Things learnt from 23 years of amateur photography

jamespetts

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I first took up photography as a hobby in 1995 at the age of 15 when my father gave me an ancient all manual film SLR shortly before a cousin's wedding. I have been a happy amateur since then, and progressed through a Canon FD system, Canon digital compacts of the mid 2000s and eventually to Micro Four Thirds.

For those at the beginning of their journey into amateur photography, some of the things learnt over the preceding 23 years might be of assistance. For those wishing to become a professional photographer, I suggest taking tips from those who have already succeeded in the profession rather than an amateur on an internet forum.

The following are in no particular order save the order in which they came to my mind. I hope that these will be of assistance to at least some.

  • Always carry spare batteries.
  • Always invest in good backup for your photographs, including off-site backup. RAID is not backup: it is merely redundancy (not that that is a bad thing in and of itself; but it is not sufficient).
  • Buy secondhand where possible (apart from memory cards, batteries, computer storage devices and similar). It is vastly better value for money than buying new. Amateurs will use our cameras far less intensively than professionals as there is generally far less time to dedicate to hobbies than to earning a living. Secondhand cameras, lenses and accessories designed to be able to be used by professionals but actually used by amateurs will usually have plenty of life left in them.
  • Try cameras for feel in a shop. The handling can make a big difference. Consider renting a camera to test its handling (although I must confess that I have not gone this far myself).
  • If your camera has this feature, use the built-in spirit level when taking pictures of static subjects. A properly aligned horizon (and a level photograph generally) make a picture far more satisfying to look at than one not well aligned. I find that this holds even if one cannot immediately notice the lack of balance.
  • Take photographs that you, your family and friends and perhaps strangers on the internet enjoy looking at. As an amateur, the goal is to take joy in the activity, and much of that joy comes from others' enjoyment of one's pictures.
  • As an amateur, copyright restrictions are a foe, not a friend. The purpose of amateur photography is to share the joy of photographs. I make almost all of my decent photographs available on Flickr in full resolution under a Creative Commons attribution share-alike licence. This allows even commercial use of my pictures without charge, provided that I am credited. The joy of seeing one's photographs used on all sorts of websites, from news articles about botany to Buzzfeed posts about Christmas food is worth far more than the small chance of a tiny monetary revenue that one might make if one were to reserve all rights.
  • Actively seek out travel destinations that permit photography and are accommodating to photographers, and actively boycott travel destinations where non-commercial photography is unreasonably restricted in any way. Restrictions on photography at airport security facilities are reasonable - restrictions on photography with the intention of forcing people to buy official postcards, etc. amounts to rent seeking and is not reasonable. These places do not deserve the to make money from anyone who cares about photography. Also, research the freedom of panorama of the places that you plan to visit.
  • Do not be taken in either by equipment snobbery or reverse equipment snobbery. It is not necessary to have the most advanced equipment to take excellent photographs and share the joy of photography. Equally, however, having decent equipment can make a big difference to the quality of photographs that one takes and the kinds of photographs that one takes (e.g. one cannot take macro photographs without a macro lens). It can also make a big difference to how pleasant that the experience of photography is: reliable, ergonomic, light equipment makes photography much more pleasurable than unreliable, uncomfortable and heavy equipment. Buying new equipment should generally be driven by realising, usually from experience, that you are constrained in some way by your existing equipment. Try to work out what would most efficiently eliminate that constraint.
  • Automation of technical aspects of photography such as exposure and focus can make it much easier to concentrate on the composition and subject. There was a time when it took considerable skill and knowledge to get a technically good photograph, especially on slide film in challenging conditions. That is largely no longer the case. This means that many more people can take good photographs, vastly lowering the barriers to entry. For professionals, this means more competition. For amateurs, this means an easier, more relaxed hobby. The brain can only focus on so many things at once. Letting the camera work on the exposure and focus and concentrating on subject and composition can greatly ease the process of producing lovely photographs.
