19 powerful tips for beginner photographers (a useful checklist)
When you are starting out in photography it can be overwhelming thinking about where to start.
I wanted to share my most useful tips and ideas for photographers at the beginning of their journey. But this list is also for more experienced people who want to fill any gaps in their knowledge.
Or, if you’re stuck and thinking your images are boring, run through this list and see what you’re not doing – and you can use these ideas to hopefully unstick you, and provide you with knowledge to fuel some more exciting images.
These ideas often come up in longer articles we’ve written, so we’re linking to these where needed. But having them here in one handy list we hope proves uber-useful!
Let’s get started!
1. You don’t need a fancy camera (at least straight off)
It’s very tempting in our photography journey to buy the very best camera we can afford. I am no stranger to lusting after gear, so I get it. But the basic fact is you don’t need a super fancy camera when you are starting out.
In fact, learning a complex new system can be detrimental. I recommend starting with whatever you have to hand and if you don’t have a camera, buy something inexpensive, second hand even, that you are not afraid to play around with.
People always want me to recommend cameras, but to be honest I don’t see enough cameras to recommend different makes and models. What I do like to say is – if you can get to a camera store, go. Hold the cameras, feel their weights and choose something that feels good in your hand.
Know, too, that often women and men hold their cameras differently – see this brilliant video as to why.
Weight and shape are super-significant. And for beginners, to be honest you are not going to notice the subtle differences in camera models.
2. Remember that the world is 360 degrees
This sounds so obvious but it’s one of the main stumbling blocks I see beginners coming up against: they are not remembering that the world is a 360 degree experience.
You need to look at everything around you – not just ahead of you, but behind you, above you, at your feet etc.
If you see photographers shooting in one direction, also look in the other. If the light is doing something interesting to the wall, what else is it doing to the other side of the wall, or what’s happening behind you?
It’s all about looking around your world totally, and discovering everything interesting in your wider environment.
We don’t want to just take the obvious shot. So being aware of this vast 360 degree world is imperative.
3. Photography is 100% about observation
As I write this I am focusing on my laptop, and the rest of the room has fallen into a soft, almost fuzzy focus. I am so concentrated on what’s happening in front of me, where I have placed my attention, that I am not aware of all of the other things happening around me.
This is because even though there are millions of pieces of visual information around in our environment that I could be aware of, my brain blocks out most of it, so that I can focus and get stuff done.
If we noticed everything, all of the time, then we would be constantly overwhelmed – a little like watching a toddler constantly distracted by things in their world.
Photography, though, requires us to not block out what’s happening around us.
And observation is not a passive action.
“Observation is not passively watching but is an active mental process.” W. I. B. Beveridge
And like anything – it can be developed within ourselves.
“Training in observation follows the same principles as training in any activity. At first one must do things consciously and laboriously, but with practice the activities gradually become automatic and unconscious and a habit is established.” W. I. B. Beveridge
4. Develop your awareness by having a mini seeing-project
One of my favourite ways to train my awareness and observation skills is to have a mini seeing-project.
You pick a small subject that isn’t necessarily a great passion, but something you are likely to see fairly often – but not too often. Then you photograph that as you are going about your life.
This helps you see more in the environment you are in – because what you will find is that if you ask your mind to notice say, people wearing pink t-shirts, you will notice so many more of them than before.
Read more about what mini-seeing projects can do here.
5. Slow down
Rushing and doing is an endemic part of modern life. It feels like such a habit that sometimes I rush when I don’t even need to.
Rushing and doing as much as possible in the timeframe that you have is, though, the direct opposite to how we need to be as photographers.
By slowing down, of course we are going to notice and see more. We can spend more time becoming intimately aware of our surroundings.
In fact, I think of it as a blessing – not only is it more pleasant to live in a more relaxed, slow moving fashion, it’s a requirement for our creativity.
Win win – good for our health, and good for our photography!
