Becoming a professional photographer is hard work. If taking photos has been your hobby, and you want to know what the next step is, then this post is for you.
I asked a group of photographers this:
What is the one thing you learned that made you realize you are no longer a beginner photographer?
And the answers came. If you want to find out about photographers journey from beginner to pro read on.
This question really stirred up debates. Each journey is different. There is no one single way to become a PRO photographer.
I got this graph from one of the photographers I talked to. I’d love to give credit to its author, but I don’t know who that is.
Though this graph might make you laugh at first it does contain a deep truth.
A photographer’s journey is about three things:
- Knowledge – what you know about taking photos
- Quality of photos – are your photos any good
- How good you think you are – your self confidence as a photographer
Let’s see what pro photographers wanted to share about their journey turning from beginner to intermediate and pro.
In this article:
- A Photographer’s Journey Is Never Over
- Knowing the Rules and When to Break Them
- In Sports Photography Shoot at 1/500th sec or Faster
- The Inverse Focal Length Rule
- Sunny f/16 Rule
- Rule of Thirds
- Astrophotography Rule of 500
- Expose to the Right (ETTR)
- Technically Correct Is Not Necessarily Beautiful
- The Infamous Aperture/Shutter Speed/ISO Triangle
- ISO Invariance – Increasing the ISO Does NOT Increase the Noise
- Shot noise
- Electronic Noise
- Where does ISO come in?
- Focus Stacking
- Photo Selection and Post Processing
- Shoot RAW If You Can
- Advantages of shooting RAW
- Disadvantages of shooting RAW
The truth is:
There will always be one type of photography in which you will be a beginner.
Photography is a vast domain. There’s portrait photography, product photography, macro photography, astrophotography, black and white, sports photography, etc.
Let’s face it:
Knowing them all will take time. That’s why a photographer’s journey is never over.
But that’s what makes photography exciting.
I’ve read a lot of books sharing photography rules, and rules can be good and bad.
Photography rules are good if you use them as a starting point. A rule should never be used blindly and at the expense of the creative part.
Know the rules, know when to apply them, but also experiment with breaking them. This will give you some amazing photos sometimes.
Here are just a few rules that photographers wanted to share. Learning these rules made them feel that they were no longer a beginner.
In Sports Photography Shoot at 1/500th sec or Faster
Set your camera in Shutter Priority mode and set the shutter speed to 1/500th sec for moving subjects. For action shots you should go for 1/1000th.
This will allow you to freeze the subject and avoid a blurry shot. However, on rare occasions you might want to get a blurry shot just to convey the movement and the effort of the scene.
The Inverse Focal Length Rule
You probably noticed this:
When shooting with a tele lens (zoom lens) the camera shake is more of a problem. It’s hard to hold a camera totally still with your hands. The bigger the zoom, the bigger the shake.
Adjust your shutter speed according to the inverse of the focal length. If you are shooting at 200mm try a shutter speed of 1/200th of a sec. At 300mm, try 1/300th. You will get a sharp image.
Sunny f/16 Rule
This one is simple:
If you are taking photos in bright sun set your aperture to f/16. Set your camera in full Manual Mode and get the right exposure by setting the shutter speed to 1/x seconds where x is the ISO number.
For example, at ISO 100 use 1/100th sec. For ISO 200, use 1/200th sec, and so on.
Rule of Thirds
Divide the frame into 3 equal parts horizontally using imaginary lines. Then do the same vertically.
If you compose your shot placing your subject in one of the lines’ intersection points you will get a very pleasing composition.
This is called the rule of thirds. And it’s a technique many photographers use as a guide line when composing their shots.
Why does the rule of thirds work?
It has to do with proportions and how the eye perceives images. Anyway I won’t go into details.
Placing your subject smack in the middle can create a very boring photo.
This also happens if you shoot a landscape and place the horizon line right through the middle of the screen.
Use the rule of thirds and make your shot flow on the division lines. The eyes of the viewer will be drawn towards the intersection points.
It’s not only about placing the subject in one of the intersection points. It’s also about dividing the frame into areas of interest.
Take a landscape shot. Align the bottom grid line with the horizon. The texture and color of the ground will take one third of the frame and the sky will take the upper two thirds.
The composition will be more interesting than taking a half-half shot.
Again, remember, rules are meant to be broken.
Astrophotography Rule of 500
How do they take those Milky Way shots?
If you are like me you probably asked yourself that question. Because the night sky is so dark, you need to take very long exposures.
But, did you know?
Because the Earth rotates around its axis, the night sky appears to rotate. This means that a long exposure even on a tripod, will get your trails of stars.
So, what shutter speed is fast enough?
The rule of 500 gives a quick approximation of the shutter speed fast enough to avoid getting trail or blurry stars.
Simply divide 500 by the focal length of your lens and get the shutter speed.
If you shoot using a 24mm lens, then 500 / 24 = 20.8 sec. So a shutter speed of around 20 seconds will get you a sharp starry sky.
There are some that say it should be rule of 400, or rule of 600.
Bottom line is:
Experiment and see what works for you.
Expose to the Right (ETTR)
It’s that graph that shows how exposure is distributed between shadows, mid-tones and highlights.
If it’s crammed to the left it means that there are a lot of dark tones in the shot. If it’s crammed to the right, then there are a lot of highlights.
Expose to the right (ETTR) is the technique of getting your shots with a histogram crammed to the right. Take multiple shots with brighter and brighter exposures.
But be careful and don’t overdo it, or you’ll get an overexposed shot.
What’s the idea?
Camera sensors are better at capturing highlights than shadows. It’s better to take a brighter exposure as it will contain more information than a darker one. The more information you get towards the highlights (right of the histogram) the better.
But, won’t my shot be too bright?
Well, yes. But you can lower the brightness in post-processing. The overall contrast and the details in the shadows will be much better than if you exposed to the center or to the left.
Most cameras have a blinker display mode. This shows the overexposed areas in a shot. Those areas will not have recoverable info in them. Try to avoid those situations.
For applying ETTR efficiently you should shoot RAW.
Oh, and one more thing:
Please be aware that even on high-end cameras the histogram is based on the JPG version of the shot. Even when shooting RAW.
What that means is that the histogram displayed by the camera is not 100% correct. It might show overexposure (data climbing up the right side of the graph) when in fact there is no overexposure.
“To photograph: it is to put on the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart.” ― Henri Cartier-Bresson
A good photo has to transmit an emotion to the viewer. Photography is an art, it’s not simply a copy of reality.
Look at these photos:
They are by far not technically correct. But their artistic value is undeniable.
Photography is an art, a craft and a science. Use your mind, your heart and your soul to take a great photograph.
Most will say:
Find the right balance between aperture, shutter speed and the ISO and you will get the right exposure.
This is called “Aperture/Shutter Speed/ISO Triangle”. This technique can be very useful because it’s easy to understand.
I covered the details about this technique in the previous post 3 Powerful Photography Secrets For Mastering DSLR Manual Mode.
A word of caution:
The triangle is a comfortable tool, but it’s not entirely accurate. This is one of the point that really stirred up the debate with the more advanced photographers. One of them even called the triangle BS.
So, why is that?
Because the triangle does not take into account exposure. And when I say exposure, I mean the quantity of light that the sensor receives.
When learning about the triangle one might get absorbed with getting the 3 values aligned, forgetting about the actual light in the scene you are shooting.
Remember, you are shooting the light that bounces off your subject.
When using the triangle, the convention is that a higher ISO will result in a photo with more noise.
But that’s not entirely accurate.
This may go against everything you’ve heard so far. The shutter speed and aperture settings might impact noise more than the ISO setting.
If you want to know how and why, read the next section about ISO invariance.
I hear this all the time
If you increase the ISO you will get a noisy picture.
That will lead to the conclusion that ISO is the only factor influencing noise in your photos.
That is simply not true.
Let’s first see what causes noise.
Basically, there are two sources for noise: shot noise and electronic noise.
In nature light is not uniform. It’s composed of small particles called photons. These photons hit the sensor and that’s how the image is composed.
Because these photons hit the sensor at random intervals the information captured is not uniform. That’s how you get noise.
It’s all about statistics. The more data you collect, the more accurate the results. Inherently, areas receiving less light will bounce less photons, areas well light will bounce more photons.
That is why darker areas will produce more noise in the picture. So you need to collect more photons from those areas. To do that you need to increase the exposure – or the amount of light that the sensor takes into account.
The ratio between the quantity of light information collected and the noise is called signal-to-noise ratio.
To get smooth photos you need to maximize this signal-to-noise ratio.
Beside shot noise, there is also electronic noise. That is random noise generated by the imperfections of the electronic components or various outside interference.
What does that all mean then?
It means that the noise in your picture is not determined by the ISO setting. It’s determined by the lack of exposure.
Also, you have to realize that all photos will have shot noise in them. You can’t avoid that. You can only minimize it.
