The Practicalities of Not Becoming a Pro Photographer

There is so much antagonism in photography: light versus darkness, DSLR versus mirrorless, geek versus artist, Nikon versus Canon. And yes, soon after getting involved in it, one will inevitably face the ultimate dilemma: professional versus amateur. I got my first DSLR, a Nikon 3100, a good few years ago as a birthday present from my wife. At some point during the process of reading an astronomical number of articles, blogs and reviews, shooting thousands of pictures, buying (and then selling) various lenses and other gear, shooting more pictures, getting into post-processing and then shooting even more, an idea popped up in my mind: “I should become a pro!”

Nothing too ambitious planned, just quitting my job so I could spend every day scooting out great locations, waiting hours for the light, to quietly observe the world and play around with my camera, undisturbed, converting my devotion into cash to make up for the quitting part. And, of course, to spend it on the finest gear! I guess I am not the only person on this planet, who has been nurturing this idea.

The problem with this plan though, that I really don’t want to quit my job. I am an emergency vet and I love what I do, so there goes spending every day taking pictures. Furthermore, we have three little boys, so there goes the undisturbed part. A while after the initial shock of facing the stern reality of life, I started thinking about this:

Why people owning a camera want to become professionals?
Could we just pause for a moment and imagine that all the people who drive would try to get the best sports car and become a professional racer?

Having considered what would make people do that, here are just a few of the pretty obvious answers:

  • Being a car racer is cool!
  • Technology is fascinating and you could play with the best cars!
  • Who would not want to get paid for driving around all day?
  • You could quit your job (in case it interests you)

I find it easy to draw a parallel here with photography. Still, most of us are perfectly happy to think of a car as a utility tool: to get us from A to B. Even if you love driving, even if you love speeding and even if you are really into the latest and greatest, reading car magazines seldom mesmerizes masses into wanting to pursue racing as a career.

So how photography is different and what makes so many of us budding enthusiasts aim for the stars?

Well, have you ever peaked into forum chats? Or tried to look up your new favorite camera or lens on a review page? I almost always started having doubts about my choice and looking for the next best one. I usually reached the conclusion that I needed the latest full frame camera and a few lenses costing a minimum of a grand each. I nearly even persuaded myself that I would not mind dragging all that gear along a weekend trip with my family, all just to shoot a pigeon in a bush while kicking the ball around with the kids. Practical, eh?

There was another thing I noticed: while ruminating on these life and death questions, I forgot to do something: enjoying photography. I spent hours messing with my photos in Lightroom and got all upset about lighting, composition, blown out pixels, sharpness and so on. This battle with myself helped to confirm, that I should really become a pro, so I bought a new camera and a few more lenses (not talking about hording though!), and of course, spent more time reading stuff online. This is a vicious circle that is simple to get stuck in.

Photography is a unique marriage of art and technology. Ideally there should be a healthy balance between these two ingredients. And in an ideal world a beginner should find balanced resources on both aspects. The catch is that there is no step-by-step guide to becoming an artist. On the other had, there is a plethora of information about the technology, it can be learned and getting the best out there only depends on how deep your pocket is. When I got my first camera, just a few days of googling left me with the perception that pros have pro equipment and they take pro photos, that becoming better and becoming a professional are interlinked and if you are not willing to take it on, you will be stuck at the entry / enthusiast level.

But is it a bad thing, being an amateur?

To answer this question I circled back to the basic question of “What is photography about?”

The official answer is: Capturing the light. A slightly different one: Capturing the moment. Moments I missed while agonizing about the best camera, the best settings, the best lens to use, instead of going out and just shoot. Shoot anything that catches my eye.

Am I suggesting to be an amateur by ignoring the technicalities? Not at all. After all, if you drive a car it is favorable to be able to use the indicator, turn on the head lights, top up the engine oil, or even change a flat tire. But you can make the same trip in an 8-year-old Toyota just like in a brand new Mercedes, and may even find the ride through a scenic landscape equally enjoyable.

Have you ever stumbled into the “pro versus amateur dilemma”? Are you an amateur, whose photo shoots routinely coincide with family events and outings? I can offer you my fully amateur advice, some of the tips and tricks I would have loved to hear when I started out:

1) Gear

While it is true to an extent that gear doesn’t matter, it definitely does when it comes to your own. Most people who get into photography can not escape to adore how good these machines are and what they are capable of. If you are an absolute beginner, I would suggest to get the first decent entry level camera they can afford and use it to learn the manual settings. By the time you will badly want a new camera, you should have a pretty good idea of what your preferences are. If you notice that most of the time you photograph your kids or dogs running around, check out DSLRs with speed and accurate autofocus.

If you are more into travel and don’t want to drag around kilos of stuff, you might want to look into Micro Four Thirds. While you will most probably be okay without a full frame beast, don’t ignore your heart’s desire! I ended up getting a Nikon D7200. Do I utilize all its potential? Of course not. Do I love it? Absolutely! The good thing about being an amateur is that buying gear is an emotional decision rather than a financial one. Try to look at it as choosing a partner, not as an investment. There are loads of great cameras out there offering way more than what an amateur needs. But if it has just one feature that really matters to you or makes your life easier and you can afford it: go for it! Just make sure, that you will feel like a kid at Christmas every time when you take it out of your bag.

