A Year of Photographic Lessons – Journey of a Novice Photographer


About a year ago I decided to try and take my photography to the next level – to go beyond basic snapshots and try and get the wow factor into my images. I hope this article covering my photographic experiences of 2013, and the lessons I’ve learned gives you some ideas for 2014.

This is the story of my year of photographic lessons – maybe you can relate, or are on a similar journey.

Note: the images in this article are in chronological order with my early work near the top, and my most recent images at the bottom. Hopefully you can see where I’ve started from and how much I’ve progressed in a year. You can do this too!

Photography lessons novice 01

STEP ONE: – join a photography club

The single biggest thing that made a difference to my photography in 2013 was joining a local club in Dublin, Ireland (www.offshoot.ie). This proved to be the turning point for a few reasons:

  • It was an opportunity to learn from like-minded, enthusiastic and friendly photographers; and a chance to be inspired by their stunning work.
  • Organized field trips; providing some amazing photo opportunities including; a fire breather, light painting, model shoots, etc.
  • Learning by practical sessions – new techniques like portraits and lighting, or macro to introduce new areas of photography I had never explored previously.
  • Joining a club, above all, provided an opportunity to learn, as well as inspiration and motivation to get out taking photos more often, and to do it better.

Photography lessons novice 02

STEP TWO – try entering competitions

Competitions are one aspect of photography clubs which tends to put a lot of people off. However, I found that the competitions are very useful to help concentrate the mind on a particular topic, or learn a new technique. For example: long exposure or macro photography, which I had never tried before.

Getting expert feedback from judges can be invaluable – usually they will want to help you improve, and will provide helpful feedback on your image, e.g.. exposure, cropping, etc. Competitions are also a chance to show your off your work, and let’s face it, we all like some recognition. So winning competitions doesn’t exactly do any harm.

STEP THREE – Learn the basics

It’s important to get to know the basics on the technical side. It’s no substitute for the photographer’s eye, but the lack of technical skills might prevent you from capturing the image that you want. The good news is there are loads of great sources from the photography club, great websites like dPS, flickr, books, and podcasts. The big lessons for me included:

  • Exposure and how to control it with aperture and ISO – is the image too bright or too dark
  • How to get sharp images by adjusting focus modes, shutter speed and using a tripod
  • Depth of field – controlling what is in focus
  • Composition – some of the classic components of a good image, like using the rule of thirds
  • Cropping images – using software to crop to the important part of the image, and remove distracting elements
  • How to do the basics in photo editing software like Lightroom or Photoshop to crop images, correct exposure, resize images and more importantly, to build and safely store your library of images

Getting a good understanding of the above should make a big difference in the quality of your images.

Photography lessons novice 03

STEP FOUR – know your camera

I try to consider the basics above and the results are improving. I generally manage to get a few images that I really like, and I think the occasional one at least that has the wow factor. With a modern DSLR you don’t need to understand all its complexities but you do need to know the key features, to get the most out of it. You don’t want to miss a shot of a spectacular sunset while you trawl through the manual, so understanding the main controls are essential including:

  • Focus – manual and auto focus modes
  • Image stabilization
  • Metering modes
  • Manual mode – controlling aperture, ISO, and shutter speed
  • Image file type – Jpeg or Raw
  • White balance

A big milestone for me as I got to know my camera, and got more confident, was stepping out of Auto mode and going Manual. I can attest, when you get it right, it really works. When you get it wrong, delete – it’s the busiest key on my keyboard. I still need to get my head around the focus modes, white balance and some of the more exotic possibilities like HDR.

STEP FIVE – get the right gear

Photography lessons novice 04When I joined the club I must say I had a bit of camera envy – mine being a Nikon 8 megapixel E8700 bridge camera, of 2004 vintage, which had served me well. People in the club correctly told me that it’s not the camera that makes the difference but the photographer. My vintage Nikon was great for many situations, but couldn’t match the quality and versatility of a modern DSLR.

Unfortunately, when I bought it on a family visit to New York in 2004 I explained to my wife that this $1100 camera was a lifetime investment. After some negotiation with my wife, I made a new lifetime investment in 2013, and am delighted with my Nikon D7100, although I’m still trying to come to grips with its incredible capabilities. I would definitely recommend a tripod also as one essential piece of gear that will improve your results, and help you to with long exposure, night shots and getting sharp images in focus.

Don’t rush into buying a whole load of gear however, wait until you find that your current camera or lens is holding you back.

Note: the images below were all taken with my new D7100.Photography lessons novice 05

Photography lessons novice 06

WHAT’S NEXT – plan for 2014

So where to next? What does 2014 bring, I hear you ask. Now is the time to put a plan together!

  1. Make a calendar of the many sports and cultural events that might provide new and varied photo opportunities
  2. Projects – to develop your skills; e.g. one day in your city, monochrome (B/W), sports, nature, architecture
  3. New things to explore – some new techniques or skills to master to take you out of your comfort zone and try a new area such as long exposures or portraits

Photography lessons novice 07

Most of all – think before you shoot

This was the biggest lesson of all for me – use everything you have learned to get the best possible result. Use your knowledge of the exposure and composition. Try a different camera angle or point of view, depth of field, lens, or shutter speed to try and create an image with the wow factor.

Above all get out there taking photos and enjoy, there is no substitute for practical experience.

Photography lessons novice 08

Further reading

For more tips for beginners – head over here.