  • Although automation can help, however, do not shirk learning the theory of photography. You will sometimes want to override the automatic settings, and it helps enormously to understand the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO sensitivity (etc.) in order to know when to do this. It might even be helpful to take photographs in manual exposure mode to learn about this. Do not confuse this learning process, however, with the idea that it is inherently or generally superior to use manual exposure mode for everything. It is not. Those who think that it is are either still in the process of learning about theory or are just engaging in skill snobbery (the idea that it is always better to do something in a way that requires more skill, without regard to whether there is any actual benefit in doing it in that way). There are some cases where manual mode (or, more often, semi-automatic modes such as aperture priority) are more useful than program mode, but the more that I take pictures, the more that I realise that, most of the time, with modern cameras at least, the people who write the software for the automatic exposure seriously know what they are doing.
  • Do not underestimate the time and effort involved in changing lenses, especially outdoors. Fixed focal length lenses can appear to be excellent value for money (and weight) compared to zooms, but if you need to change between lenses for every 2-3 photographs taken, you will not take many photographs. Zoom lenses and multiple bodies can greatly reduce the friction in taking photographs. Zoom lenses (especially standard zooms) also augment creativity by allowing one to frame the shot with some precision.
  • Take the time to get to know what your camera can do and how to do it efficiently. It will make using it easier and more fun, and you will get more out of it.
  • The most important element in making a good photograph (except in the genres of portraiture and, to an extent, still life and macro) are neither equipment nor skill but the subject. A person with mediocre skill and mediocre equipment in a beautiful place can take a much more beautiful picture than a person with great skill and highly advanced equipment in a rubbish dump. Beautiful subjects (and beautiful light) are also inspiring. Once you have a good grasp of the basics of photography and have some reasonably decent equipment, paying for a holiday to a beautiful location is more likely to yield beautiful photographs than upgrading your equipment or taking a course to refine your skill further (which is not to say that upgrading equipment or improving skill is not worthwhile or are necessarily mutually exclusive with finding beautiful subjects; but where there is an exclusive choice, as, for example, when the budget is restricted, the subject is probably the wiser choice).
  • Do not merely try to copy other people's photographs or photographic style. Copying can be useful in the earlier stages of learning (note that learning never stops until one abandons photography forever, so calibrate "earlier stages" accordingly), but if somebody else has already taken a photograph, why do you need to take virtually the same photograph yourself? Learn from others' techniques by all means, but be innovative and experiment. Unlike the professional, you have nothing to lose by trying and failing.
  • Take the sort of pictures that you wish that other people had taken 50 years ago. A photograph does not have to be timeless to be good. Indeed, a photograph that is very much of its time (e.g. showing tourists, parked cars, street furniture, etc.) might be far more interesting in 20, 30, 50 or 75 years' time than a timeless photograph that could have been taken any time in the last 100 years. That is not, however, an excuse for a cluttered composition.
  • There is nothing wrong with taking pictures with a mobile telephone. Often, it is all that one will have with one. Modern mobile telephones can have very good quality, especially in good light. The image quality may not be quite as pristine as with a dedicated camera, but the issue is not whether the image is as good as it could in theory have been with better equipment, but whether it is good enough to give joy. I often upload mobile telephone pictures to Flickr.
  • Do not be afraid to take many photographs and use only a few of them. Whatever skill snobs might say about "spray and pray", anything that ultimately brings joy in the result, execution or both is worthwhile.
  • Do not agree to be anyone's wedding photographer (unless you are actually a professional wedding photographer, in which case the advice in this post is not for you in any event). By all means, take pictures at your friends' wedding and make them available to said friends, but do not allow your friends to rely on you as the wedding photographer. They will only have one wedding. Your friendship is probably more important than your photography.
  • Do not let anybody convince you that you are somehow inferior if your hobby is not just photography but collecting camera equipment for its own sake. If you genuinely enjoy this, that is entirely your prerogative, and it is irrelevant that doing so will not improve your photographic skill: stamp collecting will also not improve anyone's letter writing abilities, but that is no reason to be disdainful of stamp collectors. If you do enjoy collecting camera equipment as a hobby in itself, recognise that it is a distinct but related hobby to photography.
 

RichDesmond

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If I might, I'd like to add a point.

All photographers pay attention to framing, but perspective (essentially, how far away from the subject you are) is important too, and often neglected. One of the fallacies of the "zoom with your feet" argument for primes is that, even if it's physically possible, by doing that you change the perspective and may be changing in crucial ways the final image. Only zooms let you control framing and perspective simultaneously.
A good exercise for a newish photographer is to have a zoom on the camera, walk around and experiment with shooting a subject from different distances while keeping the framing the same.

