Photography is an interesting and rewarding endeavor. Even as a hobby, photography has a relatively low barrier of entry (almost everyone has a camera phone) and a near limitless ceiling for creativity. But as rewarding as it can be as a hobby, many people will take the plunge and try to earn at least a supplemental income with photography. As you can imagine, the access to budget friendly, high quality camera gear has flooded the market with “photographers” of every ilk. Some are fantastic, some are not. I am not here to cast judgement on anyone or on the creative license they take with their photography. I have seen work from globally recognized photographers that I would never take a second look at, and I have seen work on instagram accounts touting 12 followers that has moved me in ways that are hard to describe. The point is, art is subjective. And photography, being an art form, is no different.
But unlike other forms of art (there aren’t stampedes of people trying to book painters to paint their family portraits, and top musicians are not available for private concerts…at least not to the masses), photography is both integral to daily life for most, and accessible to most. Think about it. When your child joins a sports league, the team has a picture day. At most schools, there are formal pictures taken every year. Birthdays, holidays, weddings, wakes, births, and deaths. We literally take pictures to remember most of life’s events. We take a camera on camping trips, and even pull our phones out to snap a shot of the food we are about to ingest. And with the countless hours of free tutorials on youtube, it’s not hard to gain at least a cursory understanding of the fundamentals of photography relatively quickly.
So here are some of the lessons that I learned after a year of having camera in hand. I assure you, this is not an exhaustive list. This post does not scratch the surface of what a year of learning photography has taught me, both about photography and about life. This is simply a jumping off point as I start to organize my thoughts into coherent posts with the express purpose of enriching others and helping you along this journey of life.
1. gear is great but is almost worthless without fundamentals
When I first picked up my camera, I was bursting with excitement. To be clear, me bursting with excitement is comically subdued as I just internalize how excited I am. But the thrill is definitely there. I shopped for weeks online (which is pretty rare for me but I wanted to be sure). I compared traits such as megapixels, burst rates, sensor size, and many other “buzz-word” traits to look for. In the end, what I discovered was that most of these traits, though important, mean far less to someone just starting out then the YouTube powerhouses would lead you to believe. Don’t misunderstand me, newer gear has advantages. But think about it this way, the camera that just came out was not available ten years ago, but ten years ago professional photographers were making a living (a comfortable one in many cases). I realized there were two things that really mattered when it came to a camera; does it produce a quality photo, and is it reliable? I will write another post on why I chose the camera I did, and why I still think it is a viable option, and that is the Nikon D700. This camera debuted in 2008 as a “prosumer” model. Though it was 12 years old, it fit all of the criteria I had at the time. Full frame sensor, professional build quality, pedigree, and a near limitless lens lineup. That last one is far less important when you are first starting out, but is still an important consideration.
So there I was with a “new-to-me” fancy camera and not a lick of photographic knowledge. I quickly found out that although my camera was capable of producing technically quality photos, I was not taking “good” photos. I learned that the things a camera (and lens) does well: focus, sharpness, clarity, color rendition, dynamic range, contrast…these were not the things necessary to producing a quality image. Below are two examples of my early days of shooting. You will see that while the photo itself isn’t flawed, just that the pictures aren’t saying anything.
As you can see, there is nothing special about either of these photos (except to me of course). The snow covered tree was literally taken the day I got my camera and lens. I didn’t have an objective, I just wanted to take a picture. The orchid picture was taken a couple of weeks later and there was a little more thought put in to it. I will admit that I fell victim to the wide-open aperture trap. My lens opened to f1.8 so everything was shot at 1.8, depth-of-field be damned. I thought that bokeh (the blurry background) was the only way to take a decent photo. I had no knowledge of composition, color theory, or any other fundamental. I’m not lying when I say that it was probably a month before I even thought about changing the aperture. But I did get caught up in a lot of the hype that floats around on YouTube. To be honest, a lot of those personalities are just trying to push products on you, or flex their knowledge superiority. And they will throw big words at you to do so, which leads me to my next point.
