Here's how much I have improved during my first year, so you can see if it would be worth of reading this article. Left photo was among my first deviations, something I took January 2007 after getting my first "better" camera, Panasonic FZ50. Back then I started from zero with no experience of photography, save the random snapshots from time to time. The right one is something I took last October (2007) and is my personal favorite. So I have improved my skills this much in less than a year and with right attitude, I believe you can too.
I'm personally quite fresh photographer. I've been photographing a bit over year and even though I'm nowhere even close to being a good photographer, I still feel that I've improved considerably compared to the starting point. I wanted to share the approach that worked for me. I hope this could be useful for some beginner photographers there thinking "Where to start from?". This guide doesn't teach you how to take photos. It's merely meant to show you the right direction.
These things I have here are by no means written in stone. They are something that have worked for me and might not work for everyone. So pick the things that work nicely for you. I know some people, for example, don't want to study about photography as much as I have done. So don't, if you don't enjoy it. My goal has been to improve my skills and perhaps some day to be a good photographer (what ever that is). So this approach is something that concentrates on improving your skills. It might not be right for a Sunday snapper but if you want to improve your skills, read ahead, it might still contain some useful information.
Also one thing about me as a photographer. Even though I enjoy the whole process and don't mind if I'll come from random trip with camera empty handed, I'm still rather result orientated. I'm not that interested shooting film for example, I can spend lots of time (and recently also money, apparently) getting better gear even though I know they won't make my photos generally better (but it's the small details that I notice). So since this is based on my personal experience, it might be visible in some occasions. Just as a warning.
I personally think this is the most important part of anything you could do and for some people it might be quite self evident. Now, you have to remember that I'm talking here about photography as a hobby, not studying it to be good in it to become professional. Don't force yourself to improve, don't do stuff you don't enjoy, just enjoy the hobby. I have hard time seeing that someone would improve fast if the person wouldn't like what he/she was doing. Also the creativity suffers from forcing yourself to do something you don't enjoy. And last, after perhaps getting the expensive gear, you might end up with over-priced paper weights.
So what this means in practice? Well, you know what you enjoy, don't you? Like I stated in the beginning some people like to read more theory than others and this goes to other things too. One good example would be shooting to film with 50mm prime. In general, shooting with prime lens (fixed focal length, no zoom) to film is considered to be one good way to improve your skills faster since it forces you to think more (about the situation in general since you don't want to waste film and about the composition with the prime since you have to zoom with your feet). But personally even though I have one film rangefinder, I've never gotten that interested in it.
You have to make the decision yourself: Would you enjoy it? Even though many people say it's the best way to reach certain goal, that doesn't mean it's right for you. Yes, they might be right, that certain thing would speed up your learning but eventually if it would end up in you quitting the hobby just by doing wrong things for you, it's not worth it.
Right attitude is important - critique is your friend
To improve your skills, you have to have right humble enough attitude. DeviantArt is a sneaky place in this case: you might have masses of people saying how they love your work but no one really giving you any critique. But there doesn't exist a perfect photo so it would be easy to end up thinking that you're just so good. And the moment you think like that, you'll stop getting better.
So personally I never try to be too satisfied with my work. If I am, I'll just go to see some photos taken by really good photographers (easy to find from photo.net www.photo.net for example) and that's a sure way to drop me back to ground. You naturally have to find the balance for you. You'll have to let you to feel good enough of your work, otherwise you again risk the fun part. But you also have to realize that there's always room for improvement.
And this is where we'll get to the critique part (and now were talking about constructive critique). That's extremely valuable too (and rather rare in deviantArt unfortunately). There are always some, at least small, details that you might have overlooked. So if someone points out one of these for you, it doesn't mean your photo is bad, it just one small detail. Also it might be a different point-of-view to the matter. Perhaps you don't agree with it but that doesn't make the point-of-view any less valuable. This way you can consider what the other person pointed out and broaden your view.
Also remember to give critique. It's difficult to get good critique and if you don't find people who you can share the critique with, people quite seldom just drop in and do it for you (I tend to do this though from time to time). Also by doing this you can perhaps move the dA again into right direction where constructive critique isn't rare. But there is also another benefit from giving critique: you'll learn from it. This helps you to learn to read those photos and also apply it to your own photos.
If you're unsure how to give critique, here's one nice approach (personally I remember getting only one or two a bit negative feedback after giving constructive critique and I try to comment several photos a day, or at least one): first state what you like with the work (we all like some positive feedback too) and also why (this again helps to learn). Then tell what are the things that might need improvement and also tell why. And if you can, tell the person what could be done to correct those ideas. Here's also a nice news article about giving constructive critique: news.deviantart.com/article/35…
Learn the basics
Why my photos seem to be blurred in a bit lower light? How can I get a nicely blurred background and sharp subject? Why there so much noise/grain in my photos? And so on... Sound familiar? These are few examples of questions quite often asked in different photography forums around Internet. Also the answers are really simple, just basics of photography.
