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10 Things I Wish I Knew When Starting Photography

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This post is part of a series called Photography Jumpstart.
Video Introduction to Digital Photography Part 3: Essential Settings
Woman in a hat with a camera standing in front of multi-colored and highly texxtured stoneWoman in a hat with a camera standing in front of multi-colored and highly texxtured stoneWoman in a hat with a camera standing in front of multi-colored and highly texxtured stone

When you're first starting out with photography, growth seems to happen in leaps and bounds. You'll measure your growth by the changes that you see in your work and photos that you make. Today, I'll share some the things I've learned in my years of shooting and tips that I think can help you expedite your growth.

Here are ten things I wish I knew when starting photography:

1. Your Vision Changes

When you start approaching photography seriously, you may never see things the same way again. If your experience with examining things critically is like mine, you'll suddenly become a student of every photo and video you consume. I can hardly watch a movie anymore without analyzing the cinematography and the way that shots are setup. Cinema is a unique medium, but I still draw so much inspiration from how those expert shots are put together.

Once you start chasing great images, you can count on changing your lifestyle. Waking up early or staying out late to find unique lighting becomes a routine part of life. You might catch yourself analyzing photos for how they're lit and imagining how to recreate them. Personally, I believe that this process of reverse engineering great photographs is a powerful way of growing your own work. Jumping into photography headfirst brings the right side of the brain alive.

2. It's an Expensive Hobby

Photography is an expensive hobby, particularly when you prioritize buying gear. After buying your first SLR camera, you've committed yourself to buying into a "system" of lenses and flashes that work only within the walls of your own brand. After that commitment, it can be costly to sell off your entire kit and migrate to another system (I've pulled this costly maneuver enough times to know).

Black camera on black journal on black wooden deskBlack camera on black journal on black wooden deskBlack camera on black journal on black wooden desk
Buying into a camera system is likely to lock you into a line of upgrades within the same lens mount.

Avoiding the more expensive side of photography is a two part approach: first, don't connect your success to the gear you use. This means not buying into the mindset that one more piece of gear will perfect your work. There are no magic bullets when it comes to gear; the best way is to acquire gear is slowly and carefully.

Second, reduce cost in the ways that count. Buying used gear was a bit daunting for me at first, but has proved to be a move that helped me afford cameras and lenses that were otherwise out of my reach. Making smart decisions like fast primes (more on that later) will help you fight gear acquisition syndrome. Keep reading for more ideas on how to make smart gear decisions.

3. Skip the Stops to Start

When I first started learning about exposure, one mistake that I struggled with was trying to learn the exposure scale mathematically. Measuring the stops of light and memorizing the f-stop scale, counting geometrically, and all that stuff is a massive waste of time, at least at the beginning.

More important is learning how the exposure triangle—aperture, shutter speed, sensitivity—relates, and how to balance and approach exposure creatively. Don't get too worried about counting stops and perfectly balancing light, when there's so much more that's more important to learn, like how to pose people, how to see good lighting, or how to find photographic moments.

photographic lensesphotographic lensesphotographic lenses
Learning all of the f-stops and memorizing exposure scales is something that many beginners do, but it's not the best use of your time when you're starting out.

4. Move to Manual for More Control

The sooner you begin to truly control your exposure, the sooner you'll become more than a camera button pusher. This isn't always easy—it requires learning plenty about metering, exposure, focus and more.

Venturing outside of the automatic exposure mode is the single largest step you'll take to transition from camera button pusher to artist. When you begin to control the photo and can handle the nuances of exposure, you are turning the exposure process upside down and envisioning an outcome for the photo. You can learn to handle backlighting, creative exposure, and many more scenarios than the camera can handle on its own.

friends taking a picture in the woodsfriends taking a picture in the woodsfriends taking a picture in the woods
A challenging back-lit lighting situation.

A great intermediate step is to learn to control one additional factor at a time. First, understand ISO and the impact on image quality as well as the light reaching the sensor. Then, you can branch out to controlling shutter speed and aperture and considering the visual outcomes of those settings as well. Jumping into shutter priority or aperture priority is a decent training step toward getting to full manual exposure modes.

