How To Be A Beginner

I once heard a speech entitled, "How To Fail." The premise of it was reverse psychology. In essence, instead of talking about the means to success, the speaker listed the many ways to fail. It was an effective way to make a point. In a similar manner, people have written about the methods to photographic excellence. Perhaps looking at things in reverse will help some where those other articles do not. Therefore, my question for you today is, "What makes a beginner?"

There are a few things that beginning photographers eventually do. They are steps, in a way, to becoming more proficient and are as inevitable in the process of growing in knowledge as breathing. But the key here is to first realize they are just that - steps. It is impossible to advance in a forward direction while remaining in the same location. Only when you realize your mistakes and become willing to change will you advance.

Part of growing up is in doing things wrong for a time. Children do this. The parent tries to guide them to their best ability, but there comes a point when experience is the only teacher. Learning to ride a bike requires some wobbliness and a few falls to accomplish it. Photography is the same way. A new camera does not make you a photographer. It makes you the owner of a camera. If you want to become a photographer, then you must be willing to study and to let go of what you are doing wrong. The surest route to staying a beginner is in being defensive. Admitting you are wrong is half the victory.


There is something said for the excitement of the beginning photographer, and it's important to retain this joy. Photography should be fun above all things. When you are no longer having fun, you need to reevaluate what you are doing. However, having fun also breeds mistakes. Suddenly everything you are doing HAS to be as joyous to everyone else too, right?

I equate this to sitting through someone else's vacation photographs - Here's Uncle Joe getting a drink. Here's Aunt Betty in her new swimsuit. Yawn. To the one who experienced it, it was great, but to everyone else it is a bore. New photographers in their zeal for their new hobby tend to post things to death. I always know when someone hasn't much experience by the number of photos they share with a group. The more inexperienced they are, the more they share. Now, every group is different, but even in a high activity group, the newbie tends to stand out.

The first step to becoming more professional lies in being able to contain yourself. Set for yourself a limit. This brings me to the next sign of a beginner - quality.


Only the Best

New photographers, because they are brimming with enthusiasm, post photos that are not their best work. Now, part of this comes from an inability to realize it is not their best work. The photographic eye is trained through time and experience. Yet there is a point at which even a new photographer should see that the picture is dark and out of focus.

Experienced photographers post only their best. Even if it is the rarest of rare sightings but the photograph itself is tremendously bad, I don't post it. Unfortunately, there will always be times when you have to admit the shot failed and move on. The ability to do this is a sign you have matured.

The quality of a photographer's work comes from their trained ability to see light and adapt for the best exposure. Being new means you will mess up more often. Even "old pros" have bad moments, but the reason they look like pros is they don't display all their mistakes. They alter what they are doing and learn from the experience. They also become proficient in knowing what went wrong. To change an error in judgment requires knowing the misjudgment and knowing how to correct it.


Ack, the editing!

The biggest, biggest, biggest (did I say biggest?) sign of a beginning photographer is in editing mistakes. There is that incredible moment when the world of photo editing unfolds and suddenly every...single...picture must be altered. It typically shows up in digital framing, over filtering, excessive saturation, and then the annoying watermark. The watermark shows up when a fear about copyright infringement creeps in.

Let me state here, that it is important to respect copyright, and there is nothing wrong with a small unobtrusive watermark. I have had my work "stolen" and reused more than once. It is frustrating when it happens to you. However, I also believe that you must keep things in perspective. Is that shot really unique enough that it requires extra protection? Have you sold a tremendously lot of it and it is in high demand? Chances are you have not, so leave off the watermark. However, if you still feel strongly about marking your images, place your name in the lower right-hand corner. That is usually sufficient. Leave off placing large transparent images that cover the photo's content. Personally, when I realize someone does this a lot, I stop looking at his or her photographs.

I have said this many times before, but it bears repeating. The purpose of editing is to bring a photograph back to its natural state. As a photographer, your goal should be to take the photo correctly with the camera where it needs no editing at all. A shot that doesn't need any work done to it afterward is more pleasing to me than one I "saved" somehow.


Leaving Comments

As a final note, I want to address how to leave fruitful comments on photographs. THE most harmful comments to a beginning photographer are not hateful ones, but actually sometimes the good ones. Whenever viewing a photograph, I might say, "Great scene," or "Beautiful location." I might comment on the uniqueness of the shot, the interest of the animal, or the person in it. However, I very rarely say, "Great picture." This comment is reserve for, well, a great picture, one where all photographic knowledge has lined up to create a truly perfect image.

Telling a new photographer his image is "great" creates a false idea that nothing needed to change. Now, I avoid making negative comments if they are not asked for. I would never say, "Well, you could have..." without being invited. However, the reverse also causes troubles. Too many "this is greats" prevents a beginner from looking at their work objectively, and as long as you are learning, it is most important to be critical of your photographs. I know I am, even after all these years.

Every photographer should set for himself a goal of perfection keeping in mind things are not always going to be perfect. The fact is stuff happens. Again, learn from it and move on, but never let go of the need to do things right, to be the best you can at your new love.

Photography is a wonderful thing. At times when the rest of my life seems to be falling apart, I can pick up my camera, look through the lens, and forget about it all. There's always something new to see, another insect or animal to photograph. It's exciting! However, I want my work to reflect an image of me, and above everything, I want it respected. Respect comes through time and experience, by moving past the newbie mistakes and striving for excellence.