5 Things I Wish I Learned When I First Learned Photography

"Iron Horse Stables" by D. Travis North

“Iron Horse Stables” by D. Travis North

I pulled out my old portfolio the other day and I took a nostalgia trip back to the earlier years of my photography education.  There’s a lot that I learned those first few years.  There’s also a lot of things I wish I had learned.  Below are the five things that I wish I had learned early on.  These are five simple and powerful concepts that would have helped me tremendously early on.  And so I pass them on to you so that you don’t waste some of the time that  I have.

Drama always beats composition…

I learned photography much the same way millions of others learned.  I too had all the rules of composition drilled into my head from the very start.  But as I grew as a photographer, the more I felt that the rules of composition were seriously flawed in one critical way:  There are a great number of exceptions to the so-called rules.  This revelation was of course the beginning of my philosophy of photography without rules.  But that’s a soapbox for another day.  Later, I discovered that the most intriguing photos that I stumbled across were highly dramatic.  These photos either exhibited dramatic lighting, a juxtaposition of emotions or any number of other contrasting aspects.   I also discovered that I was not alone.  The photos that seemed to connect with the most people exhibited strong dramatic presence.  But I did not necessarily find a direct relationship between a photographic connection and composition, at least not as much as the drama.  I can’t imagine how many hours I would have saved over the years if I spent more time focusing on the drama in lieu of compositional nit-picking.  That’s not to say I regret learning the compositional rules.   But there is a point of diminishing returns.

A minute spent in-camera saves three in post…

Post processing is admittedly much simpler with digital photography than it was with film.  But the truth is that anything you can do to get close to your vision is going to save you time in post.  When I was a student – when the chemicals and the facilities weren’t part of my overhead – I admit to being a bit relaxed behind the camera.  I actually liked working in the dark room.  I still do, but I don’t have facilities as beautiful as my school’s, and I certainly don’t have the budget for the chemicals either.  Once I was out on my own, I learned to spend more time with the camera to avoid the trial-and-error of the dark room.  With digital, it’s pretty much the same deal. Sure, there are certain things that are still easier in Photoshop.  But every moment that you spend getting the shot right in-camera will still save you lots of time in post.  If you want to be efficient…learn to get as close as you can to your vision before leaving the site.

The lens is more valuable than the camera…

The lens has far more impact on the quality of your photos than the camera body.  A good lens will avoid unwanted aberrations, soft edge focus and distortions.  So the lens is far more important to a photographer than the camera body…even among the best camera bodies.   Before I shot digital, I used a pretty typical film camera, a Nikon N2000.  It was a pretty good consumer grade camera, and I think I was a bit spoiled by a set of really good lenses, which were all hand-me-downs.  I learned on the camera, but I never really had to worry about equipment since I had a good set of lenses.  Fast-forward to 2006 when I was getting eager to switch to digital and I started my research on camera bodies.  I spend the better part of a year borrowing, renting and reading data on a number of camera bodies.  And I’m pretty happy with what I ended up with.  However, my research fell short when it came to the lenses.  In the move to digital, I was excited about the possibility of an auto-focus lens (the N2000 did not support AF lenses).  I didn’t really give too much thought to the idea of buying a lens separate from the camera body, I just bought the kit lens, almost blindly.  Is it a bad lens?  No, and I’ve got the licensing fees to prove it.  But I could have done better with a nicer quality lens up front.  In the long run, I would have saved myself some money.

Buy flash equipment…

Despite my nearly 18 years of experience, I’ve only been shooting with flash equipment for only a couple of years now.  My photographic interests always found me shooting architecture and landscapes.  I was shooting mostly with natural light, and so I didn’t need flash equipment.  Right?  I was very wrong.  As I mentioned above, drama is a fantastic way to establish a photo-viewer connection.   Lighting is one efficient way to establish drama.  Now that I’ve gotten into the use of off-camera flash, I’m kicking myself for not experimenting with it sooner.  Furthermore, I’m kicking myself for not getting a bunch of flashes.  When I see the type of photos that photographers like Brad Trent are producing, I realize how much time I wasted not experimenting.

There will be failures…

I learned photography under the false pretense that professional photographers didn’t make mistakes.  I spent a lot of time working towards making every photograph absolutely perfect.  It sounded like a good plan, but I taught myself not to take risks.  Experimentation results in failures more often than not.  But every once in a while, something magical happens that makes all of the failures worthwhile.  Once again in 20-20 hindsight, I wish I had learned earlier that I didn’t need to be perfect with every single photo.  If I had learned to let go and not fear the failures, experimentation would have become a part of my photography style much earlier.



About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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