There are a some lessons that we all learn the hard way. Trial and error, though equally arduous, are still the two most ingraining teachers any of us will ever have. We often learn more from our failures than our successes. But like Newton tells us, at times we move forward only by hefting ourselves onto the shoulders of giants.
More than anything, I wish I would have learned a few things sooner. There are so many lessons that would have benefitted me if I had only understood them on the front end of my trip into the photographic unknown.
So, in the spirit of solidarity I will share three things I wish someone would have told me when I started photography. Perhaps there were those who tried but for whatever reason I either couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. Hopefully these hard fought teachings will help you move forward and give you the mentality you need to start creating better images. Here they are in no particular order.
This is a dodgy subject that plagues many who are just starting out, or those who want to get more serious about their photography. I began my journey shooting a 35mm Nikon N65 with a 18-55mm kit lens that I bought when I was 18 years old. It was my first real camera. The late teenager version of me saved his money and paid $265 for it but I still felt as though I needed a better camera in order to make better images. That was 15 years ago.
Even then I was under the impression that I would need a “professional camera” in order to be a professional photographer. If you had asked me then, I wouldn’t have been able to even tell you what a “professional camera” actually was.
What I wish someone had told me was that the best camera doesn’t exist. The only thing that truly matters is the knowledge to use whatever camera is in your hands to the utmost of its (and your) ability. True, times have changed and imaging technology has advanced alarmingly fast. Some people now earn a living with only the cameras in their smartphones.
The thing to always remember is that most cameras are capable of producing images of astonishing quality when coupled with a proficient user. Whatever camera you might currently have is likely more than enough. Allow your skills to mature and you will know when it’s time to upgrade.
Before you begin scrolling in horror at the very mention of post-processing let me assure you that this in not a dreaded commentary on what may or may not be considered “Photoshopping.” Instead, we’re going to talk about some misconceptions I had when first beginning to process my images.
I was under the impression that “getting it right in the camera” was an all encompassing mentality that meant nothing needed to be done after the moment of capture other than showing the image to the world. That is not necessarily true.
What I wish someone had told me was that all photographs, even analog (film), virtually always benefit from some extent of work after the image has been made. The quote which changed my thinking towards post-processing came from none other than Ansel Adams himself:
The point Ansel was making is that yes you always want to strive to achieve the best exposure you possibly can in-camera so that you have a more complete representation of the scene in order to manifest a final photograph intermingled with your own creativity. Post-processing is not something to be avoided but rather embraced as a logical second step towards achieving your visualization regardless of what that visualization may be.
That’s right. No photograph is perfect and very few photographs are ever elevated to the level of fine art, whatever that means. This was an illusion that burdened me during my early days while learning to create photographs. I had an enormous misunderstanding about what actually went into the production of an image both creatively and technically.
One thing that I did know, was that my photographs looked nothing like some of the wonderful images I saw online or in photo magazines. I became discouraged, all the while feeling as if I was doing something completely wrong.
What I wish someone had told me was that even if you labor in photography for the rest of your life, you will never snap a perfect frame. Your photographs will certainly become stronger as you hone your technique and acquire more capable gear, yes. But don’t think that you will ever reach a day when you can say, “Ah, now I’m perfect. All my photographs will be flawless from here on out.” That day will never come.
The craft of photography is a practice in personal evolution. It is a journey of constant learning. So take a breath, relax, and enjoy the process for the beautifully weird trip that it is.
These are just a few of things that I wish someone had told me when I first began making photographs. Do you have any lessons you have learned that could help others? List them in the comments below!