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11 Steps to Become a Photographer

Even though you are a beginner, you know you want to create beautiful images, and you want to create them starting today. It can be hard to remember that it takes time to master something new. When faced with beautiful image after beautiful image online and elsewhere, it is easy to think that there must be a shortcut, that if you get that latest piece of equipment, or you only knew some processing secret that your favorite photographers surely must know, your images will instantly be great. Those kinds of shortcuts don’t exist, but with hard work, permission to grow at your own rate, and following some of the tips below, you can become the kind of photographer you want to be.

1. There’s a lot to learn. Take it one step at a time

Once you decide you want to become a photographer, there is a lot to learn if you really want to do it right. You need to understand f-stops, ISOs, exposure, focus modes, white balance, light, composition, focal length and how different lenses affect your images, posing for portraits, how to communicate your voice to the world through your images, and so many other things. Looking at the list all together can be overwhelming, but if you break it down, you can do it! Decide what you want to work on first and concentrate on that. If you want to start by working on focus first, then read all you can on how to get the best focus from your particular camera. If you want to understand how to get a properly exposed image first, concentrate on really understanding how ISO, f-stop and shutter speed all work together to determine the exposure of your images. Break it down into manageable chunks and once one thing is second nature to you, find something else to concentrate on. If you try to get it all at once you may find yourself overwhelmed, throwing you camera back into auto, and giving up on what could be an exciting artistic outlet.

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2. Shooting in manual matters

To begin, when most photographers talk about shooting in manual they are talking about shooting in manual exposure mode, but that does not generally mean also shooting using manual focus as well. When I was first starting out, I read enough to understand the basics of the exposure triangle, threw my camera into aperture priority mode and figured if I was choosing the ISO and f-stop, letting the camera choose the shutter speed was fine. I was mistaken in this belief for two reasons, first, my camera at the time wasn’t sophisticated enough to have a minimum shutter speed so I ended up with a lot of out of focus images from too slow of a shutter speed. Second, possibly an even more important reason is that metering to zero according to your camera’s meter isn’t always the correct exposure for the scene in front of you. Because your camera wants to meter to a middle gray, if your scene is light colored you may need to overexpose according the the meter to get the proper exposure. The converse is true for dark scenes. Putting your camera in manual exposure mode, grabbing a gray card and learning to use it is a great way to really begin to understand this. You will hear people refer to the Zone Method, exposing to the right, or any number of other ways to find the best exposure, but the main thing to understand is that your camera’s meter can give you a guideline, but since it wants to meter to a middle gray metering to zero won’t always be right. Also, there are times when you will have to make trade offs and either over or underexpose unimportant parts of the scene to make sure the things that are most important, say the people in the image for a portrait, are properly exposed. You want to decide what is most important, not let your camera decide.

3. Don’t fear high ISO’s

The second mistake I made repeatedly when I was new, was that I was scared to really push my ISO because I had heard that high ISO’s made for more noise in the image. While that is true, what I hadn’t realized was that a bit of noise is way better than an image that is out of focus from too slow of a shutter speed. Plus, if you have a properly exposed image or one that is exposed to the right and maybe slightly overexposed (though not blown), the noise shouldn’t be too bad even with a beginner level camera. Go ahead and bump up that exposure as much as your camera will let you so you can shoot using natural light indoors, or by the light of a lamp or iPad, or to grab the last rays of light outdoors.

4. You don’t need the latest and greatest equipment to make beautiful images

When you are new, it can be easy to think that buying a better camera or the lens that everyone is raving about is sure to make your work automatically better. For better or worse, that isn’t how it works. Hard work, study and practice are what it takes to make your images better. I upgraded from my first camera because I was sure I had outgrown it, and I grew exponentially while I had that second camera, but it mostly wasn’t because of the camera. I know that because now when I take my old camera with me on vacation these days, I am blown away by the images from it that I know how to use it to its fullest. Any entry level mirrorless camera that suits your shooting style could be enough gear for you to really get good. Once you have a basic set up, it’s up to you to take it as far as you can.

