5 Things I Wish I Bought When Starting in Photography (Plus a Bonus Tip)

5 Things I Wish I Bought When Starting in Photography (Plus a Bonus Tip)

There are countless ways to spend money, especially when you're starting out. Camera companies do a very good job of selling you gear, some of it you’re not even sure you need. Here are 5 things I wish I bought when starting out in photography. 

Light: Science & Magic 

The first item on my list isn’t even a camera. It is a book about light. I quote this book in a lot of my articles, and indeed, this is a brilliant book if you want to learn the basics of light. Sure, it won’t satisfy the physics professors in the readership, but it will be sufficient to have a basic background in light. Unlike most other books, Light: Science & Magic don't teach setups. Instead, it goes into the raw detail. At the end of the day, photographers recreate an aesthetic with light, doing a 10-light setup is practically useless. I would struggle to find a photographer who was asked to do a 3-light setup in his career. I would not struggle to find one who was asked to recreate a certain feel for a particular image. Naturally, light is only one component, but an important one indeed. 

As a beginner, you want to familiarize yourself with light, no matter what your genre is. Without light, you cannot take a picture. With light, you can. Light is the ABC of photography. Your images are essays that you write using the ABC.  

Used Pro Camera and Lens Combo 

There seems to be some sort of negative stigma around used gear. I find that a little funny, to say the least. Beginner photographers tend to go to a camera store and shell out a grand at least for a subpar camera. While I am not against beginner and prosumer gear, I find that there are far better options if you look at the used market. My very first camera was a 1D mark II. Released in 2004, it could do ISO 3,200 and shoot 8.9 frames a second. For the style of shooting, I did (events) it was perfect. The sensor wasn’t full-frame, it was 1.3x crop. Nonetheless, it was a fantastic camera with a big sensor that I loved using. I’m certain that you can find a used pro camera from a brand you like and have a lot more fun with it. The 5D Mark II is probably the most obvious choice. 

Lens-wise you can get a good 24-70mm f/2.8 for next to nothing too. The rise of mirrorless has decreased DSLR lens prices by quite a bit. While this isn’t an article on buying gear, it is a good idea to consider buying used. It saves money and you probably end up getting a better deal.  

Coaching Session With a Photographer You Admire

This didn’t seem important when I started out. I got on with taking images without really thinking about the greater meaning behind it all. Sure it was loads of fun, but it started to become less fun. When photography turned into a business, I was treating it like a cash cow, not like my partner. Photography was there to pay for some stuff, not to inspire me on a daily. 

Another thing I did is post my images to Facebook groups. Of course, these groups are designed to be a space to get feedback on images. The problem was that this feedback was rarely constructive. Not only was it mostly judgment, it was also someone else’s point of view that didn’t apply to my situation. When getting feedback, it is important to understand that that is only 1 single point of view, it is no better or worse than your own. 

These things came to me a few years after I started. I booked a session with Andrea Belluso, who has since become a good friend of mine. Funny enough, I booked it to get feedback on my images. After that session, my world was turned upside down. Since then I started having much more fun with my photography and in fact became a lot more creative in day-to-day life.   

A Book About Your Genre

In a different article, I talked about the importance of knowing your genre. Very few photographers start photography because they are absolutely fascinated by how the capacitors inside a flash work. For most, it’s the desire to capture what they are passionate about. 

However, when you start photographing that seems to fly out the window. Hence you should continue being passionate about what you love, the very reason you began photographing. Keep digging deep in your genre, niche, style. If you’re anything like me, you dive deep and dig the rabbit hole until there's nothing left. Fortunately, the rabbit hole most people dig only gets deeper but never ends. 

Two Hard Drives

While for some this is as basic as it gets, others may only learn this the hard way. I learned this the hard way. While buying hard drives gets expensive very fast, it is vital that you have a robust 3-2-1 backup system. That means having 3 copies of your files: 2 on-site and 1 off-site. Many beginner photographers store their images on their laptop 

Speaking of storage, here is a bonus point: 

Bonus Tip

This isn’t a purchase, but a bit of advice. Come up with a filing system for your photos, and stick to it. One of the biggest mistakes I made was not having a robust ordered system to store my images. One day it was organized by genre, and another day it was by date. Now that's changed, but the first year of my archives is a little bit messy, to say the least. Don’t be like me and figure out a way of organizing your files from the very start. 

