What are the Best Ways for Beginners To Shoot Above Their Skill Level?

What are the Best Ways for Beginners To Shoot Above Their Skill Level?

There is always someone better than you, and photography is no exception. But that doesn't mean you have to settle for your lot, even as a beginner, and while improving, there are ways you can ensure you are shooting above your ability level.

I'm sure many will react unfavorably to the notion that people can — or perhaps, more importantly, should — shoot above their own current level. What I mean by this is that it is possible for beginners (and intermediates, but we'll focus on beginners for now) to take pictures that are better than what they ought to be able to produce. If I were to gauge a photographer's ability, the key indicator for me alongside the quality of images, is consistency. Can the photographer produce strong images on command and over and over again? As with any skill, consistency is usually the hardest part; anyone can hit the occasional home run.

It should go without saying, but there is no substitute for great composition, mastery of light, and the myriad other skills that weave into making a good photographer. But while you're learning them, you might be able to still shot very attractive images. Here are some ways I would suggest for achieving those results.

A Fast Prime at the Right Focal Length

One of the most common differences between the kit of a beginner photographer, and the kit of a veteran, is the speed of the glass in their bag. This is of course not always true (there are wealthy beginners and experts who have no need for wide apertures) but this difference is often betrayed in the lack of bokeh, or a deeper depth of field. Now, while a shallower depth of field is not indicative of skill, due to popular portrait photographers often having buttery bokeh, one way of shooting images that look better than a beginner ought to be able to create, is a longer focal length prime with a wide maximum aperture.

Taken on the Canon 135mm f/2, wide open.

For example, the 135mm focal length primes have always been a favorite of mine, and I've joked in the past that when you set them to wide open, it's hard to take a bad looking shot. My go-to is known as Lord of the Red Rings, and is the Canon EF 135mm f/2 L USM, but it's far from the only option. The Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art lens has had rave reviews (and has a slightly wider maximum aperture) for Canon, Sony, Nikon, and Leica mounts.

What these lenses do is create a brilliant sense of subject and background separation. That is, the subject pops out from the blurry background which gives a pleasing, cinematic feel. These lenses do of course come at a premium, but I would suggest looking for a second-hand copy or even searching for, and adapting, some vintage glass. For example, the Pentacon 135mm f/2.8 is known as the "Bokeh Monster" and can usually be picked up reasonably cheaply. If, however, money is no object, try the Canon EF 200mm f/2 L IS. While you're at it, send me one and we can discuss how great it is.

A Camera With Eye AF

There have been just two advancements in camera tech that have instantly become fundamental to how I work: the first is the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) and the second is Eye Autofocus (Eye AF). The former isn't quite as crucial for beginners, though it is helpful, whereas the latter can have beginners missing far fewer shots. Eye AF is simple: it prioritizes focus on the subject's eyes. If you're shooting at a narrow depth of field (which you might be if you've followed tip one!) then it's tremendously easy to focus on the tip of the nose, the eyebrows, or if your depth of field is shallow enough, even the eyelashes. When you look at the back of the camera it can seem as if it's tack sharp, only to realize once you're in Lightroom that things have not gone as expected.  

In addition to this, freeing yourself up from having to pay close attention to exactly where your focus is, allows you to instead concentrate on the other important elements, like settings, light, or posing your subject. This tip of course only pertains to portraiture (though it can include wildlife and animals if the firmware includes that.)

Focusing on Composition

The first two tips for shooting above your general skill level if you're a beginner both required the spending of money. Fortunately, this third option doesn't: mastering composition. While you may not be able to get as quick results as the above tips will yield, I can promise you there are more effective methods for creating great imagery. Masters of composition in photography could comfortably shoot on a 15-year-old digital camera stuck in auto mode and consistently churn out fantastic imagery. Command over a camera's settings can take time, but even once you always pick the perfect settings for a given shot, composition is what makes an average shot great.

There are many ways to learn about it, with books and videos being in abundance as many of the rules for photography stem from, or are directly lifted from, painting and earlier arts. However, more recent examples I would advise looking into are legendary street photographers. I have spoken about him before, but the street photographer I consider to be one of the — if not the — greatest when it comes to composition and light, is Hong Kong's Fan Ho. The majority of his work was created in the 1950s, but that makes no difference; his command of composition shows that your eye for a shot can far outweigh the importance of what is capturing that which it sees.

What's the Best Way For Beginners to Take Better Shots?

We have a wealth of experienced photographers in our community, so, to you all, what would you suggest beginners do to shoot above their current skill level while they learn? What will make the biggest difference in the least amount of time? After all, we all want to take our best ever photograph, every time we raise the camera to our eye.

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31 Comments

Matthew Lacy's picture

Spend Money? Those long, fast primes and mirrorless cameras aren't exactly cheap.

