I get emails and messages all the time from amateur photographers wanting to get better. Some are looking to start their own business and just want advice. Others are looking for camera and gear recommendations. This article will seek to answer questions on what to do if you’re starting out in photography, and how to get better.
1. Decide if you want to go pro or not
Not everyone should pursue photography as a profession. The word amateur carries this weird taboo about it, and people think it means unskilled or incompetent. The definition of amateur is simply, “a person who engages in a pursuit on an unpaid basis.” There are plenty of amateur photographers out there as good (if not better) than I am. They simply have other full time jobs to pay the bills each month. Being a pro doesn’t mean you’re any better of a photographer than the next guy, it simply (and only) means that you draw a paycheck for what you do.
Becoming a pro is a long and bumpy road, and one that I’m still on. It’s up to me to go out and find clients, and to market, and to make sure there is money each month to pay the mortgage and what not. It’s incredibly stressful at times, and sometimes I have doubts creep in. For this reason alone, a career in photography will not suit everyone. Some people would rather have a guaranteed paycheck each month as long as they do their job. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that! When you’re an amateur, you do photography simply and purely for the love of the craft, and that’s a beautiful thing! When you go pro, a certain aspect of photography becomes a business, it has to. I spend about 80% of my time marketing my business, and only about 20% of my time shooting. That is what it takes to have a shot at making it in this over competitive, over saturated market. On top of that, with the ever falling prices and ever increasing technology of digital cameras, everyone out there thinks they are a photographer. This only makes it harder to convince people they need (and they DO) to hire someone who knows their stuff. The up side to this is that I get to do what I love for a living. I get paid for doing something I already like doing! I get to be my own boss, make my own rules, manage my own time. I can work in the morning if I want to, or work at night. Although most days it’s both :-).
2. Network with other photographers
Networking is an extremely effective and important way to get better at photography. There are countless ways to network with other photographers.
- Flickr – This site needs no introduction. It’s a central hub for photographers to post their work for the world to see. Join groups and post your photo’s. Join critique groups and prepare for people to tear your photos apart and critique every aspect of them. This isn’t mean, they are simply telling you what could be better about a photo. It will make you go out and try to do better next time. Avoid the groups that are required to say something nice about your photo, this won’t help you very much.
- Meetup – Meetup.com is the world’s largest network of local groups. Meetup makes it easy for anyone to organize a local group or find one of the thousands already meeting up face-to-face. More than 2,000 groups get together in local communities each day, each one with the goal of improving themselves or their communities. This is a great way to find local photography groups to join. This way you can meet other photographers face to face and learn hands on what other photogs are doing. Some groups are so active that they take regular trips across the country, or across the state, or on international cruises even.
- PPA – Professional Photographers of America is something every photographer should be a part of (erm, except I think I need to renew my membership). PPA covers all of America, but you can join sub chapters like: TPPA (Texas Professional Photographers Association) which covers all of Texas, or even DPPA (Dallas PPA) which obviously focuses on Dallas. The smaller ones will have regular (usually monthly) meetings and will be more intimate. While PPA will have HUGE events usually annually.
There are tons of ways to get connected with other photographers, these are just a few. If you don’t have a local group, be bold, start your own! I promise they will come!
3. Get a better camera
For a list of cameras I suggest, check out my Camera Recommendations page.
This one is pretty simple! If you have a crap camera, it will create road blocks to your vision. Some people will disagree with this, and send me nasty emails about how gear doesn’t matter. Sorry, it does. For example: Take two equally skilled photographers and place them in a low light situation, let’s say an indoor wedding with dimmed lights.
- Photographer 1 has a Canon Rebel. He got it a while back for his graduation present from high school and fell in love with photography. The camera is great, but it can’t shoot very good images past ISO 800. It’s also hard to change the settings the way the layout is set up. It also won’t take multiple exposures while holding down the shutter. He has the lens it came with, which worked great when he was taking pictures at the lake. The lens is a kit lens, a 28-135 variable aperture lens, from 3.5-5.6. This means that as he zooms in on his subject, the aperture will slowly close, or stop down, to 5.6 if he is shooting wide open at 3.5. As the aperture number gets higher, the camera is letting in less light, which causes slower shutter speeds.
