How to Learn Photography: Finally Put Your Camera to Use

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I thought photography an interesting skill to learn. I wanted to take on a project that pushed me to be more creative and make connections I usually wouldn’t. I also wanted something to write about. Sadly, Googling, “how to learn photography” I couldn’t trust what results came up.

I knew there wasn’t a resource like this that existed. That’s why I decided I should make it.

So I have taken on the project of deconstructing and learning photography from the ground up and documenting the whole thing here.

I want this project to become the “wiki” page for the topic: “how to learn photography.”

There is so much noise out there, and you can’t always trust the resource you pick up to be a good one. So here I am, on the internet telling you to believe me. I can smell the irony.

Over time I will expand on this page through different sub-posts. Until I write those, I will link out to as reputable sources as I can.

Wanting to keep track with where I’m at on this project or if I’m still working on it? You can sign up for my newsletter or refer to my “Now” page.

I’ve come to photography not knowing much about it. I took a class in high school. But that was just permission to walk around the halls and campus undisturbed. I didn’t even remember how to properly hold a camera.

This is a monster of a page, so I recommend you tackle it in bits.

Thanks, Tim and Josh!

I’ll refer to them by their first names like we are good friends. We aren’t.

The process I’m using for learning photography is one I’ve extracted from the books The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin and The 4 Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss.

Their books are comprehensive, so my adaptations are few. I want to make this mention early, so no one calls me a dirty rotten stealer.

If you want to dive into learning how to learn yourself, I highly recommend those books.
Lastly, if you see ways to make this page better, please reach out. As well if you think you could or want to contribute to this project in some way, I would love to chat.

Let’s get going.

How to Learn Photography on Your Own: The Ultimate Guide

My purpose here is not to degrade and chop up the art of photography in any way. I aim to lower the resistance to getting started, so more people can make art.

Let’s talk basics.

1. Get a Camera

Simple, but necessary first step. We need a camera to learn with.

I’d recommend not going out and buying one unless you are wholly confident you will be using it. If you can, look to borrow from someone you know.

I’ve been lucky enough to have my girlfriend lend me her Canon Rebel T3. It’s been an excellent camera to start out with, and at no cost to me. Canon-Rebel-T3-EOS

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to refer to this camera as “my camera” for the remainder of this project. It’s not my camera, I do not own it, I am not assuming possession of it.

She’s a law student, so I feel the need to be explicitly clear.

If you can’t borrow from someone, then maybe rent one. You could rent at reasonable prices for a weekend or a full week at a time. Rent a few weekends in a row until you find someone who has one who may be willing to share.

But don’t forget your phone!

I received this recommendation from a professional photographer, Bill Aron. Bill said as phones developed better cameras, good photographers were taking great photos with them. As well…bad photographers still took terrible photos.

Remember, it’s the photographer that makes the photo, not the camera. If an iPhone or Android phone is all you have, that’s totally fine!  

I will be mentioning Bill a few times as we had the opportunity to speak on the phone. Very generous with his knowledge, his insight has been wonderfully helpful. Take a look at more of his work here.

Film vs. Digital?

Should you start with a film camera or digital? I will jump into this topic in another post. But I’ll share the brief answer now.

Experienced photographers recommend starting or at least testing out film. As you have a limited number of shots with a roll of film there are some benefits. You learn to be patient, plan more and understand light better.

However, film isn’t cheap. Again, there are a limited number of shots you can take per roll. Getting photos developed is more difficult than it used to be with “1 Hour Photos” losing their pinnacle grocery store real estate.

Film cameras themselves are cheaper than digital cameras. But, there are compounding costs with film and the development process can add up.

From what I understand about the early stages of the learning process, we want to make getting up and running as easy as possible. If a film camera and film aren’t readily accessible to you then I’d recommend digital.

Starting with film, spending on film rolls, and spending on development can be speed bumps to gaining momentum early on in the learning process.

Taking near unlimited shots with digital and plugging in a memory card into your computer for review is a much more smooth process.

So, I say opt for digital if you can to begin (I hope I don’t get hate mail from the photographers I spoke with for this one…).

