Been There, Still Learning That: A Beginner’s Chronicle of Learning Photography

I’d like to say that this is a “how to” for learning photography, but I can’t, as that would be more like the blind leading the blind. This is more of a “I have a flashlight; use it to guide your way,” kind of article.

You see, I, too, am new to the world of photography, only having made the switch from my point and shoot (which I LOVED), to a “real” camera about 9 months ago, so I can now say I have been through the “I have no idea what to do with this thing” stage, and am now going through the “Ohh okay, let’s see what I can do with this thing now” stage. So, though I am still learning, I have experienced some things that have made this journey easier. I thought these things might make it easier and less overwhelming for you, too, and that’s what this article is about.

I thought I had the basic principles of photography down, as I used the presets on my point and shoot to “trick” my camera to adjust for things like aperture, and shutter speed. At the time, I had no earthly idea what those were, what they did, or really even that they existed—if I’m going to be honest. I just knew the “Sport” setting was for fast moving objects, so I used it to stop anything fast moving: athletes, animals, even water. I knew that the “Beach” setting was for taking pictures in bright light, so I used it any time I took pictures outside, in bright, broad daylight. And I knew the “Portrait” setting would make the object closest to me nice and clear, while making unwanted backgrounds blurry, so I used it when I took pictures of flowers or shells on the beach. I had no idea what these settings actually did inside the camera that made it possible to take these pictures.

Even though I could make some minor adjustments like these, they were limiting and even I recognized that. Since I thought I already had the basic concepts down, I wanted to do more, get more out of my photography. I thought, “How hard could it be to make the switch?” Ha! And so my uphill journey began. I did some research, bought my new Sony a6000 mirrorless camera, unpacked it with reckless abandon, put the battery in, and… Wait! Holy cow that’s a lot of buttons! Instead of being jubilant about my new toy, I was completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t just take the photos I wanted to take, no matter how hard I tried. So, I started reading, and watching videos, and asking photographers that I knew, and… became even more overwhelmed and frustrated.

Sound familiar? If so, keep reading, maybe I can help—one newbie to another.

Here are some things you can do to make your journey into the photography world a bit less daunting. I recommend having a DSLR or mirrorless camera (even if you borrow it or rent it first), so you can play along while you’re learning. I am a very firm believer in “on the job training,” so to speak. Read all you want, but until you can apply it to something, it’s likely not going to make as much sense. So, I guess, that’s my first tip.

1. Get your hands on the camera and use it while you learn!

2. Read about photography.

Once you have your own camera, read the manual. It’s important to know the settings on your own equipment and how to get to them—and all cameras vary.

There are many books out there, and I haven’t read them all, but this one is a MUST for learning the three main concepts of photography: Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. Get it, read it, write notes in the margins, highlight items, and dog ear pages, because you WILL refer to it again and again as you learn. Peterson explains each of the three main adjustments that you will use: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, as well as a bit about lenses—all in a way that is easy to understand. And then he gives you lots of examples to show you what it does and how it’s used. Seriously, this is like the Bible of photography. (Thank you, Bryan Peterson!)

While you go through each chapter, take out your new toy, and apply each concept. It will all come together, and the lightbulb will go off (no pun intended), I promise.

3. Practice.

It doesn’t matter what you take pictures of, just take them. Adjust the settings, one by one, and see how each setting changes the picture.

4. Take a class.

Yes, in this order. I took a one day, 8 hour class called “Getting out of Auto Mode.” I had read Understanding Exposure, and played with my camera, and then took the class, and then, like magic, it all came together. Though the class was meant for beginners, and it clearly went over the three principles, the students in the class who hadn’t had that knowledge going in struggled with the practical, because they didn’t have time to process all the information—and it’s a lot! So, read first, digest it, then take a class—but do take a class!

5. Practice.

Oh, did I already say that? Practice some more. Everyone says that, and there’s a reason why. Remember learning how to drive? It’s like that. You can read and watch tutorials all day long, but until you get your hands on the wheel, play with all the buttons and dials, and take it out for a spin in all kinds of weather, you won’t know how it works—and how it doesn’t.

6. Watch tutorials.

YouTube has a ton! I recommend starting by watching at least a couple that pertain to your specific camera. It will help you find settings on your camera, which is not only super helpful but necessary. Next, watch some general tutorials on how to take pictures. Then, yep, that’s right—practice!

7. Join a photography group.

Meetup.com has lots of them. Try to join one that has a mix of beginners, and those with more experience. This is practice, and a guide, all rolled into one. BONUS!

photography meetup

photo by liz west

8. More reading never hurts.

Get your name on a list that sends you periodic tips and tips or recommended reading. PictureCorrect is the perfect start! I receive almost daily, brief, easy to read tips for all kinds of photo taking. They’re not only helpful but can be something new and fun to try.

Okay, so, since I’m still learning, that is all the two cents I have on how to get you started on your journey. Maybe I’ll be back with some more advice once I feel like I have earned the right to give it. Or maybe, you’ll beat me to it and post an article that will help me. Welcome to your fantastic journey into photography—you got this!

“If the eyes are the windows into the soul, then photographs are the doors through which to reach it.” –Marie Schaller

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