Whether you’re a college student with dreams of shooting editorial for a world-class publication or an amateur landscape photographer and hobbyist looking to take your skills to the next level and carve a career out of photography, learning photography to a professional standard is not an easy undertaking, however, it’s essential if you really want to compete with the big guys and girls.
This guide will teach guide you through how to learn photography like a pro.
Photography is an intricate skill that not only requires a creative eye but a repertoire of assets, including fantastic equipment, the ability to multi-task, a true passion for the industry, and an insight into the tricks of the trade and how to take your run of the mill photograph to new heights.
In this article, we’ll guide you through the different stages of upping your photography game in hope that you’ll take our advice and carve a professional photography career out for yourself.
First thing’s first…
Learning the Basics of Photography
To kick off your photography career to a flying start, you’ll want to familiarise yourself with the very basics of photography – you shouldn’t even begin thinking about capturing your first series of images until you have a basic understanding of what photography is from a technical standpoint.
Familiarise yourself with different types of cameras
There are numerous types of cameras suited to different experience levels and each camera provides a different outcome, with some lacking in or having additional features to others. Here’s a quick guide:
Standard compact point and shoot cameras
Classic compact digital cameras are not only incredibly cheap but are easy to use and come with an array of features to help you achieve the best outcome. Typically, a compact digital camera will have a 4-10x zoom lens (up to 30x zoom if you choose a special zoom compact camera), flash, and an LCD screen.
If you don’t mind spending a little more, you can even pick-up a point and shoot camera with HD video capability. However, despite the long list of perks, point and shoot cameras are simply not an option for a professional photographer as they do not allow for lens changes and come with very small sensors that will rarely be able to capture a very high-resolution, professional-quality image.
If you’re at the very beginning of your photography career and want to begin getting a feel for how images are captured and how light and angle will affect the outcome, pick-up a cheap digital camera but, as soon as you get the chance, invest in something more substantial.
If you’re especially interested in travel photography, compact adventure cameras are a starter option and allow for use during windy, rainy, and freezing cold climates. However, they are still not a serious choice for a professional photographer so, again, keep this type of camera for personal use only.
Advanced compact point and shoot cameras
A little higher in price but still affordable, advanced compact point and shoot cameras are limited in features, however, thanks to their superior sensors, can capture professional-standard images using an array of features such as a quality viewfinder, ensuring your image is sharp in all the right places.
If you’re serious about being a photographer, this is a great place to start.
Mirrorless Compact System Cameras
An increasingly popular alternative for professional photographers seeking a lightweight camera, mirrorless compact system cameras benefit from changeable lenses and a much lower price point than professional SLR cameras.
Better still, mirrorless compact system cameras have most of the same features as an SLR camera and capture professional quality photographs, making them a great choice if you’re looking to move on from a standard compact camera but haven’t yet saved enough for the ultimate SLR camera.
The industry preference for amateur and professional photographers alike, DSLR cameras enable you to create incredibly high-quality, professional-standard images thanks to their in-depth range of features.
All DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses, allowing you to adapt your camera perfectly depending on your subject, location, and desired outcome.
Standard DSLR cameras feature an APS-C sensor while the most elaborate DSLR cameras tend to benefit from a full-frame sensor – the same type found in 35mm film.
The only downside of DSLR cameras is that they can be very heavy and bulky to carry, which is why some professional photographers are now choosing to work with a mirrorless compact system camera.
Medium Format Cameras
If money is no object, medium format cameras are the best of the best and will capture a quality image that no other form of camera can compete with. However, they can set you back tens of thousands and, therefore, tend to only be used by commercial photographers that can command excessive rates thanks to their reputation and, usually, household fame.
Even if you’re a serious photographer, don’t feel you need a costly medium format camera – they truly are a rarity.
If you’re unsure which camera is best for you, refer to Digital Photography School’s Beginners Guide to Different Types of Digital Cameras.
