How I Taught Myself Photography
Like so many photographers I know, I’m a self-taught, follow-my-curiosity, experiment-until-I-get it kinda soul.
I studied French and German at university, but it was during my year abroad that I was finally drawn into the world of photography… It was the most roundabout route possible, given that I had never, ever considered my visual eye prior to 2013. My mum (love you Mum) constantly teased me for how obliviously unaware I was of any and everything under my nose throughout my childhood. But, I taught English in France during my third year, and was faced with having disposable income for the first time. I originally purchased my Canon 600D (the DSLR at the time) so that I could make beauty videos and film vlogs; photography was still not on the cards even then.
But, largely through the power of Just Not Giving Up, my skills slowly developed and in a few months I was asked by my old workplace to shoot product images for their website. At the start of the summer I was incredibly awful; by the end, my photos were unrecognisable, and things have (thankfully) grown from there.
Every time I say that I am a photographer who studied languages, I am asked how on earth I learnt to do what I now do professionally… So today’s post are the steps that helped me most while I started out, as well as tips that I still do to this day. I don’t think there’s a single creative on the earth who feels they have reached a place from which they don’t want to grow, so I always feel I learn something new every time I pick up a camera. This said, here’s what I wish I had heard sooner…
Ira Glass says it all in this video; embrace being absolutely crap and don’t let it distract you. You’re not the worst photographer of all time, and you won’t get any better if you don’t keep trying, no matter how much you hate the results… if you love shooting and want to improve, what you produce at the beginning in no way matters.
PRIORITISE BUILDING YOUR VISUAL EYE…
Find photography and imagery that inspires you. Instagram is, of course, amazing for this, but I tend to go to Insta if I want inspo for very “Instagram” photos; if you’ve spent any time there, you’ll know what I mean! When I was starting out, I actually more looked to VSCO and Flickr in order to find visuals I enjoyed; I’ve just been recommended 500px by a photographer friend too. I loved magazines as well, with Cereal being one of my very favourites, and also went to beautiful blogs for ideas too.
When you find photos you like, see if you can work out what it is that appeals to you so much, and try to recreate this in your own photos. Are they mostly minimal (with lots of negative space), or are they detailed, with multiple items or textures in the same shot? Are there certain colour palettes you feel drawn to? Do certain kinds of light appeal to you most – perhaps dramatic shadows, or even, bright and ambient?
Bear these in mind and just keep taking photos of anything you see that your eye feels most attracted to. Seeing what your visual style is can take time, but the more photos you take, the clearer it’ll be. Varied sources of inspiration will mean more diverse photography, just as reading different books will mean you can write better too.
…THEN LEARN THE TECHNICALITIES
Spoiler: lots of the amazing photographers you know shoot on automatic, or semi-automatic mode, at least some of the time. All the knowledge in the world isn’t going to make your photos beautiful; the hardest and most important part of photography is composing photos that draw the eye, with the technical side being more of a polishing of this skill, rather than being the skill itself.
This said, understanding how to get the most out of the camera you own is always going to make a difference to what you can produce, and being able to understand the basics of exposure is the most important part of gaining control over how your photos will come out. I recommend reading up on exposure (the article I just linked is a good starting point) and watching as many YouTube videos on photography as you can, to get an idea of what to experiment with next; Mango Street has long been one of my favourite channels for this.
Knowing about the rule of thirds and the S-curve are super helpful when shooting too, but a lot of the time I’ll simply Google “How do I” whenever I see a photo that sparks a question in my mind… and above all else, remember not to sweat the technical side of photography. You’ll pick it up as you go, and you won’t need to know everything all of the time. Just stay curious.
Not essential, but still a step that I cannot recommend enough. I love film photography because there is no better way to get in tune with how a camera works, and how important each shot should be. The more a piece of technology can do automatically, the less we’re going to learn about doing said processes ourselves, and photography is no different; cameras nowadays are jam-packed with convenient features that make shooting easier, but it is so important to not be reliant on them. Film is the best way to do this by far, and I’ve written you a guide on the basics here.
TRY A PHOTO CHALLENGE
I shot a Project365 (which is, as you may have guessed, when you take a photo every day for a year) and though I look back and feel physical pain, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Some days felt impossible, some days I cheated, but it’s still amazing to have a record of a year in my life, albeit recorded with appalling skill. (It’s here if you want a bit of a laugh/cry/chance to feel amazing about your own photography.)
A 52 Project might be more your thing if a daily photo challenge just isn’t practical; as you have also sussed I am sure, it’s a weekly photo challenge rather than a daily one. I’m definitely considering doing this for 2019… but I’ll let you know if I do make progress!
ABOVE ALL ELSE: KEEP. TAKING. PHOTOS.
Take good photos. Take terrible photos. Take amazing photos. Take okay photos. Just do it, as often as you can; we now have excellent cameras conveniently in our pockets, so trying out photography has never been easier… It’s just making the shift to taking photos with intention. Every single image is a learning opportunity, and it’s just as important to find what you hate as it is to know what you love. The more you shoot, the more The Gap will shrink.