Photography Tips for Absolute Beginners

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So you have decided you might like to try getting into photography, you have either just acquired a new camera or are about to, where do you begin?

Here are some photography tips for absolute beginners to help get you started:

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Buying gear

Your gear does not make you a good photographer. If you are just starting out, a top of the line camera is likely to not ony be be a waste of money for you, but also make your learning process a bit trickier. A bit like buying a formula one race car to learn to drive.

When you do want to buy gear, research first. It’s really helpful to take a look at some photography forums or articles here on dPS to find tips on beginner cameras. Once you find something that sounds viable and fits your budget, read reviews, and again look to forums such as Flickr, where there is a chat group for nearly every brand or model of camera, and they are often more honest about any issues.

The same applies to other gear like lighting. You don’t need to set yourself up with professional soft boxes to try studio lit portraits, you can try some of these DIY lighting tips, or find some cheap beginner setups on Amazon or Ebay.

Take lots of photographs

“Your first ten thousand photographs are your worst” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

As with any skill, the more you use it, the better you get. As you progress with your photography and look back on those early beginner shots you thought were fabulous, you’ll be able to see Mr. Cartier-Bresson was very right.

Read the manual

Camera manuals are at best, the most boring thing you have ever read in your life, with the possible exception of that friend that wanted you to read all 600 pages of their poetry about love and skin rashes.

Wile not an exciting read, going over the manual is very helpful.

Camera manuals are not exactly a riveting read.

It’s a good thing both in the beginning, and to refresh down the track, to know how this wonderful instrument (your camera) actually works. Even if you don’t recall all of it, that doesn’t matter, you will learn or be reminded of something helpful.

Yet it’s such a hard thing to read that manual! So it’s best to place it somewhere where you can push through it in small instalments while you are passing some time such as: the bathroom, in the car if circumstances have you often sitting there waiting for the kids, or at work during lunch break. Just as long as you give that thing a good going over.

Workshops and courses

So you’ve got the photography bug. You might be thinking, “Ooooo! I’ll sign up to a bunch of courses, workshops, buy online courses.” It might seem like a good idea and while they can be fantastic, I don’t recommend going nuts with your enthusiasm, and signing up for courses and workshops the moment you get the photography buzz.

You are currently reading one of the most useful photography sites on the entire internet. There is more information, tips and tutorials on this site, and others, than you will ever need to get you started and beyond. Once you get the hang of things, then you will have a better idea of the type of courses and workshops that would suit you. So I’m not saying don’t take a course – just wait until you know what suits your needs.

Connect with other photographers

This is invaluable, whether you sign up to an online group that use your brand of camera, or join a local camera club, your photography will progress faster, and it will be more fun with the help of fellow shutterbugs.

Even other beginners can help you learn new photography skills.

Connecting with other photographers is a great way to learn more and get inspired.

Camera clubs often have monthly competitions to practice with and sometimes organize photo tours, exhibitions and other activities. Talking with knowledgeable photographers or even fellow beginners can not only inspire, but also keep you motivated.

Sign up to some reputable photography newsletters and Facebook pages, or even approach photographers you admire to ask questions. Most professional photographers don’t mind answering a few questions, as long as you are respectful and polite, and don’t demand too much of their time.

Try everything

You may have taken up photography with a certain style or subject in mind, but it can be helpful to try all styles. You never know what you might have a knack for, or what you will learn along the way.

Getting feedback

Your friends and family may love you but they will lie to you about your photography. Unless you have a very honest friend or family member who actually knows a bit about photography, it’s often more beneficial to get feedback from strangers.

Signing up to a photo sharing site where others can comment on your work will get you mostly honest feedback, sometimes brutally so. I posted the image below on a feedback site some years ago. Aware the image had faults, I was keen to hear what someone else could point out for me, that I might not have seen after working so closely on the image.

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A fellow submitted a lengthy comment , basically pulled it apart, pointing out several (million it seemed) faults, he really went to town on it. But while the comments were brutal and borderline unkind, it was useful advice. All of which I ignored in regards to that image, but was useful for later attempts.

Enter free competitions

If you have loads of money to spend, and confidence in your work, by all means as a beginner enter some of the big competitions. You wouldn’t be the first to take out a major prize in the first few months of picking up a camera. But there are loads of free competitions out there for you to throw some images, at and see how they go. Have a read of this helpful guide to entering competitions.

