The reason we’re sharing Ten Things You Wish You Knew Before Starting Photography is because we want to help new photographers avoid some of the surprises and mistakes many of us make along the way. Photography is rewarding, but there are a lot of aspects that you may not know about when you get started.
Ten Things You Wish You Knew Before Starting Photography
Why ten things?
Well, why not? There are probably many more things you wish you knew before starting photography, but we’ve tried to condense them into a manageable list. You’ll hear us expand upon the items on the list during the podcast, and see it in the show notes below.
With that in mind, here’s our list.
1: Photography May Be Expensive
You may not realize this when you buy your first camera, but what you’re really doing is sticking your toe into the water of a vast system of tools and technology.
The good news is that you have enormous options to enhance your photography with new gear, providing options that you can’t achieve with your first camera and lens.
The bad news is that these options are frequently expensive, ranging from “Ouch!” to “You Must be Kidding!”
Please note that I say photography may be expensive. Nothing says that it has to cost a lot of money. In fact, I promise you that you can take beautiful photos with any modern camera, and quite a lot of older cameras.
The expensive part comes when you want to do something that your current gear doesn’t allow, or something it doesn’t do as well as you wish it would do. If you can work within the scope of your camera and lens, you can still create some amazing photographs.
The most important tools for photography are light and imagination. Both of those are free.
2: Technical Skills Aren’t the Important Part
Hand most people a DSLR camera and they’ll find out quickly that it’s not a point and shoot tool. You need to understand how to set it so you get decent exposure, at the very least.
Yes, you may find a mode on your camera that sets some of the exposure for you. On my Nikon cameras, it’s P (for Professional). Even with that, you may not have the right ISO. In short, the camera needs a human to operate it.
It’s easy to get hung up on technical issues when you get into photography.
Yet, these technical skills aren’t why many of us got into photography in the first place. Understanding how your camera works, and it’s an important part of making a good photograph. Those technical skills just aren’t the most important part of photography.
3: Your Vision is the Important Part
Photography isn’t just about documenting your subject. It’s an expressive and creative art. Well, it can be if you learn how to use your sense of vision. If all you do is concentrate on technical skills, then you’re going to end up with photos that look like a mug shot.
Your vision is the sense of style created by your imagination that you turn into a photograph.
For example, let’s say that you want to show motion in your photographs. You can do that by manipulating the exposure triangle (Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed) to allow your moving subject to blur.
What if you want part of the photo sharp and another part in blur?
Then you learn how to use off-camera flash with a short duration to freeze the motion created with that light, and let the part of your subject in ambient light turn to blur.
Another possibility is to pan your camera with your subject as it moves.
Maybe you use a tripod to keep the non-moving parts of your photo sharp while you leave the shutter open longer to let the movement blur.
The only reason to know these technical skills is so that you may apply them when your creative mind and vision comes up with an interesting way to tell the story of your subject.
Motion is only one aspect of your vision. You may want to emphasize color, control where the light falls, change the depth of field or any number of creative opportunities at your disposal.
Use you vision to imagine it. Then apply your technical skills to create it.
4: Know Your Camera Features and Settings by Heart
While technical skills aren’t the most important part, you need them. In fact, you need to know how to change your camera settings by heart. Otherwise, you’ll miss opportunities.
You don’t have to be an event photographer to know that moments only last a fraction of a second. If you aren’t prepared, you’ll miss your chance to capture something.
Imagine you’re photographing a cityscape or landscape at sunrise or sunset. Light changes rather quickly during those times. You need to know what adjustments to make, and how to make them.
If you stop to look things up in your manual, then you’re missing a moment. Life doesn’t always wait for the photographer to prepare. Often it’s quite the opposite.
You can improve your odds of capturing a moment by paying attention and anticipating what may happen. While you’re doing that, you may need to simultaneously adjust your camera.
Make sure you take time to learn all the buttons, knobs and menu options in your camera so you’re ready when your moment arrives.
5: Photography is About Compromise
One of the first technical things you learn in photography is the exposure triangle. Simply stated, your exposure is a product of changes to Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed.
You want to freeze motion? Then you need a fast shutter speed. Don’t have enough light (and no off-camera flash)? Then you need to open your aperture and increase your ISO to get the shutter speed that’s fast enough to stop motion.
On the other hand, increasing the ISO may introduce noise. Opening the aperture changes your depth of field. So you get the faster shutter speed, but you give a little on the other aspects of photography.
It doesn’t end there.
We have cameras and lenses with different lengths and weights. Some of the best quality often comes in the most inconvenient package. If you want to get close-up photos of a bird or a bear, you have a couple of options:
- Use your existing kit lens and get very, very close to the animal
- Get a 500 or 600mm lens with a tele-extender and take photos of the animal when it concerned with your presence
It’s really hard to get close to a bird in flight with a kit lens. Also, it’s really unwise to get close to a bear with a kit lens. They like their space.
Traveling with your camera gear is another compromise. Do you lug a lot of gear with you so you can capture your subject at the best possibly quality, or do you carry lighter gear so you have more opportunities to take photos?
It depends upon your priorities.
I’ve done both, and with different results. Sometimes it sucks to carry a lot of heavy gear, but I’m very happy with my results. When I had a lighter kit, I wished I had better bokeh or options at my disposal. Yet my back didn’t hurt.
6: The Sooner You Use Manual Settings, The Sooner You Understand Exposure
As much as possible, you need to touch your art. You need to understand it. Feel it.
At least that’s what my pottery teacher told me years ago. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. People who create things don’t come out clean on the other side.
Why do they get dirty? Because they need to understand and embrace the materials used to create something.
Manual exposure is your way of understanding exposure.
