Advice for Beginner Photographers in 2020


Seeing that it’s a new year and a lot of folks have recently gotten cameras, I thought it might be helpful to put down my thoughts and advice for beginners.

#1 – Image ≠ Subject

Let’s begin with the most difficult one: Understand that the image the camera captured is not the same as the subject in front of you. It’s actually different.

Often I think beginners see something interesting, point the camera at it, and press the shutter. “I took a picture of a good subject, therefore it must be a good photo.” But the photo is more than the subject, it is a fully-realized 2D composition.

Learn to see the entire image you took. Look at the background, the foreground, the corners, everything. How do all the parts work together? Where is empty space, and where is busy space, and how do those relate to each other in a purely visual way? Learn to see how (for example) railroad tracks or a fence visually become a line which lead your eye to a certain spot, or how a lamp becomes a bright spot which attracts your eye, or how an object on the left balances an object on the right.

Struggle to see the entire 2D image as a unified composition. Your photo is similar to a painting, in the sense that the placement of every element should be deliberately chosen. (This is actually much, much more difficult than it might seem at first to even understand, much less to master, so don’t feel bad if you don’t get it right away).

#2 – Work the Scene

This piece of advice comes from a photo workshop I took with Jack Dykinga: “work the scene.”

Don’t just take one photo of a thing. Take several. Take several more. Try different angles. Try closer. Further. The goal here is to make it better. Then make it even better. Then, dammit, make it better still.

The goal here isn’t to “spray and pray” by shooting randomly and hoping something good comes of it. The goal is to thoughtfully, to incrementally take better and better shots of your subject. And to give yourself multiple options to choose from, in a deliberate way.

It might only be later in post that it becomes apparent that the vertical orientation works better than the horizontal orientation, for example.

#3 – Look for Edges

Another bit of advice from Jack Dykinga: in landscape photography, look for edges. Where the sea meets the sand, where the seaweed ends and the rock begins, etc.

#4 – Capture what Interests You

When you see something interesting you want to photograph, think about what in particular interests you about it.

Is it the color? The symmetry? the ugliness? The beauty? The majesty of the sea? The cuteness of the kitten? The speed of the racing car? Try to emphasize that through your height, your shutter speed, your lens choice, your distance from the subject, everything.

Everything should be a choice, and should contribute to the image.

#5 – Choose Your Orientation

Don’t hold your device a certain way because that is the device’s default (vertically for smartphones or horizontally for most cameras). Hold it the way that works best for the subject. Often that means vertical for portraits and horizontal for landscapes, but not always.

Maybe try both vertical and horizontal for a given image. Maybe a square composition works best. Really look at the scene, see what orientation works better for the shot in front of you.

#6 – Explore Composition

“Rule of thirds” is great, but it’s not an ironclad rule to be imposed everywhere. It’s just one compositional technique of many. There’s also bilateral symmetry, radial symmetry, patterns, leading lines, framing, negative space, contrasting color, foreground/background, lots more. They often work together.

#7 – Lighting is Everything

Lighting is everything in photography (well, nearly so!).

When the light is bad, it might be best to put your camera aside. Take out the camera when the light is good. Don’t be afraid to add light, if you need to. Change your position, if the light is better that way. Go outdoors when the sun is low, not when the sun is high in the sky.

I’d bet at least seven of out ten threads about “how is this picture taken” or “how can I process this better” are really questions about lighting, not processing techniques as many beginners seem to think.

#8 – Consider the Background

In portraiture, don’t just bullseye the head in the dead-center of the frame, especially for verticals.

Consider the empty (negative) space that results above the subject’s head. Do you really need that? Does it contribute to the story? Consider cropping dead space which doesn’t help tell the story. Consider the relationship of the subject to the background. Does the background tell their story (their work tools, their dorm room)?

I tend to think just a little bit of background is enough. On the other hand, sometimes a lot of background helps tell the story. Arnold Newman is a master of the off-center portrait with a lot of background, here are some examples.

