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5 Quick Bits of Advice for Beginning Photographers

I've got a lot of teaching experience under my belt. I've heard every question and I've taught students of every skill level. I've taught people with zero previous experience all the way up to professional photographers with years of prior training.

I thought I'd give 5 quick bits of advice for anyone setting out to learn photography.

Beware of Other Photographers

1. Beware of other photographers.

The photography community has the same problem as most technical, artistic fields: there are tons of people who have no idea what they are talking about, but are great at sounding like they do. Your fellow beginner photographers are the worst at this. They just learned something from a book, friend or instructor and they are just foaming at the mouth to pass that information on to someone else. To them it's fact, undeniable truth, because they heard it from...somewhere. They want to sound like a pro, so they will pass on information any chance they get. Problem is, a lot of the time this information has been altered somewhere in the translation...or it's just plain wrong.

The internet is the worst for this kind of stuff. Thousands of beginners congregate in forums to share advice and tips. But it's all beginners, so it's the blind leading the blind. Camera clubs are second only to the internet for the same reason. But it's not just beginners. I've heard "pros" give out horrible, wrong information. I've seen blatantly incorrect information in a major mainstream how-to photography book published by a big name "reputable" photographer! False information is everywhere.

So beware of other photographers. Don't automatically take what they say as fact - even if they are a pro. Especially if the advice or tip is unsolicited. Get your information from reputable sources with a good track record and a portfolio to prove it.

2. Look before you listen.

That brings us nicely into my second bit of advice: look before you listen. Meaning, look at a photographer's work before you listen to any advice or tips they have to offer. If they are shouting tips and advice from the rooftops, but their work is crap, then it's elementary - they must be wrong. If the photographer's work is top-notch and they are offering up a tutorial of how to do things, then pay attention. This goes for me, too. If you don't like my work, don't listen to what I have to say. But if you like my work and you like my philosophy of getting the image right in-camera and not relying on Photoshop, then you might want to hear what I have to say.

Open your eyes to the person's work before you open your ears. If you take their advice, you'll start shooting like them. So make sure you want to shoot like them.

Used Car Salesman3. Camera store salesmen are good for 2 things: checking prices and checking stock.

I have nothing against camera store salesman as people, but as purveyors of information, they are no good. Their business is selling cameras, not teaching photography. I can't tell you how many bits of false information and horrible advice I've heard from camera store salesmen via my students. I've actually gone into camera shops with a question I already know the answer to, just to test the guy behind the counter, only to get a wrong answer. Many of them need to wear the pants in the customer/salesman relationship, so they dish out advice - often times unsolicited - just to sound like a big shot. But think about this: Would you take driving advice from a salesman at the car dealership?

There's that old saying "those who can't do, teach." As a teacher, I can't help but disagree with that statement because even the greats like Galen Rowell and Frans Lanting did/do teach photography workshops. But a statement like "those who can't use cameras, sell cameras" might be more accurate.

Tricks are for kids4. Don't use "learning tricks."

A lot of photography instructors try to use "tricks" to help students learn some basic photography concepts. A real common one is the "the shutter, aperture, ISO triangle." They are supposed to make learning easier and help you remember some of the more foreign material.

I, personally, don't use any learning tricks. I find most of them are flawed in some way and can ultimately be misinterpreted depending on who's looking at it. And my logic is this: did you use any learning tricks to remember how to get home from work or to remember your address or to learn how to drive or to figure out how to operate a computer? No. You just learned how to do it. It was understanding it and then repeating the process until you learned it permanently. Photography is no different. You just need to learn the concepts, understand why things work they way they do, and then repeat.

I feel that instructors turn to "learning tricks" when they can't adequately explain something in terms the student understands. If you have a good instructor who can communicate a concept in such a way that you actually learn it, he/she won't need to use "learning tricks."

5. Don't seek approval from others. 

I get a lot of requests to critique photos. I understand that with my considerable experience and knowledge, you might think my opinion of your picture is important. But let me be frank: it doesn't. My opinion doesn't matter and neither does any instructor's. Your friends' and family's opinions don't matter either. You're the one taking the picture. If you are happy with it, then mission accomplished. Of course, this is different if you are trying to please a client. Then it's your responsibility to seek their approval. But if this is just your hobby, then don't try to please anyone but yourself.

As you get your work out there more, people will start to serve up their opinions without really being asked. You'll get a hundred positive opinions for every 1 negative opinion. The 100 positive responses will dissolve entirely in the acid of that one negative response. But just keep in mind that the negative feedback is worthless and is usually grown from a negative personality, not from truth. Most people are too polite to debase your work even if what they have to say is valid. The ones who voice their negativity are usually failed artists themselves and they just need to bring you down to their level. Don't let them.

Common Misconceptions: How to Use a Light Meter

This is the first in a brand new series of posts called "Common Misconceptions." As a teacher with well over 100 clients, I've run into just about every single common misconception there is to be found in photography. So with these blog posts, I aim to spread the word on what's wrong and what's right!

The Misconception:
When shooting in full manual, the correct way to meter is to line up the light meter indicator at zero, like so:

Shooting in Full Manual

Why This is Wrong:
The zero on your meter does not mean "correct." The zero is simply a reference point for your meter. Just like altitude has sea level as a reference point, your camera's light meter has a reference point. With altitude, you can go above sea level and below sea level, but sea level (which would be "0") isn't any more correct than any other value. Same with your light meter - you can go above zero and below zero, but zero isn't any more correct than anything else.