Aim to get off Auto settings

If you really want to be a good photographer, this is vital. No rush though! Just enjoy photographing in Auto Mode, and experiment with the settings as you go. Manual settings are not nearly as difficult as some beginners think. It can be a bit like learning to drive. In the beginning, it can be challenging to manage gears, indicators, and steering, all the while trying not veer off the road. But, with a bit of patience and practice, it becomes second nature. When you are ready to try manual settings there are plenty of beginner guides and cheat sheets here on dPS.

The digital darkroom

If you are really into your photography, you will need some sort of editing program. In the days of film photography you needed a darkroom and the use of heavy chemicals. But these days, thanks to modern technology, you can edit almost anywhere.

With today's digital darkroom you can edit your photo's pretty much anywhere and chemical free.

These days your darkroom can even be in bed with some accompaniments.

There are free and simple programs like Picasa, which have their limits, but are good for those just starting out. Then there are the big guns like Photoshop and Lightroom, which can be daunting for beginners, but it’s worth learning even just the basics of these programs, if you intend to get serious about your photography at some point. As with getting off Auto settings, it’s not as difficult as it may seem at first, and the internet is bursting with free tutorials on pretty much any program you choose.

Have fun

This is the best and most important part of photography, the enjoyment of it.

Don’t get bogged down by unsuccessful attempts, or by comparing yourself to professionals. Even the best photographers in the world were beginners at some point. Just keep taking photographs, keep learning, keep challenging yourself, and above all keep enjoying the fun you can have with photography.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lea Hawkins is an Australian photographer working mainly in the areas of portraiture, fine art, and for the local press. Her work has been published, exhibited, selected and collected - locally, nationally and internationally, in many forms. All shot with very minimal gear and the photographic philosophy that it's not so much the equipment, but what you do with it. You can see more of her work at www.leahawkins.com

  • Blake Lewis

    “Getting feedback”

    Good advice. I aimed to comment on that, but saw it was in the article. Best advice on feedback is to ask strangers, not family and friends. It’s a recursive loop: take photos, family and friends aren’t used to seeing anything greater than crappy phone photos, say it’s a nice shot out of ignorance, lack of comparison, or because they don’t want to offend, shooter is happy because praise is an ego boost, takes more photos, shares photos online in safe forums, gets praised by people who are just as bad, gets it into their head that they can go pro, starts taking people’s money who are willing to pay out of either ignorance or lack of comparison or price, shares more photos online, gets legitimate, constructive feedback, gets angry because it’s not blind praise, gets friends to back them up, starts calling people bullies.

    Go to any photography forum and it’ll crop up before too long. I’ve seen plenty of people banned from ‘safe’ forums when they provided constructive feedback and got called bullies for it.

  • George Johnson

    Jeez that has to be the best set of advice I have seen for beginners in a very long time! Plain, honest, common sense advice that doesn’t patronise or overwhelm, stuff I have been advocating for yonks.

    I see so many beginners get beaten down with such utter rubbish like, “You HAVE to learn manual mode as soon as possible if you want to get anywhere!”. Utter crap! The first thing you have to do is to learn to have fun taking photos. You can learn the camera controls in an afternoon, learning photography will take a lifetime. Even after almost 40 years I still use auto-mode on my pocket camera most of the time as the software is pretty damn good, however when I want something special I know what to adjust to get it.

    Shoot lots of pictures, it’s the only real way to improve. However I like to qualify that with, “…but with a purpose.”. Always have a rough idea in mind, what you would like to shoot that day. Just something simple like, “I’m going to shoot some street shots of dogs or people with dogs.”. It helps to keep you focused as randomly firing off images left, right and centre is rarely productive and can quickly leave you disheartened if you can’t see improvements.

    When people ask me what the secret to good photography is, I tell them that it’s so blindingly obvious and so simple but that they’re not going to like it one bit. It’s practice, practice, practice!

  • Connecting with other photographers is a huge plus. “Meet Up” is a great way to find local photogs. I belong to a couple of groups, and they meet often for various types of photo shoots, from working with models to photo walks.

    Free competitions sound fun, but maybe a link or two on where to find these would have been helpful for those absolute beginners.

  • dabhand

    The corollaries to your points though are that the OP should have asked for CC and that anyone providing such should preferably be offering sensitive and worthwhile feedback which is pertinent to the objective of the shot and also expect to be asked to explain themselves and deliver such without being defensive.

    Too often one sees such as ‘doesn’t obey the rule of thirds’ -‘no leading lines’ – ‘not how Ansel Adams (or whoever) would have done it’ – ‘get in right in the camera’ etc etc ; or even worst of all ‘that’s not how I would have done it’.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Thanks Todd, good point in regards to free competition links.
    Often your brand of camera will have some competitions on their website. For years Canon ran a fantastic free competition called Photo5, which anyone could enter no matter what camera, but I think their latest version the Light Awards is for Canon users only, not sure.
    The Sony World Photography awards is free and is currently open for entry.
    That’s all I can think of off the top of my head, I will look up some more after a busy weekend of photographing!

