameras and lenses
- Going out in the dark? Get a headlamp or torch, preferably one on a swivel mount so you can point it at the ground while walking in the dark. This is vital for not slipping and breaking an ankle on rocks or broken ground, and finding things in your bag.
- Invest in good footwear. Take a hat, sunscreen, water and insect repellent. Also, carry an extra layer of clothing just in case.
- Have proper cold weather gear. Nothing is worse than being outside with cold wet feet and numb fingers. If you live in areas that get properly cold, have good footwear suitable for the kind of terrain you will be out in. Clothing technology has advanced a lot in recent years, there are many options for the base, middle and shell layers, gloves, hats, and socks that are thin, light and easy to wear. Good quality gear can be expensive, but it usually lasts and is worth the investment.
- Get proper camera insurance. Camera gear is expensive and is often a target for thieves (don’t leave it in your car overnight). Accidents happen, a sudden large ocean wave can wipe you and your tripod out without warning. Tripod heads can fail and cause your camera and lens fall five feet straight onto a concrete floor. All sorts of mishaps can happen, so protect your investment with insurance, it is a lot cheaper than having to replace the gear yourself.
Making better images
I saw this scene in my rear view mirror, a quick handheld capture that was well worth the extra stop.
- Look behind you, above, and side to side. Sometimes the best view isn’t the obvious one directly in front of you. This applies especially if you are shooting a well-known and frequently photographed location. Put some effort into making your image something different. Exert yourself to break away from the crowd.
- It takes some time to get past the beginner stages of photography and to show improvement. It takes even longer to develop proficiency and “get good at it”.
- Composition is critical and will make or break any image. This is the one subject I personally recommend people invest time in researching and learning. There are loads of articles about composition online, take the time to read them and then practice, trying to see different composition options when shooting. Many people stand and shoot as their only option. Getting down at ground level or eye level can make for an entirely different image. Setting the camera in portrait or landscape mode can make a real difference. Learning composition is one of the most powerful tools you have as a photographer.
- The best sunrise or sunset is the one you stayed at home for. You can go out every morning for months and get nothing good, that one day you stay home and sleep in? Guaranteed to be a stunner.
My second sunset was well worth getting out of bed for.
- It’s all about the light that you have right at that very moment. Sometimes you have the option to walk away and come back, sometimes you don’t. So it’s important to learn how to see the light you have and know your options for capturing the best image possible with the available light.
- Take your camera out as often as you can and practice as much as you can. However, there are times when you might prefer to be in the moment, enjoying the action (a concert or party or event) and that is okay too.
- Check the edges of your frame before you shoot. Run your eye around the edge of the image in the viewfinder. Are there any branches, grass or trees poking out in awkward ways? Does your portrait subject have a lamp post coming out of the top of their head? Is everyone fully within the frame – there are no chopped off hands or feet or tops of heads?
White clover shot with 100mm macro lens.
- Muscle memory – learn what the buttons on your camera do, and where they are. Learn it so well you can find them by feel, in the dark. When responding to changing situations, it’s important that you can adapt quickly and without thinking too long about it.
- Manual mode is just another setting on your camera. There are no rules that say you have to use it all the time, although there are plenty of opinions on the subject. If shooting in manual makes your heart sing, then good for you. If the thought makes you really nervous and uncertain, that is okay, there are other options available.
- Back Button Focus is the preferred option for many wildlife and bird photographers. It is faster to use once you get used to the change.
This guy stuck his head into the frame as I was composing, had to react quickly to get the shot, and it is not 100% sharp as a result. Knowing your camera inside and out will help you get shots when time is of the essence.
Workflow and image processing
- Develop your own process and workflow. There is no right or wrong way to do things and there might be more efficient or different ways to achieve an outcome. Find one that works for you.
- Printing your work is surprisingly complicated. There’s calibration of the monitor, color profiles of the printer and paper, soft proofing, and so many different paper options and finishes. Even getting the professionals to do it for you can be challenging. Be prepared to spend a bit of money experimenting and finding out a way that gets you quality prints.
- Data storage and backup are a priority. If you are not particularly interested in computer technology, this can be a bit challenging. If you shoot in RAW format which outputs large image files, eventually you will have to address the requirement to store your data. Usually, at the point your first hard drive fails, backing up your data also becomes a consideration.
- Learn to crop and don’t be afraid to use it. Creative use of a crop can be a powerful composition tool, either improving the shot or fixing it (maybe you chopped people’s feet off). Be aware that cropping your image removes pixels and data from the file size, and that can limit how big final prints can be.
The weather was dreadful, a friend stood over me with an umbrella while shooting this, but converted to BW makes all the difference. Shoot with the light you have and know what you can do with it.
Still life studio with reflector, lenses, still life props and a cat asleep in his favorite spot.
Advancing your work
- Share your work and invite discussion. Places like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and various gallery sites online are easy avenues for sharing images. Start a blog and share your learning journey, the blogging community can be very supportive and friendly. Join your local camera club for some face-to-face interaction. Getting critiques can be valuable, but a thick skin is also necessary, as not everyone will be a fan. Some people will be nice and some people will not be and that can be difficult to hear.
- Push your boundaries. Some styles of photography will be easy for you, more enjoyable and fun. It’s good to spend time in that space and improve your craft. However, trying new styles can be a powerful learning tool as well. Don’t be afraid to try something new, remember it can take a while to get the hang of it, so don’t expect instant success.
Flat out on my stomach in the dirt was the only way to get this intimate composition.
The sky was heavily overcast and the light was dull, but the cygnets were adorable.
Sleeping ducklings, so fuzzy and cute. Taken flat out on my stomach with a long lens to keep my distance and not disturb them.
Like every new hobby, once you get started and scratch the surface, there is lots more to learn than you expected. Some lessons can only be learned the hard way, via personal experience. Making mistakes is a powerful learning experience provided you and your camera gear survive the experience.
Since starting photography in 2007 there have been many mistakes made, and hopefully, lessons learned along the way. I offer up my experiences so you can hopefully save yourself some time, money and hardship and not do some of the silly things that were the reasons for the above list.
Good luck and happy shooting. Be safe and have fun.