I get quite a few emails and messages from amateur photographers wanting to get better. Jumping into the world of photography can be overwhelming to say the least, and there are a lot of decisions to make. This article will seek to answer some of the questions on what to do when starting out in photography, and how to get better.

1) Decide If You Want To Go Pro

Not everyone should pursue photography as a profession. The word “amateur” has become taboo for some reason, and people think it means “unskilled or incompetent.” The definition of amateur is actually, “A person who engages in a pursuit on an unpaid basis.” There are plenty of amateur photographers out there as good (or better) than I am. They simply have other full time jobs to pay the bills each month. Being a pro doesn’t mean you’re any better of a photographer than the next guy, it simply (and only) means that you draw a paycheck for what you do. Becoming a pro is a long and bumpy road, and one that I’m still on. It’s up to me to go out and find clients, to market and to make sure there is money each month to provide for my family. It can be stressful at times, and some days I have doubts creep in. For this reason alone, a career in photography will not suit everyone. Some people just aren’t built for it. Some people would rather have a guaranteed paycheck each month as long as they do their job. There is nothing wrong with that! When you’re an amateur, you do photography simply and purely for the love of the craft, and that’s a beautiful thing. When you go pro, a large percentage of your photography becomes a business; it has to. I spend about 80% of my time marketing my business, and only about 20% of my time shooting (if that). That is what it takes to have a shot at making it in this competitive, over-saturated market. On top of that, with the ever falling prices and ever increasing technology of digital cameras, everyone out there thinks they are a photographer. This only makes it harder to convince people they need (and they DO) to hire someone who knows their stuff. The up side to this is that I get to do what I love for a living; I get paid for doing something I already like doing! I get to be my own boss, make my own rules, manage my own time. I can work in the morning if I want to, or work at night. Although most days it’s both :-).

2) Network With Other Photographers

mesquite dunes workshop

Networking is an extremely effective and important way to get better at photography. There are countless ways to network with other photographers.

  • Join A Local Camera Club – If you live in or near a city, chances are there will be a photography club you can join. Just do a quick Google search for “Dallas Photography Club” and see what you come up with. Of course if you don’t live in Dallas, insert your own city 😉
  • Facebook Groups – There are also plenty of groups you can join on Facebook. Again, just do searches for keywords that interest you like “Bay Area Photography Club” and you’ll be sure to find something that fits what you’re looking for.

There are tons of ways to get connected with other photographers, these are just a few. If you don’t have a local group then be bold and start your own! I promise they will come!

3) Get A Better Camera

For a list of cameras I suggest, check out my Camera Recommendations page. This one is pretty simple! If you have a crap camera that you got 10 years ago that shoots 8MP images and can’t go past ISO 800, it will create road blocks to your vision. Some people will disagree with this, and send me nasty emails about how gear doesn’t matter. Sorry, it does. For example: Take two equally skilled photographers and place them in a low light situation, let’s say an indoor wedding with dimmed lights.

  • Photographer 1 has a Canon Rebel. He got it a while back for his graduation present from high school and fell in love with photography. The camera is great, but it can’t shoot very good images past ISO 800. It’s also hard to change the settings the way the layout is set up. It also won’t take multiple exposures while holding down the shutter. He has the lens it came with, which worked great when he was taking pictures at the lake. The lens is a kit lens, a 28-135 variable aperture lens, from 3.5-5.6. This means that as he zooms in on his subject, the aperture will slowly close, or stop down, to 5.6 if he is shooting wide open at 3.5. As the aperture number gets higher, the camera is letting in less light, which causes slower shutter speeds.
  • Photographer 2 has taken the time to study photography, and decided to invest in her equipment. She’s shooting with a Sony a7s II. It set her back about $3000, but she is dedicated to creating images that tell a story, and having creative freedom with her gear. She can shoot effectively at ISO 10,000 and get images that are totally useable. Not to mention her 80mm prime lens which has a fixed aperture of f/2.8. This camera also takes 4k video so she can take video clips throughout the wedding.

