Growth in photography can be as painful an experience for both your wallet and your ego as any challenge you’ll ever take on in life. What is really galling is just when you think you’re getting somewhere, some kid not even out of high school shows up on the scene and shoots rings around your work. You start to understand how Salieri felt when Mozart showed up.
The older me can look back at mistakes I made along the way in life and sometimes wish for a time machine that I could send notes back in time to myself. Things like ‘sell the rental and buy Google stock‘ and ‘don’t date the crazy blonde from Nebraska‘. A time machine would have made life so much less painful.
If was going to use my time machine to send my younger self photography advice, the messages would look something like this:
1. Focus On Lenses
Camera bodies come and go and really all they are is a box with a sensor, a battery, and a small computer. Yet photography forums are full of people agonizing over minor differences between this camera and that one that really aren’t significant.
If you want to agonize over anything, agonize over the difference between an f/2.8 lens and an f/4. Save your best research for understanding the difference between a pair of overlapping zooms and a set of primes. Lust after the glass, not the camera body.
2. Photography Is What Happens After Proper Lighting
Photography may be your craft, but lighting should be your passion. Good photographers wait for the light to get just right. Great photographers make light dance like a circus pony, turning it this way and that, bending light, color and shadow to their will.
The very best have rooms full of lights, reflectors, jibs, screens, gels, mirrors and flags; they spend hours on the lighting and refine it to perfection during shooting.
3. Shoot Like a Madman
Don’t take 200 images when you can take 2,000, don’t take 2,000 when you can take 20,000. If you’re not burning out a shutter mechanism every few years, you’re not applying yourself. How many times has your camera’s number system rolled over? When National Geographic photographers go out they come back with 60,000 images; out of that they pick maybe 10 or 12 for publication.
4. Shoot Your Own Style, Unless You’re Shooting For Someone Else
I like to shoot tight and crop in the camera. I get in close, which is part of my style. But when you’re second shooter for someone else, then let them do the tight cropping. You don’t have to crop in the camera when you’re second shooter.
Don’t cut off parts of people’s heads, let the prime photographer make that decision. If you must shoot that tight, at least back it with a shot that’s wider.
5. There’s Always Someone Better
Don’t get depressed because someone is a better shooter. Being a photographer is a little like being a gunslinger; there’s always someone faster and when you make a name for yourself there will be people trying to knock you off the top spot. Stick to your craft, hone your skills and sooner or later the fashion trend will swing your way.
Besides, even a blind sow can get an acorn once in awhile. When there are millions of people out taking pictures every day, someone is bound to get lucky.
6. Don’t Depend On Photoshop
Photoshop and Illustrator are tools for making your pictures look better, not for creating an alternate reality. Instead of trying to make your shots look perfect in post, strive for perfection in the camera. Even if that means buying a filter holder and set of graduated filters to get the sky colors and landscape exposure to even out.
A circular polarizer will sometimes yield better colors than anything you could do in Photoshop.
7. Buy a Set of Neutral Density Filters
For precision control over f-stop and shutter speed it will frequently be necessary to change the amount of light reaching your lens.
You can do that with an infinitely variable neutral density filter or a set of ND filters. They’re expensive but well worth the money.
8. Take a Break Once In A While
Go to parties and do fun things with your friends and leave the camera at home. Sometimes you just need to unplug and focus on the people around you in life. You can’t do that and take pictures, so choose to do one or the other and don’t cheat.
It’s a guarantee that there will be award winning photos you’ll miss every time you leave the camera at home. Forget about it. Don’t grudge yourself the shots you miss because you need some downtime. Lighten up and have some fun.