Elia Locardi is Back

This Is the Worst Photography Advice I’ve Ever Had

This Is the Worst Photography Advice I’ve Ever Had

When it comes to photography and the quest to improve, there is no shortage of advice out there. Some of it's great, some of it is rather questionable, and some of it is utter nonsense. Here's some of the worst advice I've received over the years.

First, before we get into the article itself I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m talking from a purely personal, subjective viewpoint. As the title suggests, this is the worst advice that I have ever received. It may not be applicable to you and you may well disagree with my viewpoint, but I’m sure there are other types of advice that you have received that have been equally as bad from your own perspective. So with that out of the way, let’s get going.

I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not but when I was an undergraduate student at university in Sydney, I studied liberal arts. A Bachelor of Arts is what I graduated with, to be specific. A B.Arts (or BA) in Australia is often derogatorily referred to as a “Bugger All” degree, which in local lingo means it’s pretty much worthless because of the idea that it doesn’t really train you to enter into any particular vocation. However, what it does certainly help you with is critical thinking and I learned very early during my time at university that advice and opinions, no matter who they’re from, are very similar in that everyone has them but they’re not necessarily helpful a lot of the time when you get them. Learning to become a critical thinker is immensely beneficial in that it allows you to sift through a myriad of information more acutely and more quickly identify things that might assist you in whatever research you're doing.

My B.Arts was great for critical thinking, but I had to further my education to actually get job training.

Thus, when I began my journey into photography and started to get a little bit more serious about it, quite naturally I began to encounter more and more people in the field. Some were teachers, others were experienced professionals, while others were simply enthusiastic hobbyists. Yet they all had their own opinions about what good photography is and what you should do to improve. I found it incredibly interesting listening to so many different viewpoints but it very quickly became apparent that, for me, a lot of it was nonsense that was completely irrelevant to me and my goals.

Only Shoot in Manual Mode

One of the worst pieces of advice I got from many people in different genres was to always shoot in manual mode. No doubt, looking back, it was purely an ego thing and a desire to show other people how much they knew about the craft and their equipment, and a way to separate themselves from the plebs beneath them who used any kind of auto function on their cameras. Usually, the idea behind shooting manual only was that it gave you total control over all of the settings so you weren’t held hostage in any way by the whims of the pre-installed computer inside your camera making decisions for you.

For me, there are very few absolutes in life, more so in photography, so using all of the available options on a camera seems rather prudent to me in most situations. Therefore, when people insisted that I didn’t use any other setting except for manual mode I usually gave them a polite smile and quickly left them to their own devices.

Look at all those options. Why limit yourself to just one?

Drill Down Into A Specific Niche

Another piece of advice that I’ve always found rather baffling is the idea that you should find your niche in photography quickly and really focus on that specific type of photography at the expense of everything else. Or, as another friend said, “always stay in your lane.” The essence of this is the notion that you should master your craft in a very specific area of photography rather than float around in different genres while becoming a master of none. Of course, this idea might apply perfectly to people whose sole income relies on a rigid type of photography such as studio portraits of newborns but for the majority of photographers, I can’t think of anything more limiting.

Going back to point one above and the benefits of a liberal arts education, it might come as quite a surprise to you that over a third of the current CEOs in Fortune 500 companies have a liberal arts degree. For example, Slack founder Stewart Butterfield, as well as LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, both have a master's degree in philosophy, and co-founder of the search engine Aardvark, Damon Horowitz, holds a doctorate in philosophy. What does this mean? It means that having a broad education and a wide understanding of a variety of different areas helps you immensely in your chosen field.