Now let’s throw these two photographers into a situation. They are photographing the ceremony together and actually standing right next to one another. The moment is coming when the bride and groom share their first kiss together; how exciting! The lights are dim and the two photographers are at the end of the center aisle, getting ready to frame the shot. The moment happens and the bride and groom move towards each other to kiss.

  • Photographer 2 brings her viewfinder up to her eyes. She has her ISO set to 6400, and her aperture set to f/2.8 or wide open. This gives her a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second. That is plenty of speed to freeze the action and capture the moment, especially since the a7s II has built in image stabilization which really gives her another 4.5 stops of shutter speed. That means the effective shutter speed is actually more like 1/3000th. On top of that, the low aperture of 2.8 is going to create a nice and flattering blur (also known as bokeh) in the background, which makes the bride and groom stand out as the clear subjects. She holds the shutter down, and because her camera shoots at 5 frames per second, she manages to squeeze out about 10 frames during the kiss.
  • Photographer 1 holds his camera up at the same time. Fortunately, he knows not to take the ISO over 800 or his images will be unusable because of the noise. Since his lens is zoomed in all the way, he can only set his aperture down to 5.6. He also doesn’t have multiple frames per second so he has to press his shutter down every time he wants to take a picture. Because of his ISO and aperture, his camera shows a proper exposure of 1/4 of a second. He manages to fire off 2 images because of the time it takes to press the shutter, releases it and recompose.

Photographer 1 looks down at his camera nervously. Unfortunately, it’s just about impossible to get a sharp image at anything less than 1/40th of a second, and he’s at 1/25th! One of the images he captured is in soft focus, and the other is blurry because the bride and groom were leaning in towards each other causing too much movement. Photographer 2 looks down at her viewfinder with a smile on her face. Not because of her gear, but because of the moment that just happened between the bride and groom. She is free to focus on the moment because she doesn’t have to worry about her gear! She pulled off 10 shots that start at the bride and groom leaning in for the kiss, and end with them turning towards the audience. And even better, they are all in focus! I know this tip has been long winded, but I wanted to prove a point: Top of the line gear won’t make you a better photographer, but it will absolutely remove road blocks that would otherwise stand between you and the images you want. See a list of my gear at my Gear page.

4) Say Goodbye To The Green Box

What is this mysterious green box? It’s the automatic setting on your camera! These mysterious settings don’t only come in the form of a box. They can also disguise themselves as running stick figures, flowers icons, mountain icons, and the like. These automatic settings are something you want to get away from quickly. You see, when you set your camera on the little green box, you are taking all of your creativity out of the equation, except for the framing of the subject. You are saying, “Canon (or Nikon, etc), please tell me what settings I should use for this picture. You can decide my shutter speed, my aperture, my ISO, my white balance, and my metering mode. All I’m going to do is point the camera in an interesting direction. Hopefully.” Now where is the fun in that?! You just let your camera company decide how your image is going to look! Set a goal for yourself to learn the manual settings on your camera. Start with Av mode, or Aperture Value. On this setting, you control the aperture and ISO, while the camera sorts out the shutter speed. It’s great for playing with depth of field. The lower the aperture number, the shallower the depth of field. After that, move to Tv mode, or Time Value. This setting is just the same except you control shutter speed and ISO, while the camera sorts out what aperture is needed. Go take pictures of cars on the road at night and play with different shutter speeds. Slow it way down and watch the headlight and taillight trails get longer and longer. Or better yet, set a low shutter speed and follow a car with your camera while the exposure is going off. This will cause the car to be in focus while the background is blurred streaks across the frame. Finally, step up to full manual mode. This is where the camera sits back and lets you take the driver seat. You control every aspect of how the image will look. The camera will however tell you what it thinks will be the proper exposure. You will soon find that it’s not always right though!