This is something that I can't state enough if you want to improve your skills: learn the basics. So often people in photography forum have asked question about some really basic things. I don't mean that you shouldn't ask, it's far better than not asking and not learning. But I would recommend that before you'll start asking questions from forums, learn the basics of photography. This is also (in my opinion) the fastest way to improve your photos in the beginning. For me, it moved my photos from bad quality bad photos to good quality bad photos quickly (and then learning to take at least a bit better photos took far longer).
So what are the basics you should learn? The technical stuff is important in the beginning, at least in my opinion. A good photo has a good idea and good technical execution. Learn the stuff like shutter speed, aperture, ISO speed, white balance and so on. Also learn the basics of composition. It's not something you should obey always but there are some basic things that appeal to human eye in some occasions (like rule of thirds, so you don't have to always place the subject into center of the frame). Also there are some other things, color theory etc that you can learn if you want to.
A good place to start learning would be your local library or book store. Try to find a book that is suitable for your level: if you're a beginner, get a book that start from really basic things explaining the terms etc (quite often in more advanced books you don't find the terms explained anywhere). Also remember that while digital age has changed some things, most of the basics are still the same. The light still behaves the same way. The terms like shutter speed, aperture, ISO (mostly) still affect the same image in same way. And Internet is full of information and discussion forums. That's why I wrote my first article; to show you at least few useful sites: news.deviantart.com/article/41…
Read, read and read
"You can't learn to photograph by reading", someone might say. Well, that someone is only partly correct. Yes, you can't learn to photography by only reading. But reading can be really important tool to help you to improve your skills along side with photographing. So far we've covered the basics, but what comes after that? There are still so many things that you might learn, so no reason to invent the wheel again.
I would classify books (and other information) here into two categories: there are general category that take some part of the photography that can be applied to most of the categories and go really deep in it (composition, lighting, exposure etc). And then there's the specific areas, like portraits, nature photography (that can be divided into several sub-categories) etc. I would say that choose what you what you want to read according to what you would enjoy the most. I personally have read 6 or 7 books and own a pile of magazines also.
For me, reading about photography isn't just about learning and studying. It's also about same experience as reading other books. I don't mind if I don't learn everything I've read. I'd rather enjoy the book than just try to study (I've been doing enough of it in school). Here are three a bit more advanced books I can personally recommend for you:
Ansel Adams: The Negative
Father of the Zone system and legendary landscape photographer. This is the book if you want to learn to be in control of the exposure instead of camera guessing what you want. Recommended especially for people doing landscape photography.
Michael Freeman: The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos
If you want to learn more about composition, I would recommend this book. Gets down to quite abstract and theoretical level sometimes, but with good examples. This book gives you nice tool for thinking about your composition.
Fil Hunter, Steven Biver, and Paul Fuqua: Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting
Some people have said that this is the bible for photographic lighting. Quite school-book type, personally I would recommend it especially if you're into artificial lighting but this helps also natural light shooters.
Shoot, shoot and shoot
I don't think I have to explain this bit any more thoroughly. Shoot a lot, that way you'll learn. Just balance it with the fun part again. Shoot when you feel like it, don't force yourself.
Think before you shoot!
This title I got from the signature of ~eduardofrench , one of the professional photographers active in photography forum. Remember what I talked about using the film in the first part? Well, it is true, but you don't need to use film to get the same effect (though film makes sure you'll remember it better). Think before you press the shutter release (if the situation allows, naturally). Think about the composition, think about the lighting, the scene, everything. So actually don't shoot a lot, shoot often.
One problem with digital age is that people seem to forgotten this. It's easy just to shoot million photos and later select the best one out of those. You might get good results from time to time but would you really improve? Probably not, at least not that fast. And what about when you have a situation that lets you to get only that one shot? You might have improved your the skills to nail that one shot, but just by shooting without thinking it would require luck.
I'm not saying you have to just snap one photo and hope it's good enough (though I've heard some people do this too). Personally I always tweak the exposure of my landscapes after the first shot with the help of the histogram (and why not, the preview is one of the strengths of digital photography, no reason to abandon it). But before that first shot, I stop. I view the surroundings around me, I see the landscape from different angles (also through viewfinder) and when I find the suitable, I'll set up the tripod (might move it afterwards though). Then I'll try to get the best possible exposure with the first shot and after that, I tweak it and take another photo.