Understanding depth has been hugely beneficial for my surfing photography

Thus, when you apply that to photography, understanding and practicing a vast array of genres will, ultimately, help you in whatever specific genre of photography you’re focused on. For instance, if you're a wedding photographer who makes money by shooting weddings every weekend then it will benefit you greatly if you also have a good understanding of landscape and seascape photography. That way, when you’re shooting the bride and groom before the wedding or after the wedding for their specific couple shots you can take them out into areas of nature and use your knowledge of landscape photography to produce shots that are much better than if you had no idea about any of the concepts in landscape photography or how to use natural light. You can say the same about mixing and matching many different genres.

30-Day Challenges

Finally, we arrive at, by far, the worst photography advice I've ever received. For me, photography is a creative pursuit where I can express my views and emotions through imagery. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn't, but producing images must always come from my love for taking photos. Like everyone, I go through phases where I just don't feel in love with photography. Indeed, for the last month or so I've barely picked up a camera owing to different circumstances, but I haven't missed it at all because I haven't felt any real enthusiasm or desire to go out and take photos. That's absolutely fine because I know the creative juices will start flowing again, as they always do.

However, when I first started out with photography and found myself in these periods of inertia, I got so many people suggesting the same thing to me. What was it? To go out and give myself a 30-day challenge taking photos in a genre I'm not normally interested in. Honestly, I couldn't think of anything worse. I always wondered why on earth anyone would force themselves to do something they have no particular interest in for 30 straight days. Just why?

Why do something you don't enjoy for 30 days?

Of course, the idea is that it might give you new ideas or rekindle your passion for taking photos, but that's simply not how I work. You might think this is counter-intuitive to my ideas above about liberal arts and educating yourself in many areas, but it's not. In liberal arts, as in photography genres, you have a lot of choices about what you can study, but that doesn't mean you should study things you're simply not interested in. For example, during my BA I never went anywhere near anything related to business or economics. Just as in photography, I've never had any interest whatsoever in product photography. That's just personal.

If I'm not interested in something, I won't do it, so I can't think of anything worse than forcing myself to photograph things for 30 days straight in the hope that I find the bug again. And it's not just the photography, is it? You have to categorize your raw files, edit them, cull the ones you don't like, and so forth. Can you imagine how much time that would take over 30 days? Doing such a challenge would likely kill me off rather than help me in any way.

Summing Up

To reiterate, these ideas are personal. Your feelings might be different. But the big takeaway here is that you don't need to follow all the advice you get, no matter who it comes from. Take what works for you but don't be afraid to ditch the other stuff. What about you? What's some of the worst photography advice you've ever had? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

Log in or register to post comments

I agree 100%. Thank you.

Respect advice, but don't act on it unless it fits in with your own ideals. Art is highly subjective and all advice comes from the perspective and experiences of the individual. Unless the goal is to mimic the work of others we should not be molded by their perspectives and feel safe in expressing ourselves however we see fit.

My advice (which you should respect but not take) is to respect input from all and pick out points that align with your own path. In all instances, produce work that reflects who you are as an individual, and not simply to reflect the taste of those who advise.

The "always shoot in full manual mode" might be a carryover from many years ago when the automatic features of cameras were not very good and still in their infancy. One of the weirdest pieces of advice I ran across was a guy on YouTube saying the only purpose of a UV filter is to protect the lens when you are not using your camera. He would take it off when shooting and then screw it back on when finished. His UV filter was quite dirty and looked like garbage. Most of the comments were "isn't that what a lens cap is for?"

I do understand the roots of the 'always shoot in manual mode' in that you are always in control of both speed and aperture, but the speed and convenience of using auto mode is compelling (as long as you understand how that reflects on the same speed/aperture settings).
I cut my teeth on a manual-only camera and feel that foundation has served me well in selecting auto modes.

Now using a UV filter as a lens cap I don't understand.....

I myself pretty much exclusively shoot manual mode, but that's just because I don't like my camera making decisions for me. Then again I don't shoot action or fast-moving stuff, mostly wildlife and landscape. I have the time to set my settings the way I like it before the shot.

That said, I wouldn't look down on anyone shooting aperture priority, or any other settings. It's a weird flex. Would be like saying "I only shoot manual focus, none of this lazy Autofocus nonsense".

