Hello beginner. I’m surprised you came back. You know you’re facing an uphill battle here. What do you know about light, composition, and f-stops? Who do you think you are foisting your half-baked photos on an indifferent world? Well, you’ll get your due. The artist must suffer, and what you’re feeling now are just the first torments of the beginner. Wait until the true despair sets in. You will feel the tightening of the screws and then they will hear your screams. But don’t expect them to pay any attention, they never do. As you twist in agony, the true horror sets in. They don’t care. In fact, some of them are laughing. Look, now they are all laughing…
Obviously, it’s not that bad. Learning photography is mostly easy. You’ll only humiliate yourself a few times. But, even while making progress, the time-lapse between totally sucking and “hey dude, cool pic” can feel like infinity. Before the pats on the back start rolling in, there is a chance you could become frustrated. Too many people give up before making the big breakthrough. That’s why I created “The Beginner’s Guide to Photography Misconceptions and Thought Holes”. This guide should help you avoid many of the dangers besetting the newest photographers.
Photography is Two-Faced
To the beginner, photography presents two faces. The camera marketers, programmers of filter apps, and certain publishers would have you believe that taking great photos is easy. All you need is a zest for life and the latest perfectly engineered imaging device. Why waste your precious time learning things like F-stops and ISO when the camera already does a great job in fully automatic mode? They’ll tell you great photography is about emotion and human relationships. The tacit agreement is: we provide the engineering and you provide the heart.
The other face of photography presents itself in the world of photography forums and some of the more gear oriented blogs. These photographers view all of photography as a technical problem that needs to be solved. The questions of “which lens?” and “which camera?” grow to epic proportions. With encyclopedic knowledge they engage each other in endless debates on subjects ranging from sensor noise to UV filters. You can learn a lot by following these discussions but you also run the risk of becoming paralyzed by details, afraid that you’ll never learn everything required to become “a real photographer.”
Presented with these two opposite faces what’s a beginner to do? Like everything, I believe it is best to take the middle road. To be a photographer you need to have humanity and heart but you also need a level of technical mastery. If your goal is to expand your photographic vocabulary and speak with subtly, you must take your camera out of fully automatic mode. For those of us that are gear-heads (I’m in this camp), learning the technical basics isn’t the challenge but we sometimes struggle to make photos with deep emotion. Perhaps us gear-heads have mistakenly transferred our drive towards better communication with a lust for the best tool? We’re great at making the kind of photos that say, “Hey, look at this pretty sunset” or “Wow! Check out that lightning!” but how many of us know how to take a photo that says, “my commute is lonely” or “I love walking my daughter to school”? Know your own personal strengths and weaknesses and be careful not to get sucked into a group with the same traits as you. Branch out. Turn today’s shortcomings into tomorrow’s strengths.
Suffering Artist Syndrome (alternately: When There is No Wind, Row)
If you’ve read this far, you’re the type of person that has the requisite drive to learn the technical side of photography. When we get to it, you won’t have any problems understanding how the camera’s aperture setting effects shutter speed. And, I’m guessing, you also have the tenacity to learn the dark art of photo composition. You’re gonna be fine. You’re on the road to seeing. So why are you so anxious? What’s eating at you? I think I know what it is. You’re feeling the first affects of “suffering artist’s syndrome”. The first symptom is an endless line of questions — questions like, “should I be spending so much time thinking about photography?” or “Am I any good?”. Know that these are common thoughts. A stream of doubt is one of the traits of a creative mind. The trick is to turn your mental grinder outwards towards the world rather than letting it drill back into you. Trust me, once you set it free, this energy will create art. Get up off your butt and take your camera into the world.
And, it’s hard to get started when you don’t know where your headed. To the beginner all is darkness. You probably can’t even describe what you are after yet, but you feel driven just the same. Maybe someone’s photography inspired you or maybe you already have a hazy vision of your developing photographic style. You are not alone. We all started out this way. When I started out way back in the early 2000′s (coincidentally at the dawn of digital photography), I was driven by the crudest of visions. I imagined an online gallery filled with bright colors and dramatic clouds. That vision was the driver that got me started. With inertial motivation lighting the way, I was able to follow the thread into new territory. Over the years, my photographic ideas blossomed, and that imagined gallery filled out with more subtlety and meaning than the beginner I used to be could have possibly imagined. You need courage to step into the wilderness. Everyday that you practice photography you will make some progress. Even in your mistakes and missteps you’ll be learning. After a time, you will stop and notice all the territory you’ve claimed.
