10 Photography Tips from a Self-Taught Photographer

I’ve been taking pictures ever since. However, I’ve switched to a digital camera now. Today, I’ve had my work published in fashion magazines, I’ve done a few photo shoots, and I cover some of my city’s best nightlife events.

Now, I won’t pretend I’m an expert — or that I know everything there is to know about photography — because I am not, and who does?

However, being self-taught helped me learn some valuable lessons the hard, painful, torturous way and therefore, guaranteed that I never forget them. I’d like to share some of those lessons with you.

For those of you who are just starting out, or would like to take their photography to the next level, hopefully, this set of tips will help you in one way or another.

Though most of you are designers and digital artists, a popular additional profession for creatives is photography because it’s handy in many situations. For example, instead of relying on stock photos, you can take your own photos and infuse them into your work. (Some of our authors do, such as Sekani Solomon).

1. Read Your Camera’s Manual

I’m not the first to say this, and I won’t be the last. It’s because reading your camera’s manual is that important. The first camera I bought was a used camera and it didn’t come with a user’s manual. After I saw the first few rolls of film I had developed, it made me wish that it did.

By the time I got my second camera, I was really getting serious with photography. And although I was at a point where I thought I was familiar with the workings of most cameras, I still sat down and read the 300+ page user’s manual that came with it. Cover to cover. And when I was done, I read it again.

You might be thinking you’re too good for the user’s manual. But let me tell you, reading your manual is important for a couple of reasons:

  • You need to become familiar with every aspect of your camera.
  • The more familiar you are with your camera, the sooner it will get out of your way.

The last thing you want to do when taking photos is to have to fiddle around with your camera when you should be composing your shot or studying your subject. Not only will you look foolish, but you will most likely kill your photo before you even get a chance to take it.

2. Find Something to Shoot

There’s no point in having a camera if you have nothing to shoot. You will waste a lot of time and energy trying to make sense of the hundreds of dollars you spent on your fancy new camera if you don’t have a subject.

The beauty of photography is that it has a certain urgency associated with it. No photo gets taken without the need for it. The moment comes, you have your camera, and you make a decision to press on the shutter release. That’s the nature of photography. The photo is contingent upon a need for it.

Even if you create the need (e.g., fashion shoots, culinary photography, actively going out into the world to take photos), what you’re actually doing is actively creating the conditions in which photos must be taken. You create those conditions. It is an active choice for the photographer.

The act of finding your subject is important. Your subject says more about you than you think.

Your subject tells people that you were there and that’s what you saw and that’s what you chose to take a picture of. As a photographer, you not only record moments in a story, you record moments in your story. Your photos place you in space and time and, to some extent, you become your subject.

3. The Camera is Just a Camera

Sure it’s made of super cool materials like magnesium and glass and plastic. It has so many buttons and dials and doodads and thingamabobs. It may seem like your camera is some kind of super gadget ready to be sent into space, able to do magnificent, unfathomable things; but really, it’s just a lightproof box with a hole on the front.

No matter how technologically advanced a camera is, it still needs a photographer setting its dials, pressing its buttons, and pointing it at something interesting.

Actually, come to think of it, NASA did send out a couple of cameras into space called Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Those actually were technologically advanced enough to be sent into space, and yet they still needed instructions from people here on Earth.

What I’m really hinting at is that the camera doesn’t make the photographer. It doesn’t matter if you use a plastic toy camera you found in the discount bin at your local store or if you use a super expensive professional grade, nuclear-powered DSLR that also works as a beacon for your mothership.

The bottom line is, when a person looks at a picture, and that picture is judged to be good or bad, they’re not judging the equipment you used. They’ll be judging the photographer who took it.

The principles of photography haven’t changed that drastically since it first emerged in the 1860’s. It’s still about controlling how much light is allowed to pass through a lens and onto a recording medium.  And yet, there’s still that misconception that the technology is what’s responsible for good photography. The technology was just the spark. The flame is kept alive by the photographer.

4. Learn About Exposure

Exposure, simply speaking, is the combination of three main variables that control the amount of light that is allowed to interact with your camera’s sensor or film. These are:

  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • Film speed (or ISO)

The right combination of these variables is at the heart and soul of every photograph that has ever been taken.

However, exposure is an infinitely nuanced topic that belies its seeming simplicity. Entire libraries have been written about the subject of exposure and even more books are being written on the subject as you read this.

That’s because most photographers who have even a modicum of experience under their belt will have their own opinions about the subject and all of them are right (or wrong, depending on whom you ask).

Even I, with barely a couple of years of professional experience, have my own opinions about exposure (hint: it’s magic!).

Therefore, my suggestion is to find a way of understanding the fundamentals of proper exposure and learn it on your own terms until you are able to apply it to how you personally take photos.

Read a book, take a class, or learn it with a friend. In any case, you must learn how to expose properly so that you know which rules to break and how to break them for your own purposes.

The technical aspects of photography — the parts detached from the “artistry” and the aesthetics of photography — is a broad pool of knowledge filled with numbers and meters and measurements and science and rules. And while there is a purpose to all that knowledge, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will all apply to your own work as a photographer.

5. Learn Composition

Learning to compose a shot isn’t merely about framing your subject within the four corners of your viewfinder (although it is that also). Composition (at least to me) has a lot to do with emotion, motion, feel, color, and a million other variables.

You can take all the photography classes in the world. You can do everything right. You can follow all the rules about taking a good photo. However, if something is not right in your photo, then something is just not right. If the photo looks good, then it’s good. The photo doesn’t lie.

Therefore, my suggestion is to learn the fundamentals of composition (e.g. the rule of thirds, etc.) and find a way to adapt it to your own work. Know it, understand it, and then use/abuse what you need to make your work great.

6. Take Your Time

With the way cameras work these days, it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that photography is about catching a fleeting moment. Even camera manufacturers sometimes highlight this notion in some of their ad campaigns.

This is misleading for a couple of reasons. First, a moment is only fleeting when you’re not ready for it. Secondly, as a photographer with a purpose, your job is to always be ready.

There’s an old saying that photojournalists use that says, “f/8 and be there.” This means that you set your aperture at f/8 — which is considered by many to be a magical f-stop in which most of your frame will be in sharp focus — and that you are there in the scene.

Now, being there isn’t just a geographic distinction. I’ve also taken it to mean that it is about being mentally, emotionally, and psychologically there. It means taking your time setting up the shot or taking your time preparing yourself.

When you’re there and you are ready for that so-called “fleeting moment,” then time is no longer a factor. The act of taking a photo no longer is a product of luck, but rather, an act of will.

Even those “lucky” shots that some photographers will tell you about aren’t really lucky shots if you think about it. They were there, they had the presence of mind to know what they wanted out of their photo, and they made an active decision to take a shot.

This is one of the most painful lessons I learned. I used to rush when taking photos, thinking that I wasn’t going to have enough light during an outdoor shoot or I felt pressured because so many people were waiting on me. I was chasing after that “fleeting moment.” The resulting pictures were always underwhelming.

I’ve rushed through enough photo shoots to know that even if you feel you have very little time to get the shot you need (e.g., when the sun is about to go down, etc.), you actually have more time than you need if you slow yourself down and think about what you’re doing and what you want.

It only takes a split second to actually press that button, which is why you can spare a few minutes to set up and get ready for the shot you want to take.

7. Turn Around

This is something I learned when I first started taking photos. I was so focused on what was in front of me that I missed out on everything else that surrounded me.

One disadvantage of photography (or endearing characteristic, depending on how you look at it) is that it forces the photographer to see our boundless, 3-dimensional world, through a rather limited, 2-dimensional box. This is enough of a challenge that sometimes that’s all we’re focused on doing and we miss out on everything else.

So when you’re staring through your viewfinder just itching to take that perfect shot, take a moment and look around you. You never know what you might find.

8. Smile

When you think about it, a camera is a very threatening object to a lot of people. That’s because cameras represent the possibility of an invasion of privacy.

The camera captures people’s actions, candid moments, and things people might not always want recorded. In other words, in front of and around a camera, people often feel vulnerable and exposed.

The camera doesn’t discriminate. It does not censor itself. It captures everything you put in front of its lens. That’s why it’s up to the photographer to make their subjects and those around him feel at ease in the presence of his camera.

One way of doing this is to smile sincerely at your subjects and those around you.

I take a lot of photos of people I don’t know. Now, I’m a nice guy. I’m funny and I’m always up for an interesting conversation. But most people I meet and take pictures of don’t know that about me at first glance. Add a camera into that equation and it makes for a lot of awkward moments.

That’s why, in these situations, a smile goes a long way. It shows you’re friendly and that you won’t abuse the privilege of taking people’s pictures.

Even on photo shoots with paid models whose job is to be in front of a camera, a smile, and keeping them at ease, helps with having a more relaxed and pleasant photo shoot.

9. Join a Club or Shoot with Someone

I’ve never had the opportunity to shoot with someone else. It’s not something I’ve sought to do personally. However, I can definitely see the appeal of shooting with like-minded individuals.

We all have different experiences when it comes to photography, sharing those experiences with someone else can be very enriching and mutually rewarding. Just like in a class environment, we often learn more through discussion and other people’s experiences than if we had studied alone.

10. Keep Shooting

The last thing I’ll say is to just keep shooting. Nothing beats experience. You can take all the photography courses you want, read every book about photography, talk about it, and read terribly long-winded articles like this one, but nothing will help you take better photos than just going out there and doing it and learning your own personal lessons.

The more you shoot, the better you’ll be at taking photos and the more insight you will gain into how you can improve.

Sure, there are fundamentals in photography. There are rules and guidelines to being an effective photographer. But going out there and just shooting is the only way to master them.

And once you’ve mastered and understood those fundamentals, you’ll be better equipped to bend or break them when you find yourself needing to create something truly unique and good.

What are your experiences with photography? Do you have your own tips or insights you’d like to share?

  • Smile 😀

    good tips, thanks 🙂

  • Marc

    Thanks it was well written and makes me want to take some pictures today

  • tommy

    Very nice man. One thing I learned that I preach to everybody is to take more pics of every shot. Meaning, if you set up a shot, don’t just shoot one frame, take at least 2 if not more. This increases your chance of getting the shot in focus and/or properly exposed. This is even more important if you’re using auto-focus and auto-metering.

  • YUp, I adhere to this: F/8 and be there – meaning for me is: HAVE FAITH AND BE THERE! Thanks for all these tips. I am a photo hobbyist, and surely all of these tips will greatly help me in producing more amazing results. Smiles and Cheers!

  • Read a book “Visual Poetry: A Creative Guide for Making Engaging Digital Photographs” by Chris Orwig

  • Bev

    Spoken like a true photographer – one who doesn’t just take photos- but one who ‘lives’ to create and capture a moment.

    This statement says it all:

    “The more familiar you are with your camera, the sooner it will get out of your way.”

  • Meddy Caparas

    hey Isaac… those tips are really informative… I myself love taking photos of people and places and considered my Lumix and my MAc as my best friend, but I will admit, I have a very limited knowledge of my camera until now… all I know is that it is set in automatic and that helps… true enough, it helps., but after reading your tips, I really have to start reading the manuals and extract more for better results…I always admire your photos!!!!

  • “Learning the Exposure” is the hardest for me. I haven’t joined any workshops though I’ve been invited many times already. I just do the shots manually like the lens focus in adjusting apperture than programming the shutter and all. I love photography and as a self-taught photographer I always bear in mind that “It’s not with the gadget”…

  • photokitty11

    Get close to your subject…closer than you think. Don’t just take a picture of a tree…get up close and get the texture of the bark. Works the same with people…I like to get so close you can see their freckles or flecks of color in their eyes. Capture the details, experiment, and above all else, have fun!

  • Just bought a DSLR and am in play mode but I know I need to learn the technical side to do more, which is why I moved from point and shoot in the first place. Thanks for setting down some manageable tips.

