22 Jul 2013

20 Things I Wish I'd Done/Known/Learned Earlier in my Photography Career

Hindsight is an annoying thing. But hopefully it can be a useful thing for other people - learning from others' hindsight (ie. mistakes). Like a lot of photographers today I came into the field after pursuing it as a hobby for many years, photographing madly as I travelled around the world. I didn't get a degree in it and only attended a couple of courses, but my passion for it eventually pushed me to take it to a further level. There are so many things that I wish that I'd either known, learned or done earlier in my photography career and I thought it would be useful to share them. A few of these have already been covered in an earlier blog on general tips on improving your photography.

1) Don't be scared of your DSLR
For the first few years that I had my digital SLR I think I was scared of it. Although I knew how to use it I didn't have much confidence and as a result I often just used a compact camera. I put far too much trust in my compact cameras and used them when I should have used the SLR. Part of this was a lack of decent lenses (I wish I'd bought that 24-70mm L lens a long time ago). Part of it was just lack of practice - I'd do stupid things like not changing the ISO after it had got light and ended up with grainy shots in broad daylight, for example.

2) Don't buy the cheapest equipment
When I bought my first DSLR I went for almost the cheapest one available (the Canon 400D). It's not a bad camera, but it's definitely not a great one either. There were much better ones on the market and I could have afforded them, but it just didn't cross my mind to make the leap to a higher level one. The more expensive cameras generally have far better low-light capabilities, with less grain at higher ISOs, which can make a world of difference.

The same goes with lenses. I went to Africa years ago (in the days of 35mm film) and bought a basic 90-300mm lens, thinking I needed a long zoom (back in those days I thought that £289 for a lens was a lot of money!). Most of the images I took at 300mm (without a tripod) were far from being sharp. I should have spent a lot more buying a shorter, faster lens (I now use a 70-200mm). Small and sharp at 200mm is so much better than big and blurry at 300mm! Going back to Africa costs a lot more than investing in a better lens would've done.

Also bear in mind that not all lenses can be used on all cameras. I invested in a couple of Canon EF-S lens (a wide angle 10-22mm one and a 60mm macro one), which I now cannot use on my full-frame 5D Mark III. If you think you'll one day buy a full-frame camera then don't buy a lens that you can't use on it! Obviously I can still use the lenses on my old Canon 60D, but if I did it all again I'd give the EF-S lenses a miss and invest in better glass earlier.

3) Read photography magazines
I've learned an awful lot of interesting techniques from reading photography magazines, but I wish I'd discovered them earlier. I've picked up tips that I had no idea I needed, techniques I didn't know existed. They're also really useful for some ideas for photography projects and trying out things you haven't done before. They have great in-depth reviews of equipment too (which can also be found online at sites such as dpreview.com). Looking at photo websites (eg. Flickr) is also a great way to learn - look at the EXIF info of the photos you like to see what settings people have used (and ask them about them). I started playing around with ND filters only after reading about them in photography magazines.

4) Experiment with filters
I can't believe that I survived for so long shooting without a graduated neutral density (ND) filter! All those years with washed-out skies! The grad ND filter is probably my most-used filter. No-one wants a washed-out sky and dark foreground, and I don't want to spend hours trying to fix images during post-processing or creating an HDR image from three to compensate. I also use a circular polarising filter which is fun to play around with - intense rainbows, weird blue sky, fewer reflections (in water and windows), etc. I had one of those early on but didn't think it did anything other than darkening an already blue sky. The most fun filters, I think, are the full ND filters which allow you to use longer exposure times. Long exposure allows you to be far more creative - creating light trails, smooth water movement, sweeping clouds across the sky, etc. You might not need filters for light trails if it's dark enough, but you definitely will in bright light. For any long exposure stuff you have to use a tripod (or put the camera down on something so it won't move!).