 

What about lenses then? Similarly to cameras, experiment and stick to the ones you use most. If you keep going back to a zoom lens, don’t feel ashamed just because you read somewhere that real photographers only use prime lenses. Do you think your gran will tell you off when looking at your holiday pictures that they would have better resolution if they were taken with a prime? No one is ever going to notice. Having said that, I use primes, but only because it works better for me. If I have a chance to zoom, I mess about with it too much. But again, personal preferences. After going through a fair number of lenses I ended up keeping the 2 lenses I actually used for anything more than gathering dust: a Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S and a Sigma 105mm f/2.8 Macro. The long macro gives a bit of a reach, plus the ability to capture miniature wonders even if we are just out in the garden.

For everything else, there is the 35mm.

The same goes for accessories. Try them and see which ones give you some real benefit. For instance, I would love to use a tripod. Got one. Do you want to guess how many times I used it in the last few years? Exactly, zero. I understand what an essential tool it is, but it is so impractical with our current lifestyle that I just accepted that landscape photography will have to wait a decade or so. If you have kids, your best friends are a camera bag with easy access, a comfortable strap and good quality UV filters to protect your glass. Oh, and kids are a great reason to buy a sturdy camera with magnesium-alloy body.

2) Taking Photos

Landscape photographer, wildlife photographer, sport photographer, photojournalist, street photographer. Seriously? You are going out with kids, ready for destruction! Have dogs too? Even better! Trying to stick to a genre while repeatedly preventing a cataclysm, that’s what I call an overachiever. Why not try just having your camera ready, so you can actually shoot moments that matter for you?

When trying to photograph your own kids, there are a few key points to remember: kids are fast, they don’t pose for photographs, even less so on demand and most of your family members will want loads of pictures of them. And it is a great exercise to get on top of the manual settings and sharpen your eye. Exploring shutter speed and autofocus settings will help tackle the movement involved.

Paying attention is generally good for the well-being of children and particularly useful in capturing decisive moments.

Once you got these covered, try something new, like headshots wide open, and get ready to amaze those aunties!

Do you ever go out with your family during the golden hour? Well, we don’t. Going out and harsh sunlight are often best friends, so it is good to learn how to deal with it. Using a flashlight is a fantastic way to open up those horrible shadows. Feel embarrassed using the built-in flash? Don’t be! If you ever find yourself facing the sun and your flashlight is packed away, it is still your best option to take an acceptable shot of a moment that is never going to happen again.

3) Post-Processing

If there is a stage when things can go wrong and you can end up hating your own photos, is post-processing. Ever took your camera to the playground and went home with 500+ pictures? Ever tried to post-process them? Did it make you feel good? Thought so.

I sense some of you are thinking about the question of shooting JPEG at this point. Fair enough, there is an argument in there to leave things up to the camera and not to worry about Lightroom (no bias, simply that’s the one I use). And to be fair, just because a picture is shot in JPEG and not perfect, it can still look good.

However, shooting RAW opens up a new horizon of possibilities. For starters, if you shoot JPEG, you inevitably end up changing settings in your camera while out there. Shooting RAW saves you tons of time when out and about. Or remember the horrible shadows? Moving a few sliders in the post-processing software can make a world of a difference and leave you with a much more pleasing result.

In my early days I had reservations about post-processing, mainly after reading some opinions about how it jeopardizes the honesty of photography. Then I realized, that no matter what you do, you are never going to see the same in a photo that you saw with your eyes. You have a tool at your disposal to bring what the camera sensor sees closer to what you actually saw. I try not to be pragmatic, after all I want to have photos that I like and there is no harm in playing around a bit with the sliders.

Sitting hours in front of the monitor can be frustrating, so I gradually reduced the time I spend on post-processing. My routine boiled down to this:

  1. After importing a batch they go on the Map. I remember locations well, so this is the easiest way for me to find photos, much quicker than keywording.
  2. Cull the absolutely unusable pictures only. I keep the rest of them, even if they are a bit out of focus, have a messed up composition, or I merely don’t like them. It only takes some extra storage place and for example my mum always picks the photos I would otherwise delete.
  3. Select the best ones, taking both technical and emotional value into account.
  4. The lucky ones go to the “To Print” collection.

These are the only ones I properly post-process, as I never get around to touch the remainder again, let alone printing… I focus on time saving at this stage too by using a preset consisting of settings I usually apply to most of the photos, like applying camera standard profile, lens correction, judicious amounts of contrast, clarity and vibrance. This drastically reduces the time I have to spend with the fine tuning of individual photos, such as white balance and exposure adjustments, vignetting or cropping if needed. This limited selection of the better shots makes it much more pleasant to experiment with settings and presets.

So is it a bad thing then?

Definitely no! Being an amateur is brilliant! You are not bound by expectations, you are allowed to make any mistake, you can define your own rules and aesthetics and if you remember why are you taking photographs, you might learn to love more of your not totally perfect pictures.

You are not pushed by the devil on your shoulder to achieve something unrealistic or uncomfortable, as you are given the opportunity to embark on a lifelong journey of trial and error and just enjoy the ride. And as a bonus you walk away with a portfolio of the precious, interesting and peculiar moments of your own life.

In the light of these, you might even want to consider a career change:

Become an amateur!

The recipe is simple: get to know your gear, use it for taking pictures and enjoy photography as much as I do!

 

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