  • andrew palmer

    hello hope your having a great day,, ive learned something about babys i dont take photos for living,, allthought i want to,, ok just give the child a few minutes, babys are for the most part happy,, if you wait a short time for them to get comfortable you will get the best shots every i learned this the hard way,, well good shooting and have a great day ,,,ANDREW,,,

  • Hallo, you obviously have a lot of experience ! Thanks for these great tips, I will keep them in mind next time I go on holiday with my camera 🙂

  • Great tips!! I really enjoyed tip #7..I tend to focus what’s in front of me instead of focusing what is surrounding me. Thanks for the tip and reminder 🙂

  • Shannon Davis

    Thank Heaven for how down to Earth you are. Too many good photographers think they are Great, too great to help out anyone not paying them. When all any of us with a camera just really want to be is better than we are. I am adding a degree to my name at a well known art school but have been in front of and behind a Camera for years. I am nowhere close to being an expert, but I love what I do. Your best advice is about making sure you take your time. It’s there especially if you are prepared. Take that shot that you took your time to set up and then take a few extra, just in case……..

  • Thank you for your kind words.

    That realization really came about after a long period of frustration with my camera. I wasn’t getting what I wanted and I kept fiddling with the camera. For some reason, I didn’t think that’s what photography was supposed to be about. It came over me in a rush that talented photographers don’t really cite their mastery of their camera as part of their art. That mastery just comes with the territory.

  • This is my favorite. My personal shooting style evolved from just having one lens. I had an 18mm-55mm lens which a rather limited zoom range. So I found myself just using the wide end of my lens and just stepping as close to my subject as I needed to do. I get really close. I’ve had people actually push me away because I didn’t realize how close I was getting to their face. haha. Yes get close!

  • This is a really great article Isaac. I’ve been a photography “enthusiast” for a few years, but just today got my first DSLR that I can call my own (Nikon D90). I have a Degree in Fine Arts so know how to be “artsy”, but am so excited to just sit on a train and read my cameras manual over and over so I know it inside and out, and learn about adjusting shutter speeds, ISO, exposure and all that good stuff.

    Thanks for the great article, easy down to earth tips like this are what keep people going.

  • Thanks Dave. Glad you like it.

    Knowing how to use a camera is the least one can expect from a photographer. It’s meant to be almost instinctual so when you have an idea in your mind, you know exactly how to achieve it with your tool. It’s not easy and it won’t come overnight but if you keep doing it, pretty soon, you’ll find that you’re actually taking great photos without even really “trying.” You just do it. You’ll start focusing and meditating more on your subject or your composition instead of fiddling with your camera. And really that’s what makes a photographer. Anyone can push that button, but it takes a different kind of person to actually take a good photo.

    Stay tuned for more photo-related articles. We’ll be publishing more of them in the coming weeks.

  • Donna

    well, I think I should go and read my camera instruction manual, I have had my camera for 6 months and its not moved from the auto position. I know nothing of shutter speeds and exposure although I love taking photos, I do them all in automatic.
    The rule of thirds, I do that already, but not because I knew it was a rule, but because the photos just look better that way.

    Thanks for the tips, and happy clicking

  • Jeffrey Go

    Thank you. It was a pleasure reading this well-writen piece about this aspect of photography which, surely, many individuals, like myself, can relate with.

  • Jesse

    Thank you.you share a lot of tips to us,read and learn instruction manuals is the best tool. I learned about the sayings ” It’s not the camera,it’s the photographer.

  • great article. Thank you. I was directed here by a friend. My 16 year old daughter has been begging for an SLR and wants to take on photography. So just last night for Christmas I bought her a canon rebel 2000 film with an 18-55 lens and an 80-300 lens. While I was at it, I picked up the same for me. Now we can learn together. I wanted else due to the cost of film… But, it was suggested that film would be better for learning the fundamentals of shooting, and learning the basics of the camera, and with being on a budget, we went 35mm. We also ordered the basic book of photography , and have now begun our search for valuable info such as this article. Thanks again!

  • Agree! I’m finding my closer shots are the more interesting ones.

