As someone who has worked for himself for a decade, I have a number of irons in a number of fires; it's simply good practice for survival when you have to generate your own money. As a result, I have certain tools at my disposal that help guide me when it comes to trending topics and questions. One such tool is AnswerSocrates.com, where you can see trending searches on whatever topic you choose, in whichever country you choose. I have never used it for photography content, funnily enough, but out of curiosity, I checked what the most common questions are for the topic. I expected to see questions about the best cameras, lenses, and bags, as well as basics such as "What is ISO?" and "What are the best camera settings?" The latter is an all-time favorite of mine. It's tantamount to asking what is the best medicine!
This turned out not to be the case, but it wasn't far off either. Many of the different questions were familiar, such as "can photography be a career," "when was photography invented," and "should photography be considered art," but one stuck in my throat as I mouthed it.
'Can I Learn Photography on My Own?'
Perhaps it's oversensitivity on my part, but I love this question. I imagine many trolls would give sharp responses to it, but they are forgetting that many haven't grown up with Google in their pocket. In fact, the question reminded me of a gentleman with whom I had a similar conversation to the one I would have with people asking this question. I'll call him John for the sake of this brief anecdote.
I am a friend of John's son, and upon his son getting married, I was asked if I'd shoot the wedding as they wanted someone they could trust, and it wouldn't be a conventional wedding. John was in his 70s and his wife, at some juncture, told me that he had just picked up a camera for the first time and was loving it, but he had no idea of how to learn what to do. He wasn't tech-savvy, he didn't use the internet, and books seemed to be outdated or light on useful information. Eventually, I spoke to John about photography, and he asked a similar question to the one on Answer Socrates: he wanted to know if it was possible to learn the craft on his own.
Now, in the case of someone who doesn't use the internet and isn't tech-minded, it's more of a challenge, but it isn't necessarily an obvious path for those who live on the internet either. John had an information drought when it came to photography, but the digital natives have information overload. Where do you get the best information? How do you know it's reliable? Can you truly get to a reasonable standard on your own? Without the internet, you will need either better books than John could find, or relinquish the "on my own" part in favor of photography clubs or tutoring. Or, you find someone who can use the internet on your behalf.
But, yes, you absolutely can learn photography on your own. Digital content is of a standard these days that you could become a leading photographer completely solo, and with the combination of YouTube, websites like Fstoppers, and paid tutorials, you have everything you need. I want to underpin all of the following by saying that you ought to be shooting as much as possible and experimenting while you're at it. Do not be afraid to miss or fail — that's the only way you will make any progress.
The order of play for teaching yourself photography ought to be starting with the foundations. The twin pillars of getting off the ground are the fundamentals of photography and understanding your camera. When it comes to the fundamentals of photography, there are nearly more resources than there are cameras; learn about the exposure triangle, and you're mostly set. In my early days, I printed it out and put it in my camera bag.
Understanding your own camera is just as easy to do. Let's say you buy a second-hand Sony a7 III (no affiliation, it was just a camera I bought and used for years), you will need to learn how to set it up for your use, which buttons do what, where settings are in the menu system, and so on. The manual is one way of doing it, sure, but I would recommend heading over to YouTube and typing "Sony a7 III beginner's guide" or words to that effect. This will result in brilliant tutorials like this one by Sidney Diongzon.
Once you're able to take pictures, you need to figure out what sort of images you want to create. No matter what genre motivated you to try photography (mine was macro), I implore you to shoot anything and everything and see what you enjoy. If you wanted to try your hand at landscape, for instance, you can follow the same pattern as above and search YouTube for something akin to "Beginner's guide to landscape photography" and look for a popular video. I would recommend Mads Peter Iversen's entry on that first page.
Now, there's a supplementary point I'd like to add here. Depending on how you define "on my own," you can accelerate your progress. When I read "on my own," I imagine that to mean without formal education or a one-on-one tutor. In which case, you should join photography communities or groups. From Reddit, to 500px, to Discord servers, there are myriad photography groups that provide useful feedback on images as well as inspiration from other photographers. For me, this was a sub-forum on a car website, but it had me engaging with photographers far above my station.
To push forward from a solid foundation, you have the choice of investing in the skill or taking the potentially longer path of trial and error. The amount of free content is staggering, and the caliber of some of it is marvelous, so it's feasible to reach a high standard without anything paid, but the best tutorials tend to cost. The Fstoppers tutorial library is proven, and I have watched many of them, so can speak to the standard, although given where I write this, you're welcome to get a second opinion!
To me and many others who have been around the space a while, the question "can I learn photography on my own" seems to have an obvious answer, but that evidently isn't the case for everyone. So, if you are interested in photography and are wondering if you need some formal training to be proficient at the craft: no, you do not.
If you taught yourself photography, share in the comments some tips for those who might be curious about dipping a toe in these waters, but are intimidated to do so without in-person guidance.