5) Invest In Editing Software

Post processing is a huge way to give your images a creative boost. If you’re serious about getting better at photography, this is a must. Here is a short list of essential software to consider. Starting with the most essential for getting started.

  • Adobe Lightroom (or Apple Aperture) – Lightroom is an incredible program. Being totally honest, if your a photographer who doesn’t want to do highly detailed and complicated edits of your images, this is all you need. Lightroom has come a LONG way in it’s capabilities. This program helps you to organize your photos, give them ratings, add creative effects or presets, adjust and correct color, use healing brushes to remove blemishes or distractions, straighten horizons that are crooked, create slide shows, create online galleries, send images to flickr or facebook, and so much more. Lightroom goes for about $299, while Aperture is $199. I have always used Lightroom so there is no need for Aperture, I don’t have a preference over either except that I have used Lightroom extensively.
  • Adobe Photoshop – This program can do just about anything. The possibilities are endless, and the more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn! This software basically controls the market for detailed edits of images. And with the recent release of Photoshop CS5, the possibilities are even more endless! With the know how, this program can handle anything you throw at it. From removing large and complicated distractions from a scene, to completely altering the color balance of a photo, to removing a sky from a landscape and replacing with another one, to completely painting a scene by hand. There is no way to sum up this program in a paragraph, so I’ll just say this: Get it!

6) Learn How To Use Lightroom and Photoshop

Neither of these are programs you can just open up and figure out on your own. They are anything but intuitive! There are plenty of sources online for learning these programs. Lynda.com is a great place to learn the basics. I also have my POST video courses that go through my entire workflow from start to finish using images from my portfolio.

7) Read Books

I love to read. You should too. I am a lifetime seeker of knowledge and reading is a good way to gain a lot of it! Here is a short list of books to get your started in your photographic journey. For a bigger list of books (not necessarily photography related), check out my Reading List.

  • Visual Poetry by Chris Orwig – A creative guide for making engaging digital photographs
  • Understanding Exposure Bryan Peterson – Every beginner photographer should read this book no matter what! This book teaches you to, well, understand exposure. It goes into detail on what to think about as you take pictures, and teaches you the difference between ISO, aperture, shutter speed, etc. A great read!

8) Get A Good Tripod

James at Athabasa Glacier

If you’re going to be engaging in night photography, nature photography, landscape photography, large family or wedding photography, or basically any type of photography, there will be times when you need to use a tripod. Tripods are good and bad, but mostly good. First, they slow you down. When you hand hold, there is always a tendency to get careless. Whether you stop paying attention to if your horizon is straight, or just don’t pay enough attention to your framing. Setting a camera on a tripod has a way of fixing this problem. You have to manually adjust the tripod to frame your subject. And then you have to make tiny adjustments to get everything just right. Using a tripod also ensures (mostly) that your image will be sharp and in focus. The only downside is the size and weight of some tripods, and some places won’t allow them. I always use a tripod for my landscape and travel work, unless there are rules against it where I am. You should too. Here’s my list of Budget Specific Tripod Recommendations.

9) Go To Museums

I heard a sound bite of a veteran photographer, although I can’t remember who, and he was discussing the disadvantages of going to school for photography. His opinion was that if you want to do photography for a living, don’t go to school for it. His reasoning was that the majority of photo school graduates learn to make technically perfect images, but they lack emotional connection because there is no understanding of art and human emotion. He said that if you want to be a photographer, get a degree in art appreciation instead. There is enough information on the web and in books to learn photography aside from school. While this reasoning has it’s gaps and apparent rebuttals, it’s an interesting concept isn’t it? If you want to be an artist with your photography, shouldn’t you study and understand art and it’s history? Go to a museum and take a pen and notepad with you. Walk up to an image and ask yourself why it intrigues you. When you figure it out, write it down. Take notes like this on every piece of art that catches your eye. If there is one that you hate, figure out why, and write that down too. Study different art forms as well, like Impressionism. This will give a much deeper understanding of color, framing concepts, what artists went through to get their work noticed, and so on. Study every form of art you can get your hands on, you won’t walk away empty handed!