When you rely upon any type of automatic settings, you’re surrendering control. When you control all of the aspects of your exposure, you quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. Embracing responsibility for your results is an excellent teacher.
Automating your exposure limits your knowledge, and you’ll never truly understand exposure without spending some time controlling all of the variables.
7: Off-Camera Flash is Your Friend
Sometimes your exposure triangle needs a little help.
When you think about it, off-camera flash allows you to have two exposures in one photograph. It does this by adding two new variables to the exposure equation:
- Flash Power
- Flash to Subject Distance
The original exposure triangle – Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed – impact the global exposure.
Let’s put this in context. You have a subject in front of a beautiful subject. The light comes toward your camera. That means you don’t have light on your subject.
If you raise the exposure settings so your subject looks well-exposed, then your background probably looks very over-exposed. If you set your exposure triangle to favor the background, then your subject probably looks dark or light a silhouette.
The only way to have both is to pop some light on your subject.
So you use your exposure triangle to get a good exposure of the background. To light your subject, you can adjust your flash power and how far it is from the subject.
Why do those matter?
Let’s start with distance. If you want soft light, then you get the flash as close to the subject as possible. Move it away to get hard light. Also, moving your flash away gives you a larger zone of exposure. That’s because you lose 75% of your light every time you double the distance between the flash and the subject.
Doubling distance and losing power has dramatic impact, but also gives you options. If your subject is actually a group of people covering a range of distance, it may be wise to move the flash back so you have more room before the light falls off.
The amount of flash power you use depends upon the distance. If you want to photograph someone close to your light, then you don’t need to blast all of your power. When you need to cover some distance and get even light on a group, it pays to have some power at your disposal.
On the podcast, I recommended a book by Scott Kellby
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8: You Can Take Great Photos with Good Light, Background and Subject
Want to take great photos?
You need three things. The better you can setup the quality of these three things, the better your odds of creating a great photo.
Treat each of these with equal importance. Failing on any of these three aspects of your photo brings down the overall quality of your photo.
Let’s start with your background. I see far too many photos with little or no regard to the state of the background. Instagram is full of beautiful women taking photos with a toilet in the background.
That kind of thing ruins the overall impact of the photo.
Your background should not overwhelm your subject, though. For example, I’m not a fan of photos that use grand backgrounds that are much taller or larger than the subject, leaving you to reach for a magnifying glass to see the portrait subject.
Finding an interesting background is good. Just remember, it’s the background – not the subject.
Your light should match the mood, story and subject of your photo. Do you need hard light or soft? What’s the right direction of light for your subject? Is it the right color?
Think about the quantity of light on your subject. Remember, shadows are your friend. They help define the edges of your subject and add depth and dimension.
Finally, do your best to show your subject in a way that tells the story you need. It doesn’t matter if your subject is a person, place or thing. Think about what makes your subject interesting, and then photograph it to emphasize, maybe even exaggerate, those facets.
9: Most of the Really Cool Shots Require Really Expensive Lenses
Your camera probably has everything you need to create a great exposure. The thing that usually makes the cool stuff happen is your lens.
Sadly, your kit lens likely doesn’t have the stuff it takes to make some of those really cool shots.
If you want a very wide aperture, like f/2.8 or f/1.4, then you’re likely to spend a lot of money compared to the same focal length with a smaller minimum aperture. One exception is often a 50mm lens, which lets you get f/1.8 for under $150.
Previously, I mentioned using a very long telephoto lens for wildlife. They’re also mandatory for professional sports photography. Those 500 or 600mm lenses cost thousands of dollars. Probably more than your camera body. The results are stunning, though.
If you want a creamy bokeh, you likely need something like an 85mm f/1.4 or a 200mm f2.8 lens. Don’t just look at the aperture and focal length. Also pay attention to the number of aperture blades and the shape of those blades.
If you want to get those perfectly round bokeh balls, you want to find a lens with rounded aperture blades, not angular edges. More blades create better bokeh, so look for eight or nine blades to get better results than a lens with fewer blades.
Please note this doesn’t mean you have to buy expensive gear to create amazing photos. You absolutely can do it, even with your kit lens.
Long exposure photos typically use a small aperture, so you photograph light trails, fireworks or silky smooth water just by using your kit lens and a tripod.
A lot of studio portraits use a middle or small aperture, also. You’re greater concern is focal length over aperture size.
The time to spend money on expensive lenses is when you want to take advantage of features those lenses provide.
10: Photography is Ultimately About Relating to Your Subject
Combining your gear, technical skill and vision is all about creating something that people want to see.
How do you know what someone wants to see? That’s something you have to understand. One of the best ways to do that is to relate to your subject.
It doesn’t matter if your subject is a person, place or thing. It’s up to you to find the interesting or beautiful aspect of the subject, and show that to your viewer.
You have to see something inside your subject and convey it. My opinion is that you’re looking for a story of some kind. Nothing elaborate. Just enough to let a stranger see something relatable in your subject.
Here’s a simple example. This is my dog Milo in our back yard (ignore those weeds). He’s excited and clearly rushing toward me. While not my greatest photo, it brings a smile to my face.
If you’re a dog lover, you can relate to the feeling of a dog rushing toward his master. That’s the story here. Very simple and easily relatable.
To setup this photo, I threw his favorite toy and then called him back. Then I waited for the right moment with his front legs off the ground and clicked.
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We have two of those things, because our other Labrador (Lola) loves it, too.
Here’s something else to keep in mind. Your viewer doesn’t have to be a fan of your subject in order to relate to it. Whether you are a dog person or not, you can understand the action and enthusiasm of the dog in the photo and that he’s running in the direction of the view. That’s a relation most viewers can comprehend.
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