Photography has opened up a whole new world for me as a visual artist. It allows me to fulfill my creative desires and express what I see and how I see it to the world. Like all new experiences and endeavors, No challenge could have been more difficult for me than that of becoming a self-taught nature photographer.
With no formal training or education I dove head first into nature photography with the zeal of someone completely unprepared for the long road ahead of me. I think I must have been crazy to drop everything and take up this new career path as a photographer. My path over the last five years has been filled with the incredible highs of doing my first showings of work to the lows of constant submission rejections.
I suppose that living and shooting the Vermont landscape has instilled in me a sense of adventure, A drive to succeed, And the strength to overcome the initial frustrations as a beginner to becoming a more series amateur nature shooter. How does one climb out of this initial learning period? What steps do I take to hone my skills and become more successful in this very crowded field? I, Like most beginners and amateurs in nature photography had a lot of questions about how to gain some ground in the field with no sure way to answer them.
I have struggled and made a few mistakes along the way, But with a lot of hard work I now feel that my photography work is finally turning a corner. My drive and willingness to learn has helped me to succeed and with the same focus, You can too.
1. Learn self editing skills – You must be extremely critical of your own work. The tendency with digital is to shoot lots of images and not every one will be a keeper. As artists we tend to want to keep every image that we shoot but you have to put those feelings aside and be realistic about how many you are going to use from any one shoot. If I shoot thirty images at one location I will edit these down to about ten and I may choose one or two to print or show.
2. Narrow your focus – Periodically review your work and see the patterns that develop in your shooting style. Really take a hard look and see what you like and don’t like about your work. Ask yourself which styles of photography do I like the most? Macro? Low light work? Wide angle landscapes? You will want to go out and try to shoot everything you can but limiting yourself to a few styles will give your work more focus and give you a more clear direction to go in.
Last year I had two showings of my work in the same month and was reviewing images to show. This review showed me that I needed to make some changes in my work as I was shooting at the same times of day. I wanted my work to have more emotion and be more dramatic so I switched from shooting during the middle part of the day to sunrise and sunset times.
3. Go beyond the snapshot – You must go beyond getting out of your car at a location and snapping a photo. You need to think of yourself as an explorer and get away from the main trails or paths. Have an open mind and be willing to do more than the other photographer to get a great image. Ask yourself how far are you willing to go to get a great shot?
4. Do your research – Great images don’t just happen on their own and they require a lot of prep work. I use any and all means to find a new location or to research an existing one that I already know about. Goggle maps and Google earth are excellent tools for initially scouting a location as well as route planning. I also use a free program called The photographers Ephemeris. This is a great freeware program which shows your sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moon set positions overlayed on Google maps anywhere you want on the Earth. I also use road and topographic maps as well as plain, old-fashioned talking to people in a specific area. As an amateur time and money is at a premium so you have to make the most of both.
5. Think “minimalism”when it comes to your gear – I like to have the least amount of gear to make the best possible images I can. Remember that more gear = more weight = you get tired faster. Since most of us are on budgets we must think long and hard about the gear that we need that will be most essential to our chosen style of Photography.
6. Get off of the auto modes – Take your camera off of the fully automatic modes and really learn how to control your camera. The camera is just a machine but knowing how to control iso, shutter speed and aperture settings yourself will give you much more creative freedom. Waterfalls are a good study in learning the relationship between the three. When I first started learning I shot a lot of waterfalls which helped me to better understand depth of field with your aperture as well as how to use shutter speed to freeze or blur motion. You are the artist, not the camera. I have an older post on shooting waterfalls part one and part two that further explain how to make long waterfall exposures.
7. Three essential filters – The filters that I always carry with me are a circular polarizer, graduated neutral density and neutral density filters. These three essential filters can really help you to elevate your photography from the normal everyday image. Currently I am using the Cokin filter system as it allows me to stack these in different combinations which you cannot do with screw in filters unless you hand hold them which is not possible with a long exposure if you have shaky hands like I do. The circular polarizer is great for saturating colors and reducing glare especially on leaves or around water. Full neutral density filters have a neutral grey color and restrict light on the whole image while graduated ones restrict the light in only part of the image. These are extremely useful for slowing shutter speeds and giving you better exposures in landscape scenes where the sky and foreground would typically be difficult to expose for.
8. Social Media – Use social media and blogs to your advantage for spreading the word about your own work as well as for connecting with fellow Photographers. Facebook and Twitter are excellent resources for up and coming Photographers as well as pros, In this internet age as a struggling amateur you must become more savvy about using these tools. I also started my blog on WordPress as a way to really develop my writing skills which were a little lacking. Most pros don’t make money just off of print sales but through a number of avenues, One of which is writing.
9. Confidence in your work – You must have confidence in your work and be proactive about showing it to others. If you have confidence in your work and know that it is the best it can be then it will show in your work and in yourself as an artist. There will always be people who don’t like what you do and you must be able to take criticism and negative comments. The negative stuff helps to refine what you are doing and get rid of any habits or work that isn’t making the grade. I have a regular 40 hour a week job so the amount of showings I can do is limited. However I am proactive about this and always looking for places in my community that I can show my work.
10. Dont think just about making money – Get the idea about buying an expensive camera and snapping away and making huge profits on your prints out of your head as soon as you start down the Photographers path. Ask yourself if you are an artist or a salesman. My main goal is making art…period. I know that eventually if I keep working hard than money will come at some point. I love what I do and the medium of Photography first. If your thoughts are more on the money side then on the art side it will show in your work. If you truly love what you are doing you wont ever have to worry about how you are going to make a living at it.