10) Don’t Be Afraid To Fail

You know that saying, “What doesn’t kill ya, only makes ya stronger.” Every time you fail, you learn something new. Trials and failures simply add to your character and prevent future mistakes. You will make a lot of mistakes in your pursuit of photography. I do all the time! Embrace them, and most importantly, learn from them.

11) Take Pictures

This one seems obvious, but most of us don’t get out enough and just take pictures. Make a point to go out on a regular basis and photograph with no intentions except to learn your camera better. Plan an outing an make a rule that you can only shoot in a certain mode, like Aperture Value. Or take pictures one day with only one lens. Another challenging thing you can do is to only take a 1 gig card with you. Or the smallest card you can find. This will challenge you to really think about your shots before pressing down the shutter release. Make sure you don’t bring any other cards too, so you know there are no outs. This will cause you to slow down and really think about your camera settings. Sort of like the days of shooting film.

Conclusion

There is one last thought I’d like to leave you with here. Sort of a shift in thinking you could say. There is a huge difference between taking pictures and creating pictures. Think about it. When you go out with your camera on automatic and snap away, filling up cards left and right, what are you really doing? Your TAKING pictures, there isn’t much thought behind it really. You get back home and have 2,000 mediocre images with a few keepers here and there. What about creating a picture? What’s the difference? When I get to a place I want to photograph, I go through a process. Sometimes I’ll walk the location for an hour before I frame a single exposure. I don’t do this all the time, it’s just an example. When I finally frame my subject, I start going through a creative process. I look at the scene and determine my exposure. The camera may tell me one thing, but there are clues in the light of a scene that will tell you the camera is probably wrong. I decide what my shutter speed needs to be if I want to freeze a subject. Or I decide what my aperture should be if I want to create a certain depth of field. I calculate what my ISO should be at. Then I make sure my white balance is spot on. If my subject is far away, I may switch my metering mode to “Spot.” Then I make sure I have the right lens on. Do I want a wide angle, or is it the compression of a zoom lens that I’m after. Do I want a single exposure, or am I shooting for HDR? After all this, I focus on the framing of my subject. Do I want to abide by the rule of thirds or intentionally break it? Why not take it a step further and pay attention to the golden ratio? What if I want to frame the subject right in the middle because of symmetry? You should have a pretty good idea now of the difference between taking pictures, and creating them. Meditate on this the next time you are out with your camera. And take your camera everywhere!

  • Karen Clark

    I enjoyed your article. I also enjoy your pictures. You have so much talent . Thanks for sharing your passion with the world.

    • Thanks Karen! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  • Kim

    Hi James,
    I found you on Twitter and have enjoyed reading through your site. Great work! Thanks, also, for your inspiring and supportive words for us photographers transitioning from amateur to pro. 🙂
    All the best.

  • Thanks for the kind words Kim. Always glad to help, and good luck in your career as a photographer 🙂

  • What an impressive article. This is a wealth of information for someone starting out and trying to get on track. I can honestly say I learned a number of things myself by reading this article and you have defiantly made me think about some of the things I do, or don’t do.

    James, I must say that you have a great way with connecting to people through your writings. You make it very easy to understand while just simply talking just as you see things.

    I always enjoy reading your articles and will continue to read them. Plus, I will be checking out a few of the suggested books that you mentioned here on the article.

    Thanks for your knowledge and information that you so freely share with all of us.

    Shaun.

    • Thanks for the kind words Shaun! The books are all great reads. Especially Chris Orwig’s book and the one on Understanding Exposure.

  • Oh and I forgot to add. In my opinion there is a big difference in terminology.

    You can either TAKE PICTURES or CAPTURE PHOTOGRAPHS.

    I prefer the latter. 🙂

  • James…You are a great source of knowledge while being a grand teacher to share what you know.  I have really enjoyed your site and work.  I am at the end of my professional career waiting to retire to become a full time photographer.  You have alot of inspiration in your site.  Thanks for what you willingly share while inspiring others.

