The beginning stages of learning any skill is often the most frustrating. On the one hand, you have that burning passion and energy. On the other hand, you don’t have the experience needed to help you guide that drive. This can feel limiting and overwhelming.
For me, it has been one lesson after another. So, I decided to take the time to write these lessons down. I did so in hopes that they may be better committed to my memory and so that it will serve to benefit the rest of you as well.
Here are 11 things I would tell my younger self about photography if I had the chance.
1. Take It One Day At A Time.
Brush off the pressure to accomplish things quickly, because building a body of work takes time.
As a new photographer, you’ll have numerous places to go, and an endless list of things to shoot.
You cannot do it all at once. And trying to photograph them all within a short period will only court frustration and burnout.
Today’s world has made it fashionable to be speedy in everything we do. This is especially so in our jobs and schools where much of the reward is based on how fast we can accomplish something.
When it comes to photography, the reality is a bit different.
Along the way, you’ll make mistakes. You’ll miss out on amazing photographic opportunities.
You will surf through the internet and wonder how other photographers manage to be so prolific.
You will feel like you’re on a treadmill, always working but never making progress. Know that all of this is part of the journey.
It takes a lifetime to build a body of work. No matter how much you accomplish, no matter how great your portfolio becomes, you will never be done.
The longevity of your career as a photographer is dependent on your ability to take things one day at a time.
So don’t rush. Fight the battles of just one day and fall in love with the process.¹
2. You’re Not in Control, and That’s OK.
The day we realize that we don’t control everything is a scary one. Perhaps it was in daycare when we were forced to take a nap even though we weren’t even remotely tired.
As we get older, we realize that there are quite a few things in life we have very little control over. And if you are a landscape photographer, the list is a bit longer.
It doesn’t matter how much preparation you have done or what quality of gear you bring.
Nothing can guarantee that you will get that perfect sunset you want. Sometimes you have to try for days, weeks, or years to have that opportunity.
You cannot manipulate the galaxy to appear in the sky at your preferred time. Nor can you manipulate the sky to be filled with brilliant colors.
This truth can freak out even the toughest of us. But we shouldn’t let that fear hold us back.
Despite not being able to bend time and space to our will, there is still a lot we can control in our days as photographers. There is also quite a bit we can prepare for.
For example, a quick look at the weather forecast can give you an idea of when to expect dull or colorful skies.
Or better still, skip the weather forecast and be there, on location, ready to shoot. Great things tend to happen for those who show up.
Which leads me to the next point.
3. Show Up. Always.
There will be days when you won’t feel like taking photos, but go out and do it anyway.
The day when you don’t feel like shooting might have that fireball sky you’ve been waiting for. So it is important that you keep showing up for the task, even when you don’t feel like it.
Photography is like any job. There are times you will feel worked up and unwilling to get out of bed for it. When that happens, remember that getting yourself out there keeps you from missing out on important opportunities.
So, set goals and stay focused on them. Remain committed to your work. Go out every day and shoot without losing your consistency. You’ll be glad when this finally pays off.
4. Stay Late.
Sometimes, the most breathtaking scene will unfold just after you’ve packed away your gear and entered the car. Nothing feels worse than losing such a shot that you know you can never find again. If only you had left the camera on the tripod for a couple more minutes!
Don’t stumble near the finish line. Play down the desire for instant gratification and stay out late at the scene. Even better, wait till dark before leaving.
Practice patience, and you won’t be disappointed.
5. Scout Your Location.
Great lighting can unfold at any time, and it’s important to be ready for it.
Once you have identified something you want to shoot, it helps to visit it multiple times a day. The idea is to study it under different lighting conditions and look for photogenic spots or angles in advance.
We’ve already established that there are many things in landscape photography we cannot control. So it’s essential to take stock of the ones that we can and realize what personal power we do have.
Pre-visualizing your shot prepares you to take the shot as soon as the conditions are right.
You don’t want to fumble with your subject on the D-day trying to find the right angles for your shot. Such lack of prior preparation would only cause you to miss out on your best opportunities.
6. Pay Attention to Details.
One of the easiest mistakes to make, especially if you’re just starting out, is to accidentally include an unsightly object in your photos.
When you’re drawn to your subject, the tendency is to focus all your attention to it and disregard the background.
It’s easy to forget to examine your scene, especially if you’re trying to capture fleeting moments.
As soon as the sky begins to turn colors, you’ll get that spurt of adrenalin. Suddenly, paying attention to small details feels effortful.
Thus, it is important that you cultivate your ability to pay attention to details. Before clicking that shutter button, scan your frame.
Look for any object that may be off-putting. You don’t want to take many great shots only for something in the background to spoil the entire shoot.
This is not something you’ll learn in a day. You’ll need practice. The more you shoot, the more your instincts will get sharper and your reflexes quicker.
7. The Brightest Object Draws Attention.
In every image, the audience is bound to look at the brightest part first.
It’s a natural way in which we are wired to interact with visual images.
Which means that when composing your images, you’ll want to pay attention to the light and how it affects your subject relative to the other objects around it.
With this in mind, you need to ensure that the brightest object in the frame is where you want your audience to look first.
You could use the direction of light to illuminate the area surrounding your subject. Or, you may play around with a vignette and position your subject at the center of the frame.
As a photographer, you’re able to control the viewer’s attention by manipulating brightness in your image. Just be sure to control brightness in a way that will give your subject the needed attention.
