How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed When Learning Photography


Likely, you are working hard to improve your photography. You are trying to master all the settings on your camera, trying to control things like depth of field while trying to improve your focus and the sharpness of your photos. And then there are all those rules of composition to think about as well. That is a lot to remember, and it can be overwhelming. Frankly, it is enough to make you nostalgic for the good old days when you put your camera in Auto mode and fired off snapshots.

How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed When Learning Photography

Before you revert to that, however, let’s take a look at a few ways you can avoid that feeling of overwhelm, and continue to grow as a photographer.

#1 – Use Swing Keys

First, you can take a page from other areas of life that subject people to being overwhelmed. Perhaps no activity involves a feeling of overwhelm for the beginner more so than golf. When you are learning a golf swing, it is not uncommon for there to be 12 to 15 different thoughts going through your mind. If you try to do them all at once, the result is inevitably a disaster.

Therefore it is common to hear golfers talk about “swing keys.” This is about limiting your thoughts to one thing that you want to do in that particular swing. The physical nature of the swing key will vary from golfer to golfer. For one it might be to keep the wrist straight, for another, it might be to follow through. It just depends on their swing and weaknesses. It just gives the golfer something to think about to improve their swings and also keeps them from being overwhelmed.

Works for photography as well

I find this a useful analogy for photographers as well. When you are out in the field getting ready to shoot, you may have a thousand different thoughts going through your head. You might be worried about the overall exposure level, setting the right depth of field, avoiding digital noise, watching the focus point, keeping the picture sharp, placing the subject in the right part of the frame, creating an interesting foreground, looking for leading lines, trying to create some emotion, and so on. All this can lead to overload. Having one or two swing keys in your mind can help add some clarity.

How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed When Learning Photography

Personally, I am always thinking about the foreground. Doing so helps me keep my thoughts together. It also specifically addresses issues of focus, depth of field, subject, and overall composition. For you, it might be something different. It doesn’t matter what it is – and it can evolve over time – just try to simplify things. Remember that often the best photos are the simplest. Further, as we’ll see in a moment, you can add more things later.

Create a Checklist

Another way to keep from worrying about all the things you want to accomplish is to create a checklist. When I was starting out, I found that I would get home from a shoot and kick myself for all the things I forgot to do. I would look at a series of shots I took and wonder why I didn’t bracket some of them, or zoom in on something, or add a neutral density filter in a certain spot, and so on.

Having a checklist will keep you from forgetting these things. At the same time, it will allow you to relax and not worry about missing anything when you are in the field. The checklist can be as simple or elaborate as you want. It can be a folded up sheet of paper or a laminated page – it doesn’t matter. Once you have gotten the shots you want, just consult your checklist and make sure you didn’t overlook anything.

How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed When Learning Photography

Having a checklist can remind you to do things like adding a shot using a neutral density filter.

Use a Building Process

Another way to keep from being overwhelmed is to avoid attempting to do too much at once. Instead, use a building process to create your pictures step-by-step. You’ll be amazed at how simple photography can be when you use this process.

What do I mean by that? Let’s start with an example of a dramatically lit portrait. Trying to create the whole thing in one shot could result in failure and frustration. Therefore, break the final picture down into steps. You might start with a few shots that get the background lighting correct. Once you have that right, then add your flash or strobe, but even then don’t try to control or shape the light yet. Spend a few shots getting the quantity of light the way you want it, and only then move the light off to the side and start working on shape and directions.

In this way, you’ll find that what seems overwhelming at first, actually becomes pretty simple. I have been to enough photography workshops and seminars to confidently state that many masters of photography work this way.

How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed When Learning Photography

In night sky photos, I find it works best to start by just getting the sky right and then worrying about the foreground elements later.

Build a landscape the same way

It works in other contexts as well. A landscaper photographer might find a great background and work on setting that part of their shot up before they start looking for a foreground. Once they have built that part of the picture they might look for additional aspects to use as a subject or center of interest. After that, they might wait for something to happen to add interest to the picture. As a result, the final picture looks very complicated, but it was built step-by-step.