Find out about different camera lenses and what they do
As a photographer, lenses will become your most treasured items. Different camera lenses allow you to tailor your images depending on lighting, angle, and the overall image you’re looking to achieve. The camera lenses you will come across early in your career include:
- Standard Zoom Camera Lens – Typically, your DSLR or mirrorless compact system camera will come with a lens and that lens is, most likely, a standard zoom lens. Standard zoom lenses have a focal range of 35-70mm and provide a natural outcome best suited to flatter settings and lower light. Most professional photographers suggest a 50mm standard zoom lens in a 35mm format as the standard, allowing you to create a natural image similar to that of which your own eyes can see.
- Wide Angle Lens – If you’re looking to show more background in your images or want to place your subject in a situation, giving your photos more depth, a wide-angle lens is a great option and has a focal length of 24-35mm. Wide angle lenses are particularly useful when capturing vast landscapes where there’s plenty to see.
- If you want to capture an incredibly wide photograph, consider an ultra-wide angle lens.
- Telephoto Lenses – Perfect if you’re capturing images where you would like to focus in on an individual subject surrounded by a blurred background and foreground, telephoto lenses are ideal for sports and wildlife photography as they don’t require you to get too close to your subject to capture a high-quality photo. Typically, telephoto lenses are available with a focal length of 70mm, however, the professional standard is those which have a focal length of 135mm or more.
- Superzoom lens – One of the most versatile types of lenses out there, the superzoom lens can shoot both far away and close subjects seamlessly. If you’re shooting in a location where you’d prefer not to have all your lenses with you, such as a hectic urban environment, superzoom lenses are a great option and help to keep your kit light. However, it’s important to remember that this type of versatility comes with a catch. Superzoom lenses do not offer the same quality as specialist telephoto or wide lenses so, whenever possible, always try and choose specialist lenses to ensure the best outcome.
- Macro lens – Ideal for close-up photography such as portraits or close-up nature photography, macro lenses offer a focal length of 40-200mm, however, they have a very limited depth of field which can lead to close-up images having a very specific focus point while the rest of the image is blurred. For the best results, use a macro lens when focusing on very small objects such as the head of a flower or individual petals, for instance.
For a comprehensive guide to the different types of camera lenses, see Photography Mad.
Get to know the different camera settings and what they do
One of the biggest mistakes amateur photographers make is using camera settings incorrectly, resulting in a run of the mill photograph. For the best results, clue yourself up on the different camera settings and what they mean, and always spend some time setting your camera up before a shoot, tailoring the settings to the subject, light, and image type.
Pre-programmed Subject Settings
Whether you’re using a standard point and shoot camera or a professional DSLR camera, your camera will come with pre-programmed settings that you can select based on your image subject for the best outcome.
If you’re shooting landscapes, fast-paced action, close-up, or portrait images, your camera will have a setting you just have to click on to enable.
These pre-programmed settings can make or break a photo so make sure you’ve selected the correct one before you begin shooting – unless you have the knowledge to program your camera yourself.
Focusing your camera
Most cameras will allow you to choose either manual focus or automatic focus, which will help determine the point of focus in your image. If you’re starting out, automatic focus is always a good shout as your camera has advanced tech and is programmed to ensure the best visual outcome.
However, if you think you have a better visual sense of direction or want to focus on an area of the photograph your automatic settings are not picking up, select manual focus and you will be able to manually select the area of focus in your image.
Aperture and what it means
One of the most technically difficult aspects of photography to grasp is aperture, however, once you’ve harnessed the power of selecting the correct aperture, you’ll be unstoppable (sort of).
In simple terms, aperture determines the amount of light that gets into your camera, thereby altering the depth of field in your image. The smaller the aperture, the smaller the depth of field, resulting in an incredibly focused image – large aperture means high depth of field, perfect if you’re looking to focus on a wide view or add a sharp background to your image.
