Twelve Tips for Beginners

10th November 2015
I am definitely not an expert, or even near being so. I’ve had quite a long, low learning curve with photography, and should have thought a bit more about tips like these when I started out. If you’re just starting out then maybe some of these will help you get better quicker. They're quite general ideas, but there are plenty of other articles online that will give you the nitty gritty details.

1. Avoid the Gear Trap

The world of photography seems to be driven as much by technology as artistic vision these days. New cameras come out every week and the list of features offered can be mind-boggling. Photography has become a field for gear nerds. Good gear is important but as Ansel Adams put it “the single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” You can spend all the money in the world on great equipment but it’s not going to give you a better eye for composition, a better understanding of exposure or more persistence for getting the shot you want. If you’re starting out, you don’t need the most expensive kit in the world. The standard of camera technology is so high at the moment that it’s hard to go wrong. Put more time into learning how to make good photos than into wondering what to buy.

2. Get to Know The Basics

Read up about aperture, shutter speed and ISO and how they all relate to each other. Understand metering and white balance and be conscious of them when you’re making pictures. Learn about different auto-focus modes, and when to just turn them off. Do some research into the rules of composition but don’t be afraid to break them. All the new jargon will probably be overwhelming at first but you’ll pick it up with time. With so much free information online these days there’s no excuse for not learning.

3. Get to Know Your Camera

If there are any dials on your camera that look like this then you'd better get to know them!

If you’re really looking to get better then learn what your camera can do. If you’ve got a camera that has manual controls then learn what they are (see point 2) and how to use them. By knowing what your camera’s capable of (and what it’s limitations are) you’ll get more from it and that knowledge will give you the freedom to be more creative.

4. Try to Do Something Different

Every May images of bluebell woods clog up the online feeds of photographers all over Ireland and Britain. On a windy evening I made this image just before sunset to give a different view of a bluebell forest floor.

Photography is quite a personal thing. Plenty of people will be quite happy to recreate the classic images we all know, and that’s fine. In terms of landscape photography each country will have its hotspots. In Ireland they’re the Cliffs of Moher, Fanad Lighthouse, Glendalough’s Upper Lake, Dunmore Head etc. etc. If you want to go to these places and remake the images you’ve seen before then you’re free to do so. But try to think outside the box every once in awhile. Painters haven’t been trying to recreate the Mona Lisa for the past 500 years. Use what you’ve seen to inspire you but try to be original! This is a good article that puts it better than I can.

5. Stalk Other Photographers

Not literally... But check out their work. Photography covers a broad range of styles and topics. Try to see as much as you can. Take some learning from the things you like and use what others are doing as inspiration (not plagiarism) for your own vision. See what wins the competitions and read up on the people who make those images, and how they make them. Buy their coffee table books. See the Links Page for some photographers who inspire me.

6. Use Filters

A graduated neutral density filter (or two) helped hold back the bright sky in this image, allowing the camera to correctly expose the darker foreground.

Assuming you’re using a camera with interchangable lenses you’re best knowing a bit about some of the filters that are available. At the very least use a UV filter. Don’t get a cheap one; adding an extra layer of glass to your lens can reduce image quality. But a filter will protect your lens from scratches and is a much cheaper fix if something does come into contact with your front element. Then there are the other filters... Firstly, it’s assumed by most of the public that putting a filter in front of a lens artificially enhances the pictures you’re making. This can certainly be the case but quite often (for landscape photography especially) filters can help balance the exposure to give a more realistic view of what’s happening (which is something cameras often struggle to do). Graduated Neutral Density filters are great for correctly exposing between bright areas (usually the sky) and darker areas (often the foreground) without casting a colour on the image (in theory anyway...). As digital processing becomes better and better things like grad ND filters are going out of fashion as the same results can be got from blending images and HDR techniques. But I think they still have their place in landscape photography, and can help create an image that requires very little editing.

7. Use a Tripod

A tripod kept the camera steady for this image, allowing to keep everything else sharp while the water was blurred. Just don't assume blurry water makes you a good photographer!

