7 photography tips for anyone who really wants to learn how to shoot decent pictures

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Every now and then I receive an email from someone who is interested in getting into photography on a more serious basis -- would like to know how to take better shots, what kind of camera he should buy, what some of the biggest mistakes new photographers make, that sort of thing.  Since these emails are coming with a bit more frequency lately, I figured in a rather unorthodox change of pace, I'd share some thoughts on how to improve photography skills, in the off-chance that some of you might be toying with the idea of picking up photography as a hobby.

So, without further ado (and with apologies to David Letterman), my Top Seven Photography Tips for Anyone Who Wants to Learn How to Shoot Decent Pictures:

7.  Buy a digital SLR.  They say that it's the camera that makes the photographer, but I disagree:  it's the photographer who makes the photographer.  That said, nothing can teach a photographer more about photography than an SLR camera (read: the kind of camera where you can switch out lenses).  Point-and-shoots, while admirable in their capabilities, often do most of the work for the photographer -- which is great and all, but it makes it difficult for a photographer to have more control in the end-product.  If you really want to learn about photography, an SLR camera is the only way to go.

Even so, this does not mean that you need to spend an arm and a leg to buy an SLR camera.  There are reasonably priced new ones; in addition, there is absolutely no shame in buying a second-hand camera (my first camera was 15 years old at the time I bought it 16 years ago, and I still use the lens to this day).  I would, however, suggest going digital rather than film -- while the quality of film is beautiful, it can be very expensive while you're learning.  Much cheaper to delete digital images and try again.

6.  Take the time to learn about ISO, aperture and shutter speed.  All cameras, regardless of make, model or type, use ISO, aperture and shutter speed.  While most point-and-shoots make decisions on how to adjust these attributes for you, the truth is that being able to manipulate these three characteristics is where the power of photography truly lies

An admission:  these three things -- ISO, aperture, shutter speed -- sound really technical, but it's really not as complicated as they first appear.  So after playing with your SLR on automatic for a while, consider tinkering with the manual settings, so you learn how to adjust these attributes.

(Some time ago, I wrote a post for Gadling on what each of these things does -- perhaps it might provide a good starting point to learn them.)

5.  Pay attention to the light.  Photographers will tell you that the trick to good photography is to "look for the light" -- and they're right, as strange as that phrase may sound.  "Looking for the light" doesn't just mean identifying where light source is, but actually paying attention to how the light is falling:  is it dappled?  Is it casting shadows? Is it early morning light?  Golden evening light?  Blue dusk?  High noon? 

By paying attention to the light, it will tell you how to adjust the settings in number 6, above. 

(Also -- just because this is probably the most common question I get  -- the reason some photos might not "look right" is because different light has different tonal qualities.  The most natural looking light is, obviously, daylight.  Indoor incandescent lighting will make your photographs look yellow; fluorescent lighting will make your photographs look slightly green.  So when you're just starting out, consider using natural light as much as possible first, or at least until you're comfortable with the "white balance" feature on your camera.)



4.  Look for inspiration everywhere.  Take a photography course if that's your bag (and admittedly, while I've never taken a photography course, I imagine that the right course can be invaluable in teaching you the technical side of photography), but when it comes to inspiration, the best thing you can do is study -- I mean, really study -- the images of photographers whose work you admire.  I'm not just talking about famous photographers, either; I mean any photographer, whether they're internationally known, online photobloggers, or simply people in your everyday life who you know have a passion for photography.  Buy their books, find their websites, the magazines that feature their work, their personal photo albums.  And keep referring back. 

What you'll find is that no matter how good you get, you're always going to find a photographer who shoots in a way that completely inspires you. 

(Incidentally, for what this is worth, these are some of the photographers who are currently blowing my mind:

Wedding:  Akil Bennett, Nate and Jaclyn

Portraiture:  Steve McCurry

Food: Helene Dujardin

Landcape: Uwe Eischens

Photojournalism:  Stephanie Roberts)

3. Take your time getting into Photoshop, or any other processing software.  Don't get me wrong:  I've mentioned before that I am a wild, unabashed fan of Photoshop.  But the truth is, if you start using Photoshop before you really understand what your camera is capable of doing, you may end up using Photoshop as a crutch, rather than as a processing tool. Play with your camera for a while first, get comfortable with it, and then Photoshop will blow your mind.



2.  Consider starting a photoblog.  Now, I'm not suggesting that you go out and publish your photographs for the entire world to see (although, really, who would I be to judge?), but I have to tell you, it's been incredibly educational having a place where I can go and scroll through archives and see my progress.  And the best part is that there are lots of free blog publishing platforms out there, and they can ALL be set to private -- you can keep the site solely for yourself, for your own education.  Think of it as your personal diary of your photographic work.

And finally, my number 1 photography tip for anyone who's just starting to learn photography:

1.  Shoot, shoot, shoot.  Whether you take a course or not, whether you actually get a degree in photography or not, trust me, the only way you are going to learn how to take photographs is to take photographs. Also?  Every single photographer, including the most famous one you can think of, took crappy shots when they first started out -- but they just kept at it.  So take photos constantly.  Take them of everything.  Take them of your family, of yourself, of your teacup or your shoes, of whatever.  Do not stop shooting, and do not get discouraged.  Just shoot.




And that's it!  I'll open up comments to any questions you might have -- but also, for those of you who are already confirmed shutterbugs or professional photogs, feel free to leave your own bits of advice in the comments below. 

Because I'm always looking for ways to improve my own photography as well.


Update:  BlogHer, quite flatteringly, asked if they could syndicate this post on their site.  I was thrilled to oblige.  Read it here.


Images:  Photographed with Nikon D300, 50mm manual lens


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