Photography 101: Common pitfalls of starting out

I know it comes naturally to some people, but learning to shoot photography was one of the most difficult skills I’ve ever tackled.  It probably took me 3 years of shooting terrible photos and reading blogs and watching youtube videos, and I’m still not able to consistently produce great images.

In order to help other people through this process at a faster pace, I thought I’d lay out some of the tips I wished i’d figured out much sooner.  Below is a list of pitfalls to be aware of , along with a suggested path for learning photography.

Olympus OMD-EM5 with lenses
This is the camera that pushed me over the edge and got me into photography on a much more serious level. Also includes the 12-60 kit lens, the 12-40 2.8, the 40-150mm zoom, the 45mm 1.8, 75mm 1.8, and the 25mm 1.8

What Camera to buy

How can I possibly know what camera to buy if I don’t know anything about photography or what type of photography I will do?

Use what you have!  Because of the complex nature of the catch-22 below, you’ll have a lot of learning to do before you’re even in a position to take advantage of a better / more expensive camera.  Might as well learn the concepts as much as you can before you invest.  If you don’t, you’ll end up spending money on gear you end up hating or not using.

That being said, here are a few features of a camera that really helped me learn these concepts more easily:

  • Live view – you want your camera screen to update in real time as you change your exposure to show you what your image will look like. For the iphone generation, I know it sounds shocking to learn that not all cameras do this, but they don’t
  • Manual Dials – so many new cameras have manual controls, but you have to go digging through pages and pages of a menu system to find them.  Having access to dials on the camera so you can physically control settings is a real advantage.
  • Simple Menu System – in the section below, you’ll see a huge barrier is actually learning how your camera works, and some cameras make this near impossible with their menu systems (Sony and Olympus were extremely confusing to me)
  • Popular camera – you can solve a lot of these problems by buying a popular camera that has a lot of third party guides and content about it.  Something like the Panasonic G85 , where creators like DSLR video shooter have created super accessible tutorials like this one.
Panasonic Lumix GX1
Prior to the OMD EM5 above I had this Lumix. It was clear to me at this point that I wanted a mirrorless camera.

How does my camera work vs how does photography work?

Once you get past the trap of “What camera to buy”, then learning photography come down to two major categories of challenges; figuring out how your camera works and learning basic photography concepts.

So many of the roadblocks I encountered while learning where a function of doing both at the same time, and not treating them like distinct topics.  If I could do it all over again, I’d learn the photography concept from a theoretical perspective, then figure out how to apply that theory using the manual and features of my camera.

Step by step progression for learning a photography concept:

  1. Learn the theory
  2. Learn which features of your camera control that theory
  3. Do an assignment which requires you to demonstrate the theory and the controls in real life.

For example, if you wanted to learn about exposure, you should read about the exposure triangle, then you should read about shutter priority / aperture priority / and manual exposure for your camera.  Then I’d do an exercise that forced me to expose for the highlights and the shadows of a scene with each different method.  As you apply your knowledge of the theory and your camera to the real world, you’ll start to learn what you like and don’t like about shooting.

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