«WRONG» ADVICES FOR BEGINNER PHOTOGRAPHERS


When I just started to devote myself to photography, I was worried about an infinite number of questions as any entry-level photographer: what equipment to buy, how to set up the camera, what to shoot, how to process and so on. As many beginners, I was trying to find answers from more experienced colleagues, vexed my friends and the friends of them with questions, asked people on the photosites, read endless articles and books.

After six months of immersion in subject my brain was literally «boiling» from the abundance of information and new terms, but the world of photography has become more and more difficult, complicated and confusing. It seemed to me that I would remain worthless incompetent if couldn’t understand all this, and continued to «burn the midnight oil».

A year later I was already tolerably versed in all the variety of equipment, shooting modes and even in Photoshop, but the more I knew about this, the more questions arose, the more I was away from the photography. It became clear much later, after years of searching and experimenting.

Now, having gone through hell, I know the correct answers to the initial questions. They are much easier than I had expected. Here you could say: «What a pity that I had no one to explain it to me». I don’t regret about time spent, because this is my personal way. But if in due time I had a really experienced friend, perhaps this would have been a bit shorter.

Almost every day now I hear the same questions with which I began myself. Friends of my friends write me same kind of letters: «You are a professional photographer, tell me what camera to buy for my nephew, he is 15 years old and is carried away by photography».

So finally I decided to sit down and write the answers to some of the most recurrent questions. These are the answers I would have liked to get 10 years ago. Maybe at that time I would have probably considered them «wrong» … but would have at least have a thought about them. Hoping for the same, I wrote this article to the most novice photographers. So, here come the «wrong» advices to those who are just starting photography, or maybe haven’t even begun, but already thought about it.

1. What camera to buy?
2. What lens to choose?
3. How to set up the camera?
4. What other equipment the photographer needs to have?
5. What to shoot?
6. How to process pictures?
7. What is a good picture?
8. Where and to whom to show the pictures?
9. Where and what to learn?

1. What camera to buy?

The best camera is the one that makes you want to shoot photos. One that is comfortable to hold and one you want to carry. One with a design you like. Finally, one that has a pleasant sound of the shutter. All those things you normally don’t even pay attention to, are indeed the most important. Your camera is your tool for self-expression, and the tool is always a continuation of your own hand.

So I advise you to choose your first camera not by studying infinite Internet surveys, but with your own hands. Go to the nearest photo equipment store with the widest product selection, and feel the cameras that you can afford to buy.

Price does not matter, because nowadays even the most inexpensive cameras shoot pretty well. Moreover, it is likely that you don’t need a camera at all, because a normal mobile phone can suffice. Believe me, many well-known photographers not only shoot on the phones, but also successfully exhibit, publish albums and sell these pictures.

Choosing a camera, look at its picture. You must like the picture. Don’t think about quality of the camera screen and what the histogram shows (if, of course, you already know this word, and if you don’t – it’s for the best). You will be working with the image it gives, not with histogram.

Pay attention to the dimensions and weight of the camera and how conveniently it lies in your hand. Don’t try to buy a large professional SLR, as they are heavy and take up too much space. Believe me, the whole world is now moving exactly to the opposite direction, and many professionals get rid of SLR in favor of more compact cameras.

Another important criterion is the speed of work. Try to take few pictures with different cameras while in the store. Don’t think about such words as «focusing speed» or «recording speed on USB flash device». You need common sense, not a thorough test.

If you are engaged in photography for some time, in the future you will begin to understand what you want from photography, and will be able to buy something more suitable for your tasks. At the initial stages the most important thing is to keep creativity, not to ruin them with immersion in the technical wilds. Remember: it’s you who takes the pictures, not your camera.

Cameras differ by their system of lenses:

1) Some of the lenses cannot be changed, they are «embedded» into a camera.
2) Some of the lenses can be changed.

Despite the fact that the choice of the lens system and the lens directly relates to the choice of the camera, I will write a separate paragraph about the lens. Too many beginners usually have questions about lenses.

2. What lens to choose?

The lenses vary – some are better suited for landscapes, others – for portraits, for macro photography, and so on. As a rule, at a very early stage photographers still don’t know what they will shoot. Almost all of us start with experimenting in all the genres, in other words, we shoot everything. So, the universal lens is best for the beginners. That is, one that can shoot both object near you, and make distant objects appear much lcloser. These lenses are called «zoom».

Almost all the cameras with built-in lenses are equipped with a universal lens., except for some very specific and expensive cameras (you scarcely encounter them). Therefore, if you have a camera with a built-in lens, and it is able to zoom, it may well be exactly what you need.

