As is the case with most photographers, I started out entirely self-taught. On one hand, I believe most creative endeavors should be self-guided, at least at first. Receiving too much guidance too soon can box you into thinking things must be done in a certain way in order to be correct. Art is rarely correct, however, and the works that tend to stick with us are the ones with bold, unique views.
On the other hand, when diving in entirely on your own, you have to be prepared for a LOT of trial and error. Without understanding why certain things work while others don’t, you could be holding back your own growth as a photographer. That being the case, I’ve put together a list of 5 things I wish I knew when I started photography. With any luck, you can learn from my mistakes and avoid some of these common pitfalls!
1. Don’t Buy Gear Based on What You MIGHT Shoot
Ask any professional photographer if there is a piece of gear they regret buying, and they will most likely respond, “Do I have to choose just one?”. There is a well-known illness in the photography community known as G.A.S (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). It’s more severe when you are first starting out as a photographer, but that little nagging voice in your head urging you to buy another lens or a new body never fully goes away. While this is ok to an extent since technology is always improving, it’s essential to understand when enough is enough.
With the overwhelming amount of gear review blogs and YouTube channels out there, it’s easy to be duped into thinking, “I NEED that ultra fast lens”, or, “I can’t take good landscape photos unless I buy that $300 polarizing filter”. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t invest in high quality equipment, but before doing so, ask yourself how it will improve what it is you like to shoot. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to be prepared for every possible photographic scenario.
Case in point, when I first started investing in lenses, I scoured the internet for advice on the “best” lenses to buy. What I failed to take into account though was that the “best” lens depends entirely on what it is you’re shooting. I’ve always been interested in portraits, street photos, and editorial style candid shots. Blindly following the advice of strangers online, I was soon the owner of lenses that made no sense for my style of photography, such as a 14mm aspherical lens, and a 70-200mm telephoto.
As a photographer and videographer in Tokyo, a city that’s already cramped enough as is, I found I never used a long-reaching telephoto lens. That’s not to say that either of these are inherently bad lenses. In fact, in the right scenario, they’re fantastic. But for what I like to shoot, I could have purchased a single 35mm prime lens and been much better off for it. Instead, I used those lenses a handful of times over the next couple years before selling them.
Think carefully about any equipment you are considering buying. Just because it’s the “best”, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right for you.
2. Don’t Just Look at Photos - Analyze Them
We’ve all seen photos that have made us instantly stop and think, “that is incredible”. Part of growing as a photographer is learning to identify why it is incredible. Without understanding what it is that catches your eye or why certain compositions work better than others, your improvement will grind to a halt.
As with any creative field, you’ll soon find yourself comparing your work to that of your peers and wondering why it is that their photos look so much better. If you’re anything like I was, your first thought may be, “I need to buy a better camera”. While expensive cameras might get you higher resolution images and faster shutter speeds, a great photographer can take a better photo with a cheap point and shoot camera than an amateur can with a top of the line DSLR. The reason behind this is that they understand what makes a great photo stand apart from an average snapshot.
Find a photographer whose work you really admire and study their photos. What common themes do you see running through their work? One of my favorite photographers and a good friend of mine here in Tokyo is Andrew Faulk. I first found his work on Instagram and was in awe of his photos. Something about them always caught my eye and drew me in. What I realized he does incredibly well is sub framing - creating a natural frame from the environment within the image to highlight his subject. Once I figured that out, I was able to incorporate that technique into some of my own work. Check out some of his photos below.
By doing the same type of analysis with work that resonates with you, you’ll soon find yourself growing as a photographer.
3. You Don’t Need to Adjust EVERYTHING When Editing
No matter which photo editing program you choose to work with; be it Lightroom, Capture One, Photoshop, etc., I highly recommend taking time to play around with all of its features to learn how they work. Though the individual programs will vary from one another, all of them contain powerful tools to shape the look and feel of your images. While this is great, it also makes it all too easy to get carried away.
When I first got my hands on Adobe Lightroom, I did just that. In my mind, if there was an option to adjust something, it must need to be adjusted. I would go nuts with contrast, clarity, hue adjustments and more. In the end, my images looked more like a surrealist painting than an actual photo.