If the person is small (or large) in the frame does that contribute to the story you’re telling?

#9 – Learn the Basics

The basics of photography are the “exposure triangle:” aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Now, you don’t really have to learn these, you can set your camera to do that automatically, and that’s fine. No judgement. But you’ll never have full control over making your image, and you’ll limit what you can and cannot achieve if you don’t understand this.

(Google around for tutorials, this post is not about that, but it seemed so foundational that it needed mentioning).

#10 – Practice, Practice, Practice

Don’t just learn about photography, you need to physically practice operation of the camera—like a pianist or typist who has to know how to use the keyboard without thinking about it.

But the goal is not simply to be skilled at using the keyboard, the goal is to play a piece of music fluidly without the keyboard getting in the way. You do need to practice, and your practice can be just sitting in the backyard with family and taking portraits. Or taking photos of your dog, or flowers in the backyard.

These may not be great or even good photos, but that’s fine. You don’t have to show them to anybody, or even keep them at all; the goal is to practice operating the camera so that it’s as natural as driving a car or playing a piano.

#11 – Tell a Story

By the same token, a good photo isn’t simply about technical excellence.

In the same way a good story is enhanced by the author’s interesting word choices but not just about that, a good photo is technically adept but also tells a story or evokes emotion or enables the viewer to see something in a new way.

#12 – Seek Feedback on Your Best Work

When you get something that you have put a lot of effort into, seek feedback on that. Not “my first portrait,” but maybe “my 80th and best portrait”. If you expect someone to put effort into a critique, you should put at least some decent effort into creating the image.

#13 – Study Your Craft

When you’re not actively shooting, Google for photo tips, read and watch tutorials, check out books from the library, or join a photo club in your town.

After you are confident you well understand the basics of how to operate your camera (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, how to set them, and how they relate to each other), sign up for a workshop or class. All the best learning experiences I have had have been shooting live in the field with more experienced photographers.

#14 – Explore Other Mediums

Don’t only look at “how to” tutorials. Look at photography. Look at paintings. Go to art museums and galleries. Look at composition. Painting is a really interesting model, because the painter obviously controls every element of the image. Photography isn’t really much different, because …

#15 – Be Deliberate

A good photograph can come from serendipity, but it also very often comes from decisions made before the shoot, during the shoot, and after the shoot.

The difference between “making” an intentional photograph and “taking” a snapshot is the intention. Control all the variables as much as you can. You choose when to shoot in terms of what time of year, what time of day, what specific moment. You choose where to stand, which gear to modify the situation, etc.

Make it, don’t take it.

#16 – Process to Your Vision

As far as post-processing, my philosophy is “I don’t care what the camera captured. I want to see the scene that was in your head when you took the picture.”

Don’t be afraid to edit the image to make it look how you want it to look like. Turn the grey sky to a bright blue (or red, if that’s your vision), make the bricks contrasty, make those freckles into a motley black texture, add Godzilla to the scene if that’s what your creative heart desires.

While, yes, it’s true you want to capture as much as you can in-camera, it’s also true that you’re not limited to the scene that the camera captured.

#17 – Be Bold!

People will often advise you not to overdo post-processing. I say: hogwash. When you are a beginner, you should overdo everything.

What does “too much HDR” look like? Too much saturation? Too much contrast? Vibrance? Clarity? By doing “too much” you learn what the tools do. It’s better to do “too much” than not to do enough. Conversely, if you are too conservative and are constantly afraid of overdoing things, you won’t have as good an understanding of what the tools do, what is enough, and what is “too much.”

Maybe adding a little more clarity will help the image; don’t be afraid to try it. Don’t limit your creativity before you even begin. Don’t be timid. Be bold! That’s the path to creativity.


About the author: Kenneth Zirkel is a photography enthusiast and web designer based in Rhode Island and Southeast Massachusetts. You can find more of his work on Flickr and Instagram. This post was originally published here.


Image credits: Header photo by Jan Vašek, CC0





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