2. ALL THE TUTORIALS IN THE WORLD WON’T MAKE YOU BETTER, PRACTICE DOES
I probably spent more than 20 hours in the months after I got my camera watching tutorials on everything I could think of that I “needed”. How-to’s ranged from my how to use my camera or lens, to how to edit like this or that. It is interesting how much “free” material is available. That word free is in quotes for a reason. You see, your time is valuable, so if you are choosing to spend that time consuming, you are spending something on that content. Can it be beneficial? Absolutely, but I want you to keep in mind that free does not really exist. There is always a transaction of currency, or time, or both. I “spent” (see what I did there?) a lot of my time consuming material but I was not putting most of it into practice. My suggestion, having come through last year with more hours logged on YouTube than in the the field, at least early on, is that you find an area to explore and stay focused. I bounced around so much last year that you would think my shoes were made of flubber, and I got lost a lot along the way.
Some of you will no doubt have a broad range of niches that you want to explore, as did I. But if you try to learn or explore them all simultaneously, you will bog yourself down and make it very difficult to focus and learn any one thing. Instead, start slow and let your natural curiosity lead you from one area to another. There is no magic formula for improving. My 8 year old daughter has held a camera about 4 times in her life, but I would say she has a much more inherent understanding of composition than I do. I “get it”, but producing it came hard for me. A lot harder than I thought it would be. On the other hand, I feel like it there was a much shallower curve for me when it came to lighting, both natural and artificial. My brain sees highlights and shadows naturally. Dividing things into thirds on the other hand, my brain does not like.
One thing I can say for sure, no matter what your learning style is, you make better pictures by practicing and practicing some more. Spend your time wisely, and try to only use tutorials when you come to a roadblock or an intersection as a way to help you navigate. But however you proceed, and perhaps most importantly…
3. CONSISTENCY IS KEY
Like with most new things that we experience as humans, when I got my camera and lens I took it everywhere, and shot everything I could. Most of it was throw away because, as mentioned above, I wasn’t actually focused on improving my images so much as I was just capturing something new. The weeks marched on and pretty soon I found myself going days or more without even taking a picture. Now while a certain portion of this can rightly be attributed to laziness or procrastination, I think the bigger issues was and is intentionality.
See, I used to think that if something was scheduled, it would zap all the fun or creativity out of it. It never really occurred to me that, as adults, a large portion of our lives will need to be scheduled. Work obviously, but also social commitments and extra curricular activities. As an aside, it is also, as I learned late in life, pretty rude to never plan things, especially if you have a family. But being intentional about how you spend your time is about the nicest thing you can do for yourself when it comes to creativity. Think back to a time when you spent a whole day with nothing planned but lots of things you wanted to accomplish. If you’re anything like me and a large chunk of the population, that day probably didn’t end up being as productive as you would have liked.
Photography is no different. If you leave all of your time open to be filled however the wind decides, you will almost always end up disappointed with how much you haven’t learned or grown. Take the time to be intentional about what you want to learn, or where you want to grow. And not only that, but be intentional about when you are going to do it. Don’t let weeks go by without you moving forward with your passion. Life is too short to be wasting that kind of time.
DO NOT LET THE CHANCE TO GROW PASS YOU BY
Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe that there is much to be learned from watching, reading, or listening to other people. Just be mindful of the material you are consuming. Make sure it is up to par. For me, and this blog, I just want to share what I have learned and hopefully help some of you along the way. I am not claiming to be the subject matter expert in this field, or any other. But I am learning, and I encourage you to do the same, if only for yourself.
I am in the camp that, while there are exponentially more photographers today than there used to be, I still believe it is a viable pursuit for both personal and professional growth. Sure, it might be more difficult now to break in to the industry, but difficult does not mean impossible. If you have a passion for it, as I do, go after it. See what it’s all about. At the end of the day, there are way worse things that you can waste your time doing. At least this way you will capture some memories along the way.
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