Another thing is to never delete files. Sure, there is reason to let go of old work, but never delete it. It is not that expensive to store and serves really well as a memory of what you used to do. 

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.
LIGHTING COURSE: https://illyaovchar.com/lighting-course-1

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RE: Drives. Never buy spinning rust drives. Ever.

Buy something solid state (or buy a cheapish SSD and enclosure for usually less than a standalone and it just plugs in super simple). Sure you don't have the same $/GB, but which do you prefer: Higher price and rugged, or spinning rust that dies after a slight knock whilst powered on?

Also - Test/replace your drives if you're using them. Find non-writing test software for your SSD and test it. They can fail without obvious warning (you may or may not notice a slow down prior to them failing). I like CrystalDiskInfo.

I don't know if I agree with this. There are spinning hard drives that companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon cloud utilize. These drives have estimated lifespans of 20± years. They're not cheap, costing anywhere from $200 to over a grand a piece.

I mean, it's one thing if you're talking about some bargain bin 1tb drive that runs $49 on Newegg, but making a blanket statement about spinning disc drives is very misleading. Hell, there are some companies using tape drives, and not because they're trying to be cheap.

Google uses consumer drives. Actually, Google has so many drives that their reliability results are super accurate and useful.

When a drive is spinning, there's only so much you can do to reduce it's sensitivity to shock/vibration. The higher the capacity, the worse it gets. There's no real difference between consumer drives. If you want higher speed than consumer (and potentially better shock resistance), you need to look for high RPM SAS drives, not SATA.

As for tape drives... Tape has pros and cons, but by and large most corporates use tape only for very long term offline storage. Think issue a restore request and wait several days before the tapes are loaded into the robot.

I spent almost 15 years in corporate IT as a day job :-)

The difference of SATA to SAS drives is very often just the interface. You do not carry servers around and surely not in a running state. So no real problem here regarding shocks. Drives are capable to handle many Gs of shock, vibration is no issue.
Your advice above is complete nonsense. I've been working in IT since 35 years.

Completely disagree. For storage or archives always use hard drives.

SSD are great for speed, but they have fatal flaw, when they die they die completely, and chance of recovering is close to impossible. There are rare exceptions.

Hard drives usually give you some warning, and recovering is much easier.

And number one rule to any data storage is backup, backup and backup.

It will fail, it's just a matter of time.

And how painful you want that experience to be.

SSDs fail without _obvious_ warning, but checking the stats using a utility can give you substantial warning.

Regarding hard drives, want to be scared? Google bitrot. Can you work around it? Sure to some extent with the right filesystem and options (eg TRFS with CoW enabled). Data recovery is not cheap, regardless of the media. With SSD's you still have the data in the flash, all that needs to be done is bypass the controller with the same model controller... Which is pretty much how data recovery works on spinning rust, except that with an SSD there's more work involved.

Also with hard drives, you need to keep spinning them up 1-2 times per year or risk the spindle not spinning up at all. Less of an issue now, still an issue. Tape and cloud are the only "long term" reliable backups, but tape is generally deep storage (offline).

You're welcome to have your opinion and downvote me for expressing mine, but I stand by my comment because this is part of my day job.

SSD drives fail at about the same rate as spinning rust. I use platter drives for longer term storage and SSD for what I carry on trips.

Whatever works for you :-)

I frequently swap external drives between 2 desktop and 2 laptops. I often lose files on the SSD drives so I have to be very watchful on transfers and very patient when unplugging the SSD. This has never been a problem on my portable hard drives. .

If you're a Windows user, make sure that the drive is optimised for quick removal. The SSD has a _much_ larger cache than an HDD, so you do have to make sure that you eject safely.

I use portable SSDs a _lot_ and have yet to have any failures.

All points are very helpful but the bonus tip about filing and deleting really hit home

Thanks for reading!

Would you please share how you solved the problem of date vs genre? I’m living in a personal hell that organizes by both: some images are stored by year, others by genre. I tried tagging and made a bigger mess and realized that it took too much time and effort to maintain. Filing only by date is failing me because I cannot remember the year when I go to retrieve a particular image. Thank you in advance.

Here is my structure: Year>Country>City>Month>Date>Capture/Selects/Output/Trash
When I name jobs, I give them a few tags such as client name and job description. That way if I need to find images for a client, I can search by their name. I would advise against having images in categories. Chronological order with tags is a lot more efficient IMHO.


