6 Photography Lessons I Wish I Had Known When I Started 6 Years Ago

1. Upgrading your display may be more important than upgrading your camera gear

I got a new PC. It feels like yesterday I finally received the right prescription glasses after looking at my photographs half blind for 6 years.

It’s not that I didn’t know that displays were important, it is just that I prioritised purchasing lenses and a good camera body instead. After all, everyone looking at my photos on the internet was also using a low res display, riiiiight?

I was so determined to not splurge on a new PC (and buy good lenses instead), that I withstood my old laptop’s unbearable wheezing sound, 15 minute power up, and frequent10-minute freezes when it became overburdened. Last week while retouching, the skin tones suddenly turned a sickly green, despite using a screen calibrator, and I had no option but to give in and get a new computer.

Don’t wait as long as I did. I now think that in terms of prioritising how to spend on photography: first comes display, then lens, then camera body.

Seeing my photographs in their true form makes it so much easier to evaluate what needs improvement. Some of the weaknesses I have spotted made me cringe. This leads to my next point…

2. Do not believe the compliments

When other people are judging the quality of your photographs, they are coming from a different reference point. “Your photos are amazing!”should usually be translated into: “I do not know how you did that, I personally would not have been able to”.

However reading your camera manual and a few hours of Youtube tutorials is already enough to be able to do things with your camera that a layperson without a special interest in photography, isn’t able to. And there is a VERY big margin between being marginally better than the layperson and being at the level of someone who has mastered photography.

What “Your photos are so good!” actually means…

What “Your photos are so good!” actually means…

So do not let compliments make you feel like you are very far along in your journey, when you have only just started.

3. and 4. Practise every day

Yes, this is two points. Because the importance of practising daily needs to be stressed.

It is funny how I earnestly thought I would improve even when I only used my camera about 50 times a year. With each year I thought I was somehow magically getting closer to the photographers who talked about their 10, 20 years experience and had amazing work.

Then one day I had a reality check: I had been looking at a great photographers work and thinking that I would someday be like them when I realised that said photographer had been doing this for half as long as I had! I suddenly had to ask myself some serious questions about why was not at that skill level yet. It was sobering.

Pick up the camera every day. There is no other way.

4. The basics have to be learnt over and over again

Once I learned to use my camera on manual mode, I thought I was done learning aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

I have developed a habit of setting my aperture at f/2.8 and lower for portraits and thinking all is well as long as the eye closest to the camera is in focus but recently I realised I have to be a lot more methodical. Due to external critique I came to realise that some of the points of interest in my images ended up blurry due to this approach. For example, certain body parts of the model that were prominent in the frame. Along with the thousands of other questions we have to ask ourselves about lighting and color, we have to remember to ask ourselves questions like “what elements in this photograph need to be in focus here?”, “how fast is the subject moving?” (even for still portraits).

5. Get good quality critique

And when doing this, avoid asking the people who are constantly telling you how good you are (refer to point 3). Really seek out people who can be critical about your photography. But also be discerning about what they say. It is tricky differentiating what to listen to and what not to. Some things people will critique you on will just be a matter of personal taste, others will falsely critique you of breaking a “rule” that they heard was important have now taken as the holy grail (such as always having catch lights in the subject’s eyes).

5. Differentiate between rules and fundamentals

The saying goes: “to break the rules you must first master them.” I would change this into: “master the fundamentals and throw away the rules altogether”

Rules are quick fixes to solve a problem; such as when I shoot f/2.8 or lower for portraits, or when the “Rule of Thirds” is used for composition. While rules help you get a decent photograph, they do not allow you to think through your settings in order to best communicate your message. Your approach—from your exposure settings, to the colours you use and how far away you are from the model—should be determined by questions such as:

  • What makes this moment worthy of a photograph?

  • How can I best convey this feeling to the viewer?

  • What needs to be in the frame to enhance the photograph’s message? What is best left out?

  • Which elements need to be in focus?

Rules are unable to answer these questions.

Instead you need to focus on fundamentals. Fundamentals are the foundations of art and photography, they include: Composition, Light, Colour, Form…

But more on that in other posts.

For now, let me know which of these 6 you resonate with most, and what you wish you had known sooner :)