Mastering any craft takes a lot of time, intentional practice, and dedication. However, getting out of the blocks quickly can put you further along that path, sooner.
I bought my first DSLR off eBay and a nifty fifty to adorn the front. When it arrived, I plodded around my house and garden shooting wide open and swooning over the results. Once the honeymoon period had successfully passed, I was left desperately wanting better images than I was capable of. The same old tropes were rolled out about 10,000 hours and lifetimes of work, but what I wanted was to get out of the rookie stage as quickly as possible. I didn't expect to master the craft, I just wanted to get better faster.
That's the magic of starting something new: there's initially no diminishing returns on improvements and you can make leaps and bounds if you get the right information and apply it in the correct way. With the internet attached to us all hours, the information yield of even the nichest of searches is bountiful beyond practical use. So, I decided to compile a list of ways that you can improve the fastest as a beginner, for if I ever lose my memory and need to start again.
Possibly the most difficult on this list to actually attain, but a high-end, talented photographer critiquing your work properly is the single biggest way you can improve. If somebody with a strong portfolio, a lot of experience, and a deep understanding of photography is available to give you constructive criticism regularly or even semi-regularly, grab them with both hands. Constructive criticism and feedback from any old onlooker is as unpredictable as it is plentiful. However, if a mentor isn't a viable path for you, try tip 2.
I noticed recently that the photographers I surrounded myself with both online and in the real world changed with my abilities and progress. When I was a beginner, I was mostly surrounded by other beginners. Now the communities I am a part of where I look for feedback or advice are other professionals in the same position as me, or better. If you can embed yourself into a group of photographers who are knowledgeable, honest, and fair, you can achieve much of what you would with a mentor. That said, they aren't mutually exclusive. The groups you get access to after purchasing one of our tutorials are a good example and I use several of them.
Competitions and challenges are more of a practical suggestion, and a good one. When you're a beginner, I wouldn't worry too much about specializing in one type of photography, but rather enjoy and learn all the different genres and techniques. One way I did this which helped me develop a varied skillset was monthly competitions on a theme. We run these here at Fstoppers, so feel free to use those, but any will do, and the more the merrier. Not only does this improve technical command over your equipment, but it cultivates creativity.
Force Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone
Do this early and do it often. The quickest way to grow as a photographer is to try to do things you're not already comfortable doing. I still force myself to do this where ever possible. In fact, when an opportunity arises that causes me to be immediately filled with doubt and questions over how I could pull something off, it's a good sign I need to say yes and figure out a way. The earliest example of this was when I decided to take portraits of a proper model for the first time. You will make mistakes and have imposter syndrome, but it's where you'll grow the quickest.
This comes with a massive and important caveat: not all tutorials are made equal. While most tutorials will be useful for marginal returns, some tutorials — the ones that are a holistic guide to a genre of photography — are invaluable. I'm plugging our Fstoppers tutorials quite by accident, but they are superb for people trying to learn about a certain area of the industry or to develop skills in a particular brand of photography. However, they aren't the only options and the salient point of this tip is really to find thorough and substantial tutorials with the requisite depth to leave you without more questions than when you started. Ensure the source is trustworthy and the tutorial is well-received, and expect to pay more than a few dollars to have access to it.
I recently wrote an entire article about this, and while "practice" is the most obvious answer to the question of how to improve quickly, it's far from a complete answer. Firstly, you need to be shooting every day, even when — actually, especially when — you don't feel like it. Equally, you need to be conducting deliberate practice, not just going through the motions. Deliberate practice, as I summarized in the above article is:
To put the idea concisely, you set yourself a goal, and then, you practice to reach it with informed and critical feedback. Rather than just repeating a set of actions over and over, reaping the minimal rewards of familiarity and accidental knowledge, you instead push yourself where you're weakest and intelligently evaluate your work and process every step of the way.
Look at images you would like to be able to shoot with regards to image quality, composition, and so on, and then try to. Compare the two images and identify all the ways in which your image falls short. Then you need to work out how to bridge the gap.
Over to You
Veteran photographers, what advice would you give to somebody new to the medium that wants to get better, quickly? Beginners, what area is most mysterious to you and seems hard to progress with? Share your thoughts in the comments below.