5) Use a tripod
Handheld shots in low light will result in blurry images or will be grainy if you've cranked up the ISO to compensate. I have many of those from my early days. Zoomed shots need to be extremely fast in order to be sharp (if you're using a zoom of 200mm you'll generally need a shutter speed of 1/200 second of quicker to prevent camera shake). Using a tripod will help you to shoot at a nice low ISO with a slower shutter speed and get sharp images (also use a remote shutter release or timer to prevent shake). It's not always practical to have a tripod with you, but there are some lightweight ones available. In the days before I had camera plus lens weighing almost 2kg I used to use a heavy-duty gorillapod, which is pretty good if you're out hiking (or walking to your day job) and don't want to carry a bulky and heavy tripod. There are also lots of compact lightweight tripods on the market too, but they won't be great with heavy lenses or in wind, especially if you're shooting portrait shots (the camera and lens slowly fall downwards due to the weight).

6) Learn to recognise bad shots and learn from the mistakes
I can't stress this one highly enough! I used to work in banking and walked 4 miles each morning from my home in SW6 to Westminster, along the River Thames, before getting on the tube to Canary Wharf. This is when I started carrying a compact camera with me almost all of the time and began shooting a crazy amount of shots (arriving later and later at the office in the process). I'd review the shots and do a bit of post-processing and then post some on Flickr, Facebook, etc.. What I didn't really do, though, was review them properly, with a truly objective, critical eye. What I do now, with every shot that I like, is to increase the size on the screen to 100% and see if they are sharp enough. If I'd done that with my old compact photos I would've made more effort to use my SLR and carried it with me a lot earlier, given that the compact photos are rarely that great when zoomed right in.

For landscape photos I recommend doing the same - zooming the photo in to 100% and looking at the detail in the foreground, mid-ground and far distance. If it's not sharp and in focus try to work out why. Was the focus point wrong (see point 8 below)? Was there camera shake because the shutter speed was too slow or you weren't using a tripod? Was the depth of field too small? By analysing what you did wrong you can learn to do better the next time. Don't just say "oh it's good enough" when it's not. You'll never learn to improve unless you're critical and honest with yourself. I made that mistake at the beginning.

Carry the SLR with you, review your work properly, learn from your mistakes and then delete rubbish photos!

7) Use editing software properly
Some people are purists about not doing post-processing, but I think that a small amount of post-processing probably helps the majority of images. However, it shouldn't be overdone. It doesn't have to entail much, just a quick correction of curves, tweaking the contrast and checking whether the white balance, picture style and saturation are right for the shot. Don't over-do the saturation. Don't lighten the shadows too much so it looks fake. In the beginning I was guilty of doing this and have some pretty ghastly, lurid images!

8) Make sure you focus on the right spot
This sounds like an obvious thing, but it's not as simple as it sounds. In landscape photography you want everything in the shot to be in focus. It's important to understand where you need to focus in order for as much as possible of the image to be sharp. The hyperfocal distance is roughly a third of the way into a scene and trying to get this right will give you the most chance of getting the whole image in focus (using an aperture of at least f/11 on a cropped-frame sensor camera or f/16 on a full-frame sensor camera - don't go too high on the aperture as you may then get problems from light diffraction). I sometimes used to focus on something too far away or too close, resulting in out-of-focus parts in the foreground or distance, respectively. To begin with I had no idea about the hyperfocal distance! I hadn't heard about it until I started reading photography magazines.

9) Clean your sensor
I have spent far too long in post-processing in the past cleaning up dust spots, because I had a dirty sensor. Cleaning your sensor is not as scary as it sounds and saves you a lot of time doing tedious post-processing (check out this great article on how to do so). Unfortunately you can't take the cleaning fluid on planes, so for long trips it's not possible. Be very careful when changing lenses to prevent dust getting in. Never change lenses in dusty places! On some trips I used to change lenses too often, which probably made my dust problem worse. I wasn't even aware of the dust spots to start with either, until I started reviewing my images more thoroughly (see point 6 above!). EDIT 300115 - just discovered the Eyelead gel cubes - gets rid of every spec of dust. See my blog about it here and disregard the above about using swabs!

