PHLEARN MagazineThe Newbie Photographer’s Survival Guide: 10 Things to Remember Now That You Know the Basics

The Newbie Photographer’s Survival Guide: 10 Things to Remember Now That You Know the Basics

You understand the big three. You have a camera body, lens and a handful of accessories. You’ve watched tutorials and practiced lighting scenarios. You’re ready to go. Or are you?

A photographer’s early days are often consumed with techniques and equipment. That first time you switch to manual mode is momentous; getting your speedlight to sync properly is a victory. But when you’ve mastered the foundations of camera use, you start to discover that there is a lot more to photography than light and color. Mental strain and creative burnout start to set in, and keyboard criticisms in your social media comment section may cause you to doubt yourself.

Most photographers are familiar with that feeling of “Where do I go from here?” but with determination, mental preparation and the tips in this article, you will have the tools you need to work through the highs and lows of your newbie days. Here are the 10 things I wish someone had told me when I was becoming a professional photographer:

Know the Difference Between Focus and Futility

Illustrations by Lauren Smith

What do you do when you hit a wall? Do you throw your shoulder at it to try and move it out of the way, or do you go get a ladder and climb over it? That probably depends on what your wall is made of.

All creative blocks are not the same, so it’s important to know when it’s time to bear down and when it’s time to take a break. Nothing would ever get done if we always walked away when the going got tough, and for natural procrastinators that first instinct to put intimidating projects off is sometimes the death of progress. If however, you find that you’re making more and more careless mistakes no matter how hard you work, it may be time to step back.

Make use of your creative time outs by switching gears and working on a different project or by taking a true break. Activities like a brisk walk, a hot shower, or a trip to the grocery store will give you other things to do and see while your brain pieces ideas together in the background. You will come back refreshed and ready to problem solve.

Watch Out for “Preciousness”

While we’re on the topic of overcoming obstacles, there’s a concept in art that often gets in the way of meaningful progress. The nerds among us call it “preciousness.” (If you’re one of the nerds among us, you probably don’t need me to explain why.) Basically, when you work for a long time on a project and you’re unhappy with where it’s going, you begin to value the time you’ve already invested in that project more than its outcome. You tweak and make pointless changes to what you already have instead of tearing it up and starting from scratch, out of fear that you can’t reproduce the good parts a second time.

Here’s the thing, though: you made it once. You can do it again, and better. You should never be afraid to go all the way back to the drawing board if something isn’t working for you. For once-in-a-lifetime shoots such as weddings or newborn photography, you may not be able to truly start over, but you can go back to the RAW file and regroup. (You are shooting in RAW, right?)

Keep Your Composure (With You at All Times)

When you’re learning how to compose images creatively, it can be a source of frustration from behind the lens. In the pressure of the moment, you may have a hard time finding the right vantage point to shoot what it is you are seeing in your mind’s eye. What’s really cool about that problem is that you have the tools to practice solving it everywhere you go.

No matter where you are, as long as your eyes are open, you are in a practice room. Make a habit of finding dynamic compositions all around you. When you see a sunset, think about the rule of thirds. When you drive down the highway, notice the perspective of light poles as they grow or shrink in relation to your position. Staircases? Repetition. Gym equipment? Asymmetry. Mental snapshots will make a huge difference in your confidence once you’re back behind the camera.

Draw Inspiration from Outside Work

You may have a perfectly clear idea of what you want to accomplish, but creativity doesn’t often happen in a vacuum. If you are only looking at your own work, your head will quickly become its own echo chamber, making it a lot harder to come up with fresh material and ideas. It’s imperative that you look at the work of other artists, particularly photographers, to gain insight on your own work.

We’re not talking about skimming Instagram here. Although social media is a great resource for photographers seeking inspiration, you won’t gain anything simply from flipping through a feed. When you find something that really speaks to you, stop yourself and ask why. Are you curious about the process they used? Are you intrigued by the use of color (or lack of it)? What can you take away from that image that will enhance your own photography, and how will you make it your own?

Respect and Utilize Your Fellow Photographers

Anything you do in life will go more smoothly with a tribe, so look for photography groups online or in real life that will help and encourage you. Ideally, these groups will also point you toward other photography-related resources and in time, you will do the same for other new members. But to earn your place in a group, it’s important to treat other members with honesty and integrity. Other people’s time is valuable, too, and you are not entitled to benefit from their knowledge, so you should always show gratitude when someone chooses to share the benefit of their experience with you.

