I bought my first professional camera at the end of 2017 — a Panasonic Lumix G7.
I was so excited to have something that would actually be worth of taking photos with, since anything I ever took with my iPhone looked like a dog turd.
The first photo I took was of a dog. Here’s that dog. Her name is Izzy:
It was perfectly mediocre.
Since then, I’ve taken thousands of photos.
Here’s a more recent one. Also of a dog. Her name is Cricket:
People always tell me that their photos look like s**t and then I show them mine — somebody with nary any expertise in photography beyond, “I’ve taken a bunch of photos and I know what to look out for” — and they go, “HOW DID YOU DO THAT?!”
I tell them that with half-decent, lighting, some knowledge of what decent composition looks like, and a little bit of patience that they, too, can take great photos, even with their iPhone.
(And then I look at a serious professional photographer who’s like, “LOOK AT THIS PHOTO I TOOK WITH MY EYES CLOSED ON A NOKIA FLIP PHONE” and I want to kill myself.)
Here’s one I recently took recently with my iPhone. I don’t know this dog’s name:
(You’ll notice a common theme here and it’s dogs.)
And so, I thought I’d give you an exhaustive list of everything I’ve ever done to learn the ins and outs of photography 101, learn the basics of photoshop and editing, and be able to consistently create photos that don’t make me want to vomit in my own mouth.
Step 1. What camera to buy, and how to get started.
First, why an actual camera and not, like, my iPhone 3GS?
A few reasons:
In order to fundamentally understand how to take great photos, you should start by understanding things like shutter speed, ISO, and aperture.
(And of course, composition, lighting, the rule of thirds, etc.)
While most smartphones have apps that enable these features, they simply don’t allow you to control them as much as you might want to. And it’s easy to get distracted by other bullshit when you’re trying to learn photography through your smartphone.
Buying a camera forces you to actually focus on and learn what using an actual camera is like.
Next, instead of overwhelming you with an exhausting list of camera kits, courses, or here are all of the amazing cameras for beginners, I’m going to give you just two options (ok, three, because you can just use your smart phone):
1. Panasonic G7
I started with this camera, and it’s simply incredible for both photo and video. The photos are crisp, the video is out of this world great, and it’s incredibly light and portable to boot. This camera is still perhaps the best bang for your buck on the market that I’ve seen, and you can get away with the kit-lens for at least the first few months (if not longer).
2. Nikon D3400
By almost all accounts, this is the best entry-level DSLR that you can buy. (I won’t get into the difference between mirrorless and DSLR right now because frankly it’s irrelevant for most people.) And because it’s got a much bigger megapixel density than the Panasonic G7, if you do end up blowing up your photos (which you should), they’ll look good even if you blow them up to pretty massive 3 or 4 feet tall and wide canvas prints. Beyond that, it has Nikon’s awesome SnapBridge technology which makes it ridiculously easy to preview photos you’ve taken on your iPhone or iPad.
Panasonic’s equivalent of this frankly sucks, but it’s a feature I’d hardly ever use, anyway.
Step 2. How to get started.
Soon after purchasing my first camera, wanting to delve deeper into the intricacies of how to use my camera (and having no f**king clue where to start), I took my first photography course.
This is a step that I’d highly recommend for everyone
I started with the Denver School of Photography, and took their Digital 101 Intensive — if you’re in Colorado, that’s a route I’d highly recommend as it’s: A. An incredible value, and B. Hands-on.
If you’re a digital nomad like myself and prefer to learn online, I’ve got a few options that I’ve explored and found immensely helpful:
1. Fundamentals of Photography with John Greengo
This course can quickly get overwhelming with the amount of detail that John goes into.
That said, even if you simply focus on the first few lessons and take those basic elements away and start to apply them to your photography, I can almost guarantee that you’ll be an infinitely better photographer within a few weeks.
2. Annie Liebovitz teaches photography
True story: I walked into one of my friend’s parents houses in Brooklyn, and on the wall they had some truly incredible portraits of her and her brother.
I asked her who took them.
Annie f**king Liebovitz.
(I had no idea who she was at the time. I do now.)
Masterclass has perhaps the simplest, and most comprehensive lessons from the best people in a respective field, and this is certainly no exception. Annie Liebovitz is arguably one of the greatest portrait photographers of our time.
3. Peter McKinnon’s YouTube channel
I’ve learned an exhausting amount about photography from YouTube legend Peter McKinnon over the years, and I’ve probably paid him less than $20 of my own money. I feel like I owe him a ton.
If you want to learn everything you’ll ever need to know about photography, Lightroom editing, framing, how to use your camera and dozens of other things, look no further than Peter.
He’s a freakin’ genius, and his videos are incredibly informative to boot.
Again, I’d recommend taking a local photography course because there’s something to be said about doing things with other people and learning through the act of doing, but if that’s simply not an option for you, these three resources and classes will have you covered for probably the first year or two in your photography journey.
Step 3. Leveling up your photography skills by actually doing things.
Next, in order to actually grow as a photographer, you’ll want to get out there and start doing.
There are a few options for doing so that I’ve utilized over the years that have helped me to go from BS photography stuff to actually doing things.
Here’s a cool photo I took from one of those:
Here are some of those examples of things you can do in almost any city around the world…
1. Photography walks in your city
Depending on where you are in the world, your city might have a few local options for photography walks. Meetup.com is likely the best (and free’est) option, but many cities around the world have started to implement AirBnB experiences as well.
Search for something like, “Your local photographer” and simply join along in the adventure and see how they frame their photos, use lighting, and maybe even ask them to do a screen share for you while they edit your photos.
Lastly, you can host your own through the Unsplash community if your city is big enough. The easiest way to find out more about this is by joining their Slack community online here and posting there.
2. Endless photo ideas with Guru Shots
When I first got into photography, I’d often challenge myself every week to pick a photo challenge in Guru Shots, find a location that I could visit nearby in my city, and go out and get that photo.
What that resulted in was some really fun adventures (solo, and with friends) and some half-decent photos.
It was a really fun way to challenge myself to take different photos, and to explore different parts of the city that I normally never took photos in. Win—win, bruh!
3. Upload your photos to a platform like Unsplash
Instagram, for all it’s done for mobile photography, is still very much a ‘look at me’ social platform and I think generally self-destructive for our own mental health and well-being.
And honestly, anything that pushes you to view photography not for the inherent merits and enjoyment of the art of creating, but because it’ll get you LOTS OF LIKES is generally bad for any new habit.
Unsplash is great. Through sites like Unsplash, you’re contributing your photography towards something inherently useful.
People might use it for blogs, apps, fun t-shirts — hell, maybe they’ll even steal your photography and pass it off as their own because they’re master marketers, but who cares.
I love Unsplash — and one of my favorite photos that I’ve ever taken has also been downloaded by 2,000 different people and probably also used on some sorta t-shirt or something that they’re selling for profit.
Good on them!
Step 3. Print your photos.
There’s this funny thing that happens when you start any new habit — you go through this initial period of believing that you are way better than you actually are.
You take a few photos, one of them is half-decent, and you automatically assume that you’re god’s gift to photography.
After a while, that tapers off and you realize that you actually suck and that you know very little.
I used to think my first photos were absolutely genius. Here’s an example of the first photo that I ever printed:
And here’s an example of one of my more recent photos:
I like both of them, but I think there’s a lot more going on in the second photo that speaks to how my technique has evolved over the years — I’ve included some foreground in the photo that helps frame the subject; the lighting is a lot more interesting; I’ve framed the subject in the middle of the photo and there are some cool things happening in the background, and so on.
Printing your photos allows you to look back at some of your first photos and think, wow, I used to suck, but I’ve come a long way!
And that’s pretty cool. Here are some options for printing photos individually, or creating an album out of them.
1. CanvasPop ($)
This site is almost always running some sorta 50% off code for canvas prints, and even the really large one won’t run you much more than $100-$150. And the quality is awesome — I was seriously impressed with just good the prints look and feel. And I’ve gotten almost all of my photos printed from CanvasPop.
2. Artifact Uprising ($$$)
Before I ever got into photography, I had an opportunity to interview the co-founders of this company right after they got bought by VSCO, and let me tell you this: they give a s**t about good photography and making that photography stand out on paper.
More than most other companies.
Are their books wildly expensive? Absolutely.
But the quality is simply amazing.
I’d recommend this as something to indulge in after you’ve already invested at least a year or so into photography, as a way to look back on your photos and see how you’ve grown.
Totally worth it.
For the first year or so that I ever did Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I absolutely sucked at it. I almost always got crushed by guys and girls who were: half my size, twice my size, in high school, and so on.
One day, things started to click — a few of the moves that I’d learned over the past few months and years started to connect, and I was finally able to string together a few things into a relatively comprehensive sequence.
Gambette! (That’s Japanese for good luck, or something. Actually, I just found out it’s Japanese for ‘fight!’, hence all of the strange looks I’ve gotten every time I’ve said it.)
Moments later, my arm is being wrapped around my head like a Christmas present, and my head is being smashed into the mat.
We’ll often find ourselves focusing on the moments in which everything went wrong.
Why did I miss the shot?
Why was the composition so bad?
How come I still can’t take great night photos? And so on.
Rarely do we ever reward ourselves for the amazing efforts and advances that we’ve made in the meantime. I’d like to offer you this piece of advice that I often never take myself: focus on the good.
Give yourself credit for the small wins: a cool shot here; a decently well-lit photo there.
Learn from and be critical of your mistakes, sure, but recognize that you’re also making amazing stretches in whatever it is you’re doing.
Over time, whatever you’re learning — whether it be a new language, recipe, or skill — will start to come together effortlessly.
And it might take you longer than the next guy or girl, but who the fuck cares?
p.s. I think you’ll dig this video, too:
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