If you’re making landscape images a tripod will make your life so much easier. Having both hands free to work your camera controls means you’re less likely to make mistakes, like missing focus or losing composition. For darker scenes especially (often at sunrise and sunset), a sturdy tripod will keep your camera sturdy, and allow you to keep your ISO and aperture at optimum settings (which often lead to slower shutter speeds in dark situations - see point 2 if you don’t understand!)

8. Shoot RAW

I couldn't have exposed this image correctly without the freedom a RAW file gives.

The two main file types that digital cameras create are jpeg and RAW files. Jpegs are processed in the camera, and have little flexibility when it comes to editing. RAW files aren’t processed in camera and as a result look very dull at first. But they have a huge amount of leeway when it comes to processing; detail can be brought out from dark areas, bright areas can be toned down and colour can be changed without a loss of quality, among hundreds of other things. There are probably very view people who don’t shoot RAW anymore, but up until fairly recently I was one of them. The reason was that it often meant extra editing while I was quite happy with the jpegs my cameras made, and I've always far preferred being out with the camera than being in at the computer. But I wish I’d started shooting RAW so much earlier. There are plenty of images that just can’t be made without the power of digital processing. Shoot both jpeg and RAW. If you’re happy with the first, then you can save yourself the post-processing work. But at least you’ll have the RAW file if you need it. There are plenty of online tutorials about Lightroom and Photoshop, and even the native photo software on many computers these days has some capability to work RAW files. Just remember that you can't compensate for bad composition after a photo has been made. Aiming to get the images as useable as possible straight out of the camera will make you a better photographer.

9. Don’t Be Put Off by Bad Weather

It was raining before, during and after my time at this location when I made this image. But the morning sun lighting up all that rain helped create one of my favourite ever photographs.

For landscape photography especially, bad weather often means good photographs. Clouds add texture, colour and shape to skies, and filter and direct the light, often leading to much more interesting scenes than blue sky days have. If you’re planning on getting up at 5am for some sunrise photography don’t be put off by the rain when the alarm goes off. In plenty of cases the show will be far better for the bank of cloud sitting above the horizon, waiting to be lit by the sun. Remember, if you want the rainbow you have to put up with the rain! That said, if you’re creative enough, calm and clear weather can inspire some fantastic photographs too (as well as being quite nice to be out in...). I like David Clapp’s mantra: “There are no poor conditions, only poor decisions.” Work with what you’re given, because most of the time it’s not going to be exactly what you wanted anyway.

10. Think About It

The line created by the stone wall matches the line of the close hillside, while there are hilltops either side of the frame, channeling your view to the distant island. Don't just point and shoot!

It can be very easy to go out and point a camera at a scene and press the shutter button and go home, without having given much thought to the whole thing. I did it for years! But you should think about the images you’re making. Landscapes are quite stationary so it’s easy to put time into thinking about what you’re doing. What are you trying to photograph? What are the important elements? Check the edges of your frame; have you cut out half of one of the subjects? Or have you something distracting in one of the corners? Is there symmetry in the scene? By giving thought to what you’re trying to capture you’ll learn to make better images. Try to imagine all the elements of a picture being pieces of a jigsaw. You can't move them but you can move yourself into a position where they align perfectly. Some scenes, like wildlife action, happen very quickly and it can be quite a challenge to keep things like perfect composition and exposure in mind as you frantically chase the subject through a long lens. It’ll come with time, and with a better understanding of the subject.

11. Don’t Miss the Magic

Take the time to enjoy what you're looking at!

It can be very easy to get drawn into the display on the back of the camera and pay it more attention than the scene itself. Making photographs can be great but it can often distract us from the magic that’s happening on the other side of the lens. Try and soak it in! There are many things a photograph can’t capture and we should all try and absorb as much of the real life moment as possible, lest we forget why we go out and make pictures in the first place.

12. Break All These Rules

It’s good to have a process to ensure you’re ticking all the boxes but try not to get too stuck into a routine, as after time it’ll probably get stale and give you tunnel vision. Don’t always be looking for the same image. Try sticking to just one lens for awhile, head out in the middle of the day instead of just waiting for the sunset, photograph something you’ve never tried to shoot before... It's when you're presented with challenges that the potential for growth is highest. The possibilities are endless, and you’ll be better for exploring as much of them as you can.

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