5. Make Time for Shooting

It seems awfully basic, but I often found myself forgetting that the only way to truly improve is to keep your camera in the hand everyday, constantly making images. If there's one way that I continue to fall short, it's blocking off time between school and work to make images.

One of the best ways to keep making photos is to challenge yourself. When I have an assignment, even if it is self-assigned, I'm more likely to get out and shoot. There are tons of shooting challenges across the web that will keep you creatively challenged. If you thrive off structure like I do, challenges and assignments are ways to keep the creative juices flowing.

6. Prioritize Lenses

One key to avoiding spending too much money on photography gear is to buy smart and get the purchase right the first time. Looking back, the first two years of my photography hobby were spent leapfrogging from one camera body to the next. I was in search of megapixels, more autofocus points, and anything that I thought could improve the outcome of my photographic work. In the process, I always had a way of avoiding what I should actually upgrade: lenses!

As long as you are married to the inexpensive kits lens that comes with the camera, you're going to limit your work. Although it's totally possible to make great photos with the kit lens, it has its limitations; typically it's an 18-55mm lens with a slow aperture. That slow aperture limits you to well-lit environments. As you stop down the lens to f/8 or thereabouts, it can be very sharp, but can still be lacking.

This tip might seem to contradict constantly acquiring more gear to make better photos, but there is some truth in upgrading the glass in front of your camera. It's more important to make the right upgrade by choosing faster (larger aperture) lenses that give you great value in terms of photographic output.

7. Slow Down on Going Pro

After you've been shooting for awhile and have started to showcase your work, chances are that you'll be approached with some shooting offers. Whether it's a friend's senior portraits, some landscape photos commissioned for print, or weddings (the most dangerous engagement of all), friends always seem to be looking for someone (usually on the cheap) to capture their precious moments.

Sure, it's attractive to suddenly monetize your hobby. It can help you to get more gear and also help make ends meet. However, it brings with it some nuances that are hard to measure. Dealing with difficult clients who cancel at the last moment, risking legal liability and much more are all parts of the professional process. No matter your relationship with the client, you're always putting yourself on the line when you accept money for your services. Slow down on going professional and remember to tread lightly.

woman in a hat taking pictureswoman in a hat taking pictureswoman in a hat taking pictures

8. Take Your Camera Everywhere

You'll never make a good photo with your camera sitting at home. I've had to convince myself that the day that I leave the camera at home will be the day I miss the award winning photojournalism opportunity I'm waiting for. Therefore, you'll rarely catch me without an image making tool. Whether you have an SLR or an iPhone with your favorite imaging app, make sure you keep a tool with you that you can make images with!

Furthermore, this "always be carrying" philosophy has greatly shaped my recent gear choices. I won't buy another large camera that will live in the bag, because I know that no matter how superior the quality, if it won't get used, it's no good to me.

9. Get a Fast Fifty Now

If your current camera is an interchangeable lens type, I can't think of a better "second" lens than the 50mm. With its fast aperture, typically f/2, f/1.8, f/1.4, or it can help you to tackle low light situations and also help you to control depth of field in a way that the kit lens never can. If you're using an smaller, APS-C sized sensor, a 35mm lens will create roughly the same field of view as a 50mm lens on a full-framed camera.

For me, the greatest creative control is the ability to control depth of field. If you aren't familiar with the term, it refers to how much of the photo is in focus. Wide aperture lenses like the 50mm f/1.8 allow us to limit the sharp portion of the photo to a small portion that lets you isolate a focal point.

10. Learn Your Camera Inside and Out

One way to improve your shooting is to understand the tools at your disposal. When you don't have to think about the buttons to push and the technical choices to make, you're free to approach photography as a creative. You're thinking in terms of light, not spinning the dials that control aperture. When you really learn every option, every setting, every control of your camera, your camera becomes an extension of your eye.

It seems unthinkable, but spending some quality reading time with the camera's manual is one way to get acquainted. An even better way is to shoot it every day and dig deeper and deeper in the settings.

Wrapping Up

As I look back on the four years that I've been shooting seriously, it's hard for me to even count the ways that photography has shaped my life. From the friends that I've met to the business experiences that it's brought with it, photography can be such a positive force for anyone from amateur to lifelong professional.

What are some things you wish you knew when starting photography? What have you learned throughout your shooting career?

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