We can’t lose track of the advice given here:

*Think about your shots before you take them

*Understand how to work with light and exposure

The principle here is to make things as easy on ourselves as possible in the beginning.

If a film camera and a box of old film are more accessible to you, then use that. Bonus points and you will do right by the photography gods.

2. Set Expectations & Objectives

Next, we need to establish our goals and a  timeline to achieve them.

Where do you want to end up with photography?

Are you just trying to be better than average? Are you trying to make the most out of the camera that you got for Christmas a few years ago? Are you trying to take kick-ass photos on your upcoming trip? Or, are you wanting to become a professional and sell your prints online?

It’s important to manage your expectations and set attainable objectives. This is SMART goal setting.

It would be much better if in six months you enjoyed an advanced amateur photographer or the designated family photographer instead of setting unrealistic targets on opening a studio, deciding you don’t like photography that much, burning out, feeling sad, and then asking yourself existential questions like, “who am I?”  

No one wants that. I’m sure.

Here are some examples:

*Gift my family beautiful prints for Christmas this year that they can hang up in their homes.

*Take and print photos that I want to hang as art in my house by New Years.

*Come back from Peru with beautiful photos that I can publish on my travel blog.

General expectation setting

*Most of your photos will be bad.

My girlfriend and I heard Laura Wilson give a lecture at the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio. She said, “every one of my photos comes out better or worse than I expect.”

*It will take time to figure out what you like taking photos of.

When asking Jill Enfield (another prolific photographer I had the pleasure to speak with), “How did you determine what you liked taking photos of?” Jill said, “I was a complete mess when I began. I didn’t know what I was doing. I shot everything.”

If you can pick out 3-5 types of photography you think you might like, it could help you to narrow your focus.

Common ones for us getting started:

-Travel photography

-Portraits

-Landscape

-Food

-Street photography

-Events

Refer to this Wiki page “Forms of Photography” for a more comprehensive list.

*Interesting things don’t always make interesting photos.

Don’t beat yourself up here. During my time speaking with Bill, he made reference to a quote from Garry Winogrand, a street photographer from the Bronx. Garry said, “the photograph must be more interesting than the thing photographed.”

Just because we are shooting the Grand Canyon doesn’t mean our pictures will be great. People take cruddy photos of beautiful things all the time.

*Attention is everything

This was one of the most common mistakes the photographers I spoke with noticed in beginners. Beginners won’t pay attention.=

Pay attention to the light. Pay attention to how your photos are turning out. Pay attention to why some of your photos work, and some don’t.

Keep track of these things.

Identifying the Fundamentals of Photography

Before we start taking photos, we need to learn about photography to make sure we are using our time efficiently.

To quote Tim Ferriss directly from The 4 Hour Chef, “what you learn is oftentimes more important than how you learn.”

If we can be both efficient in what we learn and how we learn it, even better.

**Goals of the Deconstruction Phase**

Our goals in the deconstruction phase are to do the three followings things:

1) Break down photography into it’s most straightforward and manageable parts.

2) Then, determine which of those parts are most important for us to learn.

3) Identify the order in which we should learn these parts (what should come before the other?)

Overall, we want to make taking bad-ass photos less intimidating, and identify which few fundamentals can get us the farthest in, fastest.

Remember, this is a process that will get you taking higher quality photos fastest. This is not the process that gets you to the top 5% in the world. Although, it can be a door there.

The quicker you can begin taking photos that make you think, “Hmm…I’m getting better at this…” the more likely you’ll keep the hobby. If we can get more of us participating in making art, I think we are winning. Don’t you?

How I Determined the Fundamentals of Photography

Luckily for you, I’ve taken the time to reach out to professional, high level photographers both in my local area (San Antonio and Austin), and nationwide. I reached out to just under 100 photographers looking for help with breaking down their craft into it’s simplest parts.

Luckily for me, many of those 100 were very generous with their expertise and time. Thanks again!

If I gather there is some interest, I’ll be writing an additional post on the outreach I did, emails I sent and questions I asked them.

But for now, I’ll just share with you my findings after spending time distilling all the insight.

Here are some questions I asked myself as I sat with all the notes from my collected interviews:

*What are the common themes that are emerging?

*Are there implicit understandings and advice that are being communicated here that I’m not picking up on?