8. It’s OK Not to Use Manual Mode.
Being a good photographer does not mean you only use manual mode.
There are times when it makes sense to resort to an automatic mode and let the camera help you choose an appropriate setting.
Using Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority can often speed up and simplify your work.
These modes can be particularly important in conditions where light keeps changing. In such conditions, you may realize that going manual only serves to slow you down.
You have to stop from time to time to reset your camera by adjusting the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings. Not only does this add to your work, but it could also mean you risk missing a shot.
So, the main thing is to know when it’s best to turn to your camera’s auto modes for help and master how best to use them to your advantage.
9. Invest in a Good Tripod
Get a good quality tripod. Why? Because this often means the tripod will last long.
Although better quality will come with a more significant price tag, you’ll likely be able to save money in the long run.
I broke my cheap tripod within my first month in photography. But, I am still using the same quality tripod I replaced it with four years later.
Unlike other photographers, we, landscape photographers, expose our tripods to a variety of environmental and weather conditions. Thus, it is important to make sure that our tripods are built to last.
Be willing to part with a few extra dollars now, and save yourself the hassle of having to replace your cheap tripod continually.
Also, those few additional bucks could mean a great deal of difference in performance.
Expensive tripods tend to perform better compared to the much cheaper options.
For instance, if your shoot primarily landscapes, your tripod should be sturdy enough to stabilize your camera even in high winds.
Further, it should allow you to drop the tripod legs and lock them in place quickly for a shot.
With such features, you become more agile and can shift from one shooting location to another quickly and easily.
If you need to take a lot of time to loosen or tighten your tripod locks, then this will put you at a disadvantage.
This is especially true for volatile compositions in landscape photography. It slows you down, limits you, and may make you miss a couple of potentially good shots.
It’s against this backdrop that you’ll want to go for the more user-friendly tripods even if it means paying a little more for it.
That said, don’t forget that good tripod legs are only as good the tripod head.
There are two basic types of tripod heads to choose from, Pan & tilt head and Ball head.
Each of these has its relative advantages and disadvantages that you’ll have to consider when making your selection.
I use a Ball head. I find them easy to use and quick to operate. These units are also usually smaller in size, so they’ll easily fit inside your camera bag and save you space.
For added ease of control, consider buying a ball head that is loosened and tightened using just a single lever. It will allow you to position your camera right where you want it with minimum effort.
As a downside, ball heads tend to be less precise when it comes to getting the camera leveled. Given that the ball acts as the fulcrum, these heads could be a bit fiddly.
The beautiful thing about the pan & tilt head that has very precise control and it feels a lot more robust.
Pan & tilt heads take slightly more space in your camera bag because of the protruding handles they have. These jutting features make the head a bit more bulky to pack away.
Which one should you go for?
If speed is what you are looking for, get a ball head. But if what you need is precision, get a pan & tilt head.
Now here’s the good news: you can have both types of heads because the same tripod legs can work with both. This way, you can use them interchangeably based on what you’re shooting.
10. Workflow Helps Get the Work Done
When talking about workflow, I am referring to the steps that you’re supposed to follow to get the final photograph.
This starts from the point of planning your shots, composing them, framing, shooting, and ultimately post-processing. Each of these is important and can make or break your work and overall success.
Repetition can be monotonous, but I find that having a repeatable process helps insulate me from confusion, distraction, and procrastination. In short, a workflow helps me get things done.
It will help to build momentum, especially on those days when you don’t feel like shooting or editing your images. In these cases, a workflow will keep you going.
There is no “right” or “wrong” workflow. But, every photographer should strive to have a workflow that will allow them to work smoothly and produce consistently.
11. Keep a Journal
Journaling presents many advantages, not only in your career as a photographer but in your overall personal development.
First, journaling will help you manifest your goals faster. Writing is a great tool to help design your life in a way that is congruent with your goals.
Whether that is to become a better photographer or a better partner, writing your thoughts down can help ensure that you stay focus on what’s important.
It will help you see clearly what activities in your life need to be removed and which ones are essential.
Second, journaling provides vital insight into your work. It can help you develop ideas that you may have otherwise missed
By writing, you naturally get room to brainstorm. While processing these pieces of information based on your experiences, you also get to see ideas, opportunities, and angles that you may have as easily missed.
Third, journaling improves your ability to understand and remember what you’ve learned.
Writing your thoughts engages a part of our brain that intensifies the learning process. It allows your subconscious mind to work out solutions to problems while you learn.
When you write things down your brain separates important from unimportant information, helping you identify which information is worth learning.
Finally, Journaling will help you see how you’re evolving as a photographer and as a person.
When you write down your thoughts, you’re able to see how your mindset changes with time.
You’ll see how the things you believe in, your feelings about them, and reasons for believing in them evolve so that you may deduce essential lessons from the change.
Comparing your worldviews over time helps you see how you have evolved and changed as a person. It will help you see how much you’ve changed as a creator as well.
Most photographers do this reflection primarily by looking at their portfolio. But it helps to put these thoughts into words.
What style of photography did you use to like? Why don’t you love it anymore? What triggered you to make the change?
These kinds of inquiries help track your growth and improve self-understanding.
There are many things I chose not to include in this list because I think experiencing those “mistakes” has made me a better photographer.
That said, I hope that you can use this list as a guide you can refer to on your photographic journey.
There is a lot of value that photography can add to our lives. If you decide to stick with it and go through the beginning stages, I promise you it will be worth it.
1. Yesterday Today and Tomorrow, Anonymous