Maybe you got a new camera over the holiday and now your thoughts turn to learning how to work it or perhaps you find yourself one of the many people who decide that, come the new year, you’re going to get back into your photography. Either way, you might find yourself in the shoes of somebody new or somebody wanting to get a bit more into this wonderful world of image making. Now, I don’t often teach anymore but I have in the past and I get asked a lot about mentoring, often finding myself doing it sometimes (actually often) finding myself on the other end, being mentored. The entire learning bit is really a lifelong journey, especially with photography. I’ll never feel I’ve mastered this but maybe I can offer up some advice for those just starting. Since I get asked a lot, I thought it might be a good time of year to share the basics of what I did to learn. Follow this at your own risk as it might turn you into a mad lady who hops fences and traipses thought abandoned buildings looking for just the right light. Alternatively, you might get bored and take up knitting. At any rate, here goes.
When I was starting out, I participated in a group that shared 3-5 images per week. We met in the auditorium of a middle school. Back in those days, we used a slide projector and shared slides, with every participant putting their own slides in the tray (don’t forget, they go in upside down. I still know how to load a slide tray, thank you very much.) The projector made your image large and the room was dark, thereby forcing you to look, and I mean really LOOK at your images. Kind of hard to do when there’s no other light in the room and the image got nice and big, warts and all. Also, the 3-5 was key. It really was 3-5, no more, no less. If you had 22, you got chopped down. So that is perhaps advice point number 1: learn to edit. There are no edit fairies. Learn to do it yourself and be brutal. When somebody days they want six images, give them six. If somebody says 3-5 shoot for 4 and see where you land, but keep it between the guidelines. The frequency of showing images was critical too. Each and every week, 3-5 images. It forced you to make new work each week and to edit new work each week. I can promise you, after about a year of doing this, you will be a better photographer. But, since there aren’t many slide groups any longer, now that we are all digital, here’s what I recommend.
Step 1: Get a camera. This is kind of obvious, but, to be clear, I mean take a camera you already have or get one you want to use. Get one. I mean ONE here and not like 42. Really, just one is all it takes. Much better to learn how to work one you’ve got then to try and futz with 5 or 6. One works just fine, especially if you really don’t know how to work any yet. I sincerely recommend you start with simple equipment and learn to train your eye. You can always upgrade later and, by upgrade, I mean the camera, not the eye. Oh, how I wish I could upgrade my eye, but that ain’t happening (perhaps rule number two for you there.) Alas, I’ve upgraded the camera many times, probably too many to count, still have the same eye, still the same photographer. My guess is you will be that way too so get used to it. The camera really is just a tool for seeing.
Step 2: Keep it Simple. I’ve hinted at this already with the one camera deal but really you want to keep equipment simple when you are just starting out. Avoid getting lighting rigs like strobes, fancy lenses, lots of flashes, etc. Maybe just start with a simple rig, something like a DSLR, one mid range (I tend to call them “walkabout”) lens and a tripod. If you want to learn on your iPhone, use that but that’s it. Don’t get fancy and don’t start shoveling equipment. Just keep it simple. Remember you are trying to learn to take pictures, to craft images, to become a photographer, not to turn into a camera collector. If you ask for a recommendation, I would opt for something like a Canon rebel series camera, or the equivalent Nikon offering, with an 18-55 kit lens or even a 50mm “nifty fifty” style lens. You want to keep it towards one camera, one lens, one eye and then add things as you need them. If you are doing iPhone, start by using the iPhone camera and avoid tons of apps. Just start with the camera and learn how to work that, you can app everything later.
Step 3: Get into a Routine. Remember I said I did the 3-5 images a week when I was learning? Yeah, I probably did that for about a decade. About a year into the 3-5 image routine, I started exhibiting my work. That means for probably 11 years, while I was exhibiting work and doing shows around the country, winning awards, getting published and the like, I was still doing the 3-5 images in the slide tray every Thursday night. That’s 3-5 images a week. Say it with me, “3-5 images a week.” You want to all but get that tattooed across your forehead. The trick here is getting into a routine. Force yourself to take 3-5 images that you like a week, each and every week. Commit to it. Keep doing it. If it rains, keep doing it. If it’s hot, keep doing it. If you go on a surprise trip to Cancun with your cousin Fred, bring your camera along and keep doing it. Yes, you can take 3-5 images of Fred in Cancun but the trick here is 3-5 images a week, each and every week.
Step 4: Complete a Finished Product. What I mean by this is, well, when I was learning I did slides in the tray. Remember how I said they were blown up BIG and we showed them in a dark room? This is sort of “finished.” If it was a test shot, it didn’t make it into the 3-5 image pile. If I was unsure about it, I’d re-shoot until I got one worth of a slot in my 3-5. I went through a lot of film in those days, lucky you we now have flash memory but it’s the same deal. Think of the 3-5 as being “finished” images. By this, I mean worthy of being printed or blown up large. I actually recommend you print them if you can and put them in a notebook, to look at later on. The important point though is you finish what you started. You craft 3-5 finished images each and every week. The difference between a beginner and somebody who is a working (or exhibiting) photographer is that the working stiff has a finished product in mind before he or she loads the flash memory into the camera. You want to start to think about what it’s going to look like in your slide tray or in your notebook as you are working in the field or in the studio. Thinking about finishing it makes you focus on what you are making and drives you to shoot better.
Step 5: Evaluate and Refine. After you start shooting for a while, as your notebook becomes full of your work, you can look back upon your earlier work and see how you did. Look at what you’ve shot, what you didn’t shoot, think about what you want to shoot and start to spot the trends. Remember I said I was in a group that shared 3-5 images a week? One of the benefits of the group is that you can get feedback from others, plus you also look at the work of others. It helps if you look at work. Look at as many images as you can and really look at them, with a critical eye. Look at your work and see how it compares. Look at your work and try to spot patterns or habits or “tells” if you will. As you work your routine your style will emerge. Learn to spot it and work with it, but let it grow over time. Think of it as organic and let it blossom but feed it as well. Basically, I recommend that you don’t try to copy but rather you continuously refine the way you shoot to get yourself closer to where you want to be as a photographer.
If you follow all of these steps, you will probably become a photographer over time. You will learn to craft images and learn to refine the way you shoot. It’s not an easy path and it’s perhaps not the only path but it’s one way to get to the other side. Regardless of your experiences, I wish you the best of lucky in your journey along the path to image making. Good luck or, as I like to say to my fellow photographers, “safe travels and good light” along your path of discovery.
Until next time…
PS This image taken with the Canon 5DS and the walkabout lens, from the old schoolhouse tour out in Willow City, TX. This is the room they told us was full of snakes. Maybe I should add another step to my list: Get sturdy boots and watch where you plant your feet, eh?