If you fell in love with a camera with an interchangeable lens, ask the vendor for a universal zoom. Most often you will be offered a couple of options – cheap, so-called «kit» lens (the one that comes in the kit) or more expensive ones. Expensive is always better, but it is also bigger and heavier. If budget allows, and weight/size are not an issue, take the one that is more expensive. If in doubt – don’t spend time and money, get the cheaper one, at this stage it does not matter.

That’s all. Nothing more you need to know to select your first favorite camera. Moreover, the more you know, the harder is the choice and the farther you will be away from the pictures. It is better to use this time for creativite work!

So, a brief summary. Look in the purse, look at the showcase, touch several options, choose what you like in your hands (not in digits), and buy. Voila! The most boring part is over, now you can finally start to take pictures.

3. How to set up the camera?

One of the most important tips that I want to give: don’t read the instructions before you start using the camera. If you are wondering how to use the camera, it means that it does not have an intuitive interface. And you were not supposed to buy it in the first hand.

Any modern camera has quite considerable number of buttons. You do not need them. All you need to know to start to take pictures is how to set the automatic shooting mode, and how to disable built-in flash (if it exists). You should spend no more than 5 minutes on both of these tasks by exploring the interface on your own and not by instructions. If the task is not solved, it is better to buy another camera, because you’ll have hard time with this one.

Usually there are several automatic modes in each camera. You can use any that you will be able to set. Usually they are referred to as: «green zone» (green rectangle), «A», «Auto» or «P». Later you will deal with all the modes you need. If other modes are not required, then you don’t need them, and thus, it is not necessary to spend time on them.

If you think I make fun of you, I can give you an example of Gueorgui Pinkhassov – one of the most famous Russian-speaking photographers. Most of Gueorgui’s pictures are taken in «automatic» mode, and in his workshops he advises students to choose this mode in the camera. Because it allows not to be distracted by technology and increasingly to devote yourself to creative tasks.

4. What other equipment the photographer needs to have?

Any beginner photographer is faced with an incredible amount of information about various equipment. Shop windows are bursting with the photo-goods of unknown purpose: filters, shutter release cables, caps, etc. In Internet we see pictures of people with tripods and backpacks which are loaded with something certainly useful. How much of it do I need?

The answer is: none. If you need something, it will be dictated by your specific creative tasks. When it happens, you’ll understand. Don’t go on about the technical possibilities. Try not to buy photo equipment, if you don’t need to buy it.

5. What to shoot?

I call the state that people fall into, when fascinated by photography, a «creative itch». You want to shoot, but it is unclear what you will shoot. There is nothing wrong, many went through this, and I am not an exception. Having tried myself in many different genres, I would like to suggest the following.

First of all, try out different genres. In other words, photograph all that you are interested – your loved ones, travels, sports, landscapes, your home, work, hobbies, and so on. Shoot what you like to shoot, and don’t do it for the “sake of photography”. As a famous Russian photographer Petr Lovygin says, «Shoot what you love».

Your development in photography will depend on how well you feel your personal theme – what exactly you want to photograph. Typically, this can’t be done quickly, for many people it takes years and even decades, many continue the search throughout their lives.

It’s not necessary to try to become a professional photographer. Photography is not a goal, but a mean, and a way of understanding the world. Tasks of the pictures are much wider than reportage, glamour or «highly artistic art». A usual family album made with soul and love delivers a true joy of creativity.

The second tip I want to give is: try to move away from shooting subjects and objects to taking pictures of emotions and feelings as quickly as possible. For example, working on a portrait, try not to do «passport photo», but to picture the mood of a person. Shooting in nature, don’t copy the yellow maple leaves in hundredth time, try instead to shoot the simultaneous sense of enchantment with the beauty of things and sadness caused by the frailty of all visible things. An interesting picture is not a copy of reality, it is your personal perception.

6. How to process pictures?

Almost all the photographers who care for good post-processing of the photos, start to read into articles and books about Photoshop. It is a false path.

In order to get good color, you must first learn to see good color. And in general to understand what is a good color and what is a good picture. The way to it lies solely and only through museums.

If you want to learn how to create expressive pictures with good color, first of all it is necessary to accumulate sufficient visual experience. That is, see quite a lot of paintings and good photos, learn how to get a true pleasure from their viewing.

If you will study at a photoschool, you will hear such advice very often. Most likely it will cause you to have a persistent rejection, but try to suppress this hostility. Later you will accumulate the necessary visual experience, learn how to achieve good color and make sure that it is the only right way. The faster you will go on it, the faster you will get the results.