- Photographer 2 has taken the time to study photography, and decided to invest in her equipment. She’s shooting with a Canon 5D Mark II. It set her back about $2400, but she is dedicated to creating images that tell a story, and having creative freedom with her gear. She can shoot effectively at ISO 2500. Not to mention her 135mm prime lens which has a fixed aperture of f/2. This camera also takes full HD 1080p video so she can take little video clips throughout the wedding.
Now let’s throw these two photogs into a situation. They are photographing the ceremony together and actually standing right next to one another. The moment is coming when the bride and groom share their first kiss together, how exciting! The lights are dim and the two photographers are at the end of the center aisle, getting ready to frame the shot. The moment happens and the bride and groom move towards each other to kiss.
- Photographer 2 brings her viewfinder up to her eyes. She has her ISO set to 2500, and her aperture set to f/2 or wide open. This gives her a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second. That is plenty of speed to freeze the action and capture the moment. Not only that, the low aperture of 2 is going to create a nice and flattering blur in the background, which makes the bride and groom stand out as the clear subjects. She holds the shutter down, and because her camera shoots at 3.9 frames per second, she manages to squeeze out about 8 frames during the kiss.
- Photographer 1 holds his camera up at the same time. Fortunately, he knows not to take the ISO over 800 or his images will be unusable quality. Since his lens is zoomed in all the way, he can only set his aperture down to 5.6. He also doesn’t have multiple frames per second so he has to press his shutter down every time he wants to take a picture. Because of his ISO and aperture, his camera shows a proper exposure of 1/4 of a second. He manages to fire off about 3 images because of the time it takes to press the shutter and releases it and recompose.
Photographer 1 looks down at his camera nervously. Unfortunately, it’s just about impossible to get a sharp image at anything less than 1/40th of a second, and he’s at 1/4th! Two of the images he captured at only in soft focus, and the other is blurry because the bride and groom were leaning in towards each other causing too much movement. Photographer 2 looks down at her viewfinder with a smile on her face. Not because of her gear, but because of the moment that just happened between the bride and groom. She is free to focus on the moment because she doesn’t have to worry about her gear! She pulled off 8 shots that start at the bride and groom leaning in for the kiss, and end with them turning towards the audience. And even better, they are all in focus!
I know this tip has been long winded, but I wanted to prove my point. While top of the line gear won’t make a photographer better, it definitely makes it easier to capture his or her vision, by getting rid of road blocks in situations like the one above. See a list of my gear at my Tools of the Trade page.
4. Say goodbye to the green box!
What is this mysterious green box? It’s the automatic setting on your camera! These mysterious settings don’t only come in the form of a box. They can also disguise as running stick figures, flowers icons, mountain icons, and the like. These automatic settings are something you want to get away from quickly. You see, when you set your camera on the little green box, you are taking all of your creativity out of the equation, except for the framing of the subject. You are saying, “Canon (or Nikon, etc), please tell me what settings I should use for this picture. You can decide my shutter speed, my aperture, my ISO, my white balance, and my metering mode. All I’m going to do is point the camera in an interesting direction. Hopefully.”
Now where is the fun in that?! You just let your camera company decide how your image is going to look! Set a goal for yourself to learn the manual settings on your camera. Start with Av mode, or Aperture Value. On this setting, you control the aperture and ISO, while the camera sorts out the shutter speed. It’s great for playing with depth of field. The lower the aperture number, the shallower the depth of field. After that, move to Tv mode, or Time Value. This setting is just the same except you control shutter speed and ISO, while the camera sorts out what aperture is needed. Go take pictures of cars on the road at night and play with different shutter speeds. Slow it way down and watch the headlight and taillight trails get longer and longer. Or better yet, set a low shutter speed and follow a car with your camera while the exposure is going off. This will cause the car to be in focus while the background is blurred streaks across the frame. Finally, step up to full manual mode. This is where the camera sits back and lets you take the driver seat. You control every aspect of how the image will look. The camera will however tell you what it thinks will be the proper exposure. You will soon find that it’s not always right though!