  • Lea Hawkins

    Thanks George, appreciate your kind words and further advice on the article. Really like your addition to the take lots of pictures tip of “but with a purpose”, very good point! A bit of focus (photogrpaher pun not intended) can go a long way.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Thanks Blake, I had a similar discussion with a writer friend yesterday about people being given praise for their work by friends and family, and the problems it causes by setting up a false confidence in their work. All of which you have pointed out above.

    Yes, photography forums can often be temperamental, people taking offense or giving it, too easily. It can be tricky when you first get constructive criticism on an image you love, especially if the criticism isn’t entirely favourable and even more so if they are right! I think a good approach is to just play nice, appreciate the constructive criticism and take the rest with a grain of salt.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Hi Dabhand, there’s more discussion on photography forums below (possibly you are actually replying to Blake’s comment?). agreed it should work that people give sensitive and worthwhile feedback and be ok with being asked to explain further, both without defensiveness, and for the most part I think that happens. But yes forum politics and bickering is common.
    As I mentioned to Blake below, I think the best approach is to play nice, appreciate the constructive criticism and take the rest with a grain of salt.

  • Michael

    Read the manual. I know that this article said read them, but with a snicker. Is research really too, too boring for such bright, sparkly beings as photographers? I respect people who read and wouldn’t let a beginner off the hook because research is just, so, like, boring and I’ve got a life, you know.

  • Rob

    Like you said “Take lots of photographs”. When I started, one of the books said right from the beginning; “The cheapest accessory you can buy that will improve your skills is film. Allocate at least half your equipment budget for film and processing”. Granted this is from a few decades ago, but the brilliant simple logic of it still rings true. I was also instructed to keep a log book, I recorded the conditions, the equipment and settings for nearly every shot. It forced me to pay attention and avoid TLAR through the viewfinder (That Looks About Right). I began to see how the different settings affected the outcome on a much more scientific basis. Now with digital having matured, and all the settings are automatically attached to the pictures as well as the ability to instantly see the results, it’s easier and faster to learn. But those early tips forced me to learn a lot more early on instead of the old “Shoot and pray” method with film.

  • Sporty Spice

    Where does one find these places to upload photos and get them torn apart?

  • Lea Hawkins

    Hi Rob, great comment. I learnt in the days of film too. Working for the local newspaper we could load up canisters with 135 or more shots as opposed to the usual 35, and developed/printed ourselves, a rare opportunity to learn by taking lots of photographs. I really like the TLAR, and am guilty of it occasionally nowadays with digital, too easy to assume you can fix it later. Thanks for the great advice for our readers.

  • Lea Hawkins

    I am surprised how many beginners ask me how this or that button works on their camera and when I ask if they checked their manual they say no. I ask why not (because really you have this fabulous thing called a camera and you didn’t read the instructions? Really?) they say it was too complicated or boring. So in the article was trying to relate to that and insist they do it regardless.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Hahah Sporty Spice, I can’t recall the site I referred to, it was a while ago. but there are many photo sharing sites like Flickr, or curated sites 1x.com where you can submit your images for advice.

  • Sporty Spice

    Yes I’m on Flickr. Thanks for sharing. I don’t call myself a photographer but I love photography and always want to improve as a novice.

  • Stacy Kim

    Great stuff!

  • Stacy Kim

    Great stuff! One of the first things I did when I first got a camera was just playing with it. All the technical stuff is great, but sometimes the best thing to do is just familiarize yourself by fidgeting around with it. Here’s a quick post on the importance of playing with your camera:http://www.adoramapix.com/blog/2016/11/15/playing_with_your_camera/#.WFRRQaIrJ_8

  • Matthew Ng

    “Signing up to a photo sharing site where others can comment on your work will get you mostly honest feedback, sometimes brutally so. ”

    Beyond ..
    number of likes
    Nice shot
    Great photo

    This is hard to come by

  • Matthew Ng

    Film was the best thing. Every shutter press means $$$$. So before i press i have to “ensure” that it is about as right as it can get.. composition, background, light etc.

  • charlieo

    Photography Tips for Absolute Beginners – first article on this site I’ve read and I can quite honestly say A TOTAL WASTE OF TIME. I was looking for information, not interested in condescending prattle. Perhaps comments should come before the article!?

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