*What are the common things not to do? What are the common things-to-do?

*What’s common amongst these individuals and their thoughts, feelings, etc. about their work?

Here’s what I came up with…

TTVS or 2TVS

Tools

Technical Skill

Visual Literacy

Story Telling Techniques

Let’s take a look at each of these more in-depth:

Tools: Learn How to Use Your Camera

Your camera is the first roadblock between you and taking photos. For me, holding a DSLR camera has me feeling a bit like an imposter.

I haven’t wanted anyone to see me holding it while walking around, because they may wrongly assume I know how to use it.

A good way to alleviate this social discomfort is to learn how to use the camera (at least how to hold it), from the comfort of your home.

Through education, we find solace. Namaste.

I’m certain there are tutorials on how to use your exact camera online. Just go to YouTube, or enter in a search in Google.

A great general resource for this sort of thing: “The Photography Starter Kit for Beginners,” a CreativeLive course.

From this research we want to know the following:

*How do we change our shutter speed? And where can we see what it is? How does changing it affect our photos?

*How do we change our aperture? (same questions as shutter speed)

*ISO (same questions as shutter speed and aperture)

*Program modes (locate your aperture priority mode, your shutter priority mode and manual mode and what each of them means)

There are other items you should get out of this first research, but until I make the resource for it, I’d highly recommend checking out a tutorial for your specific camera, or the course I recommended from CreativeLive.

2. Learn Basic Technical Photography Skills

Now that we’ve learned what a hammer is and what it does, let’s properly hammer in some nails.

Here we want to learn the fundamentals of photography.

I derived these fundamentals from the conversations I had with photographers.

It may seem I’m grossly oversimplifying the “basics of photography.” Well, I might be. For the sake of our success, I would rather err on the side of too simple vs. too complex.

I will be developing more comprehensive resources on all of these topics as time goes on. For the moment I’ll link out to quality sources and provide brief notes where I can.

Our objective from this section is to be able to take a correctly exposed, clear photo. And, if we come across photos of ours that are incorrectly exposed or unclear, we will know what adjustments to make.

My “fundamentals of photography” are as follows:

1) Learn to use “Manual Mode” on your camera

This is one of the quickest ways to “shoot like the pros.” Many of the photographers I spoke with mentioned that advancing photographers should get into manual mode.

Get into “manual mode” for the following reasons:

  • You are forced to learn how to adjust settings so that your photos come out clear. Shooting on assisted modes can become “crutches” limiting you from understanding the fundamentals.
  • As Jill Enfield said in our talk, “the photographer creates the photos, not the camera.”
  • You get the most out of your camera!

On your camera’s dial, you will notice many different modes. There should only be three modes that you consider using, and two of them you will eventually stop using.

**Note: You may have different names for them depending on the brand of your camera. Mine is a Canon**

  • Manual mode –

In manual mode, you control everything. This does exclude focus settings though. Those are set separately.

  • Aperture priority –

You control the aperture here. The camera will set the needed shutter speed for you to properly expose the photo.

  • Shutter Priority –

You control the shutter speed here. The camera will set the needed aperture for you.

As you can notice from the photo below, my camera is in manual mode. canon-rebel-t3-manual-mode

Therefore, you can assume I’m professional. Thank you.

Integrating this with action:

*Begin in shutter priority mode and take photos of the same object while you test the range of shutter speeds. Notice how the aperture changes. Notice how the photo changes.

*Repeat the exercise but in aperture priority mode.

2) Understanding Exposure & Light

In photography, light is everything. I had this reflected back to me a few times in my interviews.

“Study light. Light is the primary medium of the photographer’s palette,” Kalliope Amorphous said. She’s an incredible fine art photographer located in New York City.

This was the most common of the common mistakes these photographers have seen beginners make. They don’t take the time to understand light and how it affects a photo.

To understand light properly, you should understand how a camera works. Hopefully, we got that from the previous section on “Tools.”

If not, return to John Greengo’s CreativeLive course I mentioned earlier.

There will be two things that affect how much light shows up in your photographs.

1) Environment

Simply, where are you taking photos? Are you taking photos inside with artificial light? Are you taking photos outside? How much sun is there? Which direction is the sun facing?

