Advice For New Photographers - Do Not Learn To Use Your Camera First

I started my foray into photography as most people have in this day and age; technical manuals that teach you how to use your camera. I studied like a maniac, learning every little tip and trick I could find, not only for using my camera, but techniques like HDR and focus stacking. My geek brain was fascinated by what was possible, and I had to try it all! I needed the new camera, the best lenses, strobes, all the gadgets and gizmos, I was trying a new piece of post processing software every week. I was looking for something, anything to make my images unique. I wanted a trick, a cheat code to get to the top as quickly as possible.

I was focused on the technical side of photography, but what I really wanted to create deep down, was art. No matter how many books, magazines, blogs I read on photography, I would never get there because I was not studying the most important aspect of creating art...Art!

More recently I have begun to study different forms of art, which started by being introduced to the Hudson River School of painters. Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Thomas Cole all blew my mind with their incredibly luminous paintings. It was not a large jump from landscape photography, but it has sparked my curiosity into other arts. I now enjoy going to museums and feel inspired to learn and see more art, my eyes have been opened.

Among the Sierra Mountains by Albert Bierstadt in 1868

Among the Sierra Mountains by Albert Bierstadt in 1868

I do not believe I was a good photographer before studying art and what goes into creating it. I began to think more by studying composition, light, color, etc. along with the practice of contemplative photography. I have slowed down, stopped chasing the iconic photographs, and spend more time wandering, thinking, and meditating. I now create images that have more meaning to me, which is much more fulfilling than getting a thousand likes on Facebook.


Finally, my advice for new photographers: Before even buying a camera, study art. Find something that piques your curiosity and learn more about it. I was fascinated with landscape painting, so I read this book Landscape Painting by Mitchell Albala. Not because I wanted to paint, but to learn what goes into creating a painting. Read classic novels, listen to beautiful music that inspires you, immerse yourself in art and eventually you will create great art as well.

When you buy a camera (or just use your smartphone) leave it in full auto mode. This is blasphemy amongst professional photographers who often joke about 'P' mode standing for Professional Mode, you should not care about what they think. When you are starting out you should first focus on telling a meaningful story with your photographs. Composition, contrast, texture, etc. are the tools to tell your story. Some of the best photographs ever created were out of focus, but they told a great story.

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.
— Ansel Adams

Do not worry about creating a technically perfect image when you are starting out, if this is what you are thinking about, most likely the photo will suck. I know, I have a library full of pretty subjects with no meaning, that are terribly composed. I was lucky here and there, but I wish I would have started in the other direction.

Cameras today are incredibly intelligent, the pre-programmed modes work extremely well under most circumstances. I am not saying that you should never learn how to use your camera in an intelligent manner, it is extremely important to know how to achieve your vision by knowing as much as you can. When starting out, all of this technical mumbo jumbo will blur your vision, preventing you from seeing what is in front of you.

As you discover your creative muse you will eventually run into the technical road blocks that hold you back, this is the time to learn these important skills. You will become curious how to create motion blur, have sharp focus from front to back, how to create bokeh, etc. You can learn these along the way, they are really quite simple as you will find. Starting with a good foundation of skills in seeing is so much more important than knowing every function of your camera.

Composition, light, color, tones, and story telling are what make powerful photographs, not sharpness, panoramas, HDR, or any other fancy trick. These type of photos make great eye candy, they have massive 'wow' factor, but not necessarily depth.

Looking for inspiration? I would start by going to art museums to find what strikes you personally. If you are unable to get out, I would start with this book: Art That Changed The World.

When you are ready to learn more about what goes into creating great art, look into some of the books below.

For an extremely in depth book, study Art and Visual Perception. This is not an easy read, it is a textbook in size and content. If you are serious about your art, this is an important book to dig into.

Vision and Art - The Biology of Seeing will help you understand how humans perceive art. Having this understanding will help you create images that will be compelling to your viewer when you pick up the camera.

The books below are all related to photography, but not as much on the technical aspects, as to the artistic side of photography. They have all inspired me deeply.

Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition - Ian Plant has created the bible to photographic composition in this eBook, it is incredibly well done and thought out.

Chasing the Light - Ian de-mystifies how to find the light that makes incredible photographs

Beyond the Grand Landscape: A Guide to Photographing Nature's Smaller Scenes - My friends Ron and Sarah have put together this fantastic eBook that will help you see past the iconic images and begin to create something more meaningful to you.

Vision 365 -  A great eBook by Henry Fernando that will get you started with contemplative photography, this book is full of exercises that will help you begin to see your vision.

A Deeper Frame - David DuChemin shows you how to create depth in your images.

Drawing the Eye - David explores visual mass for creating more powerful images.

Please share what has inspired you in your art making journey, what was it that made it all click for you? This is one of the great joys of photography, constant growth and learning.

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