Seven Essential Photography Lessons

Seven Essential Photography Lessons

There are some essential things about being a photographer, most of which photography books don't usually mention. Here are the seven most important lessons I learned as a photographer, including one exercise I use to hone my skills.

1. It Must be Fun

Whether run as a business or a hobby, photography must be enjoyable. Picking up that camera and looking through the viewfinder, sitting for hours in front of a computer developing images, and even doing the marketing and accounts mustn't be an unwelcome chore. I love every minute of it, although marketing and accounts are probably my least favorite. Yet, I meet people who are unhappy with their work. I wonder why they don't get out and do something else instead. It's something I've done in the past. If it's not fun, walk away.

There's only one way to ensure your happiness and satisfaction in photography. Do your own thing, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

2. Help Other Photographers Succeed

A fair chunk of my business is training others, and nothing makes me happier than them making a success of it. I sometimes get asked by clients whether they could be professional photographers. Subsequently, I have trained several and helped them start their careers. I'm not taking credit for their success; that is down to their hard work and perseverance. That I have helped them along the road is not only satisfying, but I learn a vast amount from teaching others, and it also reinforces my existing knowledge.

3. I Don't Know Anything, Let Alone Everything

Some people seem to think they do know all there is to know about photography. I have never had that delusion. Inevitably, we don't know everything. I knew that was especially so when I started as a beginner in my youth. But that feeling of ignorance, instead of diminishing, grows. It seems the more I teach, the more I learn, and the more I discover there is stuff I don't know. There is always so much more to understand that it seems I have just scratched the surface.

4. It's Only a Photo and It's Only a Camera

Next, I remember that it is just a photograph. On its own, it won't change the world. However, a photo might give you, me, or someone else powerful feelings. It could be a precious moment at a wedding, a portrait of a lost relative, or a beautiful subject that evokes strong emotions. Understanding that duality between a photo's simultaneous insignificance and importance helps us not to get full of ourselves and, simultaneously, create pictures with meaning.

Similarly, some photographers idolize their cameras. It isn't a god; it's just a tool. I know mine has unique functions that I use, so it's perfect for me. But, like your camera, it is just a lump of metal, glass, and plastic, albeit a pleasantly designed one.

5. My Best Photos Come From Shooting What I Know

A harbor, a river mouth, and the sea are a few hundred yards from my back door. I've lived in this house for nine years, so I know it well. I understand what tidal state is best when the light on the island is just right and how rough the sea will be depending on the wind direction. I know the workings of the fishing fleet, the direction of the sunrise at different times of the year, the best camera placements to get good shots, and the behaviors of the local birds. Experience with my local environment helps me achieve a far higher percentage of successful photos than if I were in an unfamiliar setting shooting a new subject.

6. Other People Take Great Photos

Some people find it hard to accept that others can be successful in what they do. Jealousy isn't a mindset that won't help them improve their skills. We can learn from other photographers' pictures, and appreciating what they do helps the learning process.

I always take the time to analyze others' images and work out what I do and don't like; there are some genres of photography that I am not a fan of, but I can see why some people do like them. Neither is every photo my cup of tea, so I also work out why that is the case. I keep my opinions to myself because an uninvited negative critique won't do me any favors.

7. The Skill I Mastered Before Turning Professional

There's one thing on my list that is in photography books. Of course, a professional needs a certain level of knowledge. A familiarity with how your camera will perform under certain conditions is essential. That partly means being able to change the settings of your camera without looking. That's something I practice. However, there is more to it than that. I also know how my camera will perform under different conditions.

Try the following exercise:

In a familiar environment where you would usually shoot, find a moving subject; it doesn't matter what. It can be anything, maybe a clock's pendulum, someone walking, blowing tree branches, a passing car, etc. Pick up your camera and set it to manual exposure. Keep the lens cap on so you cannot cheat and use the menus on the back screen.

Set the shutter speed to stop the subject's movement. Next, adjust the focal length, aperture, and distance from the subject to fill the frame and give you just enough depth of field to include the whole subject, but not the entire scene. Then, judge a good exposure by adjusting the ISO. Choose your focus point. Remove the lens cap and take the shot. How good a result did you get?

Once you have done that, change all the variables and try that repeatedly. Use alternative focal lengths and depths of field. Change the lighting conditions too. Maybe decide to show some motion blur. Over time, you will have a good idea of what settings you need.

It isn't easy. Because of semi-automation (I love aperture priority) plus the depth of field and histogram previews through the viewfinder, it is possible to get great photos without this basic understanding of how the camera works. We get used to that. Nevertheless, I believe it is vital to be aware of exposure and how the settings change the look of the image because there will come times when you need to fall back on those basic skills.

If you are specializing in a particular genre, such as studio photography, you will need just as much familiarity with the working of your ancillary equipment. For example, how modifiers influence the look of the image, how to apply the inverse square law with the proximity of the light source to the subject, how that distance changes the softness of the light, balancing the brightness of multiple strobes, and so on. But knowing how your camera behaves is just the start. Depth of field plus stopping or showing movement are basic compositional techniques. The placement of subjects within the frame, how they interact, and how they are lit are critical. It all takes learning and practice.

There is no secret formula to what makes an image work. There are innumerable combinations of subjects, compositions, lighting, and camera settings, and over time, you find what works for you. More importantly, you'll discover what doesn't.

Are there important lessons you have learned on your photographic journey? I hope you have a go at my exercise, and it will be great to hear how you got on.

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8 Comments
Tom Reichner's picture

Point #5 - My Best Photos Come From Shooting What I Know

This is so very true.

But I would like to add a sub-point, and that is that I can expand my vision and creativity by shooting what I don't already know.

After learning how to shoot something new, when I return to my usual subjects, I see them in a slightly different way, and that opens the door to creating images that are a bit different from what I have always produced.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's a good point. Thanks, Tom.

Samantha Shannon's picture

These are all excellent reminders that really resonated with me today: thank you! Mindset is something that isn't talked about enough in books and courses about learning photography but it's so important! I appreciate your positive and practical advice here, especially that fun exercise at the end.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Samantha. I am glad you enjoyed it.

James Bruton's picture

This is a very good article that aspiriing photographers, like me, need to read. Lesson 7 is a great recommendation. By improving your skill naturally will enhance lesson one - fun! Thanks!

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks James. I'm glad you found it useful.

Ruud van der Nat's picture

Very good article. Going to practice setting my exposure etc with the lenscap on, I’m already in the ballpark most of the time but not spot on. Great exercise

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you. Enjoy the exercise! I don't get it 100% right all the time, but it's a useful thing to work at.