10) Camera equipment is heavy - get over it and carry it!
I often read "your photos are only as good as the camera you have on you" or something like that; the point being that it's better to carry a compact and take mediocre shots than not carry your SLR and take no shots at all. This is obviously true, but I used to take too many shots on my compact and as a result didn't build up my trust in and abilities to use the SLR. Yes camera equipment is heavy and bulky (and the better the equipment, generally, the heavier it gets) but you have to get over it and carry it. I used to leave my SLR at home on weekend trips away (which I would never dream of doing now). Now I pay the extra baggage charges to check my normal luggage in on planes so I can carry on my DSLR and lenses (with a laptop this lot usually takes up my whole hand baggage allowance).

11) Shoot in RAW & in aperture mode
I didn't start shooting in RAW when I first started using a DSLR. I don't know why (saving on memory, perhaps), but I wouldn't dream of not using it now. It just gives you so much more scope to correct slightly off exposure, white balance, sharpening etc.. I also didn't use to shoot in aperture (AV) mode. For almost all shots now I want to control the depth of field, so I shoot in AV to ensure I get the depth of field that I want, adjusting the ISO and shutter speed to ensure it's correctly exposed. Sometimes I have to add an ND filter to allow me to use a desired AV setting, eg. if there's too much light.

12) Don't skimp on memory cards
Unfortunately I had my first digital point-and-shoot in the days when memory cards were ridiculously expensive, so I travelled around the world shooting with really low resolution (some of my photos are something like 80kb!!). Now I shoot on the maximum possible and have a stack of 16gb and 32gb memory cards (each RAW photo takes up about 30mb now). If you're going travelling for a long time, think about taking a portable hard drive with you and joining some system where you can upload photos to store them securely (eg. Flickr) - the photos don't have to be viewable to the public. Also invest in spare batteries if you're going to be away from electricity for a while.

13) Shoot in public
I used to be scared to take photos in public! I felt self-conscious, I didn't want to intrude, etc.. Now I will ask people if I can take their photos, or just stand in the street (sometimes with my tripod) and shoot the scene. Talk to people! The only way to get over your fear of taking photos in public is to do it! Maybe take a friend out with you the first few times. Street photography provides so much scope for interesting shots and unique moments so it's definitely a fear worth overcoming. And if you ever want to sell photos of people commercially then you'll need a release form, so you'll have to talk to them!

14) Photography can be extremely anti-social
As I came into photography via the hobby route I used to combine it with travelling & holidays. As I became more serious about it I realised that it was becoming more and more time-consuming. My husband began to get more and more bored and irritable as I was always lagging behind to photograph something, or wanting to go out of our way just so I could get a shot, and so on. I still combine photography with holidays, but I now go off and do it on my own too. It is anti-social. It is time-consuming. The hours are not great (sunrise is usually at a silly hour). If you're doing long exposures it makes the whole thing even more time-consuming. So my advice is to go away on your own, go out shooting on your own, and get your partner to understand that you'll need some time to go off on your own for a bit. Don't expect your friends and family to sit around and wait while you shoot. And remember to leave your camera at home sometimes - you don't want to become a complete bore by always having the camera with you and snapping away incessantly.

15) Get up early
One of the most peaceful times of day, as well as a great time for photography, is first thing in the morning. I used to be a bit lazy about this before, but then my walk to work really made me understand that early morning is a wonderful time to be out. Nothing compares to the peace and light in those first couple of hours of daylight. In the late autumn in London it's often foggy in the morning, which can make for spectacular shots. Make the effort to get out early sometimes.

