Top Five Mistakes Amateurs Make

by Jeff McLain


It’s great to be a beginner. It means you are a blank slate and you can learn how to do things the right way. This can improve your ability to duplicate your results and be flexible in a variety of situations. Examples of these photographic situations include: evolving technology, marketplace demands, client needs, changes in lighting conditions, challenges with directing models, and changes in your own life as you evolve as an artist. If you're a beginner and you want to improve, the info below will help you move past some of the common mistakes that may be holding you back.

5. BUYING THE MOST EXPENSIVE CAMERA AND LETTING THAT CAMERA DEFINE YOUR WORTH

Does a nice camera make the difference? The answer is "Yes" and "No". As a beginning photographer, your focus should be on using what you have and learning how to achieve consistent images with that camera before upgrading. Photographers tend to be gear-crazy. We are sucked in by those alluring images of fancy cameras and lenses — it sparks desire in us. Advertising is powerful and it works!

My advice is to purchase what you need for the level you are at, and then later upgrade to the camera system that will be of use to you for your focus area. Otherwise, you may spend money on a camera system that is not right for you, precisely because you didn’t know enough about it to make an informed purchase!

At the beginner level, the most important features in a camera are:

  • The ability to shoot in manual mode
  • The ability to focus the lens
  • The ability to shoot in Raw

Everything beyond that is a "bell & whistle" and totally dependent upon the sort of work you will do. Start with a basic DSLR or mirrorless system that has these features at minimum.

The intermediate level would be when you can achieve consistent exposures and you want other features such as interchangeable lenses, servo and other higher-end focus technology, the ability to tether to a computer, etc.

The upper echelon is where you begin specializing and needing a specific feature for the specific work you are doing. For example, if you want to become a professional food photographer, you’d likely want a macro lens or at least some extension tubes. If you shoot sports, you’d need faster frames-per-second and longer lenses. If you shoot weddings you may need a couple of cameras and a few different lenses that make sense for that work. If you shoot advertising, you will likely need a camera capable of much higher-resolution images and technical lenses.

In the beginning, you're learning, so get the tool that will be the cheapest learning tool. Later, you can upgrade to something that will achieve more of the things you are looking to shoot. When you are building your portfolio, especially if it will be on a website primarily, no one will be able to tell if you used a Canon Rebel or a Phase One camera to shoot the image. Build your portfolio with the gear you already own! And if you decide to go pro, you can home in on exactly which tools you need and avoid spending money on the ones you don’t!


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That all being said, there is another side of this coin: If you are completely determined from the beginning that you will go professional, then it may be better to "cry once" and get a higher-end camera that has the sophisticated features and can give you great flexibility as you progress through the skill "levels" on your way up to pro-status. Likely, it all depends on your budget.

If that's the case — as it is for most of our students who are interested in becoming professionals — get in touch with us here at RMSP, and we can advise you on the sorts of camera systems that would give you the most flexibility as you grow into a professional.

4. RELYING ON ANYTHING AUTO — auto focus, auto modes, auto processing

The first technical step to moving away from Amateur-ville, is to stop using Automatic features on your camera. The camera is a dark box with a lens — and it has a complex computer in it to allow for automatic exposure, automatic in-camera editing or "looks", and automatic focus. That all sounds nice and convenient, but it robs you of the ability to have control over these creative tools. The camera is making these decisions — and very often that's not a good idea.

Certainly, autofocus is a useful "auto" feature, but there are times that it can be a hindrance to a professional. In short, don’t assume anything automated on your camera is better than manually doing it, because even autofocus can fail. You must weigh the situation and decide what to use.

In some scenarios, partial automation is a good choice. For example, you may need to be extremely efficient to grab a quick shot. Imagine you are hired to do some photojournalism of a news-worthy event. There’s action happening, and you need a fast shutter speed to catch it. You may be better walking into that scene with your camera in Shutter Priority (T, Tv) with a higher ISO to nail the critical shot, rather than be fiddling with your manual settings at the critical moment. Or maybe you are on tripod and you aren’t as concerned about shutter speed, but you want control over the depth-of-field. Aperture Priority (A, Av) would be a great semi-auto solution to this situation, and a great place for beginners to "dip a toe" into Manual exposure.