Coaching session actually sounds very reasonable, I've never heard of that in my area but it's like working out on your own vs hiring a fitness coach. Surely you can get some results on your own and you don't need coaching to learn how to work with some Photoworks but watching professionals working and sharing their experience or getting their feedback is really helpful. Thanks.

Thanks for reading and commenting, Catherine. A creativity coach is not necessarily someone who shows you how to work, but rather someone who simply inspires you to be more creative and be authentic with your art. That's how I view coaching and how I coach photographers.

I was fortunate enough to be around a studio co-op that held monthly classes on a variety of subjects. It was great learning things better, getting practice with working pros, and making friends. Sure, you can always learn yourself (and everyone always needs to practice to get better), but I feel like you can learn better and faster from very constructive classes/groups.

On the coaching tip, it doesn't have to be expensive. I joined a local camera club. That way I got to find a few good photographers to help me. The visiting competition judges comments on everyones photos helps as well. They also have photography qualifications which means they know something I don't. They've also been judged by other photographers in order to get those qualifications. It accelerated my learning.

I like your advice. The last one was the best tip. I would predicate the coaching tip based on why you are in photography. If you are just a hobbyist I would say don't be coached. Be yourself. If you want some technical support there are enough of youtube videos available. If you are coached you tend to take photos like you coach. I think a hobbyist should keep taking photos and with experience you will be who you want to be.

yup - what makes them so good? it's your pix.. you should know if it hit the mark or not... I don't need no dumbass telling me the horizon is not level..guess what..I do not care if the horizon is level or not

You just proved his point. Your comment indicates you have no idea what you're convinced you don't need. Coaching is not about level horizons or flash ratios or depth of field calculations. Anyone with internet access can learn the mechanics of photography on their own.

Coaching is (or at least should be) about learning how to tell the stories you want to tell in a visual way that communicates those stories with those who see your images. That, of course, assumes you have at least one story to tell and a desire to tell it.

Regarding #2, I completely agree. When I was getting into photography, I purchased a new crop sensor camera. Unfortunately, the camera itself left a lot to be desired. I wasn't happy with it. It wasn't even the fact that it was a crop sensor, the camera itself was crappy. I didn't own it long and sold it so I could buy a used Canon 5D2. Best purchase I ever made. I'm still using it today.

If I were to speculate on why people are averse to buying used cameras, I'd blame it on the price; Used cameras hold their value for a surprisingly long time. If you were to buy a full frame camera that came out today, a year from now you could sell the camera for nearly the same price you paid if it was in excellent condition. If I'm buying a camera, would I buy a brand new one, or a used one that nearly the same price (only you don't know the used camera's history, how the owner treated it, etc)? However, if we're talking a camera that's 5+ year's old and is now less than half the price (but in good condition with low shutter count), that's a different story.

Another factor is probably the fact that people are tied to their system -- someone with a ton of money tied up in Canon, Sony or Nikon is only going to be looking at used cameras from a specific manufacturer. This lowers the customer pool on a per manufacturer basis.

That book really is great. I mention it to everyone wanting to get into photography.

I agree fully about discipline of multiple backups, SSDs.

Yes buy a used Pro camera as soon as is feasible. A Nikon D5 is ideal.

Read as much as you can but sift out the classic titles. Also follow leading photographers who publish innovative imagery, and not only current names. Great books to start with on about fine art and particularly the history of painting.

Study the Old Masters, and explore their evolving techniques and styles eg Sfumato, Unione, Cangiante, Chiaroscuro etc

In general very sound advices. The Light: Science & Magic book is indeed a must-have for every photographer as is any good book about the genre you're in. Not to copy-cat, but to learn from and be inspired by. Back-ups and a good file system are also important items often overlooked. Capture One users might want to look at using Sessions instead of a Catalogue. Esp. when you work in project-mode or have specific shooting sessions per client.

I'm a bit hesitant about buying pro-grade second-hand gear. Though I fully understand the economic logic, it can be a bit risky. Lot's of pro-grade gear is pretty beaten-up when it is replaced and you don't want to end up with a 5y old 1D or D4/5 that 'has been abused in the trenches somewhere'. So when you do buy this type of gear, make sure you buy from a reputable camera store and have at least 6 months warranty on it. Gear that was used by amateurs is often in much better condition. They're usually babying their stuff...