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STEPS TO BECOME AN AMAZING PHOTOGRAPHER

First of all I want to clarify that in no way I consider myself an amazing photographer. Good, acceptable, neat: all of those words do apply because I’ve been working professionally for over three years in many different areas, but my work is far from amazing. I’ll eventually get there and there is honestly no rush: I am only competing against myself. I heard somewhere that we can only afford to compare ourselves with ourselves yesterday: judge your new work by the standards that your old work represents. This is a good standard, as different artists might have started in different conditions to yours or with gear that is way out of your budget. It's madness to put yourself on the same boat. Of course none of your photos are going to look as good as the ones produced with the best gear in the market, stylists with a massive budget, top models and retouchers that cost hundreds of dollars: you two aren’t even playing the same game. So don’t

I’m not an amazing photographer today, but I am determined to become one in the nearby future and I am for sure a million times better than I was when I first started. I get asked a lot how I got here, so I decided it would be a good idea to write it down. Being mostly self taught, I’ve been really conscious of the best ways to divide all the different things one needs to learn. This article will walk you through the main steps I think every photographer must go through as well as my own journey. The photos I’ll display match with the time periods in which I focused most of my learning on each of these steps.

This article is perfect for photographers who are just starting out and feel overwhelmed by this beautiful hobby or for professional photographers who would like to take a look at somebody else’s journey and see what areas they still need to work on. There is more than one path to mastering this art, all I’m doing today is sharing the one I chose and recommend choosing.


GET YOURSELF A CAMERA


This first tip might sound completely obvious, but can you believe I managed to travel the entire South American continent without one? My interest for photography was not something I woke up with one morning: I’ve been planning photoshoots and torturing my friends or siblings making them pose for photos since I can remember. We would photoshoot with our phones, old cameras or borrowed my mum’s Nikon DSLR. I have never gone on a family vacation and not made it my first priority to make sure the entire trip was documented, sometimes even filmed, and you would laugh at how many times people would go through an album and realize I’m not in any of the photos because I was always the one behind the camera. 



Still, when my first mayor life adventure began as I sailed away to Uruguay with my soon-to-be-husband I decided an Ipod would do and I stood by that decision through our entire South American trip. My composition was good and I do have a lot of documented memories from my trip, but I could be literally selling these photos if I’ve had a professional camera with me. 


So my first advice is to not waste any more of your time: cameras today are very affordable, so save up, walk into a store and get yourself one. Even if it’s just with a kit lens, everyday that you go on without a camera is a day of experience lost


START OUT WITH A PRIME LENS


The world of gear is a very exciting one: we got new technology popping in every minute. When you buy a camera body you suddenly realize there is a wide selection of lenses to choose from, flashes, backdrops, straps and before you know it you might purchase an entire studio when you still don’t understand what Aperture is. I've been on a tight budget since the start of my journey (again, an Ipod? Seriously Micaela? Your Machu Picchu photos were taken with an Ipod?) and I'm constantly scared of making a pointless impulsive purchases. This is why even though I knew all the gear I wanted to eventually own, I waited patiently and allowed myself only one toy at a time. The next piece of equipment was only purchased when I could say confidently I had mastered the previous one.  


My first lens was of course the kit lens that comes with the Sony A6300, but I soon purchased two prime lenses: Sigma 30mm and 19mm. A prime lens is one that does not have zoom as a possibility, which means you are stuck on whatever focal distance your lens dictates. Naturally, my 30mm was mostly used for portraits while the 19mm was reserved for wider shots, such as landscapes, but I always carried both in my bag just in case.



Why do this? Well, if you’re just starting out it’s a good idea to build up your habits, such as not being lazy. Being stuck on 30mm, 50mm or 19mm is going to make you work for that shot: you’ll have to step back or forward, kneel or even lie down on the floor to get the perfect photo; and that is exactly what you should be doing. This will make your composition and understanding of photography grow a lot because you won’t have a choice. By the time you finally purchase yourself one of those beautiful lenses with different focal distances you’ll appreciate suddenly having so many options and you’ll already know where to set your zoom to get the best shot.


