As an aspiring photographer, life can start out pretty tough. In my experience, either you shell out a bunch of money for school, you learn on your own, or you search madly for assisting jobs. You might just have three part time jobs, and not a lot of free time to be creative. Welcome to the beginning of life as a photographer. These are some tips I’ve gathered over my short journey in photography, and I’ve been surprised by how much progress is still made as I continue to go back to them. Some of these tips might be review, but stick through to the end, your reading efforts will be rewarded.
Tip 1: Think Like An Artist & Collaborate
An artist considers much more than whether their photograph is beautiful, or ugly, they consider whether it tells a story and how that story can be communicated more effectively. Consider a photograph’s purpose and try collaborating with other photographers and artists to bring your images to the next level.
Here’s a photograph taken a few weeks ago. You can see a vast stretch of pavement with some fog; but the desolate landscape doesn’t have that story telling capacity by itself. Adding a person to this photograph adds movement, an obscured destination, and a question.
Tip 2: Getting Noticed – Create a Series
One of the first things I found out when I started writing articles for SLR Lounge is that there’s an incredible amount of photographers that haven’t been discovered because they have a nice image here and there, but no cohesive body of work to write about, myself included. There has to be something special and different to garner attention, and you don’t just get found magically; it takes a lot of work. It may look like there are overnight sensations in the photography and music industries, but it’s a ruse, they don’t exist. The good part about working in series is you can work on several at once. It will keep you ready for more challenges, adds diversity to your work, and it doesn’t put all of your eggs into one basket so to speak.
Also, consider each photograph as part of a series. Ask questions like: will this look good with the others? Should the edits be more consistent? What size does this look best printed? How should they be displayed together on a wall? Should I crop them all the same? The placement of images next to each other can have a profound effect on the meaning or feel of a set. Here are four images from a documentary series I’m working on. Alone, each of these photos is fine and they have a clear subject, but there’s no conclusions to draw when considering them individually. Adding the others gives much needed context, and adding more will only improve the set.
Tip 3: Don’t Critique Immediately & Remember To Ask Friends
Find your best photos, edit them, print some 4×6 copies and stick them to the wall. See if you like them after a week, show them to other photographers, but most importantly, show them to some friends who have no problem telling you if your work is nice or terrible; someone who will be honest and constructive. There’s a counter-culture surrounding photographers where we can get caught up critiquing each other’s work and then are surprised when the rest of the world finds our least favorites to be the best of the batch. A worse alternative is that our work can all start to look the same through conformity. There’s a fine balance between looking at the work of others and focusing on your own.
Tip 4: Study Light
This may be the most obvious thing to any photographer, but it’s worth saying. Different times of day can yield wonderful photographs, but few new photographers study the light enough to take advantage of the light modifiers and light sources all around us. If you live near a city, or anywhere really, you have a wealth of shooting opportunities. There are windows you can use to reflect light and shoot through (water too), an overhang or tree that creates wonderful shade and makes brilliant catch lights in the eye, street lamps at night, bus stops, piers, headlights, trunk lights, flashlights etc. While location is indeed a factor, the direction, temperature, and softness of light will always define an image more profoundly than the location where it’s taken.
Tip 5: Consider Shadows and Texture
During a sunrise, the shadows get longer, but at this time of day the light can better expose the texture on walls, benches, sand etc. because they are lit from the side when the sun is low, and the same is true for sunset. Aside from the golden light and dreamy portraits, texture and shadow are the other reasons photographers favor shooting during these hours. Once you understand how light effects texture and shadow, you can use your own light sources to manipulate it.
Take this self portrait for example. The background is a gate to some high voltage equipment which is fairly mundane during the day, but holds potential at night because of its texture and repetition. To get this shot I put the flash on a tripod, angled it slightly behind the figure, and blocked the light from spilling onto the wall camera left by tying one of my smaller cases to the flash.
Tip 6: Crop!
You don’t have to shoot to the aspect ratio of the camera. Live a little! At first, cropping your photos differently seems a little strange. Why would you take away from the photo? Sometimes a subject just doesn’t work as well in a 2×3 aspect ratio. Want a photo that’s dynamic? Stitch a few shots together in Photoshop and crop at 1×5! Why not a square? Here’s one of my recent favorites.
Tip 7: Print Your Photos & Have A Backup Plan
This can’t be stressed enough, but computers aren’t infallible, and printing photos is why we take them in the first place, is it not? There are hard drive failures, computer crashes, accidental deletions, etc. Also, wait to buy that next lens and pick up two or three external hard drives for backup; keep one off site. The memories and moments contained in your computer are far more valuable than any new lens. This is a lesson nobody should learn the hard way.
Tip 8: Take A Workshop Or Class
Finding a good workshop can separate you from other photographers in the course of a couple days or a couple weeks. You only need to find a good one that’s relevant to your field of study in photography. This can be as simple as Google searching “photography workshops” in your region. They’ll either be concentrated on a specific subject, or something that gives you the tools and pushes you to perform on an open ended assignment, but both are equally valuable. If you’re like many of our readers and specialize in portraiture, you may be interested in our Natural Light Couples Photography Workshop. Click here for more details.
Tip 9: Listen to Interviews
There are plenty of opportunities to take advantage of if you’re serious about photography. Check with local universities periodically and they occasionally will have guest artists and photographers come to talk free of charge if you’d like to attend. It’s their way of giving back for all of the mentors before them, and it’s invaluable. If you’re a student, don’t be afraid to organize speaking events with your school and local photographers; it never hurts to ask. If you don’t mind listening, a good series of photography podcasts is called The Candid Frame, which interviews successful, industry leading photographers to see how they work, and where their experiences have taken them.
Tip 10: Attend Artist Talks
A favorite conference of mine to attend is held in eight different regions of the United States by the Society for Photographic Education, or SPE. It’s usually a three day event in which different artists are invited to speak, and you get to talk with other photographers in the industry who attend as well. In addition, these tickets include your choice of classes to learn different aspects of marketing, Photoshop, design, etc. Tickets are made more affordable for students, and the conference is well worth attending, more-so if you can take the opportunity to do some networking. SPE’s website can be found here.
Being a photographer takes more time and money than one would expect, but if I can impart any advice beyond never giving up, it’s this: If you have a basic DSLR already, spend your money on knowledge and experience before you drop a few grand on a fancy camera. Cameras come and go, they lose value, but the knowledge, experience, and networking you’ll get from a workshop or conference follows you through an entire career and will prove more valuable than any piece of equipment. Lastly, ask. Ask questions, ask for a job, ask for feedback, ask for collaboration, and learn to ask better. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
Feel free to leave input and suggestions in the comments for any add-ons to this, or future topics you’d like covered.
CREDITS: All photographs by Ryan Filgas are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.