Don’t Love a Machine
You likely own a new camera and you are excited to get started. However, let me caution you to not fall in love with your camera equipment. Channel that energy into reading your new camera’s manual and learning how to operate it, but end your emotional involvement with equipment there. If you do fall in love with your camera, know that the romance will not last. Eventually, you’ll get used to your camera and you will start to notice its shortcomings. Soon your camera will feel as limited and bland as an old office copier. When the sugar-rush of ownership wears off, it’s easy to immediately fall back to shopping equipment. The sick cycle of consumption followed by dissatisfaction followed by more consumption is common to any pursuit where craftsmanship meets technology. As a new photographer you must stay vigilant to the danger. Always remember that you cannot shop your way into becoming a better photographer. Know that the magic of photography resides in the photographer, not the camera. Whenever I find myself reading lens reviews, I know it’s been too long since I went out and made new photos.
Shoot in RAW
The first responsibility of a photographer is to shoot RAW. What is RAW? It’s a type of image file like jpeg or GIF. The downsides of RAW are large files compared to jpeg and you can’t view RAW images without conversion software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. But, RAW has many advantages. When you shoot in RAW you are giving yourself more latitude to edit your files. This may not seem important to you now, but as you grow, you’ll eventually come to the conclusion that RAW is the best file type for photographers. Start shooting in RAW now so when you get that first wonderful shot you’ll have it saved in the most useful file format. You’ll thank yourself in a couple years.
Still not convinced about RAW? Then try shooting in RAW and jpeg at the same time. Most cameras give you the option to save two files, one RAW and one jpeg. This way you can enjoy the convenience of jpeg and you’ll have the RAW files saved for when you’re post processing skills catch up to your photography skills.
You Need Editing Software
At first, everyone tries to get away with not paying for real editing software, but eventually, every beginner comes to the realization that the digital darkroom is half of photography. You need to buy either Photoshop or Lightroom (or subscribe). Save yourself a year or two of flailing. Subscribe to Photoshop or Lightroom now. I wish someone would have explained the importance of post processing to me when I first got into photography.
And, for those readers that think digital image editing is all about making fake photos or amping up average shots, you have the wrong idea. Photoshop and Lightroom are the digital darkroom. Sure you can use photo editing software to create special effects, but the primary use of Photoshop (for me and a lot of other photographers) is color and contrast correction (making your photos look as similar to the original scene as possible). During the age of film, the photo lab did these corrections for you with varied results. Now, you can perfectly custom correct each image. When done right, color correction makes your photos come to life. It’s like a layer of haze is lifted from your images and they pop off the screen. If you think that using Photoshop is somehow impure, you’re views are misguided (for a deeper discussion of photography and reality read this).
And yes, there are free image editing programs available. Some photographers use GIMP exclusively. The reason I recommend the Adobe products is the wealth of training materials available for Photoshop and Lightroom. Adobe has been the dominate force in image editing for close to two decades. Almost everyone uses it. For that reason, free tutorials abound on the internet and there are hundreds of Photoshop and Lightroom books available.
At some point you will have success. Most beginners get their first great photo within a month or two of starting the photographic journey. Be proud of this photo and use it fuel your passion for more photography. However, do not let this first great shot lure you down a dead-end street.
I remember my first good photo. It was the Portland Head Lighthouse at sunset. I took that photo before the days of mobile computing and I had to wait until vacation was over to view on a large screen. For the rest of the trip I kept bringing that lighthouse photo up on the camera’s LCD. To me, it looked like a jewel. “This photo could be printed in a magazine, or maybe it’s even too good for a magazine. A picture like this belongs in a museum,” I told myself. Looking back, it was an OK picture, great for a beginner, but not a masterpiece. That photo presented a problem too. For a long time after taking it all I tried to do is recreate the same photo. No, I wasn’t out taking photos of lighthouses. What I was chasing were those warm, saturated sunsets colors. With almost obsessive zeal, I pursued sunsets over rugged terrain and ignored all the other photographic possibilities. My travels took me to mountain tops and barren deserts. What if my first great photo was a girl in a bikini or a sprinter crossing the finish line? How would my photographic life be different today?
Don’t let that first good photo dictate your direction. Figure out why you like the particular photo, how to recreate it, and then move on. This will be the first trick in your bag. You can now pull it when the right situation arises. If you keep your vision broad, you will pick up many more tricks along the way.
*David is an California Photographer
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