Five Things I Wish I Knew As A Beginner

Five things I wish I had known when beginning my journey with photography

My photography journey can be said to have begun when I was in the 7th grade. One of the mandated classes was Tech Ed where we would learn how to use power tools properly, how to create successful paper airplanes, etc. Taught by two teachers, the class of thirty or so students were split in half. Of course, one of the teachers was favored by the students and although I enjoyed them both, I did agree with the masses. In 7th grade, one of the teachers was teaching the basics of photography and editing; I personally have no idea what the other teacher was teaching that year, nor do I give a damn. One way or another, I was going to get put in that photography class. Luckily enough for me, I was.

I was elated

Although this teacher was – still is – a successful wedding photographer in the area, I did not learn as much about photography in that year as I had in the summer going into ninth grade. Which is kind of terrible to think about since in three months I learned more than I had in a year – or maybe it was five months? – but I do not place the blame on him. I was dead set on learning photography when I hopped on the internet that summer whereas the 7th grade version of me simply wanted something fun to do.

Still, there are five things I wish I would have known when I first began creating

1. Learn to Shoot in Manual Mode

When I first began shooting, I had my camera set to that little green option for full-auto; I am sure that many of you reading this were the same way, if you are not still. While I do not remember how long it took me to learn to shoot in manual, I do know that the results I was getting were so much better. Not only did I get better results but I also gained a higher appreciation for the images I was producing. These images were crafted with actual thought going behind them; it was not just a matter of thinking “what do I like in this scene,” composing my shot around that, and clicking the shutter before moving on. Now I had to think about what aperture to use for the proper depth of field I wanted in that shot, the necessary shutter speed for the subject to be frozen in place, the ISO setting needed to compensate for the lack of light, and so much more. So, when I created an image, it meant more. I had created something, like a true artist.

2. Get It Right In-Camera

The biggest mistake I see while scanning social media for photographers to follow is the reliance many seem to have on editing. Rather than taking the time to get it right in-camera, many young photographers begin relying heavily on Photoshop and other software to take a shitty snapshot image and, with crossed fingers, turn it into something that’s…okay. Something decent enough to post online and garner a few likes but nowhere near as good as the professionals out there. And after a week of having said image online, it has only gathered a few likes, leading to you feeling bad about your skills. To be blunt, you should. A good chef does not rely on seasonings to turn a burnt fillet of fish into something palatable. So why should a photographer rely on editing software to turn a poor image into something that’s just “okay?”

If you look at the workflow of the professionals, they all start out with at least a good image, if not something that is great already. Every artist needs to begin with a good canvas, so to speak. Without that, nothing truly worthwhile will be created. Rather than editing the shit out of your images, cranking up the saturation and other sliders, take the time outside to wait. Wait for the right light, the right moment in time, before pressing that shutter. Double-check your focus, your exposure, your composition. Does it look alright? Is the image on your LCD screen an image that you could see printed large in a gallery? Or do you feel as though you could do better? If it’s the former, great job! Go home and touch it up a bit to really make it shine. But if it’s the latter, go back to that location later and try, try again. You won’t regret it.

3. Composition

This one is going to be a bit controversial, that of which I am sure. Back in 7th grade is when I learned the rules of composition: leading lines, centering the subject, rule of thirds, fill the frame, negative space. And yes, these are fundamental when it comes to properly learning how to craft the “perfect image” every photographer out there strives to create. But if you asked me to list any more than those five rules, you would watch me struggle. I would look at you with a blank stare, wanting to scour the internet to give you a proper answer. Yeah, I could pull a few more out but let’s be honest here: I don’t know how to use them correctly. Hell, I am often unsure of whether I am using the five I mentioned in the right ways. Why? Because I do not think about them. When I am out in the field with my camera, I am not looking at a scene that is filled with leading lines, framing the subject to follow the rule of thirds in a perfect manner. Rather I am out looking at scenes that I feel are pleasing to the eye. It was not until my favorite YouTuber and photographer, Thomas Heaton, had mentioned it in one of his videos that it all sort of clicked.

Yes, as a beginner you need to learn these rules. Get as close to mastering them as you possibly can. Your work will no doubt thank you. But after you have learned them, do not struggle to comprehend how the golden ratio works or why the rule of diagonals even exists. Instead, I recommend you simply get out there and create something that is pleasing to your eye. If you come across a scene you like, compose your image including just those aspects that are pleasing to the eye. Get rid of anything that is distracting, whether in editing software later or – ideally – in the field.

4. Your Camera is Not the Reason Your Work Sucks

I upgraded to a new camera a year after buying my D3200 in hopes of creating better images. Under the guidance of my 7th grade teacher and a wedding photographer I was supposed to second-shoot for, I spent nearly two thousand dollars on a new camera and lens. Why did I do such a foolish thing, you may wonder? Well, two reasons. First, I thought that for me to second-shoot a wedding successfully, I needed a better camera than the one I had. Secondly, I was under the assumption that the better camera would make my work better. Sadly, I could not have been more wrong. You see, I could have shot a wedding on my D3200 had the photographer not been an ass. My work would not have suffered in terms of quality, mood, meaning if I did not upgrade. Instead, I would have saved two thousand dollars to put towards experiences or something else that would have benefited me so much more than a new camera.

In short, it is because of a lack of skills that your work is not up to par. It is the knowledge you have obtained over the years that makes your images better. Melanie currently uses my D3200 to create her images and sometimes they turn out to be better than mine, despite me having nearly three years more experience than her. With the proper know-how, you can overcome any obstacle. It’s simply a matter of learning and persevering.

5. Find Your Niche and Master It

Yet another issue I find a lot of young photographers struggling with is that they are simply trying to shoot everything and anything in sight. The minute they have a “professional” DSLR in hand, they go out with their kit lens or their “nifty fifty” and take pictures of everything they find to be pretty. How can I say such a thing with confidence? Because I was the same way. And so were you. And so was every professional photographer you follow to this day. But the difference between you and the professionals is simple: they found their niche and they stuck with it. They did not continue to shoot every pretty thing they witnessed but instead found a specific genre of photography that they loved and simply ran with it. If you enjoy shooting portraiture, then learn everything there is to know about taking images of people. Enjoy landscape and nature photography? Stick around and I will tell you all I know.

The thing is, not a single person can be a “jack of all trades” in a successful manner. Yes, there are plenty of guys out there who shoot portraits and do landscape photography on the side. And that’s understandable since making a living off landscape photography is damn hard. But when you are trying to master all of these different genres…it just will not happen. I love portraiture but my portrait work has never been – nor will it ever be – as good as my landscape work. Why? Because that’s my niche. That is what I know best and it is where I strive, like a fish in water. It comes naturally to me. So, find what comes naturally to you and run with it. You can thank me later.

This is getting far too long a post to continue on

I think I am going to leave it at that for now. There is so much more that I could say and I promise to you that it will all be said. But for the sake of your attention span, I will end this here. I hope you have gained something out of this and can walk away knowing more than you came in knowing.