6. Follow the light
“The moment you take the leap of understanding to realize you are not photographing a subject but are photographing light is when you have control over the medium.” Daryl Benson
Not all photographers will agree with me, but most will. For me light is my subject. Not people or landscapes or flowers or even my kids! What I am photographing is the light on that element.
I love light! I live, breathe, seek out and adore light. I want to see light in many different qualities – the hard metallic light before a storm, the pretty spring light in the morning, the misty melancholic light of a winter’s afternoon.
And it’s in interesting light that I find fascinating things I want to photograph.
For me a photograph starts with the light, and I encourage you to make light a significant part of your photos too.
And how do you learn about light? First by observing it! Become familiar at all times with what light is doing all around you.
Making light your subject part 1 & part 2
7. Reduce, reduce, reduce
One of the biggest issues I see with beginners in their images is there is too much going on. Too many elements, too busy. The eye gets confused and there isn’t a clarity of composition.
You would therefore be doing some brilliant training if you are always thinking to yourself – what can I remove, take out, reduce?
What elements are unnecessary – and how can I rid my image of them so I get a clearer, less cluttered image?
What you leave out is as significant as what you put in.
Everything in your frame is relevant.
8. Compose with only three elements
This is one of my favourite articles that demonstrates the power of using a simple composition.
This technique is all about using just three elements to compose your shots. It helps you learn how to refine your images and place your subject and supporting elements in interesting ways.
Master this concept and it will give you brilliant training in composition, and help you then build up to more complex compositions.
9. Move more than you think you should
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” Ansel Adams
This is totally connected to the act of observation.
Your subject will have an angle that is the very best. It won’t always be easy to find. In fact, as a beginner it rarely is.
The best angle relies on so many different things – the light, what’s behind and around your subject, all of the elements, the height and angle.
You need to explore as many angles as you can, so you can discover what the perfect position from which to shoot your subject.
Amateur photographers rarely move enough. I have seen so many people find a great subject, stand in front of it, and click without considering that different viewpoints might make better photos.
So you would be wise to think always – move, then move some more, and think – how else I can shoot this subject? You’ll be amazed by what you find.
More on finding the perfect angle.
10. Stop fixating on your subject
When I am looking at most beginners’ shots I can see instantly that they are fixating on their subject.
What does this mean?
It means that you are so enthralled with your subject – and perhaps so eager to capture the shot – that you take the shot without thinking is this the very best angle, the best light and the best background or composition for my subject?
We can get so enthralled in the shooting that we don’t consider every part of the composition, and if it’s the best we can do or get.
When you see your subject – observe the situation, look around you, see what the light is doing, move position.
Take your time.
When you are ready to take the shot, make sure you check every part of the frame. I always say – check your corners, because this is a common place to miss unexpected items in your photo.
11. What are you feeling?
“Photography isn’t about seeing, it’s about feeling. If I don’t have some kind of feeling for what I’m shooting, how can I expect the person who looks at it to feel anything?”
The world is awash with boring photos. Photos that aren’t well thought out, that are just being snapped, that contain nothing compelling about them.
Aside from all the things I’ve already mentioned – light, composition, making every element in your frame relevant – another key tenant of a good photograph is what feeling does it convey to the viewer?
We are emotional beings, and one of the reason why advertising is so successful is it invokes and manipulates our emotions.
We seek out things that make us feel particular ways – funny movies, scary news stories, love stories etc.
And it is what we experience with our emotions that we are drawn to, and remember, the most.
The most memorable, iconic photos that we recall are those that communicate a feeling.
The easiest way to get feeling into your photos is to first find subjects that elicit an emotion in you. A mesmerising sunrise, a stunning vista across mountains, an exciting band playing music you love, interesting looking faces, beautiful light etc.
This sense of feeling about your subject is unique to you. We are all fascinated by different things.
Once you have discovered such subjects, delve in and explore them in depth. Work to capture them, but keep going back so your knowledge and intimacy of them improves.
