11 Tips for Beginning Photographers - How to Start Taking Pictures

March 08, 2014  •  5 Comments


I wrote an article last year for intermediate photographers on the subject of 'improving one's photography' that proved to be quite popular – this article you are reading now is sort of a prequel to that one with the tips and ideas modified  for total beginners.

This prequel was suggested by a question from a new person on ThePhotoForum.com asking about taking a correspondence course as a way to learn now that he had a new camera.

As of Aug 1 2016, this is one of my most read article, just under 2000 reads.


OK, you have a new camera and it's a huge difference from your old p&s. After all, all you did with that one was point it and press the shutter button - not much thinking or effort required - but now you have a new camera, something more elaborate, with all the controls, buttons, levels and menu.   You want to use it to its maximum. And it cost a fair amount of money and, to justify it, you really need to learn how to use it. 

And it seems a bit intimidating.

It's like deciding to take up mountain climbing and then walking to the foot of the mountain and looking up. What seemed to be delightful and fun from a distance suddenly up close looks like a incredible, difficult climb.

Same with photography, except in photography there are lots of different goals to choose from and that will eventually modify what you will want to learn.

(1)    Be prepared for this learning process to take a long time, in fact it never ends. At the beginning, you start with the very basic vocabulary and skills generation, learning how to fit your knowledge to a basic set of knobs, buttons and menu options on a camera. Eventually your learning will get away from being camera oriented into how to better excel in a chosen niche - taking the kinds of pictures you prefer. There is never an end to learning - at least I've never gotten to an end- but you will get to plateaus where you are competent and successful - and that feels good.

(2)   If you have a workable camera now, stop buying equipment. There are several reasons for that. The first one is that, until you recognize that what you are doing or want to do is limited by the equipment you have, you don't know what direction your purchases will go in. Second, there are no universal cameras and lenses that make amazingly great pictures of any subject, at any speed, at any magnification and at any time. Photography has niches and, beyond the very basic equipment, what you buy is tailored to both the niche and the depth of your interest and pocketbook. If you buy indiscriminately, much of what you buy will be very expensive paper weights because you won't use it.

(3)    Do not spend lots of money on classes or workshops expecting that the class is the key to learning. In the beginning you are learning lots of new vocabulary and some very basic concepts, every one of which is very well covered in free web tutorials and sites. Web communities, like ThePhotoforum have dedicated sub-forums purposefully for beginners to ask questions.

Get a single basic textbook on digital photography for reference and ideas and, most important of all, read the manual that came with your camera. If you can't find it, download a new one. Then read it again.

(4)    Don't worry about being a total equipment guru. That hunk of metal is actually made for the purpose of making pictures. Once you learn how to take pictures and get them off into your computer, let up on the reading and get out there and shoot; shoot simple, exercise your finger and your mind. The first part was to learn the simple vocabulary and the mechanics; the second part, taking pictures, opens the door to the artistry of photography. Learn to use the camera's bells and whistles when you need them.

(5)    Take lots of pictures, pictures of things that catch your eye, and then analyze them to see what you were attracted to in the original scene/situation and think  what kinds of changes to those pictures would have made the image better. Start showing pictures to more experienced photographers so you can get feedback. Read about composition and match those guidelines to what your internal responses are. 

Ignore what your friends and family tell you, they love you and want you to succeed; that affects their judgement - and their judgement may be terrible to start with.

If you have ever taken a wine tasting class, or have been a beer or whiskey connoisseur, then you have experienced that more sophisticated appreciation comes with knowledge; you get to separate what was once a enjoyable flood of sensations into various categories. It takes some time to develop a vocabulary to describe what you see and what you feel.

Until you understand what elements make pictures successful and learn how to reproduce those conditions in your own images, you can't progress.

When you can learn to appreciate what it is that got your attention, why you 'like' a picture, then you are learning on a conscious level how you can use the elements of visual communication for your own pictures.

(6)    Use the Internet – a lot. When you need to learn how to do something, find an on-line tutorial. Join a online photographic community. Be choosy, find one where you are comfortable and you can both get useful information from people with more experience and where you don't feel out of place at your level.

(7)    Look at lots of pictures, lots of them. And not just your own. Use them as exercises. Decide whether you like the picture or not and try to figure out why. (that's the important part) Read lots of comments, this will help you to build your understanding of images and will give you the vocabulary to put labels on your artistic responses.

(8)    Look for critique of your own pictures. Post one or two at a time in the photo communities or in your local camera club. Listen to the comments and use what sounds good to you. Don't get sensitive; a bad picture does not mean you are a bad person.

(9)    Understand that most of the great pictures you see and admire owe 60% of their effect to post-processing either in the darkroom or the computer.  (OK, it may not be exactly 60% but compare the average decent final digital image to a slide shot, which is unprocessed and you'll see the enormous impact of post-processing.) Yes, get it as good as you can in the camera but Mother Nature doesn't care about the light you want. Post-processing is to make what your camera records into what you saw in your mind's eye. Don't immediately jump into using 'effects' and special exposures. First learn to take good basic pictures at the times when light is good.

(for some of my ideas about post-processing and workflow, you might look at Getting to a Final Image - some words on editing photos for a new photographer )

(10)    Don't look for tricks or techniques at first, just learn to take the pictures you want to take. Learning and acquiring mastery is all about cycles – start out with an idea, then do it, then evaluate the result, then determine what needs to be better the next time. The next idea is a little better because of the learning from the last iteration. Hopefully, each cycle includes a bit of new knowledge, a bit of insight,a bit of vocabulary, and a bit of skill.

(11)    Repeat #4, #5 and #7 forever- they're good for you




This is a great post, thank you.
Jim McClain(non-registered)
Thanks for this article, Lew. I've discovered photography is NOT like riding a bicycle - the bicycle has evolved tremendously in the last 30 years and my mind seems to have dissolved some. I appreciate your active involvement in The Photography Forum too.
Lew Lorton Photography
Well, not just for you but close. If you have time and opportunity a circular polarizing filter would help for those bright day photos.

Haven't yet updated my OMD; sort of overwhelmed with life at the moment but now you've pushed me into it.

Have a great trip.

I know you wrote this just for me. . . so thanks. I have been taking photos with my Olympus OMD Em5 for four or five months now and feel I've got the basics down pretty good. I have not joined a photo blog other than yours but will try some out. We are heading for a three week trip to the Middle East and Greece soon. I've got the equipment bag packed, batteries charged and ready to go. I bought a couple extra 32 GB cards to take along so will have enough space. I am shooting in "p" program mode and like the ability to control shutter speed as well as aperture and let the ISO float (200-3200) to make the exposure. I am not sure it's going to work out in sunny clime's but will try. Question: Have you downloaded the operating system upgrade, I think it's 2.0 to your OMD camera yet. Any problems?
Lew Lorton Photography
I am totally terrible at reading my own writing for syntax or clarity. I would appreciate any comments about that either here in line to to me directly by email at [email protected]


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