5. Invest in editing software
Post processing is a huge way to give your images a creative boost. If you’re serious about getting better at photography, this is a must. Here is a short list of essential software to consider. Starting with the most essential for getting started.
- Adobe Lightroom (or Apple Aperture) – Lightroom is an incredible program. Being totally honest, if your a photographer who doesn’t want to do highly detailed and complicated edits of your images, this is all you need. Lightroom has come a LONG way in it’s capabilities. This program helps you to organize your photos, give them ratings, add creative effects or presets, adjust and correct color, use healing brushes to remove blemishes or distractions, straighten horizons that are crooked, create slide shows, create online galleries, send images to flickr or facebook, and so much more. Lightroom goes for about $299, while Aperture is $199. I have always used Lightroom so there is no need for Aperture, I don’t have a preference over either except that I have used Lightroom extensively.
- Adobe Photoshop – This program can do just about anything. The possibilities are endless, and the more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn! This software basically controls the market for detailed edits of images. And with the recent release of Photoshop CS5, the possibilities are even more endless! With the know how, this program can handle anything you throw at it. From removing large and complicated distractions from a scene, to completely altering the color balance of a photo, to removing a sky from a landscape and replacing with another one, to completely painting a scene by hand. There is no way to sum up this program in a paragraph, so I’ll just say this. Get it!
- Topaz Labs Photoshop Bundle – If you buy this program, be sure to use the coupon code “jamesbrandon” to receive a 15% discount! This program can work as a stand alone program as well, if you don’t have photoshop. Topaz Labs is a set of multiple filter programs that add dramatic detail enhancements to your photos. There are also programs for added painterly effects, reducing noise in high ISO images, removing JPG artifacts, and more. Very versatile, very affordable.
- Photomatix – Same with this program, use the coupon code “jamesbrandon” to receive 15% off of this product. If you’re into HDR like I am, you have to have a program like this to combine your exposures. Photoshop CS5 has a new feature that does this as well, however it’s not as fast and I don’t like the results as well.
6. Join lynda.com
Lynda.com is basically an endless source of online training videos for just about anything you can think of (see my review of Lynda.com and 24 hour free pass). I give credit to Lynda for a huge majority of what I know in Photoshop and Lightroom. For photography, I suggest any video from Chris Orwig. He’s an incredibly talented photographer and teacher and is on staff at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara. At only $25 a month for a basic subscription (that’s what I have), you get full access to all the videos on the site. $35 a month gets you access to training files for each course that you can download. It just depends how you learn.
7. read books
I love to read. You should too. I am a lifetime seeker of knowledge and reading is a good way to gain a lot of it! Here is a short list of books to get your started in your photographic journey.
- Visual Poetry by Chris Orwig – A creative guide for making engaging digital photographs
- Understanding Exposure Bryan Peterson – Every beginner photographer should read this book no matter what! This book teaches you to, well, understand exposure. It goes into detail on what to think about as you take pictures, and teaches you the difference between ISO, aperture, shutter speed, etc. A great read!
- A World in HDR by Trey Ratcliff – If you’re into HDR photography, this is a great read. Trey Ratcliff is an amazing HDR photographer, and he shares his work in this book as well as the story behind each image. At the end of the book he even goes into a lesson on how to shoot for HDR.