Greg Silver's picture

The best way I learned was to shoot, shoot again and then shoot some more. Make a lot of mistakes and then learn how to correct those mistakes. Equipment is secondary.

Jens Sieckmann's picture

But who told you that you made mistakes (and which)?

Greg Silver's picture

Although I do read and learn a lot of photography techniques online, ultimately it was myself who determined which mistakes I've made. Whether it was parts of my photos that got washed out in the highlights, shadows are too dark or a particular hue that needed to be removed - I made those calls to correct them.

My photos are my own according to my taste. I shoot for myself and therefore have a greater satisfaction and appreciation rather than seeking the critique or approval of others. If someone doesn't like how I edit, I don't really care.

Never Mind's picture

Weird. Some of the best photographers never needed Eye AF or even fast glass to concentrate on their composition.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Some of the best photographers are not exactly beginners. At least not at this moment.

Never Mind's picture

My point is you don't need expensive gear to progress. Do you honestly believe that a fast prime is necessary for a beginner to improve? I think quite the opposite. And eye AF won't help him learn paying attention to focusing and controlling DoF either. Actually having less options to fiddle in your camera and more challenging conditions of a lens can force your rely less on technology and improve your skills.

I mentioned the best photographers, just because some of them didn't learn with nor used those lenses in their best shots. So gear is not necessary to progress over any skill level.

Also, he seems to be focused on portraits solely. Who says that the beginner wants to be a portrait photographer in first place? Do I need nice bokeh for night landscapes photography? Do I need fast lenses for macro? I believe the article is the expression of his style, not the needs of a beginning photographer.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Beginning photographer needs least amount of obstacles to grow. That’s where all the bells and whistles such as EyeAF may come handy and help concentrate on composition, subject, story.

Never Mind's picture

So this beginner has a person holding flowers, he wants to focus on the pretty flower petals in his composition, and the dang camera starts focusing the person eye instead. Isn't focusing part of the composition anyway? At that point, the concentration of the artist trying to compose is ruined by "AI"

He doesn't need to be razor sharp, and it's not like (auto)focusing with current cameras without AI is complex rocket engineering. EyeAF is pretty recent, so you probably progressed fine without it too. Did that harm your skills? Would you have been better if you learnt with EyeAF or would you be worse manually focusing?

My biggest complaint, though, is favoring the use of fast primes. A slow lens isn't the end of the world to learn composition, and bokeh from an expensive lens won't make your images "next level".

Again, it's just my opinion, but I have seen very young kids improve their composition properly with a full manual camera and slow lenses. Their enthusiasm was never distracted by the lack of Eye AF in the camera.

Dan Jefferies's picture

I say telephoto route + stand in front of something interesting. The photo below could have been taken by anyone waiting on the "beep". No expensive lens needed, It was shot a f/11 with plenty of bokeh that any kit lens can reproduce.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

" .. could have been taken by anyone ... "

Exactly, its the "oh i bought a macro, where is the next butterfly"-shot.
Thats not really "above their skill level" to center-frame a butterfly and press the shutter.

Dan Jefferies's picture

I've rethought my reply. (didn't say macro said zoom; different animals btw) Actually my example IS an example of "shooting above their skill level" and answers the authors final query "what would you suggest beginners do to shoot above their current skill level while they learn? What will make the biggest difference in the least amount of time?" .... A clear example would be the Canon kit lens the 18-50mm. That lens can't easily get the shot above. A Canon 55-250mm CAN. They get a "better" image and hopefully want to learn "why". If not they've at LEAST learned that zoom lenses deliver different results. That a NEW skill. That's NEW knowledge. They LEARNED. They SHOT ABOVE THEIR PREVIOUS SKILL LEVEL> ... INSTANTLY. So instead of attacking someone with snarky "advice" let's see YOUR idea of can be done to up a beginners game.... INSTANTLY.

Ed C's picture

"there are ways you can ensure you are shooting above your ability level."

No. There aren't. Just like there is no way to give 110% Just like nobody ever missed all the hockey shots they never took. They didn't miss any of them. Just like a lot of things that don't kill you make you much much worse. Practice also doesn't make perfect. Practice makes some people much worse because they practice wrong. Could we get back to photography and less pop psychology nonsense drivel please? P

Read, learn and practice well to get better and try to be your own best. You may bet lucky now and again but you cannot "shoot above your ability level."

Brian Knight's picture

I was thinking the same thing. If you learn a new technique, and pull off shots that are better than what you have managed before, then congrats, you have arrived.