The standard aperture setting will be between F8 and F11 and is suitable for most subjects, however, if you’re shooting portraits or close-ups, you’ll want to set an aperture of between F1.4 and F5.6. If you’re shooting landscapes, we recommend an aperture of between F11 and F22 – for the sharpest image possible, choose the highest aperture of F22.
Closely linked to aperture, shutter speed determines how long your camera sensor is exposed to light which can alter the sharpness of your image.
Typically, you’ll want to achieve a very sharp photo, in which case you will want to select the highest shutter speed possible. However, if you are shooting in low light and want to make sure your image has minimal noise, resulting in a softer image, you will want to choose a lower shutter speed such as 1/3th of a second.
This is also the case if you’re shooting art photography and want to forcibly blur your image.
ISO and what it means
An effortless way to manipulate light to your advantage, ISO is simply defined as light sensitivity. The lower your ISO, the less sensitive your camera sensor is to light and the higher, the more sensitive your lens is to light.
If you’re shooting in a dim light and can’t or don’t want to use flash, you can increase your ISO to make sure your final image isn’t too dark. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the higher the ISO, the grainier your image will be – that is why it’s so important to shoot in the correct natural light to avoid having to manipulate your ISO settings too much.
To find out more about the different camera settings, refer to the SLR Photography Guide.
Learn about lighting and how it will affect your images
Whether you’re shooting in daylight or artificial light, there are a few things you need to keep in mind to ensure the best outcome.
If you are shooting using natural sunlight, you will come across several problems, including having your lens blinded, making it near impossible to create a clear image.
In this case, you can manipulate the natural sunlight by changing the direction or angle you’re shooting at to ensure the sunlight is less direct – a lens hood is the perfect way to shield your lens from the sunlight.
A simple way to avoid problems with natural sunlight is to move into the shade, however, if you’re unable to move your subject, consider using a reflector to reflect the sunlight away from your subject.
In simple terms, back lighting is when the subject of your image is lit from behind. Typically, the light will be directly behind your camera with the subject of your photo between you and the light.
When using back lighting, ensure that the light source isn’t directly visible in your image or is blocked by your subject to create a white “halo” around your subject for a dramatic finish with depth without blinding your sensor.
One of the most popular forms of photography lighting, front lighting is exactly what it says on the tin: your subject is lit from the front.
However, front lighting can lead to an image that lacks depth, creating a two-dimensional finish without layers. If this is the case, you may want to consider lighting your subject from the side for the best of both worlds.
Making the most of shadows, side lighting allows you to create a multi-layered three-dimensional image that brings the subject closer as if you were watching a nature documentary in HD.
If you are in an intricate setting where there are multiple points of interest, side lighting is a brilliant choice.
Light from above is very common and can often cause excessive shadows in your images, which is why it’s best to shoot first thing in the morning or in the late afternoon when the sunlight is angled. If you want to create a very dramatic image, shooting at midday when the sun is at its highest is best.
To find out more about natural lighting and how it will affect your images, explore this useful article from Digital Photography School: Are you practicing these 5 natural lighting tips?
In addition to natural light, there are a variety of artificial lighting sources you can use to manipulate your photographs for varying outcomes. Keeping scrolling to find out more.
As a photographer, your visual intuition and equipment is all you have, which is why it’s essential to invest in the correct photography equipment early on – learn how everything from your camera to lighting and editing software works before you set out to become a photography sensation. After all, first impressions count so why not give yourself the best chance to impress by creating great images from the get-go?
Invest in professional photo editing software
Many professional photographers will tell you that photography is, in fact, 30% on-set and 70% in the editing room – sad but true. Of course, some create fantastic natural images, however, those natural photography successes are few and far between – typically, all images will require some level of editing, even if it’s just slight tweaks to the lighting. When starting out, you will want to invest in and master the God of all photo editing software: Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop offers everything you could possibly need to make your photographs pop on every level, however, it is a difficult one to master and will require time and dedication, but it’ll be well worth the effort.