STUDY COMPOSITION


Photography has so many aspects: technical gear, manual settings, editing, printing, business, directing. No wonder you might be a bit overwhelmed if this journey is just starting for you. The first thing you should teach yourself in my opinion is what the human eye likes


By typing on Youtube “how to make my photos better” you’ll come across many people giving off the same tips and this is because long ago we’ve figured out that we perceive as beauty is a mathematical equation. We like symmetry, the rule of thirds, horizon lines that don’t decapitate our subjects and a frame that shows us what a subject is looking at when the case applies. We love photos that have a subject, even when the photo is not a portrait. People need to be told where to look and if an image has too much information we tend to hate it. Even when you’re photographing a landscape you need to have a subject on your photo for it to be captivating: maybe a tree, a rock or a mountain that looks interesting. These “rules” can naturally be broken, but just like when you learn grammar at school the only way to start is by respecting them.


That is why a good way to start is making your composition as best as you can, and if you’re just starting out I’d recommend staying on AUTO mode. I can hear people shouting MANUAL mode is a must, but give me a break: how is one supposed to pay attention on how you’re framing your subjects if you’re focus is all on getting those settings right as fast as possible? When I first started to take photos I shot for months on AUTO mode and I am not ashamed of it, because it allowed me to master these rules I am speaking about. They are now a part of me. The same way when I drive my car I am not fully paying attention to every action, I can easily frame a subject without fully being conscious of all the mathematical rules I’m following. 

Once you’ve mastered this on AUTO, you’ll find going MANUAL gives you many more options and multidimensional control over these rules, but at that time hopefully you’ll have them internalized as well.


STUDY COLOR THEORY


The same applies to color theory: we have also figured out how color affects how we perceive an image. Colors can complement, contrast or give out a monotonous tone. All of that affects the tone and feeling of your image. When you’re doing photoshoots or studio photography, one is in absolute control of these aspects, but the first step is to go outside and identify different natural color compositions and how they make you feel. Reading about Kandinsky’s Color Theory might be a good way to start your journey. 


Keep in mind that in the future, you will even be able to alternate completely your final image by jumping into Photoshop and changing all the Tones. But if you jump ahead and do this without first knowing how you want your image to look like you’ll might end up with a process that does more harm than good to your photos. 



MASTER MANUAL MODE


So at this stage you’re pretty comfortable with AUTO mode, your composition is looking good and you’ve had plenty of compliments from relatives you’ve volunteered to photograph. Good. That means you’re ready to enter to big leagues and figure out what all those numbers on your camera screen mean. 


The internet is flooded with tutorials about Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO, White Balance, Focal point, etc, so I’ll spare you yet another tutorial on this subject. I personally recommend googling each of these terms separately and going through both visual PDFs and Youtube videos on the subject. Places like Skillshare or Udemy offer pretty good beginner courses of photography for about 11USD, but there is nothing in them you can’t get for free these days if you know where to look. You might also consider getting a private teacher to walk you through these first steps and invest in a few classes for yourself.


I’ve personally done all of the paths described above and they’ve all contributed positively to improving my photography. Hiring Alejandra Rey from Foto Escuela Palermo was a huge step forward, because I no longer had to translate the tutorials to my own camera and got a personalized review on my work by an international professional with over ten years more experience than me. Ale is my mentor until this day and we still keep in contact despite the distance now that I moved to Australia. 


It might be really daunting when you first read about each of these features, but think of it as if somebody was describing to you how to ride a bicycle: surely getting on the bicycle is the only way to actually learn it. A good exercise most teachers will have you do is get an object and photograph it at different Apertures leaving everything else constant: what happens? Now try the same thing with different Shutter Speeds, Iso, Focal Lengths and so on. Once you’re done, sit down and download the photos and write down on a note pad what different settings do to your image. Now get a friend to help you and do the same thing with a subject. Repeat the process until you feel like you could call out the settings of a camera on a specific situation. 