If you always line the meter up at zero when shooting in Manual, you'll find that many of your pictures come out too bright or too dark, like so:

Taking Pictures in Full Manual

Taking Pictures in Full Manual

In both of the above examples, zero gave me a bad exposure. So, you see, zero doesn't mean correct - it's just zero.

The Truth:
There a few different techniques for how to use a light meter correctly. The Zone System is possibly the most well-known and easily one of the most effective, but I teach my own brand of manual photography that involves an easy-to-apply 3-step process that's just as effective and even easier to learn than the Zone System. But whatever metering technique you use, lining it up at zero does not result in a correct exposure. And regardless of whether you're using the camera's built-in light meter or some sort of handheld light meter, you don't just get the meter to zero. The other numbers on the meter are there for a reason. You have to know how to use them. If you're interested in learning my easy-to-apply metering process for manual photography, I've dedicated an entire 6-week online course to learning it. More details about that course and a free preview can be found here.

My Thoughts and Rants:
I run into this misconception all the time. It drives me nuts. It doesn't drive me nuts that students think this is the correct way to meter - after all, this is what they were taught by someone who was supposed to be knowledgeable and I can't expect students starting out to know how to manually meter for real. What drives me nuts is that a lot of reputable (I use that term loosely) photography instructors actually teach this as the correct way to shoot in manual! I've even heard that instructors from Adorama are teaching students to line the meter up at zero all the time!

I'd love to have a word with these instructors because the truth of the matter is they themselves have no idea how to shoot in manual but they are too proud to admit they don't know. Instead, they just spread their ignorance to eager amateur photographers who are then left wondering why more than half their pictures come out wrong. There are far too many people out there teaching photography who really have no business doing it.

My question to these inept instructors is "If you just want to get it to zero, why does Canon and Nikon even include the -3, -2, -1, +1, +2 and +3? If it was just a matter of getting it to zero, all they'd need is a little red light on the top of your camera that lit up once you got the correct exposure." Those other numbers to the negative and positive must be there for a reason. And by the way, if it's just about getting it to zero, save yourself the effort and put your camera on full auto, because that's all full auto is doing.

So don't buy into this misconception! Learn to shoot in manual the REAL way!

Photography Tips: Exploiting Overcast Days

Skill Level: Professional

In landscape photography, we are often at the mercy of the weather. Sometimes it's a fortunate coincidence of great weather when you happen to be out shooting, but more often than not, the weather just doesn't cooperate. Nature doesn't want to make photography easy for you.

I'm a big fan of making lemonade when nature gives you lemons. It has the sweet taste of victory. So I'm going to show you how to make lemonade out of a lemon of a sky. Specifically, overcast days.

Overcast days don't give you the most stunning light for landscapes. Great for macro work, but generally bad for landscapes. If you're going to conquer the scene in front of you and make an awesome photograph regardless of the dreary sky, you have to take what you're given and exploit it.

What you're given is dark, bluish light and cold weather. So instead of fighting these things and trying to make a typical sunny landscape, take that dark feel, that blue tone and that cold sensation and exploit it. Highlight it.

The first way to do that is to underexpose your landscape by a little bit. Maybe 2/3 to 1 stop. For instance, in this shot, let's say I would normally meter that rock at -0.7 on a typical sunset with less cloud-cover (shooting in Manual, of course). With this overcast sky, I'm going to underexpose the scene by a little bit to create a mood that matches the dramatic, overcast sky. So instead of metering that rock at -0.7, I'll meter it at -1.3. That brings the entire exposure down by 2/3 of a stop to create a darker picture that jives better with the dark weather.

Rock Metered a Little Darker Than Normal

Same goes for the sky. Let's assume I'm going to use some split NDs to get the sky properly exposed. To render the clouds "accurately," I'd want them to line up around -1.0 on the meter. But I want to underexpose this shot. So instead of using filtration to get the sky to -1.0, I'm going to use a little bit stronger filter to get it around -1.7 (2/3 of a stop darker).

Filter the sky a little darker

The result is an image that's darker than real life. But just because it's darker than real life, doesn't mean it's incorrectly exposed. Correct exposure simply means the exposure turned out how you wanted it to. You wanted this shot to be darker so as to better match the sky and to create a mood. So, it's a correct exposure.

That's how you exploit the dark light you get with overcast skies, but what about the bluish tone and the cold weather. That's where white balance comes in. In order to get accurate colors out of this landscape, you'd choose a "cloudy" white balance setting. Only problem is...that's boring. Here's what you get:

Cloudy WB Setting

Instead of going for accurate colors, exploit the bluish, cold light by using a WB setting that will give a bluish hue to the shot. Daylight or 5200K should get the job done, but if you want even bluer, try the tungsten setting (that will be really blue), or dial in about 4800K.

Finally, a long shutter speed of 15" blurs the water into an ethereal fog that goes perfectly with the cold, dark mood of the shot.

Corona Del Mar, CA

With the darker exposure, bluish WB setting and long shutter, you get an image that has much more mood than an "accurate" shot. Now you're telling a story instead of just documenting a mediocre day at a mediocre beach.