Photoshop can be costly; however, Adobe does offer a brilliant photography package which includes Photoshop and its slightly simpler counterpart, Lightroom. If you’re dubious about the power of photo editing software, to begin with, try a free photo editor such as GIMP.
Choosing the right camera
There are thousands of types of cameras out there, however, we always recommend spending a reasonable amount of money on a DSLR camera. The benefits of purchasing a DSLR camera from the get-go is that you will be able to begin familiarising yourself with standard settings and purchasing a range of lenses to try out, which you can then compile down as your photography skills develop.
When you first found an interest in photography, it’s likely you did so by experimenting with your smartphone camera or point and shoot digital camera, however, if you want to play big, a DSLR camera is essential. Worried about price? Don’t be! There are a huge variety of DSLR cameras on the market, all varying in price. To begin with, you can pay only hundreds while you save for something more substantial that could set you back thousands, depending on the features you’re looking for.
- Cameras for beginners: If you’re looking to purchase your first ever DSLR camera, you’ll want something that matches your level of experience. The Nikon D3300 DSLR camera is a brilliant option for beginners, packed with features and a terrific 24-megapixel sensor to ensure ultimate image clarity. The Nikon D3300 also allows you to shoot 1080p film if that’s an aspect of visual creation you’re looking to explore.
- Cameras for intermediate photographers: If you’ve had fun playing with your first ever DSLR and are looking to take things to the next level with a piece of kit that packs a punch, you should consider the Canon EOS 7D Mark II DSLR camera. The Mark II gives you access to 10fps shooting and a professional-level auto-focus system, ideal for shooting action.
- Cameras for professionals: If you’re ready to compete with some of the world’s top photographers and want to do so affordably, we recommend the Canon EOS 5DS DSLR camera – a remarkable professional offering from Canon that is well worth the money. Capturing expert-level 50.6 megapixel images and with a shooting speed of 5fps, this camera will help take your images to the next level. However, it doesn’t allow for HD video so do keep this in mind if you’re a budding film-maker.
Remember: Whichever camera you choose, you will need a variety of lenses to match to ensure ultimate versatility when shooting. To find out which lenses you should invest in, keep scrolling.
Choosing the right lenses
There is a huge assortment of lenses you could pick-up to assist you in creating the perfect image, however, really, there are just three types of everyday lenses you need to keep your shooting style versatile.
- General Purpose Zoom Lens – First and foremost, you need a good general purpose zoom lens. Typically, your DSLR camera will come with a reasonable quality general purpose zoom lens but, if not, you will need to invest in one as it’s this lens you will use day-to-day. Ideally, you need a general-purpose zoom lens that has a shooting width of 18-50mm or, for a 35mm camera, 24-70mm. This will give you good adaptability for a variety of shooting types. If your budget is tight, the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens is a good choice for a wide range of focal lengths while providing great image quality, too. If you’re happy to spend that little bit more and want not only a wide range of focal lengths but also brilliant image stability and focusing, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens is terrific.
- Macro Lens – If you’re looking to create commercial photographs, such as product shots, or want the ability to shoot close-up, you need a good macro lens in your kit. Ideally, you want a macro lens with a focal length of at least 50mm and an aperture of at least 2.8. A good, affordable choice of macro lens is the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens. This lens has an excellent, versatile focal length of 60mm and is fairly compact, helping to keep the weight of your kit down. If you’re happy to spend a little more and don’t mind the extra weight, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro Is UsM EOS Mount 35mm SLR Zoom Lens has a superb 3.2 maximum aperture.
- Telephoto Zoom Lens – If you’re hoping to shoot subjects that are further away than usual or moving, such as animals or sports, you will need a telephoto zoom lens with a 70-200mm range and a maximum aperture of 4.0 at least. If you have plenty of pounds to play with, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens is one of the best on the market for ultimate clarity and accuracy. However, if you have a much lower budget, don’t fear! The Sony SEL55210 E 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS E-Mount Lens is affordable and has impressive specs for a beginner lens, including an 82.5-315mm focal length and a maximum aperture of f/6.3, well above the recommended average.
There are a variety of other lenses you can pick-up, however, these three types will have you covered for most professional projects.
Whether you’re shooting indoors or outdoors predominately, you’re going to need some basic lighting equipment to kick things off.
- Speedlight – Also known as an on-camera flash, speedlights are a type of small strobe light that, despite the name, can be used both on and off the camera body. Speedlights are the perfect way to light your subject without having to carry around heavy studio lights. Better still, speedlights are most cost-effective than larger strobe lights. The Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT Flash is compact and covers a wide range of 24-105mm.
- Large Softbox – If you’re shooting inside, a large softbox is essential for most shoots, giving your images a natural finish that is both adaptable and soft. Rather than blinding your subject, softboxes add a light shimmer to the image, diffusing any harsh light in the process. A large softbox won’t cost the world. The Elinchrom Rotalux 100cm Octagonal Softbox is a fantastic option and very easy to transport.
- Lightbox – If you’re planning on shooting product photography, you will want a basic lightbox set-up which includes multiple lamps with white fluorescent bulbs, a white nylon light tent, and multiple nylon sheets varying in colour for versatility.
There are a variety of other types of lighting you can purchase, however, to begin with, the above will keep everything running smoothly.
In addition to the essential photography equipment listed above, you may want to invest in some of the following extras that will help to ensure a seamless introduction to professional photography:
- Protective camera bag
- Cushioned camera strap
- Backup batteries
- Multiple SD cards (minimum 32GB)
- Online storage such as Dropbox
- Light reflector
- Multiple paper photography backgrounds
- Large light umbrella
In most cases, your DSLR camera will come with an SD card and high-quality camera strap so do check before purchasing extras.
Becoming a Photography Pro
Once you have purchased, tried, and tested all your photography equipment, it is essential that you pour everything you have into becoming a professional photographer, which means years of practice. After all, world-class photographers can spend 20-30 years in the making.
Take your camera everywhere and practice photography every day
As with most skills, practice makes perfect. If you’re serious about building your photography skills to a professional level, you must practice every day, which can be difficult if you’re working full-time.
However, practising every day doesn’t mean creating professional images every day – you simply need to spend at least an hour every day playing with your camera indoors and outdoors, familiarising yourself with your camera settings, lenses, and lighting.
Whether you’re capturing breath-taking landscape images or taking a snap of your dog running in the garden, it’s all experience. Each week, choose an image or two you particularly like and edit it, familiarising yourself with the different possibilities on Photoshop.
Tip: When editing your photographs, to begin with, focus on lighting before advancing to colour alteration or even cut-outs.
Try different styles of photography before choosing your “niche”
Most photographers have a “niche”; however, it rarely starts out that way. When you begin taking photos, you should aim to photograph everything, even if it doesn’t interest you. If you want to be a fashion photographer, that’s great! However, initially, better your skills by taking photos of buildings, landscapes, portraits, and even food to perfect your understanding of lighting and composition.
As soon as you feel your composition skills have been built to a professional standard, you can start considering your “niche”. Different types of photography that you may want to explore include:
- Documentary photography
- Food photography
- Fashion photography
- Architectural photography
- Landscape photography
- Fine art photography
- Product photography
If you’re looking for a practical focus, product photography is a fantastic way to earn an income from your skill. However, if you’re embarking on a career as a professional product photography, you will want to perfect your cutting skills on Photoshop, as well as your understanding of studio lighting and how to use a lightbox. Other types of photography, including fashion photography and landscape photography, are much more difficult to excel in, however, that doesn’t mean you can’t give it a go.
Remember: The bigger your portfolio, the more chance you have of securing paid work as a photographer!
