10 things I wish I'd known when I started photography

First published:
March 4, 2022
February 14, 2024

10 things I wish I'd known when I started photography

First published:
March 4, 2022
February 14, 2024

Focus Editor Philip shares some of his best-gained advice for those just starting out on their photography journey

I've been taking photos now for almost 20 years, having started in my early teens after going on a school trip to Amsterdam when I took the family camera out by myself for the first time.

Since then, my photography journey has been a rollercoaster ride. I'm both self-taught and formally educated in the subject; I've had periods where I've photographed intensely doing multiple shoots a day, to stretches (which at one point lasted several years) where I hardly picked up the camera. I've had some great successes and some catastrophic failures, and throughout this time, I've both loved and hated photography. But even given all of the above, I’m still so pleased I decided to pursue my passion for photography and don’t regret that decision one bit.

Below are some of the key things I've learned throughout my time in photography, particularly the things I wish I'd known when I started, which I hope will inspire you with beginning your photography journey too.

1 What camera you have isn’t important when you begin, it’s all about learning the basics

When starting on your photography journey, it may be tempting to think that investing in the best equipment possible will yield the best results the fastest, but that’s entirely not the case.

"I thought I would need the fanciest camera equipment out there to take the best shots, but that turned out not to be true at all."

The key to successful photography is to learn the basics first, and the best way to do that is to use what you’ve already got available to you. Whether it’s your smartphone camera or an old compact tucked away in a drawer. Start there and once you’ve got a firm handle on the fundamentals, like shutter speed, aperture, and the basics of composition, you can look at expanding your kit.

I used my dad's old film SLR camera when I was just starting out with taking pictures. When I decided to take my photography more seriously, I began investing in more gear. I thought I would need the fanciest camera equipment out there to take the best shots, but that turned out not to be true at all.

One of my first shots taken on an old SLR camera - A misty day at Hunctliff, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, England, c. 2003
Learning the basics:

Visit our dedicated section of Focus for beginner guides on all the fundamentals of photography

2 What you like to photograph will change

I guarantee when you first pick up your camera with an idea of the type of photography you want to pursue, that will change over time.

The more you explore with the lens, the more you’ll get an idea of what you find visually appealing and what makes you tick, photographically speaking, that is.

Be open to this way of thinking, and don’t restrict yourself with what you photograph - enjoy the process of experimenting. And even when you’ve found a niche or particular area you’re interested in, whatever that is, you might find that you practice this one for a short period, and move on to something else afterwards.

Below are two images of mine, taken over ten years apart, that show just how much my style of photography has changed:

"Grainy and murky view of a car speeding through a street at night in Eastern Turkey, taken from a passing train" - photo by Philip Mowbray
"Ruins of a lead-smelting chimney among the blooming heather on a gentle evening in the Allen Valleys, Northumberland" - photo by Philip Mowbray

3 You’ll have days where you won't take any good images, but don’t get disheartened by that

Some days you’ll go out with your camera. Everything is an uphill battle - the weather conditions will be flat and uninspiring, or so chaotic you can’t even get out of the car, the light isn’t working, no matter how much you try, or you might find yourself at right place but at the wrong time where you miss that optimum moment by seconds.

"For me, if go out and take 300 photos and have just one that I’m happy with afterwards, I consider that shoot a success."

Every photographer will go through this, no matter how skilled or experienced. But don’t be downhearted; just think of this way, it’s still gaining experience behind the lens. And the more you’re out, and the more pictures you take, the higher the chance that at one point everything will come together, and you’ll get that fantastic shot you’ve been waiting for.

Even when a shoot feels like it’s working, not every image will be a keeper. That’s fine too. If I go out and take 300 photos and have just one that I’m happy with afterwards, I consider that shoot a success.

Sometimes you'll have days where you go out, and you just won't take any images you're happy with. That's fine, though. It happens to all of us and is part of the learning process. Many photographers (myself included) would consider a shoot a success even if there are only one or two good images

4 You’ll make plenty of mistakes and may have some outright disasters too

In all honesty, photography is fraught with things that can go wrong. You could drive for hours to a location and get there to find you’ve forgotten to pack a memory card, shoot on a day that’s just a bit too windy or forget to switch the focus mode, so every image turns out blurry and accidentally erase all of your best shots. It happens to the best of us. No matter how infuriating it is, just try to laugh it off and learn for the future.

"In all honesty, photography is fraught with things that can go wrong…"

Sometimes, however, you may experience disasters like your whole camera setup falling into a lake or slipping over and breaking the optics on your lenses and filters to the point of no return. These things are a bit more tricky to laugh off and, not to mention, can be very costly to rectify, but they do happen. And if you’re more prone to these types of accidents (like I seem to be), it may be worth going a little further to cushion any potential blows by having adequate insurance for your kit.

For the record, all of the above happened to me, but I managed to get over it and am still happily shooting!

"Wastwater, Lake District, England, 1 January 2021" - this was the last image I took before my entire camera, tripod and filter setup was swiftly blown into the lake. This accident resulted in cracked filters, a waterlogged camera body, and a lens broken to the point of no return. Luckily all could be repaired or replaced, and the memory card came out unscathed - photo by Philip Mowbray

5 You’ll feel like a failure at times, but that’s OK

They’ll be times on your photography journey where you'll feel like you've failed. You could, for example, shoot for a client only to find their response isn’t what you expected, submit your work to a magazine or gallery, or enter your images to a competition only to find you don’t hear anything back. You might also lose out on the sale of your photos for some indiscriminate reason, or receive critical feedback on your shots that you weren’t asking for.