Also one view to "thinking before you shoot" is that when you feel sudden inspiration for certain shoot (especially shoots where you create the scene, like portraits or still-life) perhaps you should actually slow down instead of start hitting that shutter release button like maniac. If you have a good idea, usually it eventually becomes better one after some thinking. Several still-life shots I have photographed have taken several hours to photograph. I start building the scene slowly, putting one element into place, perhaps backing a bit and doing something else and then returning to the job. Sometimes I let an idea to grow for longer time. One conceptual idea that I have has been in planning for several months. I have the concept clear, I know what elements I want but what I don't know how I can arrange the elements into frame to deliver the high impact the concept needs. Also I have difficulties with planning the lighting for that shot. But I'll get it eventually and I'd rather wait to get good results.
Don't just take photos, make them
This is partly matter of attitude and also same stuff as in last part. You should not just take photos. One can easily view it just taking snapshots. Instead make them carefully. Place every component into image carefully, get the exposure and lighting just right. Naturally you can't always move the elements (well, unless you carry dynamite with you), so you'll have to move the camera instead. Move into place where you have all the elements to fall in to best possibly place. Same goes with light: you can't always plan the lighting (especially with landscapes... though carrying a tactical nuke in your camera bag might give you nice landscape flash) but you can wait and come back when the light is right.
Try different areas
At the start it's usually good to experiment with different areas of photography to learn what you enjoy the most. Most likely you'll have a kit lens or similar and perhaps a beginner class telezoom (or P&S or bridge camera). These can't do everything that well but they can do all the things decently. You just have to accept that you won't have a gear to do everything well (unless you're rich or your dad is rich) since good special area/professional lenses are just damn expensive. But when you find the areas you enjoy the most, you can concentrate on getting gear for those areas (if you feel like you need it). And to clarify what I mean by "well" here: excellent, top of the line image quality. Actually you don't need professional gear to get good images, it just helps to get every last drop of potential out of your photo (just word of warning if you're perfectionist and start photography: you'll soon be poor perfectionist since you want to get those pro lenses ).
So try portraits with natural lighting or ordinary house lights. Try landscapes with your kit lens, try close ups to see if you would need a macro lens (or get a 50mm f1.8 lens and extension tubes). Try different areas and see where your gear becomes an obstacle.
Personally I like landscapes the most. I started it with the lens I bought with my camera (Tamron 17-50mm f2.8) and used if almost for a year. I really didn't need better lens for landscapes but I wanted it. I don't need sharper images but I want them. I could have managed without wider lens but the extra is still nice. So I ended up getting Nikkor 14mm f2.8 lens for my landscapes recently.
Don't try to force artistic photos
This is something that several beginning photographers do quite easily (it's not really that bad thing... more of and stage in developing your skills). You try to force yourself to take artistic images, perhaps to think that you need special art images to upload somewhere (I think this tends to be true especially with art sites). But this way you'll most likely end up just with snapshots of ordinary things that don't open up to other people.
So don't just take a random snapshot of your trash can, thing afterwards something nice to say about the photo and label it conceptual. You don't need to be creative in the beginning and produce photos with massive deep meanings behind it (nothing bad in it if you enjoy it, but you don't need to do it). Personally I still like nature photography and try to find places to take beautiful images without any deeper meaning. Sometimes I might get some conceptual idea and shoot it then, but it's not the goal. Again photograph what you enjoy, not what you expect others would like to see.
Also one point of view is that a conceptual photography might actually be rather difficult area in the beginning. It's not enough that you have a nice concept for the photo, you'll also need to succeed in making a good photo that actually portraits the concept, otherwise the photo most likely won't work (it looks just like a random snapshot of an ordinary object). So I would suggest first learning the basics (with conceptual still-life or portraits lighting is extremely important since you usually have to build it yourself) and then start doing this kind of photos.
Shoot with the gear you have
I've heard few times people saying that they can't shoot since they have so bad digital camera. Wrong. Perhaps you can't take the best quality images but you still can take nice photos with anything you have, I've even seen really nice photos taken with disposable cameras. It's just about knowing your gear, what it can do and what it can't do. There are naturally some limitations with the gear: perhaps you can't shoot wild animals without long enough lens etc, but that doesn't mean you can't try and you can't photograph anything.
Also one point worth of thinking: if you're not interested enough into photography that you don't want to shoot just because you don't have good camera, how long your interest in the photography last anyway? Would it really be worth investing into expensive gear? So your friends have nice dSLR's and you have "only" a P&S. What would be better than learning to take better photos with your camera than they can take with theirs?
Learn to know your gear
This is always important part to get good photos. You just need to know your gear: what it can do and what it can't. What are its weaknesses and strong points. How it works in special occasions. For example, first thing I learned from my D80 was that the matrix metering tends to over-expose when there's a bit more light available. So I learned quite quickly to dial in -0.7 EV to compensate for that (though now I mostly use manual settings and spot metering).