Seeing that I mostly shoot portraits, landscapes and astro, I have all the time in the world and I'm in manual 95% of the time. But with fast moving action, I'm just not fast enough to make those quick settings changes. Therefore, I'm in some kind of auto mode. I fully accept that my camera may not get it exactly how I want it. But, I usually get something where minor tweaks in post will do and rarely do I have to "save".

Great article, take it from me, a 30-days challenges hater. I can get a 30-day challenge of learning some photo editing tricks (1 day = 1 new Photoworks tutorial + practice or something) or a challenge of doing useful stuff like working on new habits in general but I can't see how it applies to creative process like photography or writing. If it's just for putting a tick then what's the purpose in that at all?

"For example, Slack founder Stewart Butterfield, as well as LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, both have a master's degree in philosophy, and co-founder of the search engine Aardvark, Damon Horowitz, holds a doctorate in philosophy. What does this mean? "

It means that you don't know what survivor bias is and that you should look at the whole picture before coming to a conclusion.

As a wet behind the ears 16 year old photo buff, i was told by a friend's father, who was a rich doctor and had a fancy darkroom and used Leica cameras (I had never seen a Leica in real life until then) that I should not take vertical pictures. He'd been a photographer for 30 years and never took a vertical. Dang, he's a doctor so he must be right...

A day or two later I was thinking that people are vertical, buildings, trees and flowers are vertical, so are magazine covers...but I was not going to question such a wise man. All the photos in their house were horizontal...

Mike, 80% of my work is landscape orientation because that's how I view the world.
However, I photograph vertically for editorial so the publication can place copy in the image, vertically for architects because as you stated, buildings. Many portraits work wonderfully as verticals, especially fashion.

The smartest advice is for you to absorb everyones opinions with a grain of salt. The camera captures amazingly no matter how it is held. You will be the best of anyone to inhabit or break photography rules.

Best of luck and discoveries on your adventures into photography.

I wish we had big sensors that covered the entire image circle that our lenses project. Then there would be none of this silliness over having to decide whether to shoot vertically or horizontally.

Our lenses cast round images, but our sensors chop big parts of those images off and force them to be rectangles. I hate that.

If sensors covered the entire image circle, then we could shoot more freely and creatively, and then decide on aspect ratio and cropping later, when we edit our images on the computer. We would have the entire image to work with. We would never have to worry about getting horizon lines level, and missing "the moment" because of such worries.

I hate arbitrary restrictions and limitations that force me into a box (in this case, quite literally).

Interesting. I think your opening paragraph should be "do not read this article as it contains advice that some people would find bad".

Always ignore advise that begins with "always"

I could not agree more. I have been on tours in remote locations with some Nat Geo photographers - most took photos in "program mode". And if I ask them they would say I should use manual mode. I could not help laughing when I read your article.

"Drill Down Into A Specific Niche" is business advice, not photography advice. And it applies to just about every kind of employment/business. You don't go to a heart surgeon to treat your cancer, or a bankruptcy attorney to handle your divorce. Specialization is the name of the game, when it comes to making money. Simple as that. Do it early, do it late, but you will have get known for a specific core competency to make money.

The type of 30 day thing that you describe sounds absolutely dreadful. But I must admit that I have never heard of such a thing until I read this article.

I have heard a whole lot about these things where you're supposed to take at least one photo every day for like a whole year. That doesn't seem like a worthwhile thing to me, but some people say it really helped them.

But this 30 day thing you mention - purposely choosing something that you're not interested in and working hard on it for 30 days straight - is just a waste of time and brain power that could be used in a much more productive endeavor. Are you sure it's really "a thing", and not just something that you made up for this article?

Ha, believe me, it’s a thing alright. It’s common in many art forms - practice things you don’t normally do to widen your skillset etc etc. Not for me, thanks