16) Break the Rules
I probably always did break some rules, but probably not all of them; it's good to be adventurous. Shoot into the sun (those light flare shots are very fashionable at the moment!), move away from the thirds composition, handhold to get some intentional blur, shoot landscapes in portrait orientation, shoot out of focus to get interesting effects, shoot in the midday sun (I do get a bit bored with every single landscape shot being photographed in the "golden hour" with that reddish-orange glow), shoot in the rain, exclude the sky from landscape shots, use a telephoto for landscape instead of a wide angle, turn reflections upside-down, and so on. By being adventurous it helps to find your own style earlier on.

17) Be careful what you share
The internet has become a bit of a free-for-all and most people clearly either don't understand copyright laws or just don't have any decency when it comes to stealing photos. People will pull your photos and put them on blogs, Tumblr, etc.. stripping out any link to your original. If you do want to share your photos online, think about adding an almost-transparent watermark (so it doesn't totally ruin the shot) and only upload low resolution versions. I used to post a lot of photos on Flickr without any watermark and some have been widely used, without any permission or recompense for me (some even on commercial websites).

Similarly, if you enter photography competitions make sure you read the rules, as with some of them you hand over most of your rights just by entering, even if you're not shortlisted. I used to enter a lot before realising that they're just using the competition to get lots of free photos to use at will.

18) Don't give up the day-job
Photography is extremely hard to make any money in, and in order to do so you need to be extremely good at self-promotion and marketing and you'll need a fair amount of savings to supplement your income (or someone else to fall back on), at least to begin with. If you want to make a living out of it, consider commercial areas like weddings and portraits. Consider trying to do it part-time with a proper day job, if that's possible. You're unlikely to make a decent amount of money as a photographer. It's not about the money, but you still gotta eat.

19) Don't be flattered when people want your work for free
And on that note... I've lost count of the number of times I've been approached by organisations asking me to provide images for free, in exchange for "exposure". As this wonderful little film illustrates, exposure doesn't pay bills. By all means do a bit of free stuff from time to time - for charities (although remember that employees often get paid, so there is often money out there), for friends (while you're learning anyway), in exchange for accommodation, etc.. Make sure that you're getting something from it and not just "exposure". I've made this mistake a couple of times and really haven't got any exposure out of it at all. You live and learn from these experiences though.

There are lots of other photographers out there that want exposure and so photo "buyers" will continue to search the marketplace for freebies. Remember that photography requires expensive equipment and is very time-consuming, but also that it requires a huge amount of experience & expertise, so don't sell yourself short. A budget may just appear if you turn a freebie down if they really want your work (although they'll probably just go somewhere else for a free image!).

20) Learn how to quote for a job
This is a tricky one and will take a bit of time to get the hang of. I learned the hard way with this too - be very careful what you quote someone and be realistic about how long you think a job might take. Be very specific about what's expected, what the photo usage is, etc.. A job I thought would take me a couple of days ended up taking me a couple of weeks, on and off. Remember when pricing a job to take into account the day rate of taking the photos (the creative fee) but also the processing time involved and the end-use (licensing) of the images. You should generally keep the copyright of the photos. Make sure the terms are laid out and the other party understands all of this too; often clients have no idea about the T&Cs.

I hope some of these have been helpful - would be great to hear about other people's experiences and what you've learned from hindsight.


  1. I've avoided buying filters for the bulk of my career now because I prefer to keep my pack list short and photography simple. But I've been waffling about NDs and polarizers for about a year now. The thing is, I'll convince myself it's a good idea, then the very next day I make a great photograph without them and put it off again.

    I still struggle with shooting in public. I know I just need to suck it up and do it more often, but apparently I'm really self-conscious about it, I turn into some weirdo that doesn't seem anything like me...

    I hear ya about photography being anti-social. I bring my husband along with me on some evening shoots and I'm still surprised he agrees to come. I try to make it fun for him by getting to the location early and having a picnic, but once the light is right he pretty much gets ignored. I'm trying to find a way to make it more social with other photographers, maybe group photography sessions? I don't know... Still working on it.

  2. Love your comments - especial the ones about "exposure". Exposure doesnt pay the bills.