Better gear doesn't always mean better photos
Quite common misconception is that better gear automatically mean better photos. Remember, the camera is only a tool, you're to one who takes the photos. I would compare this to Olympic class shooter... he needs the good rifle to get the exactly good results that are required for the win. But the good rifle only is a tool, he's the one shooting with it. If you would give the excellent rifle to beginner, he wouldn't shoot that well (naturally). Most likely that beginner would get similar results with less expensive rifle. Same goes with photography: professionals need the good tool to get the last drop of potential out of the photos but beginner probably would not benefit from the pro-level gear.
So when buying new gear, be really clear about what you'll benefit from it. If you're thinking of upgrading from P&S to dSLR, find out what are the real benefits of the dSLR over compact camera, don't just expect that it'll take better photos. Same with new lenses: buy them since you have some problems with your previous gear and find out what lens actually fixes that problem. And if you read photography forums here in dA, don't do what I do, do what I say.
Some other tips when buying new gear
Naturally first question, like stated in last chapter, is to think if you need that gear, if it would enable you to take better photos. And also if the upgrade in image quality would be worth the investment in it. I'm not saying you can't buy something just because you want it. I personally want D300 even though I know it won't clearly make my photos better. But be honest to yourself and don't expect too much or you will get disappointed.
Though another aspect here is that that don't wait too long if you really need that piece. I bought Cokin P-system for last summer and if I would have waited until I could afford Lee filters, I would have missed loads of nice landscape shots (well, most likely most of them). So again, it's something for you to decide, just think about both aspects.
Also think twice if you're buying cheap gear if you want in into some field that you like. Especially with lenses, if you're getting special purpose lenses (like ultra wide for landscapes), you might end up upgrading quite fast to better one. So perhaps it would be worth of saving some more money and get the better one. Good lenses also most likely last longer than the cheap plastic ones.
Gear you might need or find useful
Here's just a small list of some gear you might find useful in some areas. I'm not saying you need all of this, just something to consider.
- Tripod. Especially if you shoot in low light or landscapes, it's good to have a good tripod. Be ready to spend around 200/$ for it if you're shooting with SLR. If you buy a cheap tripod, you'll most likely end up getting better soon.
- Monopod. To be used in situations where you need slower shutter speed but tripod is too heavy/clumsy. Especially useful with longer tele lenses without any image stabilization.
- Filters. Filters help with some specific things. UV filters are usually good for protecting the lenses, polarizing and all the filter systems especially with landscapes.
- Camera bag. Get large enough so you can fit your future gear into this one too and don't have to buy a new one right away.
- Extra battery and memory card. Memory is cheap, get large enough so you don't have to shoot lower quality images.
- 50mm f1.8 lens. If you're shooting with Nikon or Canon, generally a good lens to have. Good image quality and max aperture and price around 100/$. Add few extension tubes and you'll have a nice macro lens.
- External flashgun. Especially if you shoot inside often, for example events in lower light, you'd love a flashgun. Make sure the head swivels to every direction, not just up-and-down.
Use post-processing to create finishing touch
You can (and often should) use Photoshop or similar program for post-processing. I won't go into my normal rant about post-processing, but I'll just say that most of the pro's and serious hobbyists use it. Mostly it's just the same things people have done to images in darkroom with film. Learn to use some tool like it (Gimp is free www.gimp.org) to get the finishing touch into the photos.
But don't over-do post-processing, most often it'll just be worse than the original image. Forget the Photoshop artistic filters, they might look nice in the beginning but grow old quickly. And for most of the people, it's old, just a way of trying to make a bad image into a good one. Also here's the point about post-processing: it won't make the bad image into good one but it can make a good image even a bit better.
The line between photography and photomanipulation is impossible to draw. You'll just have to decide what you want to do for your images and what are your goals: are you trying to document reality or do you want to create beautiful (or otherwise effective) images. If in doubt, do what you feel you like and tell what you have done with the image.
Go through other peoples photos
Last thing I would recommend doing is looking through other photos, especially good ones. This is really useful once you have learned the basics. First of all, it can give you some inspiration to your own work. But also this way you can find the photos you like and try to think what actually makes them that good. Then apply the same thing into your own photos.
I do this quite often. I try to think why the particular photo is good and how could I make it myself. This also comes down into attitude part: I always try to get those professional results out of my photos. Naturally I don't take professional looking images yet, but perhaps some day after enough of learning.
So here was my view into this matter, how to improve your skills at the beginning of the hobby. I hope this helps some beginning photographers and like always, if you have any questions I would be happy to answer them if I can. Just remember, since this is a hobby for you, have fun.