You did it! You finally got your first real camera. Maybe it’s upgrading from your mobile phone to an advanced compact camera, or perhaps you went all out with an SLR or mirrorless. But more important than the camera is your attitude. You are ready to take your photography to a whole new level. You’re in for a very fun ride!

I’m sure you have a lot of questions, and like any new, enthusiastic student, you have probably been doing a lot of research as well. You may also have come to the realization that there is a lot of information out there, and it may be difficult to know where to start. There is not only one path to learning how to create beautiful, compelling photographs. In fact, your journey is more likely to look like a detour through windy streets and gravel roads. You’ll learn some things too soon, and some too late. That’s just the reality.

Maybe you want to pursue photography as a career, or perhaps you’re more interested in keeping it as a hobby. Whatever your situation, here is a list of the things I wish I had known when I first started photography.

Learn to see light

I’m starting out with what is likely the most difficult concept for beginners to grasp. In fact, I did not “see” light until several years after getting my first SLR and had already started photography as a career. Once you begin to see the light and the shadows it creates, you can manipulate it. When you understand how to manipulate light, no photography task is too daunting and you will have a better start to using flashes, strobes, or even sunlight to craft your scene.

What do I mean by seeing light? Here’s an example. Wherever you are right now, there is probably a light source somewhere (even if it’s the screen from whichever device you are using to read this article):

  • Look at the light coming from that light source, and see how it wraps around your hands, or an object that is sitting nearby.
  • Look at the shadows it creates, the hot-spots and reflections it makes on shiny surfaces, and watch how it changes if you move either the object or the light source.
  • Move an object closer to the light and see how the shadows change.

It may take some time, but once you start to see light as its own entity (and not just something that is always there) then your photographs will begin to improve tenfold.

Don’t decide purchases based only on price

It can be easy to associate something that is expensive as being the right product. While a higher price-tag will oftentimes give you a quality product with many features, sometimes you get more than you need (or want).

One example that I came across early in my career was when I decided to purchase my first set of studio lights. I assumed that the more expensive “powerful” lights would be best, but when I wanted to use them for my food photography, the light output was too powerful to set my exposure settings properly so that I could blur the background.

It’s best to do your research, and also to ask other photographers you trust, before making a big purchase.

Listen to the right people

Until you determine whose advice to really listen to, take everything that other people say with a grain of salt. If someone is not a photographer then their opinion may be important to you, but don’t get caught up in the “American Idol” syndrome. Just because all of your friends say that your work is amazing does not mean that you have achieved greatness. Most people will only comment when they like what they see, while those who have more critical opinions keep them to themselves. And many (non-photographer) people will likely comment based on the content of the photograph, but not the quality (a beautiful waterfall vs. a beautiful photograph of a waterfall).

As you grow, you will find that you have friends and photographers in your circles whom you respect and admire, and that is the main group of people whose opinions should hold any weight.

Ignore the trolls and the bullies

Not everyone is tight-lipped when they see something they don’t like. Most of the negativity I see (either towards myself or other photographers) comes in the form of anonymous comments on blogs or online articles. But there are also bullies and “experts” out there who mask their trolling with “words of wisdom”. I’ve seen and experienced my fair share of misogyny, “man-splaining”, and bullying online, and some of it almost seems well-intentioned. Oftentimes these people are difficult to spot, so it’s best to go with your gut.

Try before you buy

There are a LOT of different cameras, lenses, lights, bags, accessories, and more out there, trying to get your money. For the big purchases, I recommend trying the gear out first. This might be as simple as visiting your local camera shop to hold it in your hands before you make your decision. Or it might mean renting the gear (or borrowing from a friend) to see if it suits your style. Whatever your method, as a new photographer you won’t usually know if something is right for you until you try it for yourself.

Keep discovering what you love

You might hear people say that you have to “specialize” in one type of photography in order to be successful. In some ways that holds true; for example, if you want to be a portrait photographer and have clients, it’s smart to market yourself that way. However don’t let that stop you from exploring other types and genres of photography along the way.

You may think that one type of photography is what you enjoy, but how do you know if you have not given other things a try? I used to find landscape photography boring, and it wasn’t until I started photographing waterfalls and moving water that I learned how peaceful and satisfying photographing landscapes and nature could be. Keeping your mind open to other possibilities is a surefire way to grow as a photographer.