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5. Study the light

After the basics such as exposure and focus are mastered, really consider learning to read the light. Nothing can take an image from okay to gorgeous as well as great light. You can learn about light in a class, from a book, and/or from simply becoming aware of the light around you as you go through your day. Notice how the light falls on people and things as you go about your day, how people are lit in paintings and on TV. Eventually, reading the light is something that is hard to stop. Someday soon you may find yourself running to grab your camera as you notice how the light is hitting your little one as they play in the front hall or come across an especially beautiful sunset.

6. Focus on getting it right in camera, before spending all your time worrying about processing your images

This is not to say that you can’t be learning the basics of an editing program or two, but before you spend all your time learning how to fix bad images with post processing, try to work on getting it right in camera. As you learn more about processing, you can always go back and reprocess older images even years later if you still have the SOOC (straight out of the camera) file, but there won’t be anything you can do about the totally blurry images of your baby from not understanding the basics. Also, shooting in RAW gives you tons of flexibility for editing when you get around to it. And having a nice SOOC allows you to use your processing to bring out your vision instead of trying to fix a bad image. I know that RAW can sound very scary, but really it’s not. Yes, you have to do at least the basics to every single image because your camera isn’t doing it for you, but you have so much control over the outcome. Want to dramatically change the exposure, no problem. Did the light change and you didn’t have a chance to change the white balance, you can still do a lot to correct that if you shot in RAW. RAW is the digital equivalent to a film negative. It gives you a great base to develop the image to suit your vision.

7. Take the time to understand how to post process by hand

Even if you love using actions and presets knowing how to edit an image by hand is the best way I know to really being able to bring out your vision in each and every one of your images, not just the ones that your favorite preset works well on. Also, it’s easy to take things too far when just editing with actions and and presets if you don’t already have a good feel for how programs work and what a well edited image should look like. Also, once you do start post processing, make sure you understand white balance and skin tones. Even with great light and great technicals, if your white balance is radically off your images won’t look as polished and professional as they could be. You may not notice as you’re learning, but as you look back on your early work, you’ll probably wonder how in the world you thought that orange baby looked good. A calibrated monitor will help you develop your eye. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come naturally, keep practicing, study your own images and the others around you. Be sure to print images too, as that can also help you notice things that you might miss on your screen.

8. Learn the rules so you can break them with purpose

I sometimes see people who think that their style should include white balance that is off, compositions that are highly unique but maybe not very good, and other things that break the conventional rules of photography. It’s usually easy to separate those who have internalized the rules and are breaking them on purpose to convey their message, and those who’s eyes just aren’t developed enough to really know how to break the rules to really communicate their vision to their viewers. They break the rules simply because they don’t know them. Be one of the ones who knows the rules so well they can break them to your heart’s content.

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9. Slumps are normal

Someday you may realize that while you’ve been learning a lot, your work seems to be getting worse. Chances are you’re not getting worse, it’s more a matter of you noticing things that you didn’t notice when you were first starting. If you need to, go back and look at your work from a couple months ago, and that should hopefully give you some perspective that you are improving even if it’s easier to notice the less than perfect aspects of your images now. That being said, when you initially switch to manual, you may have a time when your work isn’t as good as it was when you were shooting on one of the auto modes. Push through that barrier, and soon your images will be way better than they ever were before.

Don’t think that slumps are something that only happens to beginners, once you’ve gotten to the point where other people think your work is good or even amazing, you may still have times when you aren’t feeling great about any of your latest work. Slumps come with the process for many artists. You’ll have to figure out what works for you — shooting through the slump, putting the camera away for a while, coming up with a personal project, etc. — but know that you are not alone! Almost all of us feel that way sometimes.

10. Not every image needs to be a work of art

Once you know how to take a great image, it can be easy to fall into the trap of not wanting to take any image in less than ideal conditions. Don’t fall into this trap. You will still want to remember the birthdays, vacations, trips to the playground and all the little everyday events, even if the light is less than ideal or the background is busier than Times Square. Yes, there are people who can take these less than ideal circumstances and still create amazing images, but even if you are not one of them, don’t let the quest for beautiful photographs stop you from documenting the important people and milestones along the way!

11. Enjoy the journey

I’ve been at this a long time, and one thing I’ve learned is that growing your photography is a journey without a finish line. As long as you continue to create, you will never arrive at a point where you know everything or have no room for improvement. There is always something else to learn. And no matter how good you get, there will always be someone better than you. Don’t let comparison or the quest for perfection steal your joy in the process.

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