These are all the things you need to pay attention to.

“Where is the light?” You should always be asking yourself this as you begin shooting.

2) Settings on your camera

How you have your settings adjusted will determine how much light you allow into the camera.

There is your shutter speed (how long the shutter stays open), your aperture (how large the eye of your lens opens up), and your ISO (a measurement of how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light).

Notice the range of shutter speeds your camera has. My Canon Rebel T3 has at it’s fastest, 1/4000 of a second and slowest at 30 seconds. Your aperture may depend on your lens but check that too. The ISO can depend on how new your camera is. The newer your camera the more likely your ISO will be higher.  

**How do you know which one to change to properly expose a photo?**

This was one of my first questions. So if you asked it yourself, good job. We are the same.

This will make more sense to you after you read through the next few sections. But, what setting you change depends on what you want to prioritize in your photograph. If you want a specific depth of field, then you’ll have to change the shutter speed to affect the exposure.

If you want to freeze movement or show movement you will have to change the aperture. Also, as a rule of thumb, we don’t want our shutter speed to be slower than 1 over our lens length. If your lens is 55mm then don’t handhold a shutter speed slower than 1/50 or 1/60.

We want to change ISO last. The lower we can keep the ISO the better. The lower the ISO, the higher quality our photos will be.

If you are working in low light, changing the ISO may be necessary.

We will dig into the topic of light more in another post…but to get you started…

Kalliope, who I mentioned earlier, recommended Rick Sammon’s Exploring the Light to any beginners “who are just picking up a camera for the first time.”

As well, there are specific CreativeLive courses dedicated to “understanding light,” that you may pick up. Here’s one with great reviews.

3) Understand Depth of Field & Focus

The depth of field dictates the sharpness or blurriness of objects in your photo.

The photo’s depth of field is dictated by three things (in order):

*Shooting distance (how close you are to your subject)

*Focal length (how long your lens is)

*Aperture

Shallow depth of field means less of the photo will be sharp. A Larger depth of field means more of the photo will be in focus.

In John Greengo’s CreativeLive course “The Fundamentals of Photography,” lesson number 29 “Depth of Field” is the cleanest and most comprehensive explanation I’ve received on depth of field and how each of those factors (distance, focal length, and aperture) affect it.

4) Understanding Movement & Shutter Speed

As we mentioned earlier we use our shutter speed to let more or less light in.

As well, our shutter speed can be used for aesthetic effect, in freezing or blurring motion.

For a wonderful explanation of using shutter speed and it affected on both the light and captured motion in a scene, I highly recommend John Greengo’s “Fundamentals of Photography” lesson 9, “Choosing a Shutter Speed.”

But to hit you with some quick rules of thumb:

  • As you approach each scene you are shooting, think, “how fast is the subject moving? What’s my shutter speed?”
  • If the subject is not moving, the only thing you are worried about is how much light you are letting in, and not setting the shutter for slower than you can hold the camera still.
  • Your shutter speed should not be slower than 1 over your lens length. 55mm lens? Don’t go slower than 1/55 (most cameras don’t have 1/55, so most likely 1/60).
  • Always think,”What’s the exact shutter speed that will stop the action I’m shooting?” You don’t want to go faster than you need to because that can take away too much light.

First, ensure that you can set the correct shutter to freeze motion. Then you can play around with blurring motion for showing motion.

This is where using your “shutter priority” mode can come in handy. Test the range of your shutter speeds while taking photos of subjects in motion. Notice how the presence of movement changes.

At this point we should be able to correctly expose a photo and shoot it with clarity.

Also, if exposure or clarity isn’t how we want it, we should know how to make adjustments.

Now it’s time for more of the fun stuff.

3. Developing Visual Literacy: Seeing Like a Photographer

Bill Aron introduced me to the concept of visual literacy during our chat over the phone.

He said one of the most basic, fundamental skills that beginning photographers need to learn is what makes a good photograph.

Bill went on to say, visual literacy is understanding “how to look at and how to understand a photograph…how to decipher impact from a photographer.”

Bill said, “a photographer will make 50-100 decisions in the making of a photograph.” At a high level of experience and skill, these decisions become intuitive.

