Being new to anything, whether you’re a web developer writing bad code or a new photographer trying to pose your first subject, you will certainly make mistakes. Humility is one of the greatest virtues when you’re trying to learn something new, especially when becoming a professional photographer.
You might have expectations of being perfect right off the bat, but this often leads young photographers to develop a certain level of hubris that can stunt their growth. From the humblebrag to the posturing to overdoing everything in post, many mistakes can derail your progress in becoming a professional photographer.
I’ve created a list of the 10 rookie mistakes new photographers make to hopefully enlighten those who aspire to become a pro.
1. Not Checking Your Ego At The Door
You’re fresh out college with a few photo projects with acclaim, or maybe you’ve won a local photo contest, you might be thinking this photography thing is going to be a cake walk. You feel confident in everything you shoot, and in the decisions you make creatively. You think to yourself, “I should start at the top booking top commercial clients and I deserve a spread in a big magazine.”
The truth is your photography is probably not as good as your mom tells you, and being cocky around clients and your peers will set you back significantly. A new photographer that is hungry to learn will get further than someone who thinks they already know everything. You’re in a large pool of photographers vying for the same jobs, and most likely you’re not that good…at least not yet.
As a new photographer this is the time when you should learn as much as possible. The more on-the-job training you get, the more you will hone your craft and become a better photographer.
2. Editing Too Much
You’ve mastered Photoshop and Lightroom, and you’re comfortable taking a good exposure and making it perfect on the computer. That is a great skill to have, but overdoing it is a trap a lot of young photographers fall into.
You’re probably over-saturating your colors, lifted the blacks too much, cloning like crazy, masking like a madman, or maybe just getting HDR happy. These are just a few examples of when a rookie should put down the mouse. There’s a fine line between editing too little, and too much, and it’s painfully obvious when it’s overdone.
3. You’ve Got GAS
Gear Acquisition Syndrome is a stage that most of us photographers go through. We need the latest full-frame camera, the best glass, the nicest tripod, the drone, expensive strobes and monolights, a pocket camera, softboxes, ring lights, multiple cameras, and the list can go on and on and on.
When you care more about your gear than your output, then you have a problem. Sure you should have good gear as a professional, but preoccupying yourself with this instead of technique and composition will set you back. Get the gear you need and start working. Forget the rest and just learn. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was anyone’s photography career.
4. Not Shooting RAW
Shoot RAW all the time! If you are only shooting JPEGs you are limiting the potential of your pictures in post. RAW photos give you lossless, uncompressed image data that is truly the closest thing to a film negative.
Not only are they better for editing, but say for instance your exposure metering was off or your image is underexposed, RAW images will allow for you to correct these issues in post. JPEGs will limit what you can do, so if you like JPEGs most cameras with interchangeable lenses will offer you the option of RAW + JPEG shooting.
5. Saying ‘I’m Too Good For That’
You may prefer shooting sports, or landscapes, or reportage, or fluffily animals, and you feel like some genres of photography like event, wedding, and portrait photography are beneath you. The truth is you have no idea what these kinds of photography take to master. So being unwilling to learn a new trade could really put you at a deficit in an already over-saturated market.
Every genre of photography is difficult in its own right, so looking down on a specific one is a juvenile way of thinking. You are not better than those who shoot this kind of photography, and the truth is, your first paying gigs might be senior pictures, corporate headshots, or weddings.
You might think you’re being smart and selective by choosing what to shoot, but turning down a gig that allows to be creative in some capacity is a missed opportunity. You can always work on your passion projects on the side until they become a reality, but you can’t keep working as a photographer if you can’t keep the lights on.
6. Not Taking Criticism Well
Being able to take criticism well is the only way you will grow into being a better photographer. Taking criticism personally will make you shy away from evolving and learning. Other photographers giving you a critique of your work is invaluable, especially because they are providing you with advice on how to become better.
You need a thick skin, especially in the photography business. Not everyone is going to like what you do, and it’s best to be able to detach yourself from your creations, even though this can be extremely difficult.
7. You Only Shoot Manually
One belief I once held when I was younger was that by shooting manually all the time was the only way a professional photographer could be a professional photographer. For example, I was at a photo workshop back in 2007 learning sports photography in Denver. I was shooting with a Canon 1D and a 70-200mm f/2.8, and was given the opportunity to shoot an arena football game. I shot the first half of the game using manual focus and by halftime 3/4 of my shots were out of focus.
I learned right then and there that autofocus was made for a reason, so I used it for the rest of the game and got some great action shots. From that day on I never looked down at photographers who shoot in aperture or shutter priority modes. It’s about getting the best shot, not making it harder for yourself.
8. Worrying More About Settings Than Composition
While you’re on location fiddling with your settings will take you away from what’s really important — your composition. You are slowly learning how to adjust your settings for different conditions, and that comes over time by shooting in different scenarios.
You should learn your camera yes, but a photograph will only be as good as it is composed. Just like the GAS stage, worrying more about your camera will hinder your progress when you should be studying compositional techniques and other photographers.
9. Not Telling a Story
Good photography piques the interest of the viewer by showing them a story through photographs. One photograph can tell a complete story, or a book of photos can show a narrative unfolding. Images with substance are what makes for great photography.
This reminds me of an article I recently read about LaToya Ruby Frazier, a photographer who just won the MacArthur Award, also known as the ‘Genius’ award. After I read the article and viewed her photographs I wanted to see other people’s opinion on her work.
She created a photo book called “The Notion of Family” which tells the story of the decline of Braddock, Pa., a Rust Belt town she grew up in. She explores the collapse of the steel industry, the racism in her town, and her family living in this economically depressed city.
People were making comments that her photos weren’t that exceptional. She was able to create was a narrative about the decline of her hometown and how it affected her family. This work she made resonated with an audience and propelled her to a prestigious award because she showed a powerful story visually.
10. Not Paying It Forward
Your hubris may have knocked you on your butt by now, and you’ve probably been humbled by photographers with more experience. You start to realize these other photographers aren’t trying to sabotage your career by critiquing you and making you their assistant, in fact the opposite is true. You are basically an intern that is being taught by a photographer who is trying to pass on what they’ve learned.
They are paying it forward by helping you learn the ropes to show you what it takes to be a successful photographer. Once you’ve excelled in your career and have the opportunity to help out another photographer, take them under you wing so they can learn too.
Every rookie is going to make mistakes even with the best teacher, but by helping give back you will help build a stronger photographic community instead of enemies.
To read the 10 Unwritten Photographic Rules click here.