(And to be clear, none of this is a knock on primes. I have and use a bunch of them. But as with any piece of gear it's important to understand it's weaknesses as well it's strengths.)
 

PhotoCal

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What I've learned after 45 + years of photography is that, after 23 years, there is still room to learn. There is always room to learn.

In my case (as amateur, pro and semi-pro) I've learned to think more about my subject and the light and less about my gear.

These forums often remind me of tennis players I used to know. The worst players were those who talked the most about their equipment.

Photography is about light. Not your most recent or next purchase.
 

RichardC

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A site dedicated to the micro 4/3rds format exists in part to discuss micro 4/3rds gear.

It is a place where it is possible to discuss the MFT format without getting jumped all over by a bunch of cretinous keyboard warriors with little else to do with their lives except criticise.
 
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I'm good with almost all of this except the anti-prime lens piece. Your mileage may vary but I think "zooms > primes" is another one of those things you should outgrow.
if you need to change between lenses for every 2-3 photographs taken, you will not take many photographs.
I've shot whole weddings successfully (as a friend) using a single normal prime lens. As you've pointed out it's what you can do with the equipment and how much you enjoy it and not the equipment itself.
Zoom lenses and multiple bodies can greatly reduce the friction in taking photographs. Zoom lenses (especially standard zooms) also augment creativity by allowing one to frame the shot with some precision.
Or zooms can increase the friction of taking a photograph by making you consider focal length instead of taking a picture. I find that I actively take better photos by using primes because it forces me to consider what I want before I bring the camera to my eye.
There is nothing wrong with taking pictures with a mobile telephone.
You mean my mobile phone with a prime lens?

I'm not usually one for internet holy wars (EMACS or VI, *nix or Windows or MacOS, etc.) but I'm always up to fight for primes over zooms ;-)
 

PakkyT

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For those wishing to become a professional photographer, I suggest taking tips from those who have already succeeded in the profession rather than an amateur on an internet forum.
Is it irony when someone posts saying they are an amateur, then says the above, then follows it up with a wall of tips? ;)

Anyway, joking aside, one I do not really agree with...
As an amateur, copyright restrictions are a foe, not a friend. The purpose of amateur photography is to share the joy of photographs. I make almost all of my decent photographs available on Flickr in full resolution under a Creative Commons attribution share-alike licence. This allows even commercial use of my pictures without charge, provided that I am credited.
I see this stated/implied a lot (that Copyright restrictions somehow restricts your being able to share your photos or being able to use your photos commercially without charge) and it simply is not true. If one wants to use CC licensing, then by all means go for it. But retaining your All Rights Reserved Copyright on a photo still allows your photos to be used in any way that CC licensed photos can be used. The only difference is the person who wants to use your photo simply has to ask you first.
 

PakkyT

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I'm good with almost all of this except the anti-prime lens piece. Your mileage may vary but I think "zooms > primes" is another one of those things you should outgrow.
Ya, like a lot of the tips in the list, this really should be another one listed instead as "do what you enjoy". If you don't like changing lenses a lot then get a zoom or work within the restrictions of a single prime.

But the flip side of it is a lot of people get joy out of the process of photography (just like some get joy out of collecting gear) and the fussing & choosing & changing between prime lenses, even every third shot, might simple be part of that person's enjoyment of the art of photography.
 

D7k1

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Having at times been both a professional photographer and videographer, the most important thing I've learned in 50 years, is that unless shooting for a client image what makes you happy.
 

doady

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A site dedicated to the micro 4/3rds format exists in part to discuss micro 4/3rds gear.

It is a place where it is possible to discuss the MFT format without getting jumped all over by a bunch of cretinous keyboard warriors with little else to do with their lives except criticise.
Yeah, gear is in the frigging name of this site, and there are multiple subforums dedicated to specific gear, so I don't why expect people here not discuss gear, let alone bump a 1.5 year old thread because of it. I see no conflict between interest in gear and interest in photography anyways. They are not mutually exclusive...
 

PakkyT

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so I don't why expect people here not discuss gear, let alone bump a 1.5 year old thread because of it.
Because a certain someone is the worlds biggest curmudgeon and can not miss any opportunity to put down the membership here. I guess now he can not find enough current threads to do so and has to seek out older threads to have a new place to tell us we suck.