8. get a tripod
If you’re going to be engaging in night photography, nature photography, landscape photography, large family or wedding photography, or basically any type of photography, there will be times when you need to use a tripod. Tripods are good and bad, but mostly good. First, they slow you down. When you hand hold, there is always a tendency to get careless. Whether you stop paying attention to if your horizon is straight, or just don’t pay enough attention to your framing. Setting a camera on a tripod has a way of fixing this problem. You have to manually adjust the tripod to frame your subject. And then you have to make tiny adjustments to get everything just right. Using a tripod also ensures (mostly) that your image will be sharp and in focus. The only downside is the size and weight of some tripods, and some places won’t allow them. I always use a tripod for my landscape and travel work, unless there are rules against it where I am. You should too.
9. go to museums
I heard a sound bite of a veteran photographer, although I can’t remember who, and he was discussing the disadvantages of going to school for photography. His opinion was that if you want to do photography for a living, don’t go to school for it. His reasoning was that the majority of photo school graduates learn to make technically perfect images, but they lack emotional connection because there is no understanding of art and human emotion. He said that if you want to be a photographer, get a degree in art appreciation instead. There is enough information on the web and in books to learn photography aside from school.
While this reasoning has it’s gaps and apparent rebuttals, it’s an interesting concept isn’t it? If you want to be an artist with your photography, shouldn’t you study and understand art and it’s history? Go to a museum and take a pen and notepad with you. Walk up to an image and ask yourself why it intrigues you. When you figure it out, write it down. Take notes like this on every piece of art that catches your eye. If there is one that you hate, figure out why, and write that down too.
Study different art forms as well, like Impressionism. This will give a much deeper understanding of color, framing concepts, what artists went through to get their work noticed, and so on. Study every form of art you can get your hands on, you won’t walk away empty handed!
10. don’t be afraid to fail!
You know that saying, “What doesn’t kill ya, only makes ya stronger.” Every time you fail, you learn something new. Trials and failures simply add to your character and prevent future mistakes. You will make a lot of mistakes in your pursuit of photography. I do all the time! Embrace them, and most importantly, learn from them.
11. Um, take pictures!
This one seems obvious, but most of us don’t get out enough and just take pictures. Make a point to go out on a regular basis and photograph with no intentions except to learn your camera better. Plan an outing an make a rule that you can only shoot in a certain mode, like Aperture Value. Or take pictures one day with only one lens. Another challenging thing you can do is to only take a 1 gig card with you. Or the smallest card you can find. This will challenge you to really think about your shots before pressing down the shutter release. Make sure you don’t bring any other cards too, so you know there are no outs. This will cause you to slow down and really think about your camera settings. Sort of like the days of shooting film.
There is one last thought I’d like to leave you with here. Sort of a shift in thinking you could say. There is a huge difference between taking pictures and creating pictures. Think about it. When you go out with your camera on automatic and snap away, filling up cards left and right, what are you really doing? Your TAKING pictures, there isn’t much thought behind it really. You get back home and have 2,000 mediocre images with a few keepers here and there. What about creating a picture? What’s the difference? When I get to a place I want to photograph, I go through a process. Sometimes I’ll walk the location for an hour before I frame a single exposure. I don’t do this all the time, it’s just an example. When I finally frame my subject, I start going through a creative process. I look at the scene and determine my exposure. The camera may tell me one thing, but there are clues in the light of a scene that will tell you the camera is probably wrong. I decide what my shutter speed needs to be if I want to freeze a subject. Or I decide what my aperture should be if I want to create a certain depth of field. I calculate what my ISO should be at. Then I make sure my white balance is spot on. If my subject is far away, I may switch my metering mode to “Spot.” Then I make sure I have the right lens on. Do I want a wide angle, or is it the compression of a zoom lens that I’m after. Do I want a single exposure, or am I shooting for HDR? After all this, I focus on the framing of my subject. Do I want to abide by the rule of thirds or intentionally break it? Why not take it a step further and pay attention to the golden ratio? What if I want to frame the subject right in the middle because of symmetry? You should have a pretty good idea now of the difference between taking pictures, and creating them. Meditate on this the next time you are out with your camera. And take your camera everywhere!
Some Images for Your Viewing Pleasure