My advice to frustrated novice photographers

As a novice photographer who has been working hard for five years or so to learn the craft of photography, there’s a handful of things photographers say that have driven me nuts. In my experience there’s three core learning areas any novice has to learn to get out of the “novice” category:

  • Technical skills: how to use your camera, how to change settings, ehy you need to change settings, lighting processes, etc.
  • Creative skills: composition, lighting style (not just technique), and general creativity
  • Reality: how other people actually do what they do when you see their amazing images online

I honestly believe that last one is the hardest one to fully understand. Do you remember that game that you played in some high school class where one person had to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich following only the instructions from a classmate? It was typically a monumental disaster because the level of detail required to perform even a basic function when you’re starting from scratch is far greater than the teacher typically gives. Leaving out even a minor, assumed detail like “apply the peanut butter to the bread” leaves peanut butter all over the jelly jar.

I’ve discovered that photography instruction isn’t much different. I had such anxiety even as recently as this summer around the quality and output style of my images, versus images I saw from photographers online or in my nerd social circles. I was missing part of the workflow because the teachers I was learning from were skipping parts of the process that simply came naturally to them at this point in their careers. Before/after pictures don’t tend to get shared much, lighting diagrams/setup pictures seem like they’re on private lockdown, and post-processing workflows seem to be a well guarded secret sauce recipe. I spent way too many mental cycles thinking I was simply doing something wrong rather than missing parts of the process. Personally, I think it was because these three statements get far too much weight in photography circles:

1. It’s not the equipment, it’s the photographer
Yeah, but it’s also the equipment. Picking up my Olympus E-P3 makes it inherently easier to take a truly amazing image than any number of other cameras. I understand that the point here is that creativity often means more than high end tech. But if you want to get super sharp, rich portraits, for instance, having an amazing camera sure as hell moves you closer to those results. Picking up a great camera rather than a marginal one instantly gives you a step up. Sure, you’re on your own to create a unique, creative, impressive photo after that, but getting a break off the starting line certainly helps. But trying to convince a new photographer that if they just worked harder, they too could replicate the results of a Nikon D3 with their iPhone is just mean.

2. Get it right in the camera
Let me let you in on a little secret I’ve learned: No professional photographer relies solely on “getting in right in the camera”. They all do some level of post processing, and you’d be hard pressed to find some wonderful looking image online that hasn’t had at least some level of post-processing. Even for “natural” looking images. I read a wicked good photographer say recently that every image that comes out of a digital camera is inherently dull and flat. You know all those great wedding photos with the rich colors? Yeah, Photoshop Actions.

Don’t get me wrong, getting in right in the camera is a worthy objective. Not because you if you get it right, it’s done when you import it, but because it makes your work after the import easier. Stop stressing if you import your images and do a bit of tweaking to make it go from solid to awesome. That’s what everyone does.

3. You don’t need any fancy equipment
Maybe. But it’s not really that simple. Want to take a Strobist-style portrait without extra flash units and some lighting modifiers? Good luck. Want to do outdoor shots on your lunch hour without some way to diffuse the overhead sun? Good luck. Want to do macro photography of bugs without a light and a macro lens? Good luck. Again, as a general rule, you can do some great work with a minimal amount of equipment. But if you are trying to accomplish specific looks/styles/outputs, then you’ll probably need specific equipment.

At the end of the day, my advice for novice photographers is to remember that no matter how simple the pros make it sound (or look), it’s not. Photography is a skill and an art, and like any skill or art, practice is required. And when they tell you to just get it right in the camera, remember that they probably have vastly more practice hours in than you do; it’s OK to tweak some things in Aperture back at home. If they tell you that the equipment doesn’t matter, ask them what they shoot with before you think that you’re comparing apples and apples with your images and theirs.

Just keep shooting. Keep reading and watching how-to content. Keep attending meetups and going on photowalks. And while you’re doing these things, watch what the experts are doing. Ask what settings they have their cameras at. Ask what, specifically and fully the did in the post-processing work. Ask to watch them actually do their post-processing.

And remember: your images are probably better than you are giving yourself credit for!

About the author

Jake McKee: