Photo tip - How to learn photography

03rd February 2010
There may not be any shortcuts to becoming a good photographer, but there are lots of tips and resources I can offer to help you improve more quickly.

1. Don’t do this!
The first mistake I made was to buy a nice little compact. You can certainly take nice photos with a compact camera, but if you are serious about learning the craft of photography then you really need an SLR camera. This is the kind of camera where you can swap lenses, add filters and do all manner of creative things that a compact can’t. While you’re buying the SLR, make sure you have the best lens you can afford. This is because the lens has more relevance to image quality than the camera. Putting a bad lens on a good camera is like putting poor speakers on a decent stereo, or bald tyres on a flashy car, make-up on a rhino etc. etc.

You’ve got the message and got an SLR – now what?
Once you’ve un-wrapped your handsome new camera and lens(es) there are a number of steps you can take. It doesn’t really matter what order you do them in, but I would recommend doing a bit of all of these things at some point because they all have specific advantages…

2. Education, education, education
Depending on the kind of person you are you will either start clicking at everything that moves, sparkles or takes its clothes off, or you will read the basics first. Personally I would have a bit of a read first. Why? Well, a camera isn’t like a new alarm clock; there’s a bit more to it than that. There will be lots of dials and buttons that will have completely alien numbers and letters next to them, so if you don’t know what they mean and how they relate to one another then the random machine gun approach to learning will take a long, long time.

Whether you read the camera’s instruction book first is up to you, but I would read it pretty early on as it gives helps you get familiar with the layout of your specific camera. The trouble with camera instructions is that they tell you what the functions do, but not how to use them. There are articles on this website that can help, like this one:

This is another good website for basic tips:

The important thing is to get a rough understanding of what the buttons do and then play around with them. Camera functions aren’t particularly intuitive to use or helpfully named so this background knowledge is definitely going to help when you start practising.

Right, you’ve spent a couple of hours getting to grips with the main functions and understand broadly what they do – it’s now time to…

3. Practice, practice, practice
It sounds daft but it’s easy to be scared of a new camera. The language used to describe the various functions, settings and concepts can get a bit pompous but don’t be put off - an aperture is just a hole after all!

To help you understand the practicalities of what you learned from this article: you need to stay away from the automatic mode and the night, portrait, macro, landscape etc. modes because they take over a lot of the decision making and prevent you from learning.

Stick to AV, TV and P until you become more confident and then you can move over to manual. There are some rather pompous (there’s that word again!) people that believe you’re not a proper photographer unless you take 90% of your photos in manual mode. Rubbish! There are only a handful of situations where I use manual because the rest of the time it’s just taking longer to do the same job.

So, be careful who you listen to. With that in mind…

4. Learn from other people
This can mean several different things:

- Going on a fully fledged photography course
- A personal one to one photography training course (something I offer here in Peterborough)
- Reading material: the internet and books
- Internet forums

They all have merit, so let’s looks at each one in turn and I’ll make some recommendations along the way.

Fully fledged photography course
If you have the money and the time then this is obviously a decent option. There are of course pros and cons:

- You get to interact with other people who are interested in photography and this will help motivate you, particularly if you make some friends on the course
- A photography course gives you structure, both in terms of its curriculum and its regularity. Once you’ve paid your money you’re forced to go every week so you can’t slack (that’s a good thing, right?)
- You get a good grounding in photography with a course. In effect, you learn about how much there is to learn and you can then specialise later
- You’ll be given projects which will keep you focused (excuse the pun!)
- You’ll be marked on your work and graded against others in your class. Again, this will keep you focused.

- The obvious one is price. A photography course isn’t going to be cheap
- There’s no flexibility. Half of the course may be on studio portraits and you’re only interested in travel or wildlife photography
- You can’t ask all the questions you want without taking over the class
- You might get a poor teacher, but now you’ve paid your money you’re stuck.
- If you have to go on the same day every week this could be troublesome with your other commitments

1-2-1 photography tuition
I provide personal photography tuition so you may want to take my comments with a pinch of salt, but I think this is the most cost effective way of learning. OK, books and the internet are cheap / free but when you factor in the cost of time and mistakes then having your own photography tutor looks like a great idea. Check the pricing section of this website to see just how cost effective it is. However, here are the pros and cons so you can make your own mind up.