  • So true – smile and put people at ease. I’m just starting out and whipped out my camera at a recent family reunion. My 2 year old nieces were worried about what I was doing. Simply letting them press a few buttons on the camera and laughting with them made a world of difference. I sat back and used my largest lense to zoom in on people. When others noticed what I was doing they looked concerned. When they didn’t notice, I got the best natural, happy, fun, shots. I took 450 photos on the day. There are maybe 5 that I adore. Shall keep shooting and practising and smiling whilst I do =D

  • Love this article. I think I just did all those, and striving to maintain it and learn more.

  • novumile

    Camagu 🙂 Hey thanks for the advice! I was wondering if you could also suggest some cameras! It’s hard to know what to buy when you’re starting out! I really want to invest in a good camera (beyond my hand held 3 year old digital) and pursue my passion for photography. I dont want one with unecessary ‘bells and whistles’ (so to speak) but I also don’t want to buy one that I will need/want to upgrade after realizing it doesn’t give me enough room to make adjustments with exposure etc! Help?! 🙂 thanks!! Makhosi!!!

  • novumile

    Camagweni 🙂 Could you also give some advice on what cameras are out on the market that you’d suggest buying? I really want to pursue my passion for photography (beyond my handheld 3 year old digital camera) but I dont know where to start! I don’t want something I’ll feel I need to upgrade because it doesn’t give me enough freedom in adjusting exposure.. but I also dont want to pay for a really expensive camera I don’t really need! Thanks!! Makhosi 🙂

  • Personally, if I were you, I’d just start taking photos with what I have. You’re lucky you even have a camera to play around with. When I started, I literally had to empty my pockets (which didn’t have much money in it) just so I could buy one.

    The way I see it is that a photographer’s camera is just like a painter’s brush. The painter doesn’t obsess over his paint brush when he creates his masterpiece, neither should a photographer obsess over what camera to get.

    Are some cameras better than others? Of course. However, it’s all about how you use them. I’ve seen some truly great photos taken with nothing but the camera on a cellphone. I’ve seen some great photos taken with a plastic toy. I’ve even seen photos taken with a real piece of fruit (no joke). And I’ve also seen some really horrible photos taken with the most advanced piece of technology you are legally allowed to own.

    My advice: Tell a story first. Don’t worry about exposure or making photos look pretty or upgrading your camera. You haven’t even started yet! Make your passion your life. Take pictures first. Discover what photography means to you. Once you figure that out, you’ll know exactly what kind of camera you’ll need.

    My equipment, if you’re curious is: Nikon D7000 with 18-105mm kit lens. Nikon D40 with 18-55mm kit lens. 2 speedlights. I sometimes still shoot with the olympus OM-2 I bought 4 years ago.

    Best of luck!

  • Madhu

    Nice!!!!!!!!!!!!11

    Thks for thw practical tips !!1

  • Vijetha

    Fantastic tips! kudos

  • I read one of those “How to be an Excellent Photographer After You Buy My Book” things. I can to a part that said this, “Never take a picture until you can answer the question, ‘Why do I want to take this picture?’ “. I could never answer the question. I knew I liked the composition, found it interesting, and wanted to save it, but I never knew why. I threw the book away and kept shooting.

  • This is just what I needed to read right now. I’m going to take the self-taught approach and improve my skills thru a 365 photo challenge.

  • Vanessa

    I read somewhere that ‘the best zoom lens are your feet’.. . I thought that was clever. Your article here is very witty yet informative . Great stuff 🙂

  • Vanessa

    The best thing I ever did was take my life & my camera off ‘auto mode’ (pun intended)

  • Nadia

    Great simple but very important tips. I’m a self taught photographer and this article makes sense to me. Thank you for sharing.

  • Scott

    Great tips, as well as inspiration, especially for an amateur photographer like myself who’s pondering a leap into the profession.

  • Richard Cheesman

    The best tip was at the end: “Keep Shooting”

    Great list of tips from another self-taught photographer looking to go pro and push themselves even further…

  • Franco Buot

    Thanks for the excellent tips!

  • Rupjyoti Kalita

    thanks dea.. its realy helpful for me 🙂

  • Holly Vanhooser

    Excellent tips!! Thank you.

  • Uju

    Amazing tips, I just typed all I need to know about photography and indeed this is more than half of what I need to know.

    Please what is your view about the Nikon D3100 as I want to purchase it for a start.

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