Where does ISO come in?
ISO is the sensor sensitivity. The higher the ISO setting the less light you need to get your shot.
But, as we’ve seen before, collecting less light can decreases the signal-to-noise ratio. And that results in a noisy picture. It all depends on the amount of light available.
This may come as a shock:
Sometimes a higher ISO setting will help getting less noise in your shot. Let’s see an example:
The image on the left is taken at ISO 6400. The one on the right is taken at ISO 100 and then brought 6 stops up. As you can see, for Canon 5D Mark III, there is a clear difference in noise.
Increasing the ISO in this case produces a much clearer picture. In this case increasing the ISO resulted in a much better signal-to-noise ratio.
Not all cameras are created equal.
Some camera sensors are so well built that there is barely any difference in noise even at a difference of 6 stops. One such example is the sensor on the Nikon D750.
There is barely any difference between ISO 6400 and ISO 100 raised by 6 stops. This low variance is called ISO invariance.
There are two great articles that I recommend talking about the source of noise:
- What’s that noise? Part one: Shedding some light on the sources of noise
- Sources of noise part two: Electronic Noise
Another useful trick used by beginner and pro photographers alike is focus stacking.
Focus stacking is the technique of taking multiple shots of the same subject with the focus point in different areas. The resulting shots are then combined in one single image which looks like the entire subject is in focus.
I’ve known about this technique for years. But I only recently experimented with it.
I took multiple shots of an old pocket watch. I wanted to use my macro lens adapter to get very fine details.
Using the macro lens had the disadvantage that the focus distance was very small and it was impossible to get the whole watch in frame.
To solve this I took multiple shots of various parts of the watch with different focus points.
I then used focus stacking in Photoshop to create the parts of the watch in full focus.
Also using Photoshop I combined the parts of the watch using the Auto Blend option.
The results were quite impressive.
I got a 16 Megapixel image, much higher than the 12 Megapixels my Nikon D80 has. Also the subject is filling the frame and you can see all the details. You can download for free the full resolution old pocket watch PNG file.
In the old days, photography was made using film. You loaded up your camera with a film roll which could only take 36 exposures.
That meant you needed to be very selective with what and how you shot.
In the digital era you can get hundreds of shots before filling up your memory card. This makes many photographers a bit “careless” how many shots they take.
Here’s what experienced photographers have shared with me:
It’s very important to know which shots to take and which shots not to take.
This sounds funny, but with this in mind you will give more thought and attention to each shot you take.
At the end of a long day of shooting you will thank yourself if you don’t have to browse through thousands of photos.
Most of the shots you will have to throw out. The photos you choose will reflect how good a photographer you are. So, the less photo you throw out, the better photographer you have become.
Post processing is another important aspect of pro photographers life.
Take a look at Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop and learn at least the basics of post processing if you are serious about becoming a pro photographer.
All DSLRs have the option to shoot either JPEG or RAW.
As a pro photographer you should know the difference between the two. Then you can make your informed choice.
Here’s the thing
Over the years I went back and forth between shooting only JPEG and shooting only RAW.
There is no right or wrong, but shooting RAW sure has it’s advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of shooting RAW
- Forget about white balance. When shooting RAW white balance is not a variable. You can change it in post production without any quality loss.
- More image information. RAW files contain all the information that the sensor receives. Also most cameras process a 12 bit or 14 bit color depth model. That means that the RAW file will store up to 4.3 trillion different color compared to the 16.8 million colors supported by a 8 bit JPEG. Also this helps to eliminate banding (that ugly gradient stripes which will ruin prints).
- It’s what professionals use. If you deliver your photos to clients that plan to use it in prints for example, you should provide them with the RAW files.
There are also some disadvantages that you should be aware of.
Disadvantages of shooting RAW
- RAW files are big. That means that your memory card will fill up faster. Transfer will take more time.
- RAW files require processing. You will have to take each RAW file and post-process it. You need special software for this.
So now you know.
There are advantages and disadvantages to shooting RAW.
If your top priority is the quality of your photos then my advice is to shoot RAW.
Becoming a pro photographer will take years of learning and practicing.
Each photographer journey will be different and the journey will never be over. There will always be new things that one can learn.
In the end
Photography is an art. It requires you to use your eyes, your heart and your soul.
Art is subjective. There is no perfect photo. You will always be able to improve yourself and become a better photographer.
I hope you enjoyed this article.
What did it mean for you becoming a photographer? Share this in a comment below.