The best way to overcome these feelings of failure is to pick yourself up, take it on the chin, and if you can, try better next time. Even the most successful photographers fail - often many, many times.

Again, all of the above have happened to me, and I had many times where I felt disheartened and wanted to give it all up, but I'm so glad I didn't.

My photographs displayed in a converted gallery space as part of a community project in Autumn 2010. This was one of my first successes after many failed attempts at getting my work seen

6 There’s no end to your photography journey -you’ll be constantly developing and evolving

Photography is an art form that constantly moves and changes, and so will you. There’s never going to be a point where you are content with what you shoot and how you take images. And you'll find that there will always be something else that you can be doing or something new that you can learn to push yourself further.

With this in mind, don’t give yourself restrictions by having too many end goals for your photography, embrace the fact that it’ll be a constantly evolving process and enjoy that.

A great way to see how much you've changed is to go back through your archive of images on occasion, and you'll see just how much your photography has developed over time.

Browsing your archive of images from time to time will remind you just how much your photography has evolved - plus, you might see a brilliant shot you'd previously overlooked!

7 Over time your skills will improve and you’ll be capable of things you never thought possible

When I started in photography, I would look at the images of others–incredible travel shots along wide epic, slick, beautifully-lit landscapes–and never thought for one second that I could ever get a result like theirs.

I was wrong about that, I found first-hand that the more you practice, the more you push yourself, the more you learn, try, experiment, and importantly, the more you’re willing to try, fail and get back up again, you can achieve anything.

Below is an example of two different shots of the same subject and from the same location, but photographed years apart:

The Whitby piers photographed in 2003 when I was just starting out in photography
The Whitby piers were re-photographed in 2020 using the skills I had learned over the years to capture a much more striking scene

8 Not everyone will share your artistic vision

As photographers, it’s easy to get attached to our images - particularly with the way they look, the stories behind them and what they mean to us personally. While those things might be important to you, not everyone who looks at your images will understand your artistic vision as much as you. I learned this first-hand when I was studying photography at university. It doesn't necessarily mean that people don't appreciate your images; they just may look at them differently.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having personal attachments to your images. However, when it comes to selling your work, particularly for commercial use or wall art, don’t just think about the shots that you like - think about the images that could appeal to a much broader audience.

When preparing to sell your images, don't just include your favourite shots or those that mean a lot to you personally. Make sure your offering appeals to as broad an audience as possible as it'll help you get more sales of your work
Further reading:

See our top tips on how to shoot photos for wall art.

9 Sometimes it’s better just to re-shoot

Take this scenario; you’ve gone and captured a beautiful scene that you’re pleased with; it could even be one of your best shots. But when you get back, you find something about the image isn’t quite right - whether it’s the positioning, exposure settings, or the light is just slightly off in some way - you then spend hours, literally hours trying to correct it, but it just doesn’t work.

"...it’s better to re-shoot rather than spend significant amounts trying to fix an image that just can’t be fixed."

This scenario happens to all photographers at some point, and if you can, it’s better just to cut your losses and go out and re-shoot the scene. As time-consuming as that might sound, it’s better to re-shoot rather than spend significant amounts trying to fix an image that just can’t be fixed. So if there’s an opportunity to try again, then do it.

See the example below, these two images of Berwick Lighthouse from October 2021 (top) and February 2022 (bottom). I had always wanted to visit this location for photography, but I just couldn't get the result I wanted with my first attempt. Rather than tirelessly trying to edit the first images to get the desired look, I decided it would be much better just to reshoot when I had the opportunity. I'm much happier with the result of the second attempt.

"The Lighthouse at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, England" - photographed on two separate occasions

10 Giving yourself some distance from your photography can be hugely beneficial

When I go out on a shoot, I like to wait a few days to look at the images on the screen afterwards. It’s easy to become attached to a shot the moment you’re taking it, and it’s a beautiful feeling. But putting some distance between the time of the shoot and the review of the images, you’ll find that you look at your shots with a much less emotive and more objective eye. If the emotion for a particular photo is still there, then great, but more often than not, you’ll find that there are other images from the shoot that catch your eye more.

"...putting some distance between the time of the shoot and the review of the images, you’ll find that you look at your shots with a much less emotive and more objective eye."

It’s also a good idea to give yourself a break from photography altogether from time to time. If you’re taking images round the clock and have photography constantly on your mind, it’s easy to get bogged down, and you could even start to find you enjoy it a little less. It happened to me; I would travel to a country and force myself to try and get brilliant shots everywhere I went, without actually experiencing the best of place. Learning to put the camera down and enjoy the locations I was in helped immensely in the long run.

Giving yourself a bit of a hiatus from your photography can be hugely beneficial. Like the above, you might find that with a bit of a break, you can look at what you’re doing with your photography more objectively and even find new ideas and inspiration during the process. As I said earlier, I once had a break of several years when it came to my photography. And I'm happy I did this as when I got back into it, I saw things with a completely new pair of eyes.

"Self-portrait with my Mamiya C330 film medium format camera in Bakuriani, Georgia, January 2011" - We all know how addictive photography can be! But don't be afraid to give yourself some time away from the camera and your images. Taking a break can let you see things from a completely different perspective

Final thoughts

I hope some of this advice will be useful to you as you go on your photography journey. I hope it will also inspire you that when things go wrong, or when you feel like turning the camera in altogether, you can pick yourself up and move forward with a bit of time, perspective, and reflection.

Everyone is different, and you may find that as you develop, you could learn things entirely different that will be a breakthrough for how you work–that’s the great thing about photography too. Every person and every journey is unique.

So keep shooting, keep pushing yourself, and don’t give up.

Get 50% off Picfair Plus with the code UPGRADE-50
Click to Redeem