    Ernie

  • James W. Tedder

    Hi James, I’m going to be getting my first camera soon although I have done photography before. I loved your article and the points you made. Thanks for the knowledge, I will re-read this again in future.

  • Cyndi Smith

    Thank you for your wisdom and knowledge! I just got my first camera, I am excited and full of hope to be able to understand enough to make informed decisions, in my own directions in which to go. This has helped to point me in the right way for me, I appreciate your guidance! With sincere love and appreciation for photography, art, and teachers everywhere!

  • Georgie Pearson

    Thank you for making such an amazing piece. I am starting photography at school, I mean its going to get me somewhere I hope, but I also hope to develop myself further. Its something I love, being such a passionate person with so many emotions to share through images I hope to get myself out there and gain confidence. Reading this has given me the motivation and hope, your work is amazing! brilliant. Rambling I am sorry but again, thanks! 🙂

  • Douglas Silva

    I’ve been thinking about quit my job to start out with photography. I took some photography class at college and I really liked it. I own a Canon 1100D and my creativity to capture great moments. I know it isn’t the best equipament, but It’s what I’ve got for now.

  • Ava

    Hi James,
    I am a teenage girl (13) and have been very interested in photography from a young age (about since I was 6) and I really enjoyed you’re article. I found it very helpful.

    Personally however, I was wondering what you might suggest for me to get started with photography. I have a rather crappy Canon digital camera which I do take shots with, but I really feel like there is nothing impressive and amazing enough to capture. All of my pictures look…well, foolish. I know some people would disagree, but that is how I feel. So I was wondering if you might have some advice for me?

    Thanks.

  • Ava

    Also I want to mention, in connection to my previous reply, I really don’t have the money to buy any equipment or a new camera right now.

  • Fay

    Hi James,

    Thanks for your great article! I live on UK and am a busy mum of 4 young kids and have come to love photography. I’ve got all the gear but haven’t a clue where to begin learning more about it. College would not be a feasible option at the moment. Are online courses any good? Which ones? What’s your suggestion? I’m mainly interested on indoor and outdoor children and family photography.

    Thanks

    Fay

  • Jillian McLaughlin Tilley

    I will be a self taught Photographer myself and so much you’ve said here resonates with me, it makes me so happy. The points about not going to school and appreciating the art aspect, or creating the photo vs. taking it.. PERFECT. I am confident I have the eye and the creativity for beauty … I am just super intimidated to learn how to use the camera. hahaha … thanks for all the pointers and what seems to be an endless wealth of knowledge. Oh, and the obvious – gorgeous photos!

    • Thanks for the kind words Jillian, glad you enjoyed the article!

  • Pingback: Grapevine Photographers | Home()

  • Thanks for the article that seems very appropriate. Really, landscape photography is one of the most difficult disciplines photography of nature. And that is because it is landscape is available to everyone and if our photos do not contain large doses of emotion nothing new. They are simple testimonies of what everyone sees.
    While agreeing with most of what you expose, I do not share the first two points. Why use wide angle close in when the landscape gives us excellent opportunities to use telephoto lenses? Compressing the perspective they produce is an excellent compositional resource that should not be forgotten.
    Nor do I share the need for apertures. Moreover, in many cases advise against. For three reasons: first, for creativity: the selective approach is also a useful resource, but will be restricted to one who has very bright lenses. The second, for practical reasons: compact cameras or bridge could not be used for landscape photography because they cannot close more than f8. The third, for technical reasons: the cameras with smaller sensors Full Frame (the vast majority of market SLRs) have problems diffraction tightest of f11 aperture. Those with more than 12MP and have to f11. And that translates into an overall loss in image sharpness, even in well-targeted areas.
    Thanks, anyway, for the rest of tips that will surely help many photographers to improve their images. http://www.thephototoday.in

    • Thanks! Different strokes for different folks I suppose 😉