KNOW YOUR GEAR


At this stage you’re already confident in your technical skills and your composition. You prefer MANUAL mode and you’re a bit embarrassed it took you so long when it was that easy to learn.  If that’s so, you’ll probably notice your gear has limitations which are usually tied to how much light there is available in a specific scenario. Photographers paint with light, but the more expensive your gear usually means the less light you need to produce something decent. If my Aperture today can go as big as 3.5, that means my photos will be darker and with more noise in a setting with little light than somebody shooting with a 1.8. This is not something to get depressed about or to freak out and buy a 1000USD lens, but rather something we must accept to avoid embarrassing situations


I once tried photographing my baby sister’s ballerina recital in a poorly lit room. I soon realized I couldn’t get my shutter to be fast enough while keeping the kids properly lit. If I was asked to do this professionally today, I would take my flash without hesitation because I know my limitations. Some time ago I got asked to shoot an album cover in a night time location with only a lightbulb lighting the scene. Because I knew this was not possible, I brought with me a LED light to make sure the subject was lit and my client thanked me for it.


To know your gear is to understand light and to know what extra tools you might need to get that perfect shot. These tools can sometimes be cheaper than a new lens or a new camera: LED lights are cordless and can be purchased for around 150USD and a flash can go for as little as 100USD (I said a flash, not the best flash).


LEARN EDITING


If somebody ever tells you a good photographer doesn’t need any editing put mute on anything else that comes out of their mouth. Yes, film photographers used to produce masterpieces they didn’t even get to see for months before they revealed them in a dark room, but those days are long gone. People today take pride in editing their photos and you might notice most artists don’t even bother making it look natural: they want their photos to look like a painting, not something you snapped on your phone. 



Editing for me is sometimes even more exciting than the actual photographing: I get to see an image transform in front of my eyes. Today’s technology even allows me to remove subjects, correct blemishes or add an overlay pretending my model is in the middle of blizzard when we actually never left the studio. Editing is also the process in which you get to really define your style: if you’re photos are moody you’ll find yourself turning down the brightness and saturation, if they’re dramatic you might find yourself increasing the contrast, if they’re black and white you’ll shut off the colors all together. 


Regarding software I recommend starting out with Lightroom and then moving on to Photoshop. Lightroom will allow you to understand the basic aspects of color and light correction before you move on to digitally manipulating your image. 


Once you’ve moved on to Photoshop, I really recommend watching tutorials on the following techniques: dodge and burn, color grading, curve adjusting, mask, frequency separation, skin retouching, background removal, liquify tool. I won’t go into detail on what each of these do or claim you’re set knowing just that, but I think learning these can give anybody a good base to start digitally manipulating their images. 


SHOOT RAW INSTEAD OF JPEG


It’s almost like this advice has become a meme on the internet, to the extent that some people laugh at it yet refuse to give up JPEG. You have no idea how easy it is to develop a RAW file and how many possibilities you are murdering if you don’t. 


Shooting RAW is something you set on your camera settings. Once the photo is taken, you jump on Photoshop and Camera Raw software will appear automatically. Here you will be allowed to manipulate the image like if you were on Lightroom, but with the difference that you’ll find your possibilities stretch a lot more because the camera has saved all the information from when that shot was taken (not just the white balance and darkness you chose for it on the spot). If you’re still not shooting RAW, go and fix that today because you’re just wasting everybody’s time. 


10.000 HOURS


There is a famous quote from the book Outliers that claims it takes 10.000hours to master anything. If you’re passionate about photography, these hours probably started adding up since the first photo you took thinking “man, this is a great shot”. Many scientists have claimed the 10.000 hours hypothesis is wrong, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out it takes a lot of practice to hit perfection. 


I took photos my entire World-Wide trip. South America was with my Ipod. In Australia my fiancé bought me a camera so I began getting more adventurous and asking people for street portraits. In South East Asia I probably spent over three months with a routine of getting up at 6am to chase the golden light of the sunrise, hunting portraits and landscapes shots all over Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Argentina I kept on practicing street photography, organizing fashion shoots and asking my sister to pose everyday for me to try out more experimental concepts. Here in Sydney before the Corona I was on a minimum of three photoshoots a week.



