Photo: maradon 333/Shutterstock

Travel Photography Tip: How to Look Like a Beginner Photographer

by Kate Siobhan Mulligan Apr 3, 2013
Get more advice on how not to look like a n00b in the MatadorU Travel Photography program.

Reality check: Any photographer who sneers at someone trying to learn the craft needs to check themselves. Everyone has to start at the bottom and pay their dues. Most of us do this by making a long series of mistakes and slowly, but surely, making them less and less often. Photography is a journey, and travel photography is an especially bumpy road.

Even though mistakes are going to happen, that doesn’t mean newbies can’t try to avoid some of the more common — and obvious — ones. I polled my colleagues for 9 stereotypical ways people “give away” that they’re just starting out (the quotes are theirs, the text mine).

This is not to get up on a high horse, but rather to provide a little road map, which will hopefully help beginners dodge some of these potentially embarrassing bullets, as well as show why exactly they are mistakes, and therefore facilitate progression.

1. “Fire your flash.”

– MatadorU Director of Photography Colby Brown

Because we all know the perfect technique to light up the Taj Mahal is with the pop-up flash on a mid-range DSLR.

Seriously though, this is a great way to out yourself. One, it actually emits a light to physically draw people’s eyes back to you, like waving a white surrender flag. Two, since it’s obvious firing the flash won’t do a thing, it most certainly informs those around you that you’re shooting on Auto. That you’ve invested in gear, planned this trip, and traveled this far, to shoot in Auto.

If this is you, you should probably read all about shutter speed, aperture, and the exposure triangle.

2. “Step into another photographer’s shot.”

– Michael Bonocore

It’s the best way to make new friends. Just totally #bonocorebomb it.

Or not. It’s just a process of learning to be aware of your surroundings, thinking like a photographer, and respecting that everyone here wants to get a good shot.

This is especially true if that little red light is on, for a long exposure. Wasting a literal split second of someone’s time is one thing, but ruining a 30-second or 3-minute exposure is frustrating on a whole other level.

3. “Be a settings peeker.”

Elia Locardi

Move just a little awkwardly close to the photographers around you and sneak a peek at their settings. Don’t ask, or start up a conversation, or introduce yourself. Just lean in a little bit, they won’t notice.

Except, they will. And it’s creepy. And it’s super annoying — if another photographer has gone out of their way to understand the subject at hand and carefully select precise settings, trust us, they don’t want you lurking around trying to copy.

That’s assuming you do the creepy lean-in. A solution is to say hello and introduce yourself. Or some other small talk: “Beautiful, eh?” for example. A bit of chit chat, and then slide into “So…mine are coming out kind of dark. How about you?” or even “I’m kind of new at this. Do you mind telling me what settings you’ve got going on?”

4. “Come completely unprepared.”

– Todd Sipes

Nothing says beginner like the groan that marks a dead battery. Or the sound of someone spitting into their t-shirt and then “cleaning” the lens with it because it’s all fogged up. Or the string of expletives that roll out when the only card brought is full.

Prepare. Pack your bag and be meticulous. Pack extra batteries and extra cards. Pack any lens you own and might want. Pack a cloth to wipe your lens, and a rain cover. Pack an air-blower to help with a foggy lens. Pack a tripod. Pack any filters you may want. Upload your cards, back them up, and clear them.

Just be prepared. That may mean buying more gear (like more batteries, or lens wipes). You may have to learn through trial and error a few times before you get a sense of how sucky it is to be that person. That person who’s missed the epic shot because “Card Full” popped up. Don’t be that person.

5. “Shoot a slow shutter speed, handheld.”

– Tyson Jerry

Ahh, there’s nothing like cradling your camera and listening to that long, awkward 1” shutter release — just chock-full of blurry goodness.

Except it comes as an announcement to anyone in earshot that — just like firing a flash — you’re probably shooting on Auto (or Program), or at least your settings are not what they should be. Or, potentially, that you’re a master yogi with unbelievable powers of perfect balance.

But hey, tripods are so annoying to carry around, right?

Only that bringing a tripod will open up more options for settings, letting you keep your ISO low and your quality high. You might not always need a tripod — there are many situations where you don’t, and lots of sites don’t allow them anyway. But, if you’re serious about photography, you should probably always have one on you — at the very least a monopod, or a Joby, or hell, a towel to rest the camera on — especially for sunrise or sunset, when less light is available.