No textbooks or courses on processing photos can teach you to achieve a good color, if you don’t see the color. If you see, you can achieve it, using Photoshop on a minimum level. Moreover, you can do it even without Photoshop, because the question of good processing is primarily a question of shooting.

The famous Russian photographer Sergey Maximishin is famous not only by his strong photos, but by the color of pictures. By the way, he takes pictures in JPEG format and doesn’t use Photoshop. The only «secret» of the color in his photos is how Maximishin works with natural light and how he chooses a story. That is how the master sees the frame. And the vision of the frame is a result of the general level of seeing and understanding the traditions in photography and painting.

7. What is a good picture?

A good picture is a one that you like. One that evokes emotions, sensations, feelings. One that you want to see again and again, to which you want to return. One that you want to hang on the wall and admire it every day.

The key word is «you». It is you, and nobody else. A good picture for you personally, is not necessarily a good picture for the others, and vice versa. The definition of a good picture depends on two key factors:

1) Your personal visual experience.
2) Your personal taste preferences.

The main difficulty of understanding what is a good picture, is that this understanding changes with your personal and creative development. What is amazing today, probably tomorrow will seem boring and banal. And maybe not. It depends on whether your ideas about what a good pictures is are changing or not.

Any good photography is time-tested. If you still like the picture that was made a year ago, it’s either a really good work, or your ideas about what is good have not changed during this time. Both are fine, because that determines your personal criteria of good pictures – one, that which gives a joy.

At the same time, it is necessary to consider the opinion of people who you respect as photographers. These may be more experienced photographers or people who are versed in the art, with tastes in art similar to yours. Probably, they will be able to help you to assess your picture a little more objectively.

8. Where and to whom to show the pictures?

Demonstration of pictures usually serves one of two goals:

1) To share impressions with family and friends.
2) To get the appreciation and criticism for further development.

The first goal is simple. In order to share impressions you can use any means – prints of 10×15 that you’ll bring to your parents’ country house, or to the village to the grandmother, email, social networks, etc. It is more difficult with the second part, when we are talking about getting appraisal, so let’s talk about it next.

First of all I want to say, where and to whom NOT to show the pictures, if you are looking for a professional evaluation and criticism. Don’t show your photos on photo sharing sites. Because what is happening there is best characterized by the phrase “the mediocre teach the loser”. Exceptions, of course, exist, but they are rare enough to ensure that they can be neglected.

The main problem of all the photo-sites is a rating system that encourages participants to show not good but popular pictures, those that will gain more likes. All communication on such resources falls to this principle and generates a huge amount of colorful, but absolutely identical images with popular themes – touching cats, naked girls, and cute landscapes.

Of course, if this is a type of photos you are interested in, there is nothing wrong in staying on the photo-sites. Let me remind you again that the main thing you should always remember is that you should never lose the joy of creativity. However, if you want to go a little further, it is likely that the photosites will bore you. How quickly it will happen, and whether it will happen at all, will depend on your creative development and accumulation of visual experience. In museums, of course, not on the photosites. The visual experience that you get on the photosites usually pulls in the opposite direction, because it is intended for a mass audience.

It makes sense to show your pictures to the photographers you appreciate as authorities, or even idols. But in order to be able to choose such photographers, it is again necessary to obtain sufficient visual experience. In other words, you need to follow the photographic exhibitions, to buy albums in specialized stores, to study the history of photography, painting and so on.

Then, when you define your photographic interests more accurately and when you know your peers, you’ll find that is not so easy to get to them. Some of them are foreigners living in other countries and speak other languages, others are recognized photographers who are too busy to be able to answer numerous questions of many fans. What to do?

If you are really going to get to this stage of your photographic development, then you’ll have no chance but to start visiting portfolio reviews and master-classes of those photographers that you are interested in. This are usually not free events, but are often quite affordable.

However it is not nessesary to get to the described stage of immersion in photography as in art. In fact, this is only for a select few that is obscure for a wider audience.

9. Where and what to learn?

Nowadays there are hundreds of photo-schools offering an incredible variety of courses on photography. Where to study? And what do you want to learn?

If you have any need for learning photography, it is probably due to one of the following reasons:

1) Lack of understanding of where to go next.
2) Desire to obtain practical skills.
3) Desire to obtain professional evaluation, criticism and advice.
4) Lack of communication on the topic of your hobbies (photography).

All these reasons are a good incentive to learn photography in a circle of like-minded people, ranging from expanding horizons to the wider communication. Moreover, getting once in the correct photographic environment, you’ll be much more likely to find your way to the photography and to assert yourself as the photographer.