Even though you have a fully stocked toolbox, sometimes all you need is a hammer. By the same reasoning, just because a slew of sliders and dials are available within the program, they don’t necessarily need to be adjusted. Often times, the best edits are the most subtle. Much like above where I recommended analyzing other photographers’ work, learn to analyze your own. In time, you’ll be able to identify what aspects of your images require editing and which are perfectly fine straight out of camera.
4. Learn to Love Light
As a photographer in Tokyo, whenever I plan an outdoor portrait session, I always try to book it for a time in the early morning or late afternoon. Ask any professional photographer, and they will most likely tell you the same. The reasoning behind this is because of the available light at these times of day. Sure, there may be more light to work with in the middle of the day, but when it comes creating beautiful images, our focus should be quality over quantity.
You may have come across the phrase “quality of light” before on other photography blogs or YouTube videos. If you’re just starting out as a photographer, this concept might seem a bit vague. After all, light is light, right? Not exactly. When we talk about about the quality of light, we’re primarily concerned with how soft it is.
If you’ve ever taken a portrait under the midday sun and wondered why it doesn’t have that “professional” look, congratulations, you have discovered hard lighting. Generally speaking, the larger the light source and the further away from your subject it is, the “softer” or more gentle it will appear. While hard light creates harsh shadows and high contrast, soft light wraps around the subject, giving their features a more delicate, pleasing appearance.
That said, it’s worth noting that hard light isn’t bad light. In fact, when I shoot Tokyo street photography, I prefer hard light for the high contrast shadows it creates. This can add a sense of drama to your images. Which kind of light you should look for depends entirely on your subject matter and the mood you’re trying to create. Generally speaking, for portraits, soft light creates the most flattering images. Figure out what kind of look and feel you want your photos to have, and time your shoots carefully to match it.
5. Don’t Trust Your Camera’s LCD Screen
Modern camera screens and electronic viewfinders are undoubtedly impressive. To their credit, I’m still amazed by the ability to tap the screen to adjust focus or see how changes to aperture or shutter speed will affect the image in real-time. However, while they are exceptional tools for framing your shot and adjusting settings on the fly, they are incredibly misleading when it comes to determining exposure.
As discussed above, the quality of light you capture can make or break your photo. When I shoot Tokyo street photography for instance, I expose for the highlights, resulting in pleasing, soft light and deep shadows. In the past, I would adjust my settings until the photo looked just right on the camera’s LCD screen and then take the shot. After importing the photos onto my computer however, I found they were horribly underexposed and unusably dark.
The reason behind this is that the live preview generated by your camera isn’t based off of the raw format you are shooting in. Rather, it is based off of a jpeg render which includes a slew of in-camera adjustments such as contrast, exposure, and saturation. Add to this the adjustable screen brightness (which most of us tend to turn up too high), and it’s easy to be misled into under or overexposing your image.
So if you can’t trust your screen, who can you trust? The number one tool every photographer should learn to love is their camera’s histogram. How to read and properly use a histogram could be an entire article on its own, but I’ll give you the abridged version.
The histogram is broken up into five sections: blacks, shadows, midtones, highlights, and whites. The mountain-like ridges in the histogram represent the amount of data present in that region. For instance, if you have a high peak in the center of your histogram that doesn’t touch either end, you can determine that your image is comprised of mainly midtones and is very low in contrast.
When using the histogram to determine exposure, pay careful attention to the extreme ends. If you see peaks pushing up against either end and becoming a straight vertical line, it means you are clipping information in either the brightest or darkest parts of the image. While photo editing software can help you make incredible changes to your photo, clipped information is generally beyond saving. Shadows tend to be a bit more forgiving in this regard, but for the most part, clipped highlights turn into muddy gray blobs no matter what you do to recover them. When in doubt, expose for your highlights. Pure black shadows are acceptable and to some extent expected, but nothing distracts from an otherwise good image like blown highlights.
I wish I could say these were the only mistakes I’ve made in my journey as a photographer and videographer in Tokyo, but they have certainly lead to the most “a-ha” moments in my development. With any luck, learning from my mistakes will save you a bit of time and a great deal of trial and error.