A letter to a photographer
I hope you remember me. I met you a few days ago while delivering a lecture on photography. You were in the audience. I fielded the usual questions about equipment, camera settings, location, and so on, and as I was gathering my things and putting my laptop away at the end of the lecture, you came up to talk to me. We made some polite small-talk, and then you asked me something I guess you didn’t want to ask in a roomful of people. You asked me what I thought were the most important things to consider if one wants to become a good photographer. Simple question. Not very easy to answer. I told you not to worry about the equipment you have, but to keep shooting. I told you to think a little more about framing and composition, and to try and understand light.
While driving back home later that evening, I thought about my answers to your question, and realised I probably wasn’t very helpful. It’s not that I didn’t want to help you; it’s just that you asked me a question I wasn’t prepared well enough to answer. I realised that there are some things I do with my camera now that have become second nature to me. I don’t need to think about them. I’m on auto-pilot, familiar with all the buttons, my mind knows what I’m going for, does the calculations, my eyes, fingers, thumbs and feet do the execution. It’s like driving a car. I don’t need to think about the clutch, the accelerator, the brakes, I don’t need to think about which gear I should be in. I just know. I just do.
So I thought about the question some more. I turned it over in my head and reframed it to try to come up with a better answer: Knowing what I know now, what advice would I have given me when I was starting out as a photographer several years ago?
1. Ditch the AUTO modes
Most SLRs have a dial on top, with a bunch of icons or letters: a green camera icon (or AUTO), a bunch of auto modes for close-up, portrait, landscape or night photography, and the letters P, S, A and M (for Nikon; P, Tv, Av and M for Canon). Ditch all the auto modes. Know what the P (program), S (shutter priority), A (aperture priority) and M (manual) modes do. I won’t explain that here; there’s enough information on all of that freely available on the web. But this is the first step up from point-and-shoot to SLR photography. I shoot in aperture priority mode about 85% of the time, and in full manual mode the remaining 15%.
2. Don’t be afraid to push all the buttons
Your camera probably came with a big, fat manual. That manual is your friend. Read it. Keep it in a place where it is readily accessible. There are a lot of buttons and settings in your camera, from bracketing to exposure compensation, to exposure lock, to ISO, to metering. Don’t be afraid to push all these buttons. Learn what they do. Know where all the buttons and dials are so that operating them in the dark becomes as easy as 1-2-3. Understand the different focus modes. Go through the menu banks and learn how to adjust your white balance, learn your multiple exposure and intervalometer settings and when and how to use them. Remember, YOU’RE in control. Don’t let your camera dictate your settings by staying in AUTO mode.
3. Learn the basic rules
As much as I hate rules, they’re there for a reason. The internet is awash with information about photography. Start with a few articles on the rule of thirds, leading lines, framing and composition, depth of field, angle, perspective and symmetry. Be open to what more experienced photographers have to say about technique. You have to know the rules before you can break them. I break several of these rules myself (I have since started calling them guidelines rather than rules; it makes it a little easier to justify breaking them), but I break them intentionally, not accidentally.
And always shoot RAW! Learn some basic post-processing. Photoshop is not a bad thing. Don’t let anybody ever tell you that. Photographers have always post-processed. With chemicals in the film era. Digitally, now. As the great Ansel Adams himself once said, “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”
4. Respect the golden and blue hours
Go to your favourite overlook and take a few shots. At dawn, after breakfast, at noon, at sunset, and just after. See? If it means you have to leave home at 2:00 in the morning to reach your favourite spot before sunrise, you leave at 2:00 in the morning. The light won’t wait for you because you want to sleep just a little longer. Get to your spot ahead of schedule so it leaves you with some time for location scouting, to find the best angle and composition, and gives you time to set up. The rich, slanting light at dawn and dusk adds warmth and texture to your landscapes. Be ready when the light arrives.
5. Invest in a good tripod
I can’t stress this enough. Buy a good tripod. A GOOD tripod. With a good head. Buy one that will support at least 5 times the weight of your heaviest camera and lens combination. One that will take a beating. In the heat, in the cold, in the dust, in mud, in water. There really is no compromise here. If you’re going to own only one tripod, always prioritise strength, stability, rigidity and load-bearing capacity over portability and weight. Your long exposures will be infinitely better. And when you see the difference for yourself, drop me a line here to thank me. You’re welcome.
If you’re going to buy only one tripod, always prioritize strength, stability, rigidity and load-bearing capacity over portability and weight. Your long exposures will be infinitely better.
6. Study, plan, create
This is possibly the best use of a photographer’s time when he or she’s not out shooting or processing pictures. Browse through Flickr or 500px for creative inspiration and tips. Spend time thinking of what pictures you want to create and how you can do it. Then, go make the pictures. I recently went on a photography trip to Iceland. For weeks before my trip I studied the work of landscape artists like Iurie Belegurschi, Elia Locardi, Raymond Hoffman and Dylan Toh. I thought about all the places I wanted to shoot, all the pictures I wanted to make. Their work gave me the inspiration to experiment with perspective and composition, and to make the best use of the conditions I had.
Spend time reading blogs by other photographers, browsing websites like those of the photographers mentioned above, studying online tutorials. Get feedback on your work. Be open to new ideas. You don’t have to do everything that everyone else does or says, but a little more knowledge about the art never hurt anyone. Be unbiased about the information you gather, but be selective about how you use it.
7. Never mind the camera; just go out there and shoot
If you think you’ll be a photographer only when you have the ‘right’ equipment, think again. Cameras do not take amazing photographs, people do! So don’t worry about the camera you have. Even if it’s a cell phone (and some of them have AMAZING cameras), just keep shooting. While there are certain factors one needs to take into consideration where equipment is concerned (the point I made earlier on tripods), having a Nikon D810 or a Canon 5D Mark III won’t guarantee you good photographs. Photography is more about composition and light than about equipment. I’ve seen some pretty mediocre photography from owners of top-of-the-line DSLRs. And some of the best street photography I’ve seen has been shot on an iPhone.
So just get out there and start shooting. The best photographers I know on a personal level all have a few things in common that I can identify with. They have had no formal photography education. They genuinely love the art. They think about photography all the time. They would rather be taking pictures even when they’re doing something else. The money they make through photography is welcome, but they aren’t doing it for the money. They started with whatever they could afford, and just kept shooting. And they got better and better. And after years at their craft, they’re still getting better.
Meet like-minded people. Those who are as passionate about photography as you are. Shoot with them. Talk to them. Regularly. There is much to learn.