So the choice of photo-school should be treated primarily as the choice of the environment where you will develop. It is very important whether the school is proud of its students – organizes student exhibitions, publishes students’ albums, helps students to win in photographic competitions, and so on. Even if you don’t plan to devote yourself to photography as art, this factor is important in characterizing the photo-school, where you will study.

Examine the list of tutors. If you want to learn photography, and not related sciences, your future teacher should be a practicing photographer. Talented teachers who are not photographers are very rare. It is advisable that your teachers have at least a small track record of publications in journals and magazins, a specific list of collective and personal exhibitions that they took part in, and maybe published books. It would be ideal if their regalia includes winning in a photography competitions (preferably international), as well as museums and private collections where their works are stored, but it’s certainly not necessary.

You should be more skeptical towards the teachers who describe themselves as «was born, brought up, studied, took up photography, learned from those, lives there starting from……». The pictures and the recognition on the part of the professional community, and not the biography tells about the level of the photographer. The certificates of infinite unions of photographers also tell nothing about the photographer, because almost anyone can get such a certificate. I also suggest to take a sober look to such words as «participant and winner of many different exhibitions and biennials», because as a rule, this information says nothing (or says so much that you can’t overlook such photographers).

See the pictures of the person who will teach you. You must like them, or, at least, be interested.

Read the description of the programs. Since we are talking about beginner photographers, we will focus primarily on basic courses of photography. It is important that they are practice-oriented and contain practical exercises. If it is shooting, so you should go with a master «en plein air» and/or have classes in the studio. If it is post-processing, you should have classes in a computer lab. Theoretical lectures, of course, are also necessary, but if the program is entirely built on them, believe me, it will give very little. You have to learn all the things you want to learn by yourself.

No less important (and maybe even more important) are dedicated portfolio reviews and analysis of students’ photographs, because in this case, you have the opportunity to receive criticism and advice regarding your specific photos rather than listen to the lectures of an abstract nature.

If you do not see in the program classes devoted to practical photography, to photo processing in a computer class and review of the work of students, it is better not to spend time on this course or this workshop.

Take note of the courses devoted to painting skills and semantic part of pictures, as well as on courses on creative thinking, drawing, composition and psychology of perception, history and philosophy of photography. It is not necessary to take part in such courses from the very beginning, but it is a good indicator of the level of the photo-school. Believe me, when you get to these questions, you will understand that you have chosen the right place.

I always recommend starting with the courses, commonly referred to as «Basic course for beginners», «Basics of photography» and so on. However I advise you to avoid courses, divided into stages: «Basics of photography. Step 1», «Basics of photography. Step 2» and so on. Usually it indicates the inability of teachers to develop a clear program and come up with meaningful names of training programs. As a beginner you should understand anything with one look at the list of the programs.

Give preference to real photo-schools, not online, because it is much harder to organize interactive studies online. If you just want to listen to a lecture, of course, online is quite suitable for this. If you need real job, criticism and communication – online will not work accurately. Individual sessions with a specific photographer, for example through Skype, may be an exception.

If you live in a small town and there are no good photo-schools, try to get on an intensive version of the course (e.g., on vacation) and master-classes of interesting photographers in larger cities.

Master-classes of famous photographers are one of the most effective forms of learning, where you have the opportunity to immerse yourselves in practical shooting under the guidance of a master and receive feedback on your pictures on a a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis. You have a chance to use in practice the advice that you receive from the master within a small group (usually around 10 people), get new feedback, and so on for 7-10 days. The results achieved in this way even by novice photographers are usually stunning. Because the most useful thing is the practice, practice and more practice.

Among the specific photo-schools and companies involved in master-classes on photography, I can recommend, of course, those that I have created. But not only them. In the Russian version of this article I gave advice on Moscow–based photography schools, but readers in English will be interested, most likely, only in one recommendation:

Frameway – international club of photographers, organizing quality master-classes on photography. Among the leading photographers the club lists such world-class masters as Gueorgui Pinkhassov (Magnum Photos), Sergey Maximishin (two-time winner of WPP), Nicos Economopoulos (Magnum Photos), Mark Power (Magnum Photos), Petr Lovigin and many others.

Good luck!

5 thoughts on “«WRONG» ADVICES FOR BEGINNER PHOTOGRAPHERS

    1. Interesting what you say about Pinkhassov’s photos, which I love … I’ve been to two other photographers’ workshops where they’ve said they shoot much of their well-respected work in ‘automatic’ mode ..!

  1. Such practical, common sense advice rare Pavel. Well done.
    Thank you for this, and thank you especially for your book – the best advice on photography I’ve ever read.

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