Dana Goldstein's picture

It is BY DEFINITION impossible to shoot above your ability level. If you shot it, you HAVE THE ABILITY to shoot it. If you don't have the ability, YOU CAN'T SHOOT IT. As to HOW to get to that point, no it's actually not about buying the right gear. There are plenty of garbage shots taken with expensive gear, and anyone who has spent at least 1.3 seconds on social media has seen plenty of them.

It's a little hilarious (or sad) that you first suggest wide-open lenses, then tell readers to look at classic street photography, which was (and often is still) consistently shot at 5.6 or higher, to ensure focus within specific distance ranges. Also, you do realize that everyone had to MANUAL focus for decades, right? Sports, manual focus. News, manual focus. War, manual focus. Getting a kid in a park in focus is not a great photographic achievement.

Getting better is about (1) looking at the work of the greats (by which I don't mean influencers with big IG followings and SquareSpace codes) and (2) shooting and shooting and shooting some more. We are SO LUCKY that between digital (no film processing time or cost), mirrorless (real time feedback EVF), and the ability to analyze your own metadata easily (rather than from a notebook and yes I'm dating myself with that), it's possible to learn and experiment so much and so easily. And it can be done with secondhand everything.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

autor paid by word not content

Robert K Baggs's picture

Well, on the first point I disagree. If I'm judging a photographer's ability, I wouldn't ask them to send me their best shot, I'd want to see a body of work that demonstrates consistency. It's in consistency that ability lies for me. Anyone can take a great shot regardless of ability, particularly with today's technology. I think perhaps we have differing definitions of ability; mine is based on what someone can produce on command at that point, yours seems to be based on potential.

I'm not sure why this got your back up, but I think you've misunderstood me again. Firstly, the tips are disparate, they aren't step-by-step. One way is shooting wide open on a longer focal length, fast prime. A later tip is to study composition. They aren't non-overlapping magisteria and they don't cancel each other out.

Yes, people used to have to manually focus, and they used to miss. I'm not advising on how to achieve some great photographic achievement, I'm offering tips for beginners, who can still miss focus with AF.

Of course you can shoot great images with almost any gear, I even said that in the article. Again, you're conflating improving with shooting above your station and getting more of those "lucky shots", but as you reject the original premise (because your definition of ability differs from mine), I guess we won't agree.

Ed C's picture

Robert you don't apparently don't know the definition of the word definition.

Definitions aren't variable from person to person. Those things are called opinions. Your opinion of what ability means does not match the actual definition.

The definition of ability. "1. possession of the means or skill to do something." So Dana is correct. One cannot do something if they don't possess the skills or means whether you like the definition or not is up to you, learn or don't but you're wrong.

Iwan Price-Evans's picture

One of my biggest improvements, which took my portrait photography from distressingly amateur to – dare I say it? – passable, was understand proper exposure and color for skin tones.

JPGs straight out of camera typically get this very wrong, especially in scenes with mixed lighting and no clear source of 50% grey. That brings us to Lightroom, where we amateurs usually make a terrible hash of things.

I look back on my early photos, and the skin tones are consistently underexposed with a heavy magenta emphasis. My more recent work is much better in this regard, and I consider this to be the biggest improvement. See the two photos below, taken three years apart, to illustrate the difference.

However, this rather undermines the point of the article. This was not a case of my shooting above my skill level; it was a process of increasing my skill level through education, practise, review and iteration.

Dan Jefferies's picture

Red strobe lights on stage irritate me no end. One second one color and the next second another. Sometimes I just throw up my hands and goto black and white.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

First one is much better in terms of story behind.

Studio lights make fairy lights more or less useless on the second photo.

Iwan Price-Evans's picture

There are actually no artificial lights in the second photo (other than the fairy lights, obviously!). There's a large window out of frame, to the left, which is casting very soft daylight on to the scene.

Now fairly lights in a dark scene Is arguably a better "story", but I'm not skilled enough to pull that off with a pleasing result. I haven't yet built my skills with managing artificial lights to light a scene deliberately.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

ok, so daylight is better than no light?

well .. ok :)

T Van's picture

Content is king. More interesting, or visually appealing subjects will yield more photos that receive a positive reaction.

Dan Jefferies's picture

Yep. Forgot who said it and paraphrasing "To be a good photographer you must stand in front of interesting things".

Kenn Shrader's picture

f/8 and be there....

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

One of the typical bogus fstoppers articles ^^

I love my 135 f2, but how has this anything to do with "next level" ?

Learn to shoot with a studio-flash-system, learn to use an external light meter, learn to use a split-prism, but use another autofocus lens because it looks cool?

Thats not "another level" thats "another lens"

Paul Asselin's picture

By definition if you shoot 'above your skill level' you have now established your skill level so you can never shoot 'above your skill level'. It is akin to everyone being 'above average'. By definition a new average is established once everyone is 'above average'.

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