6 things I wish I knew when I started out in photography
Updated: Jul 20
1. Learning how to use your current camera is MUCH more important than having the latest kit
When I first decided I wanted to learn photography I bought myself an entry level Canon DSLR, but then was really disappointed by the photos that I took with it. As I’m sure many of us have, I blamed the camera! It was only later, when I had traded it in for a different (more expensive) camera and my photos weren’t noticeably better, that I came to the conclusion that it wasn't the camera that was the problem, but how I was using it.
I know many of us hanker after the latest camera or lens, and it’s true that more expensive equipment can make SOME difference to the quality of your photos, but the truth is that learning how to use your current equipment will have a MUCH bigger effect than spending money on equipment. This is why now, I always tell my photography training students to ONLY to upgrade their camera equipment when there is something important that their current equipment can’t do, not as an instant solution to taking rubbish photos.
If you want to learn how to use your current camera better, there are loads of training options out there, but if you're in Devon (or close enough to visit) and you'd like to come on one of my photography courses, I have a wide range available to suit any ability. You can find details of my 1-2-1 training courses here, and my residential photography weekends for beginners here and for intermediate photographers here.
2. Sunny blue sky days are the worst for landscape photography!
When I first started out, I only bothered to go out with my camera when the sun was shining, the skies were blue, and I could combine a photo shoot with a nice walk in the sun. Whilst there is absolutely nothing wrong with going on a walk on a nice sunny day and taking your camera, it’s important to realise that you’re unlikely to take any great landscape photos.
The simple fact is that weather produces drama, and drama produces the best photos. I now realise the time to get out there with the camera is for a sunset after a storm has just cleared through, or a showery day when there is a chance of rainbows; just after a snowstorm, a foggy day, or a cloudy day with chaotic skies. These days, blue skies and sunshine are great for walks, but I tend to leave my camera at home.
3. One of the best ways to improve is to set yourself a challenge
The simple fact is that if you don’t get out taking photos, LOTS of photos, then you’re unlikely to improve. With the business of life, it can sometimes be difficult to find the time, and too many cameras languish in drawers unused.
One solution (and one that I’ve used for years) is to set yourself a photography challenge, to help to incentivise you into getting out and take photos. In my development as a photographer, I have used two main challenges; the first was to post a new photo on social media every day (which I did for around 8 years before dropping back to only 4 times a week last year). The second was to write photo books, which needed lots of new photos for each book, and I had a contract that I had to meet!
Now I appreciate that both of these are pretty major challenges that wouldn’t work for many of you, so the important thing is to find something that works for you, and that gets you out there shooting. A popular challenge is to try and take a photo per day every day of the year. Another challenge might be to photograph every Tor on Dartmoor (there are lots!). Whatever you choose, it needs to be something that gets you shooting regularly and at the same time challenging yourself to improve.
4. Finding a genre that you love will help you to be great at it
In many ways, I was lucky, in that I first fell in love with the landscapes of the South West of England which directly led me into a love of landscape photography. However, I have met many budding photographers who don’t really know what sort of photography they want to do, and as a result they flit between genres and struggle to improve in their photography.
Something that many beginners may not appreciate is that although there are common factors between different genres of photography (portraits, macro, landscapes, pets, sport etc), each genre has a number of specific additional skills and knowledge that you need to master if you want to be great at that genre.
Although I challenge myself to do other genres, I know that my heart is in landscapes; so that’s the genre that I understand best, and through lots of hard work is now the genre that I excel in. When you’re starting out, it’s important that you do try a number of genres, but if you want to really develop your skills, I would encourage you to first focus on the one that you love most, as this will motivate you, help you to hone your skills in that genre, and that's a great start to being fantastic at it.
5. Take photos for YOURSELF, not for anyone else
After many years of posting my photos to social media, I know that the ones that will be most popular will be colourful sunrises and sunsets. So, if all I wanted was to be popular on social media, I would just take photos of sunrises and sunsets. I would also do lots of videos, as that’s what the social media algorithms want, and is a way of making your social channel more popular.
Although both of these things are tempting (especially as I have to try and run a photography business), it’s something that I refuse to do, since I believe that to develop as an artist, you need to take photos for yourself, and not for anyone else. So I continue to take photos of reflections, because I love them, even though I know they never get many social media likes.
For me it’s as important to express my creativity through my photography, as it is to get likes on social media or generate business. In doing so, it helps me to continue to improve, and I highly recommend that you do the same.
6. Try to develop your own style
For a long time in my photography journey, I didn’t really understand what my ‘style’ was, but knew that it was important to have one; not just to have your work recognised on social media, but also to understand who you are as a photographer.
One day a few years ago, a follower on social media said that they saw a photo and knew that it was mine – I was over the moon that I finally had a style! Although that style has changed a little over time, I now know who I am as a photographer and my work can best be described as ‘Nature plus'. This means that I take photos which make the best of what Mother Nature created, and I add a little bit more in post processing: for example I tend to make sunrises and sunsets around 10% more orange than they actually were.
In the past I have had some people criticising me for ‘over processing’ my images, but the simple fact is that landscape photography is an art form, not journalism, and that is the style that defines me, and the style that I like. So, if you don’t like it, just scroll on by!
Don’t expect to develop a style overnight; for me it took many years of trial and error, but it is definitely something to aspire to, since it’s the point at which you really know who you are as a photographer.