In fact, the famous street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson worked this way. You may know him as the master of the “decisive moment,” but he was always building to that moment. He would find a great spot to use as a background, set everything up, and then wait for something to happen. That way when the decisive moment happened he was ready for it and created an overall wonderful picture. It didn’t just come together in an instant as it might otherwise appear.

The point of all this is to show you that if you start simple, you can avoid being overwhelmed. Once you have established one building block of your picture, add another one. This will not only improve your pictures but will result in you having more fun – and certainly fewer feelings of being overwhelmed – while you are doing it.

Ideas for How to Avoid Overwhelm When Doing Photography

This started as a simple shot of a barn. We added lights as we went. The white streamers were ultimately lit by a person with a flashlight.

Take Advantage of Digital Technology

Finally, as you take your photos, keep one thing in your mind.  Remember the magic of digital photography is that you get to take as many exposures as you want and it costs nothing. There should not be any pressure!

Not only that, but you are getting instant feedback on what you just did via your LCD screen. You can just delete the bad ones (and we all have bad ones) and move on. No one is going to look at your SD card and judge you on the pictures that don’t work out. They’ll only see the ones you show them.

Ideas for How to Avoid Overwhelm When Doing Photography

Similarly, don’t worry about any sort of “hit rate.” Frankly, if you end up with a high hit rate, that probably just means you need to take additional pictures and experiment more.

A Never Ending Quest

Done correctly, photography always involves learning and experimentation. Therefore, while I have aimed these comments at those just starting out, these things really apply to everybody. The feeling of overwhelm never really goes away.

Once you master the controls on your camera you will add other elements to your pictures. Ultimately, you have to find your own way to relax and keep everything fun. Hopefully, these tips will help a little in that regard though.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, check out his brand new Lightroom Course where Digital Photography School readers can use the Promo Code "DPS25" to get 25% off!

  • KC

    It’s easy for someone to get overwhelmed simply by looking at a camera. Things have certainly changed from the old days. When you’re starting out look past most of it. The truth is all cameras are “point and shoot”. That statement gets me in a lot of trouble sometimes. All that extra “stuff” is “options” you can access as you learn and grow.

    Back to the topic at hand: When I’m teaching basic photography, step one is “close one eye and see”. Learn to visualize what the camera will capture. Step two: “where is the light coming from?”. Learn how light changes the subject. Once those two steps are covered, then bring the camera to your eye and commit.

    I find those two steps sometimes have an amazing impact on people.They switch from “looking at” to “seeing”. The props I use are as simple as flashlights and oranges (for their texture, they’re a good treat, and they make the room smell nice).

    As for cameras, many people diving into photography dive in too deep. “I need a good camera” doesn’t automatically equate to “I need a big, heavy, expensive thing with lots of buttons and attachments.” There’s the hope that “I’ll grow into it”. Maybe. Or you never will, regret spending so much money, get hopelessly frustrated by so many options that glaringly point out your limitations, not the camera’s limitations. A camera has to feel natural to you. It might be a mirror-less, it might be a SLR, it might be a “bridge camera”, or something that slips in your pocket.

    I’m a big fan of “bridge cameras”, although I prefer to call them “integrated lens cameras”. The high end models from Panasonic and Sony are amazingly powerful and flexible.

    You mentioned Cartier-Bresson, an artist that had an enormous influence
    on me. His body of work still does. When you read his books, or
    interviews, you realize he rarely talks about cameras, but his thought
    processes. Not only did he leave us with an incredible body of images,
    but thoughts on capturing images, the art of photography.

  • Jim Hamel

    Great thoughts! I especially agree about the complexity of cameras. I recently compared the manual for my current camera with that of my last film camera. It was comical. The film camera manual was about 1/10th the size of the current manual. If you get hung up on the camera, its buttons, and its specs, you’ll likely not advance.

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  • KC

    You know cameras are “over the top” when one of the reasons you stick with a brand of cameras for so long is that you’re familiar with the menus and buttons. My personal cameras are Panasonic’s. I know the settings well and their effects (to a degree). When I use a different brand I have to hunt and rethink. There’s also brand specific terminology.

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