- You get all my attention and a course totally built around your needs. If you want to focus more on Photoshop skills then that's fine; but if you'd prefer to learn about wildlife photography I can do that too. I'm totally flexible.
- I can put things in a simple language for you, cutting through all the jargon. I have spent 13 years as a copywriter so I'm used to making complex things sound simple and interesting.
- I produce step-by-step sheets for you to take away so you can practice what you have learnt. These sheets are all included in the price.
- You can learn in the field - you won't be stuck in a classroom, we'll go out and you can learn by example and by trial and error.
- I can show you the best sources of information: handy websites and great photography books.
- I can tell you the best places to find wildlife to photograph.
- I can show you how to give your photos that extra punch by using PhotoShop, HDR software and other useful packages.
- I can show you how to market yourself as a photographer if you decide you want to make money from it. Marketing has been my day job for about 13 years and I've studied (and still study) the art of photography marketing very thoroughly.
- Unlike a college course you can dip in and out of the training and do as much, or as little as you want and for as long as you like. There are no ties at all and the course is 100% flexible to what you want.
- I can get up at the crack of dawn and come with you to shoot great landscapes in the golden early morning light.
- I started making money from photography within 3 years and I'm self taught, so imagine how quickly you could be taking professional quality photos.
- I have two cameras and 3 lenses as well as all the software, filters, lights and other paraphernalia so if you don't have your own camera yet you can use mine while you build up your confidence.

- I don’t know everything, but I will endeavour to find answers to questions I can’t answer straight away.
- It’s not free, but if you check out the pricing section on this website you’ll see it’s very reasonable because I have no overheads.

Learning photography through the internet and books
This is mostly how I learned the art of photography and you’d be crazy not to make these tools part of your learning process. I have found the following websites very useful over the years:
Photoshop plugins

Some of the above links give advice on Photoshop, others provide information on the photography business and others are simply inspirational because of the sheer brilliance of the photographer. The good news (sort of) is that Malcolm Gladwell’s book – Outliers – suggests that all brilliant people (I’m paraphrasing now!) put in about 10,000 hours of hard work before they become brilliant. Brilliant people always, ALWAYS put in the work, from Mozart to Bill Gates. All you need to do to become an Outlier is put in the hard work and create and seize opportunities. I’ll write an article on how to do that that another time.

Pros of the internet
- It’s basically free
- You can find the answer to almost anything if you look hard enough
- You can watch videos of people using Photoshop to make learning easier (I have Photoshop videos on this website too)
- You can save the best websites in your favourites. Hopefully you’ll pop my website there too

- It’s not structured. You can’t build up you knowledge in a logical and ordered way. You’ll learn a bit here and a bit there but 6 months later you may find something that means you have either wasted a lot of time, or you were on the wrong track.
- Even though everything appears to be at the touch of a button, time still seems to evaporate like tropical rain when you’re online.

Books and magazines
I won’t dwell on this section as I think the pros and cons of books and magazines are obvious and I think I’m getting RSI in my hands. However, I will say that I find the free CDs about Photoshop that come with Digital Photo magazine are very useful and so are their step by step guides. Don’t subscribe to one, just buy whichever’s most relevant to your needs each month.

Internet forums
Go to and get signed up. Upload your photos and get them critiqued. Don’t bother with the voting part as it’s mostly based on how many Ephotozine ‘friends’ you have. Join in the forums with any questions you have but make sure you search for the answer first as other members can get grumpy if you ask a question that has already been asked and answered 1000 times before. Other than that everyone is very friendly and helpful and will give you honest and detailed answers. That said, any photographer that has ever sold a photo considers themselves an expert, so it’s always best to double check information you are given by Googling the answer in some way.

Learn how to use Photoshop
When I first started out I couldn't understand how people took such amazing shots when mine looked so flat with dull colours and low contrast. Some photos had obviously been Photoshopped but many others looked natural but somehow more punchy, sharper and engaging.

I soon learned that even the very natural looking shots like you'll find on are actually heavily Photoshopped to add sharpness and colour and to subtly manipulate the digital information within the photo to bring out the very best results.

Photoshop and Photoshop Elements (it's slightly less powerful sister package) are amazing tools for improving your photography. It's not intuitive to use, but using some techniques and videos on this website and on the websites I've linked to on this article you will find your photos will improve beyond all recognition.

Now, it's tempting to focus all your attention on Photoshop once you have experienced its power, but I would always recommend thoroughly learning and understand the rules of photography first. Exposure and composition are the building blocks of good photography, while Photoshop is the stained glass window that makes people say wow! Without the building blocks the window is useless.

Look at a lot of photos
The last tip I’d give on how to learn photography is to look at other people’s photos. Look at some of the links I gave you above like for portraits and for wildlife and landscapes. It may be slightly soul destroying but it will also show you the importance of Photoshop in the new digital age and it will stop you resting on your laurels. If you look at enough photos you will start to get different compositions and techniques imprinted in your brain and you will start to see those compositions as you go about your everyday life.

There are no quick fixes in photography, but the self actualisation rewards (if not the financial ones) are enormous. That's if you do all of the above for about 10,000 hours.

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