The key for us will be to develop this visual literacy as fast as possible. How can we train ourselves to see like a professional photographer who has been taking photos for 20-30 years?  

We can achieve greater “literacy” primarily in two ways:

  • Education – The more you know about photography and quality photographs, the more you will be able to speak the language.
  • Experience – The more you take photos and notice what you and others like about them, the more you understand how to create quality, engaging photographs.

We will gain both this education and experience through:

1) Critiquing & studying other’s photos

2) Reviewing and having others review our photos

To do this properly, I would recommend the following:

1) Find a quality list of “visual elements” in photography so you can begin speaking more photography language. It’s much easier to shoot a balanced or intentionally unbalanced photo if you know what that looks like.

2) As you are looking at other people’s photos, walk yourself through these questions (from Photography (11th Edition):

*What type of photograph is it?

*What can you tell about the photographer’s intention?

*Do technical matters help or hinder the image?

*Are graphic elements important, such as tone, line, or perspective?

*What else does the photograph reveal besides what is immediately evident?

*What emphasis has the photographer created and how has that been done?

*What emotional or physical impact does the photograph have?

*How does this photograph relate to others made by the same photographer, in the same period, or of the same subject matter?

Once we are handling our cameras correctly and have an understanding of the basic technical skills, this is where we will spend most of our time studying.

Through this process, we can train ourselves to think and see like a photographer.

Where do I critique photos, images, and scenes?

*Visit galleries and museums, stop at photos that catch your attention.

*Buy photo books, or visit your local library. Or to save some money, visiting your local library may be a good idea. Research a few photographers who you may be interested in learning more about and seek out their work.

*Study other visual arts like dancing, film, etc. Everyone is presenting images in different ways.

Where do I get my photos critiqued?

  • Enroll in a community class –

I think this is a major benefit to the local class I enrolled in, in San Antonio. Each week students bring photos to class, and the teacher puts them on display and has us talk about the photos.

  • Use a friend or partner!

I have set up the routine of looking through my photos every Sunday and having my girlfriend note which ones she likes or dislikes and why.

With enough of this style of study, we will begin to look at photos immediately (whether our own or others), and will identify what about the photo we like and dislike.

The final piece to thinking like a photographer is wrapping it all together with a story.

Wait! If you are interested in just taking higher quality snapshots, then you can get most of what you need out of these first three sections.

If you are interested in immersing yourself in photography as the “art,” continue on!

4. Adding Creative Photography Techniques to Tell a Story

A common theme amongst many of these professionals was their level of conviction. They take photos and continue to take photos because they feel they have something to say.

Kyle Cassidy, a photographer who has been documenting American culture since the 1990s, wrote to me,

“It’s also important not to confuse technique with art. The world is FILLED with technically excellent photographers with no idea of what to take pictures of. And it’s easy to get distracted that way because it’s easier to learn the technical things. The artistic things you learn from looking at other people’s art, looking inside yourself to find the stories that you feel compelled to tell, and then applying your technical skills to the things you’ve seen. Look at a lot of picture books, look at a lot of magazines. Buy people’s art.”

The Principle: Have Something to Say.

Certainly this is something that is difficult to deconstruct.

If you are satisfied with just taking quality snapshots, then you may not need to proceed any further. But, if you want to utilize photography as a means to tell an interesting story about yourself, the world, or something going on around you, this may be for you.

How we become storytellers:

1) Determine what it is you have to say.

Another amazing quote from Kyle in our email exchanges,

“A lot of people get the idea they want to be a photographer, buy a camera, and then spend a lot of time taking pictures of their cat. Which is not to say that I don’t take a lot of pictures of my cat, I do, and that is a venerable pursuit, but you should get a camera because you have stories that you feel compelled to tell.”

Kyle continued on to say,

“What are those stories? Is it life in your neighborhood? Is it a wrong that you want to expose to the world? A right that you want to tell the world about? Are you happy? Are you sad? Do you want to record history? What’s compelling you? Figure that out sooner rather than later…If you’re photographing something that doesn’t spawn from whatever creative center you have you’ll know it because it won’t feel fulfilling. Find the things you want to photograph and then figure out what story you want to tell them.”     

