Photography has never been more popular. Practically everyone has a camera in their pocket, even if it is simply their phone. But there a difference between taking a snap and making a photograph. The main issues I come across when advising beginners are a fixation on equipment, boring photos, and trying to run before you can crawl. Here, I discuss these various issues and how to avoid some of the pitfalls when learning photography.
I all too often see beginners wanting to get straight into a professional kit, usually a DSLR and a set of lenses. It’ll be a case of wanting advice of whether to get a Nikon or a Canon, what the various different models mean, and how many megapixels they need. Unfortunately, this isn’t too surprising. The photographic industry survives by selling new cameras, new lenses, and other bits of equipment.
The most noticeable “pros” will be the paparazzi with their flashes blazing, or the sports ‘togs with their huge lenses crouching on the sidelines. More often than note, they’ll be festooned with red and yellow logos, and the clear message they are giving is that if you want to be taken seriously, you need a big, black, mean-looking DSLR with a correspondingly big lens hanging off the front.
If you want to be a professional football, rugby, cricket etc. sports photographer, then it makes sense to buy a D4 or 1DIV and a huge telephoto lens (e.g. 400mm/2.8 or similar). However, if you’re just starting out and envisage taking photos of your friends, or the scenery on pleasant days out, such equipment is overkill and a waste of money. It’d be like buying a Ferrari 458 to learn to drive.
Even the concept that one must have a DSLR to be a serious photographer is rapidly becoming less valid, the advances in so-called “mirrorless” cameras means that they will often be as good or better cameras to learn with. One can easily learn some important aspects of photography with a camera phone or compact point and shoot camera.
We’ve all taken boring photos. The key to improving is to recognize a boring photo before you take it. Sometimes it’ll still be worthwhile to take (e.g. for documentary purposes), but otherwise you have to ask yourself whether you should take it or else make it less boring. Particular genres that is prone to being “meh” are pets and children. The problem is that the emotional attachment of the photographer to the subject can cloud an object opinion as to the photographic merits of the image. It’s not that a photo of your pets or children are necessarily boring, people are often less self-critical before inflicting them onto the world.
The primary underlying reason for a photo to be boring is a lack of intention. As Ansel Adams stated, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”. A photo is not merely a collection of brightness and colour values, it derives its power from the meaning and emotion it engenders. These can come from the subject, the choice of framing, the tonal palette, geometry, expression, light and shadow, the moment captured. But underlying all this is a statement by the photographer with these choices.
Trying to run before you can crawl
Ambition is good, in small doses. We learn best if we have motivation, self-motivation is often the best. The beginner photographer wants to take better photos. But unrealistic expectations can be an impediment by causing frustration.
The 10,000 hour principle is widely quoted as a key to mastery of any endeavour. Whatever the specifics, the crucial message is that there are no shortcuts to success. You have to gain a whole wealth of experience to gain true understanding and expert proficiency. Effective practice, stretching yourself just beyond your current level, and reflecting upon what you have done is necessary. Photography is no different, requiring a blend of technical skill and artistic judgement.
A good way of improving is to set realistic and focussed goals based on your photographic interests. General theory and practice of photography is always useful. Once a sufficient grounding in this has been obtained, more specialist knowledge and techniques can be established.
One also has to be realistic in evaluating your own abilities, especially in the context of equipment. Often the lament is that one’s photos are not satisfactory so the immediate reaction is to consider a new camera or lens. It may be the case that learning how to better use your current equipment or improve your own technique would be a better response.