When learning any new skill, it’s universally agreed that you need to put time into it to grow. There’s a popular theory by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill. That theory is pretty controversial these days, but the number of hours isn’t important. What’s important is that you must put time into learning a skill if you want to become better at it.
Photography is no exception. Ask any of the photographers you admire how long they have been developing their photography skills, they will all tell you that it’s taken them years.
So, how do you speed this learning process up? There are a few ways, but one of them is to learn from other’s mistakes and successes. Every photographer starts out as a beginner, so it would make sense that others have learned a few lessons along the way from which you can benefit.
I’m no photography master by any stretch, but I’ve learned a few valuable lessons in the 10 years since I picked up a camera. Here are a few of them.
1. Great light beats a great subject every time
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably had the experience of visiting a gorgeous location with grand visions of the stunning photos you’re going to come home with, only to be bitterly disappointed and wonder what you did wrong. On the flip-side, you’ve likely been pleasantly surprised by the beautiful photos you’ve taken of a very ordinary scene or subject.
So, what is the one thing that makes a great photo above anything else? Great light. This is the reason why I will often return to the same location to photograph the same scene repeatedly. The scene hasn’t changed, but the light will never be the same twice. Learn to predict, look for, and create great light.
2. Shoot for love, not likes
Social media has changed the world we live in, which is a great thing for photographers. Of course, there are negatives to this as well. The biggest drawback, in my opinion, is the eternal quest for likes. Not a single one of us is immune to it.
It’s flattering and gives a nice ego-boost when someone “likes” your photo on Instagram or Facebook. But it can become a dangerous obsession when you begin to shoot or edit your photos with the motivation of getting more likes.
Sure, we all change and develop our style over time, and this is partly influenced by current trends. Just try to stay focused on shooting what you love, and don’t let the desire for validation on social media make you shoot for likes.
3. Post-processing is part of your artistic expression – learn it well
It’s no secret we live in a digital age. Despite Photoshop having some pretty negative connotations at times, post-processing your photos in the digital darkroom is a necessity, and the sooner you learn it, the sooner your photography will really take off.
Capturing your photos well in-camera is only half of the process. As a visual artist, what happens to those RAW images is entirely up to you. If you don’t know how to edit them well, then you’re short-changing yourself.
You don’t need to become a professional retoucher, just start with the basics and learn them well. Post-production software is cheap these days, and you can learn how to use it for free. There’s no excuse. Your inner artist will thank you for it.
4. Keep your gear simple
My gear has fluctuated from a single point-and-shoot to a bag heavy enough to crush a camel, and everything in-between. When I switched from a large Nikon full frame kit to Sony mirrorless a couple years ago, I intentionally simplified my gear, and I’ve kept it that way.
There are three reasons for this. Firstly, as a landscape and travel photographer, I don’t want or need large or heavy gear. Secondly, I’m more likely to consider a new purchase more seriously. And thirdly, simplifying your gear (especially lenses) forces you to develop your creativity.
One of the best exercises you can do for your photography is to go out with your camera and only one prime lens and shoot with just that setup. You don’t need anywhere near as much gear as you think.