Reflect on the photos you’ve taken, and see what you can improve on next time.
I have been photographing cities at dawn on and off for almost two decades, and I am still not bored by it!
Exhaust your subject until you are happy with your development and the images you’ve captured.
12. Get to know your camera intimately
If we want to be totally free creatively we need to know our cameras. It doesn’t matter if you are shooting manual or auto – the most important place to start is to get to know how your camera works, and what it does in different conditions.
And in this process of getting to know it – don’t worry about how many shots you miss, or the terrible photos you take.
It’s a journey.
Once you have intimacy with it, you can be so much more effective as a photographer. You know that along with the ideas and visions you have your photos can be realised!
You are creatively is unleashed.
It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you have, how you shoot – just get to know it really really well in the capacity that works for you.
13. Carry your camera or phone wherever you are
You don’t need to travel to new exotic locations to find great subjects, but you do need to work on finding compelling things in your environment.
Having your phone or camera on hand all the time will help you train your eye so that you develop your ability to see images as you go about your life.
You start to see the world as a collection of elements, you observe the light more and what it’s doing, you open up your awareness.
And know that there are plenty of ways to photograph the every-day. Seek inspiration from projects by others photographers that show us how engaging ‘every day’ subjects can prove to be wonderful photos. For example:
- Lee Friedlander’s Intimate Portraits of His Wife, Through Sixty Years of Marriage
- Ernst Haas abstract photos of peeling posters, water, road signs and paint
- Finding Beauty in the Mundane – our challenge to you 🙂
14. Clean your lens
You’re gonna say, I can tell, I do this all the time right? Well, for the many many people I meet who don’t do this enough, this is for you 🙂
15. Plastic bags are great for light rain!
This is one super practical tip, and I mention it because when I tell people on my workshops to bring a plastic bag for their camera, they are often surprised that I am not suggesting a more sophisticated option. Nice to have a cheap tip right, when everything else is so costly 🙂
16. Backup your photos
So many people forget this essential part of the post-shoot work. Do not trust your technology – always have your photos stored in two places.
17. Take time to reflect
Photographer Joel Meyerowitz talks about when he started taking photographs:
“I was overwhelmed. The streets, the intense flow of people, the light changing, the camera that I couldn’t quite get to work quickly enough. It just paralysed me. I had to learn to identify what it was exactly I was responding to, and if my response was any good. The only way to do that is to take pictures, print them, look hard at them and discuss them with other people.”
To me this simple idea of shoot, look at what you have, get feedback, then shoot some more, is the perfect way to develop your photography.
As you go along you’ll come up against technical barriers, you’ll need to learn about different shooting conditions and light – which you can do bit by bit. And the internet has a wealth of information for technical knowledge.
Ultimately, though, it is mostly about getting out there to shoot and then examining what you got!
18. Nothing will teach you more than shooting
Nothing, including reading this blog (lol!), can replace the value of shooting. Shooting, and shooting, and reflecting on what and how you are shooting – and then guess what – shooting some more!
19. Don’t take it too seriously – enjoy yourself
The mind can be so serious and often focused on everything we don’t know or everything we are doing wrong.
But this journey of photography should be fun! Maybe challenging at times too, but ultimately it should be a joyful, life-enhancing practice.
Something that helps you see the world in a more intimate and connected fashion. That is fun to do, and gives you opportunities to explore and see the world in new ways.
So don’t worry about what you don’t know (there are always things we don’t know!)
Celebrate what you do know and how much photography brings into your life.
“We think of photography as pictures. And it is. But I think of photography as ideas. And do the pictures sustain your ideas or are they just good pictures? I want to have an experience in the world that is a deepening experience, that makes me feel alive and awake and conscious.” Joel Meyerowitz
We’d love to know what you think of these ideas. Please comment on our blog or hit reply. We love hearing from you!
Have a great day,
Anthony and Diana