Or if you just don’t have one on you, two options:

  1. Open your aperture wide and boost your ISO to get a maximum shutter speed. How high should your ISO be? Read that here.
  2. Try pulling your arms in tight to your chest and exhaling as you take the shot. Use the two-second delay to avoid shaking the camera as you trip the shutter.
6. “Come late or leave early.”

– Casey McCallister

Just hit the snooze button again and be sure to arrive right after the good light is gone. And then wonder why all the photographers seem to be packing up.

Epic light happens just before, and just after, sunrise and sunset. And then it’s gone for the day. You can shoot at other times, but unless you’re doing it on purpose (say, to make use of shadows), you’ll likely come away with medicore shots.

Everything looks better at the crack of dawn, or the end of the day. As an old saying goes, “F/8 and Be There.” Research: time, place, season, angle. And then get there. And plan accordingly — account for travel time, traffic, missed buses, and any other delays.

Don’t be the last one to the party. But a grave mistake is also thinking, “Well, that’s probably as good as it’s gonna get.” If there are professional-looking folks around you who aren’t packing up, it’s not over yet. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to pack up a location, be en route somewhere else (like your bed), and then look up to see a fire red or blazing pink sky, or other epic light occurring.

7. “Reserve credit for the gear.”

Jordan Oram

If the person next to you has a professional body and stellar lenses, and a great image up on their LCD, you should totally give credit to the gear. Photographers love that.

Or maybe they don’t. “Wow, that picture is amazing. You’ve got a great camera!” is not really a compliment. You wouldn’t tell a chef they must have an amazing stove, for example. Jamie Oliver can produce world-class cuisine in his top-notch professional kitchen, or with one pan on a firepit in his backyard. So telling a photog the good image is due to the good gear implies the artist, behind the camera, had nothing to do with it.

Yes, high-end gear is capable of doing amazing things. In the right hands. Anybody with a bit of cash can sink $6k into gear and never produce a good photo. It’s okay to want to own a better camera one day, but don’t let your gear-coveting blind you from giving credit where credit is due: to the photographer.

8. “Don’t pay attention.”

Toby Harriman

Whether it’s checking your phone, or checking every single exposure on the LCD screen, or trying to find a setting, or actually bringing out your manual or a book to look something up, not paying attention to the scene before you is a great way to miss out on all the good stuff.

Sunrises and sunsets might seem “slow,” but the best light is often just for 30 seconds to a few minutes and is easy to miss. If you’re shooting a sports event, festival, or anything else fast-paced, you need to be on top of your settings, and composition, every second. Don’t be the person fumbling to get their gear in place just half a second too late.

A common distraction is the LCD screen. Yes, this is a cool advancement for photography, but staring at it after each image not only implies you’re not confident about your settings, but also leaves you vulnerable to missing the next moment. As well, seasoned photogs know the LCD screen is a liar. So while they may review their histograms, or the odd image to check composition, most of their focus will be on the scene before them. Watching, waiting, and just being aware of what’s occurring.

Same goes for whipping out a photography book or (god forbid) your manual, or scrolling through your camera menu. Practice finding those settings beforehand. Your eyes can’t be on the scene and buried in a book or searching for settings at the same time. You can find it later, and try again another time. For now, be focused.

9. “Start freaking out.”

– Vincent McMillen

This is the best way to look like a beginner. When something does go wrong — and it will — just start freaking out. Get really flustered and exasperated. Talk to yourself under your breath. Maybe sweat a little bit, and cuss a few times for good measure. Pretty much appear to have a full-on panic attack, get super stressed out, and don’t enjoy any of the moment.

Or. You could do your best, and then be content taking in the beauty of wherever your are. If you go prepared, do some research, give yourself time, and take a breath, you’ll come away with something. Or maybe you won’t. But grow from that.

We don’t progress only in consistently taking better pictures. We progress from failing, from messing up or forgetting or brain freeze or being unprepared and missing out on a potentially great shot. But if you dissect that, use that, and grow from it, you’ll avoid making the same mistakes. And that’s the journey. * With experienced faculty, a robust curriculum, and an active and networking community of fellow photographers, the MatadorU Travel Photography program will teach you how to become a travel photographer.

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