A word to the wise, though: imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but without giving proper credit it’s also ill-mannered and sometimes illegal. The best way to show respect to other photographers (and make friends in the photography world) is by always giving credit to the source when a specific idea came from them. Likewise, it’s important not to mistake copycatting for inspiration. It’s one thing to practice a technique or create an homage to an artist you admire, but if you are gaining recognition for it (or making money from it), you’re going to need to ask permission first and always credit afterward.

Don’t Take All Advice at Face Value

While there’s no replacement for seasoned insight, each photographer’s experiences are unique. The wisdom of others should be a jumping off point, and after a certain amount of practice, you have to separate what advice will be useful to you and what just isn’t going to work.

In the same vein, always be sure to get your information from more than one source. Art is very subjective. While there are certain standards you’ll want to adhere to, there’s a wide range of what is considered to be “good” and an even wider range of what people will call “bad.” Mentorship is a balancing act between humility and hubris. Always remember that you don’t know it all. Never forget that no one else does either.

Remember That Photography Is an Art, Not a Science

It’s important to know how to work your camera and the other gear that goes along with it, but keep in mind that photography is an art. It’s about more than the process. Because of this, you can gain a lot of understanding from other forms of visual art. Sculpture, painting and videography will teach you a lot about using light and form to bring a vision to life.

You might even consider buying a small sketchbook and planning out shots. Thumbnail drawings are particularly helpful for experimenting with different ways to shoot the same scene. If you’re thinking, “I chose photography because I can’t draw!” don’t worry. It’s not about creating a masterpiece, just about getting your ideas down on paper where you can see them and play around with them. You might surprise yourself!

Trust Your Eye More Than Your Equipment

You’ll hear it more times than you can count that the camera doesn’t take the picture, the photographer does. For most people starting out, the newest models and fanciest accessories are out of reach. Even if all you have is your smartphone camera and your imagination, you can get some pretty fantastic shots. In fact, there are entire competitions for exactly that type of photography!

In the meantime, try renting equipment before taking the plunge so that when you do invest in a camera or lens, you’ll know it’s one you’ll feel comfortable learning on. If you fall in love with a slightly out-of-date model, it’s not the end of the world. Technology is all but impossible to keep up with. Some professionals have the means to upgrade to the latest thing every year or so and that’s fine, but while you are learning, the most important thing is to find something you know you can create with. You can always branch out later on. (But definitely start saving.)

Look Beyond the Lens

Just because you love images doesn’t mean you have to be the one taking them. Professional editing is not only fun (you get to make other people’s work look better and you don’t have to worry what their client thinks about the posing!), but it’s a great opportunity for remote work.

It’s a fun creative outlet, too. Using your own photography and a little Photoshop magic, you can make worlds of your very own or change the one you live in to look and be the way you want it. Post-processing techniques like compositing take time and patience to master but yield incredible results, and they are almost guaranteed to set you apart from photographers who don’t post-process (or only use it to balance light and color).

Shoot for the Stars, but Shoot for Yourself, Too

Ambition is not a dirty word. Far from it; in today’s fast-paced, internet-driven world, an aggressive sort of tenacity is often required just to get your name in search results. You may have to implement a regular posting schedule for your social media accounts and spend a lot of time responding to comments and inquiries to keep your name relevant.

But in spite of all that, hobby isn’t a dirty word either. There’s nothing wrong with setting up a photo shoot just for the fun of it. In fact, even the most sought after names in the business can benefit from just-for-me projects from time to time. Make sure that you don’t become so entrenched in what will gain you likes and followers that you forget to enjoy the process.

There’s a whole side to photography that exists only in your head. To create amazing images and inspire others to do the same, you have to be in a good place emotionally, in addition to having a well-honed skill set. While you master all the buttons on your camera and figure out how to shoot at night without bathing your image in digital noise, make time to practice with the most important tool: your imagination.

Once you’ve learned how to use advice from others, harness your work ethic, and oh yes, actually work the equipment, the challenge is now putting them all together to achieve a vision you can be proud of. No pressure! But you can do it, and with a little practice you’ll be absolutely amazed at what you can create!

Maggie King

Maggie King is a freelance writer, photo editor, and mother of three. She specializes in product photography retouching and creates regular content for several blogs and social media presences.

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