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top ten :: photography tips from the cheap seats

February 26, 2013


Over the past few years, I’ve been asked from time to time if I would share some thoughts on how one could develop their photography skills. Well, this is my attempt to do just that. In all honesty, I hesitate in offering these tips. Not because I don’t think they’d be helpful to some, but because I very much consider myself a fellow learner- not an expert- and would not want you to think otherwise.

However, I’ve benefited from some great advice throughout the years and am happy to pass it along. If I could encourage any aspiring photographers out there, then by all means, here are my top ten tips for you (from the cheap seats, of course) that I come back to again and again.

1. Look at Great Photography

If you want to be a great writer, you should read really great writing. Same with photography. If you want to take really great pictures, spend a lot of time looking at beautiful photography. This is not wasted time, I promise. This is far and away one of the best bits of advice I received when I first got started.

Of course a caution is in order here. When you begin to immerse yourself in the work of those who are in the “Big Leagues” so to say, you can feel incredibly tempted to throw in the towel and call it a day. About six years ago, I began following a number of photographers whose talent (to this day) stops me in my tracks. There were moments when I thought to myself, “Forget it. I’m done. I’m not even going to try. There is no way I will ever get there! [tossing camera into trash can]” But truth be told, after six years, I’m still not there. Not even close. But I’ve grown. And that is what’s important.

So my advice? Fight envy and despair with gratitude. This changed everything for me [digging camera out of trash can]. Be grateful for the gifts God has given to others. Be grateful that you can learn from people who are further along than you. And be grateful that you can use your gifts unto the Lord regardless of how advanced you might be.

And one more thing: Let yourself be helped and influenced and inspired by the gifts and creativity of others. Don’t try to be different for the sake of being different. What’s the point of that anyways? This really can be pride pulling one over on you. A very wise man once said, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ Not a recipe, not a baby’s name, not a handmade craft, and not a photography shoot that is entirely original and uninfluenced by the world and people around you. In other words, it’s okay (good, even!) to emulate others and to be emulated yourself.

2. Learn How You Learn

Maybe you learn best by taking a class? Maybe you learn best by reading a manual? Or maybe you are a hands-on learner (like me) and learn best by trial and error. Over and over and over again. Fifteen minutes behind the camera does more for me than an hour of reading about photography. Learn how you learn best and dive in!

3. Shoot What You Love

I know myself well enough to know that I would have given up photography long ago if all I had to shoot were trees and buildings. Don’t get me wrong, I love nature and architecture, but those aren’t the things that keep me clicking my camera every day.

Put a newborn baby, an adorable set of twins, a happily engaged couple, or a fun-loving family in front of me and I could snap pictures all day long. Photographing people and their unique personalities and style is so fun for me. It never feels unenjoyable. I think that’s why after so many years of taking pictures, it has yet to get old.

4. Practice all the Time

I’ve written before on the importance of having your camera out and ready to shoot whatever comes your way, but this is doubly important because it reminds you to practice. I have never taken a photography class and I’ve yet to read my camera manual all the way through, but I have put in countless hours practicing. This is the wonderful thing about digital photography, you can shoot as much as you want and delete what you don’t want to keep. In other words, you can practice all the time with little or no cost to yourself (yes, there is wear and tear on your equipment, but you are honing your skills which, in my opinion, is invaluable).

5. Shoot in Every Setting

I lived in a basement for five years before we bought our first home. You can imagine all of the natural light I had to work with underground during the winter. This forced me to learn my camera and the settings I needed to use in order to make the best of my situation. So, my advice? Practice in all kinds of settings (indoor, outdoor, overcast, sunny, etc.) during all different times of day.

6. Ask for Feedback

My former boss at Desiring God, Bill Walsh, is an incredible photographer. He played a big role in helping Joe pick out my first Digital SLR Camera. I’ve always considered him my photography mentor and welcome his feedback and critique any time he will offer it. I also have other photographer friends that I will seek out for feedback. Find some people in your life that are further along than you and ask them if they wouldn’t mind taking a look at your work. It’s so helpful.

7. Invest in Good Equipment

One helpful bit of advice I received early on was this: Invest in new equipment, once you’ve outgrown your old. This means, if you are no longer being challenged by your point and shoot camera, it might be time to upgrade to an SLR. If you are frustrated that your lens can’t do what you want it to do, it might be time to invest in a better lens.

I don’t say this flippantly. I am keenly aware of how much photography equipment costs. I shot with a simple Sony point and shoot camera for over ten years before I got my first DSLR. I then shot for another three years before investing in an expensive lens. So yes, make sure you really do love photography before making such a hefty investment, but if you’re sure, know that it’s an investment worth making!

8. Rent Lenses

This bit of advice is for those of you with an SLR camera. If you can’t afford to purchase a nice lens but still desire to gain experience (and some nice shots!), I would definitely recommend renting lenses (or other photography equipment). I rented lenses for over a year before we bought an additional lens. I rent from a place in Minneapolis that allows me to keep the lens(es) from Friday until Monday and only charges me for one day! Renting is also a great way to settle on a piece of equipment before making a big purchase.

Fun fact: I was nine months pregnant with Peter (dilated to 3 cm) and having painful contractions in the car on the way to the hospital. On our way, we stopped at the lens shop where I waddled my larger-than-life self inside to pick out the lens I wanted to rent for our son’s birth. The pictures we took of our sweet boy in those early days will forever be family favorites.

9. Volunteer to Shoot for Free

Offering to take pictures for others (for free) is one of the best ways to gain some great experience. They get free pictures and you get the training (And you get the training without the pressure or expectations that come along with a paid shoot)! When I first got my camera, I began asking family and close friends if I could take pictures of them- just to practice. They happily obliged and what I learned during those shoots really helped me to improve.

Photography is now a wonderful side job for me, but it took a long time before I felt confident enough to charge for my work. The income is a blessing and it helps to cover the costs of the equipment I need in order to grow as a photographer.

10. Take a Break

Every winter I go into a bit of a photography hibernation. We are inside most of the time and it gets dark very early leaving me little time to shoot. I still try to take pictures at least weekly, but nothing like the three other seasons of the year. I find that this break is so refreshing and it makes me even more excited to start shooting again in the spring. So, take a break from time to time for the sake of developing your skills and preventing burnout.

Alright fellow photographers, anything you would add to this list?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2013 6:00 pm

    Friends don’t let friends put things in the middle.

  2. Patti permalink
    March 2, 2013 9:26 am

    I enjoy looking at all you post. You have a knack for capturing just the right look whether people or things. I don’t care to be a photographer and am grateful that God has given some of you that talent. Thank you.

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