Photo Nuts and Bolts – know your camera and take better photos, a dPS ebook.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Rob Hackett is based in Dublin, Ireland where he lives with his wife and 4 year old daughter. He feels fortunate to have a hugely diverse range of photographic possibilities matched by the unpredictable light from Irish weather. He's interested in all types of photography and keen to learn and develop his skills and take his photography to the next level.

  • sean

    I too made the jump out of auto mode last year. I began a photo-a-day challenge to kick off 2014. It’s really forced me to get out and make the time to shoot everyday in various conditions. No more excuses.

  • Robert Hackett

    Hi Sean,
    Great idea. It might get your photographic brain working and
    try and get a decent shot ot of a situation or location you might not
    otherwise try. It will be interesting to see the results at the end of the year so best of luck.

  • Johan Bauwens

    Very nice progression and useful tips ! The most important tip is to practice A LOT though. I force myself to take at least 1 time a week, although that’s even not enough. I can understand that people with busy jobs, kids etc don’t have the time to practice, but that way they won’t make any progression. Visiting sites, reading books etc is useful, but the only way to improve your photography skills is by going out there !

  • Johan Bauwens

    I like this sentence : ‘After some negotiation with my wife, I made a new lifetime investment in 2013’ 🙂

  • Robsshots

    Excellent!! And congrats on the dramatic improvement in your images. A very good illustration of what can be accomplished in a year with a plan. Better photographs!!

  • Nathan

    It was great seeing the progression as your skills improved. I’ve been down that same journey and had the same conversation with my wife, a few times 🙂

  • Kirtu Riba

    Rob’s article is an eye opener. I absolutely agree with his observation that practical lessons have no substitutes.Thanks to the astute photographer for frankly sharing his experience.

  • Jason Leroux

    Excellent article. Inspirational even for those of us with a bit more experience.

  • Jonny

    Thank you, I have enjoyed your article having been down the same road recently. Including the negotiations with my wife!

    My photography has improved quite noticeably, and I am starting to be very pleased with my own work…which is really saying something.

    Keep up the good work, keep learning and above all…KEEP SHOOTING!!

  • Ian Goldsmith

    Great article. You describe it all in a logical and practical way. Best way to learn:-)

  • Steve Johnson

    Great article, Rob. I too made the jump from point-and-shoot to “photography” in 2013. My “new lifetime investment” was a Nikon D5100 – I love it, but I can already envision the day when that will be my backup camera. I also kept track of my progress, by creating a mini-portfolio of each quarter throughout the year. Best of luck on your continued progress. Cheers!

  • Sue Doss-McAleer

    Really enjoyed this read. Beautiful progression in your photography! I just love those last two shots.

  • Chris

    I just spent 2013 with my first DSLR after a lifetime of taking snapshots (although I did TRY to be artistic!), and I agree 100% with Rob’s recommendations. Our journeys have been almost identical, except that I haven’t braved any competitions – yet. Maybe this year I will!

  • Mario Oostendorp

    Congratulations Rob, I too went through the negotiation phase when I bought my D7000, 60mm Micro lens and Camera bag my wife slept in the spare room for a while. I joined a Camera club in 2012 and won most improved photographer and was runner up in C grade (new members start here) 2013 I was runner up in B Grade and received 3 gold awards for images in our end of year salon. I am now Vice President of the club. You have made the right decisions and you have some wonderful images. I am a member of Blipfoto and make an image a day every day and have found this really helps improve your photography. I shoot in Manual and have done so now for 2 years never again in Auto. I learned this from the E book Natural Light photography bought from Digital Photography School

  • AdamMicahael

    I am in the same boat, please check my images and welcome any feedback! http://adammichael.smugmug.com/

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    Received my first DSLR in December after taking photos with a point and shoot and getting them into galleries, exhibitions and one in a magazine. Have been practicing a lot and have already taken over 4000 photographs on it! I recently became a pet photographer volunteer at a pet shelter, something that I never thought I would do! I agree, joining a club is important. but, I have also found out that not every photographer wants to help and teach you what they know- some act like you area a threat to them, even if your interests are totally different from what they shoot. I also started a 365 project to make sure I practice every day- posting online keeps me accountable!

  • Cathy

    Great article – I am, today, where you were one year ago (more or less) Just before new years I upgraded my Canon P&S to a Canon SL1 DSLR. Unfortunately I live in a rural area and the nearest photography club that I know of is 50 miles away. So I did the next best thing and joined and online photography social network and participate in several forums there (Picture Social). I’ve been there for just over 6 months and am amazed at what i have learned. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  • Tasia

    Your journey is much like many who’ve gone before.
    I’d swap a few of those steps. Don’t enter competitions until you’ve learned how to use your camera and worked on your technique. This can be done with the help of your instruction manual and your local camera club. I’d also add: take a class at a community college. And skip trends. Go for good, classic technique and then break all the rules you want.

  • Nan Yar

    Very inspiring. How did you created the B&W pic?

    Nan Yar

  • Robert Hackett

    Hi Nan
    Thanks. The B&W shot was a branch of a tree at sunset that had floated to the edge of a lake. I used Lightroom to crop it slightly and convert to B&W.

  • John

    Excellent Stuff Rob, thanks for sharing your experience and great shots.

  • Stephanie Sigmon

    enjoyed this article 🙂
    i really liked the mention of joining a local photography club. never thought of that before. I believe i’ll pursue it.
    it was great to see the d7100 results. i’ve been itching to get my hands on that one for some time now. as soon as my tax refund arrives i’m getting it ^_^


    This was a good write up dealing with the basics. I have a feeling you’ll develop into a good writer and teacher soon. It’s in you. Keep it up.

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