You need to do the same. You’re setting might not be as romantic as my trip was, but who cares: go for a walk at sunset and take your camera with you, everyday. And you know what? It doesn’t matter if all the photos from that day are garbage, you think you’re the first person that has ever happened to? Sebastiao Salgado, one of the best documentary and travel photographers ever shot about 12.000 film photos per trip of which he selected 12 to show to the public. That means there was 11.988 photos on his trash can every time that nobody got to see. We can’t all afford that luxury, but having that mindset is a good way to start. 


HAVE PERSONAL PROJECTS


If photography is your hobby this will probably be the only way you have of getting photos done, but if it becomes your profession you’ll find yourself getting paid for photos you don’t necessarily care about. Back when I was traveling, it was hotels and hostel portfolios that became my main source of income. However, street portraits were my passion, so I always made sure I dedicated hard working hours to it. 


Fashion photographer Lindsey Adler recommends us to set at least one day a month as a play day. For portrait photographers, it’s a day in which you book a model or ask a friend to come over to play model and you try new concepts together. It’s a day when you’re free to experiment and attempt new things not being pressured about the result.



You should always fill your portfolio with images that represent the jobs you want to get, not necessarily the jobs you’ve already done. You’ll find no images of hotels, beds or guests on my portfolio, but you can bet I’ve photographed 30+ establishments to this date. Play day is a perfect opportunity to recreate the photos you once hope your clients will be paying for. Lindsey Adler describes how she once got booked for a beauty editorial where she was asked to recreate a portrait from her portfolio which had been created during one of these play days


BE A PART OF THE ARTISTIC COMMUNITY


Social media today is flooded with all kinds of photographers and artists. Connecting with and cheering for other people is a good source of constant inspiration and support. If you’re lucky, you might be able to find yourself a mentor or another photographer to assist. 


However, give yourself time to find your own personal voice: nobody has ever gotten good by simply copying other people’s work. This applies to your photography style just as much as your editing. There are many photographers today selling their editing presets. Even though this seems like an easy, cheap, instant way of giving your photos the ideal look, you’ll grow a lot more if you choose to design your own presets (which is done by saving your settings on Lightroom or Camera Raw Photoshop). On the other hand, selling your presets is literally selling your soul, your style, so even though it might seem like a very tempting way of making an extra ten dollars, it’s the equivalent of a magician selling his or her magic tricks. 


YOU CAN ALWAYS GET BETTER

The moment you stop re inventing and seeking to get better, you loose. This is an advice for life just as much as for photography. 


When I came back from Asia in 2018 I could’ve very easily focused on turning those photos into books and sticking to travel photography. I could’ve obsessed over that style, but instead I decided to walk into a studio and see how my art could evolve there. My original plan was to later apply my knowledge of studio photography to travel photography, but for now it looks like I’ll stick to fashion and conceptual portraits, at least for the nearby future while traveling is no longer in my itinerary. Don’t make the mistake of defining yourself and sticking to a label before you’ve fully finished exploring your potential.


Sebastiao Salgado in his documentary The Salt of the Earth tells his journey as a documentary and travel photographer. He started out focusing on people, going from communities in the Andes to workers in the mines of the Amazon, metal factory workers in Europe and the Rwanda genocide. He tells us how he photographed the depths of human misery and felt extremely depressed after coming back from most of his trips. At that one point, he decided he wanted to start photographing the beauty of the world: landscapes, animals, people living in harmony with nature. Everybody told him it was too late to redefine himself. He was already a very successful photographer with plenty of books and prints that sold for thousands. Why bother? Thankfully he did not listen, and if you go through his work in Genesis you’ll find this to be just as good or even better than his previous masterpieces


In conclusion, the road to becoming an amazing photographer never finishes. It’s a long journey where you are required to work hard, invest, network and constantly reinvent yourself while still developing a unique identity. I hope breaking down this process into steps has helped you see which areas of this craft you need to continue focusing on and which steps you have already left behind. I personally find myself discovering new things about this craft every single time I pick up my camera or open Photoshop, and I love knowing that despite having specific goals in each area, the beauty is not in completing them, but in the journey itself. 



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