I didn't even notice this was an old thread until you mentioned it.
 

doady

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Because a certain someone is the worlds biggest curmudgeon and can not miss any opportunity to put down the membership here. I guess now he can not find enough current threads to do so and has to seek out older threads to have a new place to tell us we suck.

I think it is fair to say some people here have an unhealthy obsession with gear, but I'm sure they are as aware of it as anybody else. No need to make so much effort to point it out to them. And I don't think we can assume they are bad photographers either, same way people shouldn't assume I am a good photographer just because of my relative lack of gear. Maybe if I was a better photographer I would actually have more gear. So I agree with OP, we cannot obsess too much about gear, but we shouldn't be so dismissive about having the right gear either.

I do have to disagree with OP though about buying equipment used instead of new. I bought a C-7070WZ new for $540 CAD ($60 off regular price) in 2004, and I didn't buy another camera until 2019. How money did I really waste? Sensors of cameras deteriorate over time (hot/dead pixels), their shutters have certain lifespan, batteries don't last long either. For bodies, I think you get what you pay for. Likewise, for lenses, they hold their value better, I paid $1450 CAD (no shipping) for a new 12-100mm on Boxing Day, now it's $1250 CAD used (not including shipping costs) on ebay. Big loss? I'm not convinced. If you really want to save money, then probably better to stop buying gear altogether.

I also have to disagree with the idea that a good subject is more important than the photographer's skill and gear. For much of my photography, I intentionally seek out the most dreary things in the most dreary locations at the most dreary times of day. I think the turning point for me was reading an article in 2014 about Danish tourists trashing Toronto and expressing their "horror" of Canada's "car culture". It was so ridiculous, I put a wide angle converter onto my C-7070 (EFL of 19mm) and spent a whole day photographing the most touristy and coincidentally ugliest and car-oriented parts of Toronto's downtown, basically showing the city from their perspective:

https://flic.kr/p/os9cTS
https://flic.kr/p/2dVKEVB
Full series here: Toronto & the Gardiner: A Shocking Portrait of Canada's Car-Crazed Culture

I think that article and these photos were a major turning point for me as a photographer, going more and more out of my way to photograph the banal and the ugly, things that people normally don't pay attention to, or even try to avoid, let alone take the time to photograph. They are definitely not good subjects, but is that really what makes the photographs bad? I'll let you guys decide.
 

JensM

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Because a certain someone is the worlds biggest curmudgeon and can not miss any opportunity to put down the membership here. I guess now he can not find enough current threads to do so and has to seek out older threads to have a new place to tell us we suck.

I didn't even notice this was an old thread until you mentioned it.
Ah, must be the only one I have ever blocked on a forum, ever... :biggrin:
 

Armoured

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May be an old thread but I'll throw my two cents in.

One thing I learned when I was much more active in photography, disciplined and organised (i.e. before I had kids):

If you're planning to take pictures, do your settings first, and then search for the subject / framing / composition and everything else. In the old days, this mostly boiled down to 'check your light.' (Check your exposure if you prefer).

Start with the the light and the circumstances - the most likely subject type and matter even if you haven't decided on the subject - and do your settings first. (It's okay if you're walking about with the idea of perhaps taking photos and you have some 'default settings' you usually use, even if that's program mode or whatever). But still - check your light.

Do this before you lift the camera up to your proposed subject. Be ready. You can adjust when you do settle on your subject, and by doing your situational settings first (eg 'moving subjects/probably need a higher shutter speed'), you'll usually also know which way any adjustments might have to go.

When I worked with exclusively manual cameras - no auto mode - this discipline meant I was almost always ready. It became second nature to check the light and exposure whenever I walked into a new room or space - even if I wasn't actually planning on taking pictures per se.

In the digital age this can of course include taking a picture and checking the result - what would have required a polaroid before. Test shots are okay; but keep the 'initial test shot' separate from the 'real shooting'.

I am not always sufficiently disciplined or organised these days, and I don't follow my own advice as consistently as I used to.

But when I miss or screw up shots, it usually is because I wasn't doing this; I thought I had my camera 'ready' but it wasn't really.
 

Stanga

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That's where the G9 scores over the other m43 cameras with it's LCD display. I wish that Panasonic would add a display like that on other cameras.
 
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