There are some essentials to being a photographer that most photography books don’t usually mention. Here are the seven most important lessons I’ve learned as a photographer, including one exercise I use to hone my skills.
1. It should be fun
Whether run as a business or a hobby, photography should be enjoyable. Picking up that camera and looking through the viewfinder, sitting in front of a computer for hours developing images, and even doing the marketing and accounts shouldn’t be an unwelcome task. I love every minute of it, although marketing and accounts are probably my least favorite. Yet I meet people who are dissatisfied with their work. I wonder why they don’t get out and do something else instead. This is something I have done in the past. If it’s not fun, walk away.
There is only one way to ensure your happiness and satisfaction in photography. Do your own thing, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
2. Help other photographers succeed
A fair part of my business is training others, and nothing makes me happier than seeing them make a success of it. I am sometimes asked by clients if they can be professional photographers. After that I trained several and helped them start their careers. I don’t take credit for their success; this is due to their hard work and perseverance. Helping them along the way is not only satisfying, but I learn a lot by teaching others, and it also strengthens my existing knowledge.
3. I know nothing, let alone everything
Some people seem to think they know everything there is to know about photography. I have never had that delusion. We inevitably don’t know everything. I knew this was especially so when I started as a novice in my youth. But that sense of ignorance, instead of diminishing, is growing. It seems the more I teach, the more I learn, and the more I discover there are things I don’t know. There is always so much more to understand that it seems I have only scratched the surface.
4. It’s just a photo and it’s just a camera
Next, I remember that it’s just a photo. On its own, it will not change the world. However, a photo can give you, me, or someone else powerful feelings. It could be a precious moment at a wedding, a portrait of a lost family member, or a beautiful subject that evokes strong emotions. Understanding that duality between a photograph’s simultaneous insignificance and importance helps us not to become full of ourselves and at the same time create images with meaning.
Similarly, some photographers idolize their cameras. It is not a god; it’s just a tool. I know mine has unique features that I use so it’s perfect for me. But, like your camera, it’s just a bunch of metal, glass and plastic, albeit a nicely designed one.
5. My best photos come from recording what I know
A harbour, an estuary and the sea are a few hundred yards from my back door. I’ve lived in this house for nine years, so I know it well. I understand what tide condition is best when the light on the island is just right and how rough the sea will be depending on the wind direction. I know the workings of the fishing fleet, the direction of the sunrise at different times of the year, the best camera placements to get good photos, and the behavior of the local birds. Experience with my local environment helps me achieve a much higher percentage of successful photos than if I were in an unfamiliar environment shooting a new subject.
6. Other people take great photos
Some people find it hard to accept that others can be successful in what they do. Jealousy is not a mindset that will not help them improve their skills. We can learn from other photographers’ photos, and appreciating what they do helps the learning process.
I always take the time to analyze other people’s images and work out what I do and don’t like; there are some genres of photography I’m not a fan of, but I can see why some people like them. Not every photo is my cup of tea either, so I’m also working out why that is the case. I keep my opinions to myself because an uninvited negative criticism will do me no favors.
7. The skill I mastered before turning professional
There is one thing on my list that is in photography books. Of course, a professional needs a certain level of knowledge. It is essential to be familiar with how your camera will perform under certain conditions. This means, in part, that you can change the settings of your camera without looking. This is something I practice. However, there is more to it than that. I also know how my camera will perform under different conditions.
Try the following exercise:
In a familiar environment where you would normally shoot, find a moving subject; it doesn’t matter what. It could be anything, perhaps the winding of a clock, someone walking, blowing tree branches, a passing car, etc. Pick up your camera and set it to manual exposure. Keep the lens cap on so you can’t cheat and use the menus on the rear screen.
Set the shutter speed to stop the subject’s movement. Then adjust the focal point, aperture, and distance from the subject to fill the frame and give you just enough depth of field to include the entire subject, but not the entire scene. Then judge a good exposure by adjusting the ISO. Choose your focal point. Remove the lens cap and take the shot. How good a result did you get?
Once you’ve done that, change all the variables and try it repeatedly. Use alternate focal points and depths of field. Also change the lighting conditions. Maybe decide to show some motion blur. Over time, you’ll have a good idea of what settings you need.
It is not easy. Because of semi-automation (I love aperture priority) plus the depth of field and histogram previews through the viewfinder, it’s possible to get great photos without this basic understanding of how the camera works. We get used to it. Nevertheless, I believe it is essential to be aware of exposure and how the settings change the appearance of the image, because there will be times when you need to fall back on those basic skills.
If you specialize in a specific genre, such as studio photography, you will need just as much familiarity with the operation of your additional equipment. For example, how modifiers affect the appearance of the image, how to apply the inverse square law with the proximity of the light source to the subject, how that distance changes the softness of the light, balancing the brightness of multiple flashes, and so on. But knowing how your camera behaves is just the beginning. Depth of field plus stopping or showing movement are basic compositional techniques. The placement of subjects within the frame, how they interact and how they are lit is critical. It all takes learning and practice.
There is no secret formula for what makes an image work. There are countless combinations of subjects, compositions, lighting and camera settings, and over time you will find what works for you. More importantly, you will discover what not.
Are there important lessons you’ve learned on your photographic journey? I hope you have a go at my practice, and it would be great to hear how you got on.