But, make no mistake, most professionals operate with a complete understanding of how to expose a scene in Manual Mode on their camera.

Cameras also offer a certain amount of "post-processing" in-camera in terms of Picture Profiles and "looks." Cameras will bake this into the final image when you shoot in JPEG format. But, the most control over your image will come from shooting in Raw and processing the file with programs such as Adobe Lightroom or Capture One Pro.

3. THINKING YOU CAN HAND-HOLD EVERYTHING

By far, the one thing most of my students resist is The Tripod. And this is almost always due to them having a cheap tripod. So many times I see students fumble with their tripod, trying to put a heavy 70-200mm lens on a flimsy plastic tripod, grumbling and cursing the whole way. The photographic tool I’ve had the longest is my tripod. I’ve had my tripod for over twenty years and I use it all the time. I’ve changed camera systems 7 times, but I’ve used the same tripod the whole time. So, as an investment, it’s smart to get the most expensive tripod for the type of work you want to do, because you’ll have it forever.

If you think shooting landscapes will be your jam, then you should get a carbon fiber tripod (which weighs less than an aluminum tripod) so that you can take it outdoors with you. If you think shooting product in the studio would be cool, then a heavy-duty tripod that offers a head that can move into all positions would be ideal. There are ball-heads, and pan-tilt heads, and geared heads in great variety.

Having a steady tripod does a few things for you:

  • It will slow you down a little so that you think about the shot
  • It will protect the camera from being dropped
  • It will allow you to duplicate your shot from the exact same perspective so you can make changes to the scene and perfect the image
  • It will result in sharper images

Even portrait photographers use tripods when in the studio, doing group shots, or creating self-portraits. For sure, there are times it makes sense not to use a tripod, but you’ll need to know when those times are and when you’d be risking the sharpness of the image, or other consequences that may be a bummer. In short, you need one, you should use one, and it will be an investment that will outlast your camera.


2. RELYING ON SOCIAL MEDIA TO GET A SENSE IF YOUR WORK IS GOOD OR NOT

Social media is an awesome way to share our imagery. If feels good when our image gets a ton of Likes. It’s great to get positive feedback from our fans. But, there is one thing we’ll never receive from an image we post on Instagram or Facebook: Constructive criticism.

Most people don’t post their image on Instagram and ask directly for constructive criticism of the work, they post the image and wait for the love! So, unless you are engaging your audience to tell you specifically what is and is not working with your image, you won’t ever grow from the information. Instead, it will be an echo chamber of positive comments, which will inflate your ego. What this can do is soften your sensitive exterior, to the degree that, when you do put your portfolio down in front of a professional, and they rip it apart, it will hurt a lot more than if you had been through many rounds of constructive feedback.

Social media can soften you too much to REAL feedback from someone who wants to see you improve, rather than just fawn over you and your work. You should be looking for critique from other experts in order to grow — don’t just seek love from the general public, who arguably don’t necessarily have a sophisticated point-of-view when it comes to photography and art. Get another voice to really tell you what they think — and make sure that person is an expert you respect. That person should be considering not just the face-value of your photography, but what you’d like to do with it! That way they can speak to the image’s utility and value beyond simply a pretty picture.

Professional portfolio reviews are a valuable opportunity to assess your goals as a photographer and align your work with your goals. At RMSP, we offer in-person or virtual sessions to discuss your work. And we take into consideration more than just the image itself, but your overarching goals and your level. We also hold weekly photo critiques (#rmspphotocritique) on Instagram TV, so be sure to check us out on Instagram and throw one of your images out there for the chance to be reviewed! Find us at @rockymountainschoolofphoto.