To polish off your skills, attend photography workshops
If you want to cement your path as a professional photographer, you can polish off your skills with supervision when you embark on a photography workshop. Ranging from two days to several months, photography workshops are available for a range of niches and techniques, and will help you to further develop and perfect your skills to a professional standard. Better still, photography workshops are a fantastic way to meet other budding photographers and can be a sociable way to enter the industry.
Photography workshops you can explore include:
- Child Portrait Photography
- Beginners Guide to Product Photography
- Pinhole Photography
- Introduction to Lightroom
- Running your own Photographic Business
- Editing Techniques
- Wedding Photography
- Art Nude Photography
- Introduction to Photoshop
- Introduction to your Digital Camera
And there are hundreds more! Discover more on the Royal Photographic Society’s website.
Stumped for ideas? Not sure how to use black and white photography techniques in your work? You just need a dash of inspiration and you’ll be flying! Like all creative industries, photography requires inspiration and, as a budding photographer, it’s your job to keep the creative juices flowing, which means taking the time to consume other forms of media, other photographer’s work, and specialist photography events that will help to keep the ideas coming. These might help:
Photography Books and Magazines
There are hundreds of photography magazines and books out there, however, we have a handful of favourites that will help to keep you inspired while teaching you about photography technique, new industry developments, and other photographer’s work.
- Amateur Photographer – Packed with top tips for amateur photographers, including news, camera reviews, lens reviews, and expert interviews, Amateur Photographer is the go-to publication for all amateur photographers.
- 20th Century Photography – Created by Steven Heller, this book is the ultimate guide to photography in the 20th century, featuring hundreds of industry-defining images from renowned photographers such as Ansel Adams and Piet Zwart. If you’re looking to explore ground-breaking photography techniques and how they alter composition, this is essential.
- The Beginner’s Photography Guide – If you’re looking to harness the power of your DSLR camera, pick-up a copy of Chris Gatcum’s best-selling guide to photography which will guide you through the essential steps to becoming a professional photographer.
- Aesthetica Magazine – Particularly encapsulating if your interest lies in fashion and art photography, Aesthetica Magazine is a leading art, design and photography magazine released bi-monthly and is packed with inspiring editorials.
- National Geographic – If your heart lies in travel or nature photography, subscribe to National Geographic. The pages of this magazine feature some of the best nature and geographic photography in the world – this is the level you need to aspire to.
The above are just some of our favourites, however, if you are interested in a particular area of photography, such as fashion, travel, food, or wedding photography, try and pick-up one or two relevant magazines every month to keep the inspiration coming.
Useful online photography resources
As well as exploring print media, you can keep updated with photography news and work online, too. Better still, if you’re looking at photography as a business, there are a variety of services you should embrace. Some fantastic online resources include:
- Digital Photography Review – Perfect for tried and tested digital photography equipment reviews, in-depth video tutorials, and busy forums where you can discuss with amateur and professional photographers alike.
- Digital Photography School – Packed with photography tips and guides, Digital Photography School was founded by digital photography enthusiast Darren Rowse. Again, this fantastic resource has an active forum where you can discuss with other photography experts.
- Dropbox – One of the world’s leading image storage and sharing services, Dropbox is a way to securely store your images online, helping to free up your memory card space. Better still, you can share your images and folders easily with clients and friends. Dropbox’s paid plans start with a whopping 1TB space, however, there are unlimited storage plans available, too.
- The Law Tog – If you’re concerned about the legalities of your images, copyright, image sharing, and almost all other legal aspects of photography, Rachel Brenke has you covered.
- Pinterest – An effortless way to market your photography skills, Pinterest allows you to upload images which consumers and businesses can then “pin”, increasing your popularity and engagement. However, don’t forget to add a watermark to your photos before uploading!
For more fantastic photography resources, explore Digital Photography School.
Just keep taking pictures!
That is all there is to it! Clue yourself up on the different aspects of photography, including the gear, before purchasing your perfect kit.
Once you’ve done that, practice your skills every day. And remember, don’t forget to have fun! You’ll be a photography pro in no time.