10 lessons on getting good at photography fast
By “good,” I mean good. I don’t mean becoming a master - that’s another story that I’m not qualified to tell.
You don’t need a “decisive moment” or luck to get a good photo. Understanding basic principles is all it takes. E.g., you can take a picture of a tree or a pigeon and composition-wise there’s no difference between composing a scene with people or trees. Composition is composition. Shapes are shapes, lines are lines, and light is light.
If you’re doing photography just for snapshots and your purpose is not to become good at this, that’s fine. In this case, most of the list probably won’t be any good for you.
If you want to get good however... then this is what I’ve figured out on my journey so far.
“It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.”
Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
It’s a list I would give myself when I first started out. I share this list with you. Maybe you get some ideas, maybe not. You decide.
#1. Get a compact camera
Get a small camera. If you have a DSLR or a big mirrorless camera, sell it and buy a small Fuji, Ricoh GR II or III or something similar.
I have had 2 DSLRs, and the best decision I’ve ever done related to gear was to buy a used Fuji X100T and sell my DSLR gear.
I’ve had the Fuji for around six months and still love this camera to death. It feels so good to not stress over gear. Not having to think what kind of a lens should I get next.
Get a compact camera where you can’t change the lens. This forces you to master one focal length — one camera-one lens principle.
Wider focal length is better. You get more dynamic pictures. Compressed photos done with a 80mm and 100mm (anything above 50mm to be honest) are usually boring. Also, forget about zoom lenses. They add another layer of complexity. Another thing to worry about. Zoom with your feet.
Not only do I feel a lot more liberated by not having to carry a big heavy camera around, but I also started to learn much faster. I take this camera everywhere I go.
Check my article “Forget big heavy cameras and get a compact camera” as well.
#2. Photograph everything
Don’t try to find interesting scenes, create interesting scenes yourself.
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
Practice compositions on buildings, trees, street signs, mannequins - everything. Photograph everything that’s even slightly interesting. Create beauty in the mundane.
Street photography is probably the best area of photography that will teach you photography fast. There’s so much you can shoot and compose. Infinite possibilities. It doesn’t mean you have to take pictures of people, although by taking pictures of people you learn a lot.
People on the street move, and you have to act fast. I think doing street photography trains you to use more of your intuition as you don’t really have a lot of time to think and analyze.
#3. Photograph every day
If you want to get good at anything, you have to do it every day.
“There are no shortcuts—everything is reps, reps, reps.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Total Recall
It’s not even so much that I take a lot of photos. I don’t. It’s that most other aspiring photographers take so little.
So, it’s all about reps, like going to the gym. If you only go to the gym once a week and lift the pink little dumbbell for 20 minutes, don’t expect to get ripped any time soon. Same with photography. Same with everything.
“Do you even lift?”
Some street photographers only go out to take pictures if there’s some event e.g., a protest.
There are events happening all the time. Sure, a protest creates more interesting opportunities, but if you only shoot on special occasions, you don’t learn fast enough.
Practice shooting every day and when the occasion comes, you’re a much better shooter. Suddenly taking pictures is way easier.
For me, when there’s a protest (not that many in Luxembourg where I currently reside), I feel like a kid in a candy store. I shoot at least 1000 images (single-shot mode) if there’s something happening. And I’m not even bragging about these numbers. I know I should do at least 3k. And even that wouldn’t be anything extreme.
My thought: If you don’t practice shooting the mundane everyday life on the streets, you don’t appreciate the opportunistic scenes enough.
#4. Set it and forget it
- Center-point autofocus (largest square, so It’ll focus faster);
- Automatic aperture;
- Automatic shutter speed;
- Set ISO to 1600 (learned this from Eric Kim);
- Black and white.
These are my settings. Find what makes taking pictures easy for you, so you wouldn’t have to adjust anything while out. With these settings, I can simply set it and forget it.
Understanding technical settings is somewhat necessary, but understanding what makes a good photograph is more important.
#5. Abandon Instagram
I wasted a lot of my time on Instagram. If I would’ve spent that time looking at the pictures made by the masters of photography in photo books instead...
There’s so many problems with Instagram concerning art, it would be easily a 2000 word article itself, so I’m not going to cover it in here.
“In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failing. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible.”
Seth Godin, Purple Cow
One of the problems for artists with Instagram is that it’s a huge pile of mediocrity. If you get your inspiration from there, you will never stand out, because you do what everyone else is doing.
Instagram is not going to make you a better artist. I’m quite sure it actually does the opposite. So why bother with it? More followers is not going to make you a better artist either.
#6. Don’t spend time on editing
Get a collection of film simulations such as Astia, Provia, Velvia, Acros, Tri-X, and just use these. Stop searching for cool presets and god forbid pay for them.
Learn shooting first, then learn to edit. Not the other way around.
Since I have my own preset, which is based on the Acros film simulation, I only change exposure, blacks, and highlights. That’s it, only those three sliders. I also straighten and occasionally crop.
#7. Buy books and learn about art
You’re not going to take better pictures by getting a better (read: newer) camera. I tried this - did not work.
The best investment in terms of photography you can ever do is to buy photography books and watch tutorials on e.g., composition on Youtube.
The best book to start would probably be Magnum Contact Sheets. This book shows you how the cream of the crop photographers take pictures. Through the contact sheets, you see their thought-process and get a glimpse of what they might have been thinking when they took those iconic photographs.
When learning composition, I recommend watching composition tutorials on paintings instead of photography. In my opinion the quality is better. Besides, composition for paintings is no different than it is for photography.
#8. Stop watching gear reviews
They massively waste your time and give you nothing. In fact, they make you miserable as you start to think you need all this new stuff.
The only gear related show I watch is Jared Polin's photo news fix. It’s one of the very few guilty pleasures. I only watch it because it’s funny. I couldn’t care less about the new cameras and lenses.
#9. Shoot in black and white
There’s a reason you’re only allowed to shoot in black and white for the first year in most photography schools.
For starters, it makes you focus more on composition. You have to focus on light, shadows, and shapes.
Besides, black and white is a lot more forgiving. You can have high ISO and blow out your highlights, and it’s mostly fine. Color is very delicate.
#10. Photograph people as much as you can
Use the opportunity to take pictures of people as much as you can. Take pictures of your family and friends or your partner all the time. You don’t need an excuse to take pictures. Just take pictures. Just because you want to.
This is where a small camera comes handy as well. A small camera is not intimidating, whereas if you pull out a big DSLR with a even bigger lens, it creates this tension that some important shit is about to go down.
Suddenly people are not loose any more; they feel a need to pose and become tenser.
If you have a small camera and take pictures all the time, people get used to it, and at point they stop caring.