1. TRYING TO DO TOO MANY THINGS

When you start out in photography, everything is a pretty cool subject — especially when the lightbulb lights up and you can begin to gain control over your camera and begin to achieve the photographs that you intended to shoot! In the beginning, you’ll be excited about many genres in photography, and that is a valuable process to push through. But, in the end, you’ll need to begin to hone your vision. In an article about mistakes that "amateurs" make, there is a built-in assumption that you likely do not want to stay amateur, but rather, you’d like to improve and create more professional work — or even become a professional photographer. Am I right?

With this comes specialization. Whenever I see a professional photographer’s work that tries to be all things to all people, I see them as much more amateur than a photographer who has focused their work into an area of specialization. For some photographers, this could be a singular focus, such as being an Architectural Photographer and that's it. That is their specialty and the extent of what they offer professionally. Others may be a Food Photographer. Or a Wedding Photographer. Or an Automotive Photographer. Or an Agricultural Photographer. Or a Product Photographer.

But the minute you try to be ALL those things, something happens: All categories become mediocre. You are spreading yourself too thin over too many areas. You just don’t have enough time to be expert in all those arenas — and moreover, your competition will get the job because they are the “expert” in that topic.

The "polish" that professional photography has comes from intimate study in a particular genre. Imagine you are an art director at an ad agency, and you are interested in hiring a photographer who is expert in automotive photography. You must choose between Photographer A and Photographer B. The images in their portfolios look like this:

  • Photographer A: auto, auto, architecture, portrait, auto, food, portrait, portrait, landscape, auto
  • Photographer B: auto, auto, auto, auto, auto, auto, auto, auto, auto, auto

Who would you choose? For the same reason we don’t seek out the hot dog stand for fancy coffee, someone looking for the expert in automobile photography won’t want to hire the generalist. If you need back surgery, would you go to the podiatrist? If you want a hamburger, do you go to the pizza place? Specialize!

As you shoot more, notice the things you most like to shoot and you’ll begin to find the strengths in the things where you are spending the most time. Maybe you’ll end up with two specialty areas where you spend your time — those are your "professional" offerings. But, if you try to do too many things, your work won’t stand out from the pack. Specialize!

Here’s the Round-Up:
  • Use the gear you’ve got! Until you figure out more of what you need in terms of features.
  • Shoot in Manual Mode! Or Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, as needed. And shoot Raw.
  • Invest in a great tripod with a really nice head; you’ll have it forever.
  • Seek out the wisdom of other experts to help you grow and improve your work, not just social media Likes.
  • Specialize in a just a couple of areas. Don’t try to be all things to all people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff McLain

Jeff McLain is a photographer, videographer, and digital retoucher. After his photography education, Jeff got his start as a freelance photo assistant in San Francisco working on editorial, catalog and advertising shoots. His skills in Photoshop and computing allowed him to help photographers bridge the gap between the film days and all-digital workflows, and he stood at the forefront of the advent of the career of the "Digital Technician."

Jeff soon moved into shooting, and then moved laterally to video capture. His background as a multi-instrumental musician has also benefited his understanding of sound design and audio capture, which can be a technically challenging aspect of film-making.

He worked for many years as a digital technician for Pier 1 Imports, Pottery Barn, Logitech, and Crate & Barrel. As a photographer, he has shot for Williams Sonoma, Mountain Living Magazine, Keen Shoes, Mountain Hardwear, Red Envelope, Robert Mondavi Wines, Mountain Living Magazine, and Cottage Journal Magazine... among others.

He has been a freelancer for over 18 years and takes a 'real-world' approach to his perspective of the photographic industry and the skills needed in today's market. Locally, he and his wife operate a videography business.

Jeff is a 2001 graduate of Hallmark Institute of Photography and holds a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Montana. When not working on still or video projects, Jeff spends time with his wife, son, dog and cat in Missoula, Montana. He plays bluegrass dobro, banjo, guitar and harmonica to unwind.

mclainphoto.com
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