Making “art” vs. just taking snapshots comes from the conviction and the purpose of the person using the camera. If you are wanting to tell a story with your new skill, you might want to spend some time thinking about what that is.

Hopefully those few quotes from Kyle are sufficient enough for inspiration to get you thinking.

The Practice: The Tools to Help You Tell Your Story

We return to the tactical, to talk briefly about the tools you’ll use to create the photo you want.

As Bill Aron mentioned, a photographer can make 50-100 decisions intuitively in creating a photograph. Some are for creating a good photograph, some are for telling the story.

Here’s the foundation I deciphered here:

  1. Determine what gets attention (in your photo)

   First, you need to ask yourself, “What’s this photo about?” And from there you can determine what should be getting attention in the photo. If you are taking a photo of a crowd of people, what do you want to emphasize? Are you showing the connectedness of the group or the individuals among it?

…And eliminate distracting elements

   Next, once you determine what you want to give attention to, you begin making structural changes to the photo to affect that.

From Photography (11th Edition), “A painter starts with a blank canvas and adds marks or shapes until it is complete. A photographer generally starts with a complete and seamless world and uses the frame of the viewfinder to select a portion of a scene so everything else is discarded. One process adds the other subtracts.”

  1. Eliminate Distractions & Create Emphasis

These are a few ways for reducing clutter in a photo and drawing the attention of your viewer where you want it. Understanding and mastering these few will take you a long way.

  • Frame the Scene

 To begin subtracting, we can look at framing and during the post-process, cropping.

As backgrounds are an inevitable part of any photo, we must ask, “does the background positively or negatively affect the point of attention?” If no, make no changes. If yes, you can adjust the depth of field, or perspective.

  • Understand Design

   Photographers out in the world aren’t spending their time “constructing” scenes. They are trying to identify the best way to look at things.

An important element of what dictates the attention of the human eye is how something is designed. In Photography, the authors suggest understanding basic design “will help you predict where attention will go in a photograph” (234, Photography).

   There are a few elements of design that can be critical to understanding. We will talk about these more in a future post.

If you are itching, I’d highly recommend Photography 11th Edition and refer to their section on “Seeing Photographs.”

  • Creating and Utilizing Contrast

The eye is always drawn to contrast. We can create or utilize contrast within our photos in some ways; light and darkness, vibrant and dull colors and sharpness and blur are a few of the key places to begin.

  • Composition

Strategic placement of the subject or point of attention “can draw attention to or away from a part of a scene. (244, Photography (11th Edition)). Understanding basic rules of composition, like the Rule of Thirds will be critical here, but they shouldn’t be binding to your photographs.

Understanding the basic rules will make you more aware of your options.

  • Perspective

Simply, think about your distance and position relative to your points of attention. See how you can add depth to your photos or utilize different objects in the foreground

For an excellent book on both exposure, composition, and perspective, pick up Rick Sammon’s Exploring the Light: Making the Very Best In-Camera Exposures.

Each new tool can help you to tell the story you want to tell uniquely.

As Kalliope Amorphous recommended to me and all beginners, “learn the basics of creating a good photograph and then forge your own path into something unique.”

Another great book for adding more storytelling tools to your repertoire recommended to me by Angela Michelle, a wonderful photographer in San Antonio, The A-Z of Creative Photography.

You determine where else you’ll go.

Conclusion: The Photography Game

In the book, Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner, he calls the final stage in learning a language, “The Language Game.” He says, “it’s the moment when a new language unfolds before your eyes and you can choose your own games to play and your own paths to follow.” (143)

In a very similar fashion, I think this applies to photography.

After you develop your fluency in photography, with time for studying, time for shooting and time for reviewing and editing, what do you want to do with it?

If you love it, great. Take it as far as you want to go. Go to galleries, attend lectures, and learn more about what could be in store for you.

Photography is a craft that is sticking around.

Enjoy!

Learn More About the Photographers Mentioned:

About the author

Cory Ames

Cory is the Co-Founder of Open Book SEO where he and his team help businesses capture more free traffic from Google. Cory lives in San Antonio, TX with his brilliant and beautiful girlfriend and their sometimes cute sometimes monster of a puppy.

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