Several years ago as I was just getting serious about photography, my only pieces of gear were a Nikon D200 and a 50mm lens. I was instantly enamored with the lens and almost overnight I stopped taking photos of my family and friends with a pocket camera. Instead, I preferred to bring my large DSLR setup with me everywhere because the resulting images were so good.
However, the more I used it the more I became aware of its limitations and I once told my friend Ryan, one of two people who were instrumental in getting me started on my path as a photographer, that I liked the lens but it wasn’t very well suited to wildlife photography.
He took umbrage with that assessment, and quite rightly so because that lens can be ideal for wildlife photography!
As I slowly reversed my position over the years I started to realize that the same principle holds true for all sorts of photography types. The camera gear you have, combined with the skills you possess, can work just fine if you simply adjust your perspective a bit.
Whether you like to shoot portraits, sports, wildlife, astrophotography, nature, still life, or any other kind of images you can probably find a way to make it happen with the gear already on your shelf. The first steps involve some mental adjustments that can be somewhat difficult to wrap your head around but make all the difference in the end.
Here are some tips to help you.
Define your terms
When I made that regretful statement about a 50mm lens not being suited for wildlife photography it was partly out of ignorance because I was a new photographer. But mostly it was because I didn’t understand what was meant by the term wildlife photography.
What I had in mind were images of lions, tigers, and bears set against sweeping African vistas. There was simply no way I could get shots like that with a 50mm lens while living in a small town in the middle of Oklahoma. What I realized over the years was that wildlife photography can mean many things, and I didn’t need to put that term in such a small, limiting box.
Instead, I decided to expand it to include animals I would encounter in my normal everyday routine and even bugs and insects that were literally in my very own backyard. The simple act of re-defining what I considered to be wildlife photography made all the difference in the world to me and has helped me get shots of which I am quite proud and now find great joy in pursuing.
What does it mean to you?
The question for other photographers in a similar situation then becomes: what does [insert type of photography] mean to you? If you want to start photographing people do you mean close-up headshots? Full-body pictures? Street photography? Parties and weddings?
You can even break this down further by looking at sub-genres and defining those terms to be what you want. When you think of a headshot your first mental image might be that of a magazine cover. But headshots can be any number of things and people can be photographed in infinite ways.
The same thing goes for other types of photography as well. You might think sports photography means prize-winning shots of soccer players scoring a goal. But it might also mean shooting an archery competition or even a chess match. And those require very different skills and equipment compared to a football match.
In short, don’t let your pursuit of a specific type of photography be defined by what you think it should mean or, even worse, what other people say. Let it be what you want it to be, then go out and pursue it.
Know what you’re working with
Along with knowledge of your own perceptions of a certain type of photography, it helps to have a solid understanding of the gear you own and the skills you possess. That way you can play to the strengths of what is available to you while also understanding areas in which you could improve.
As I started using my 50mm lens for more wildlife photography I developed a much clearer idea of what the lens could do and its limitations. That helped me understand the types of animal images I could get with it.
For example, instead of zooming in on animals that were far away I learned to be patient and find ways of physically getting closer to animals. That wasn’t always an easy task, but it taught me a lot about myself and my willingness to get the shot I wanted. It also helped me understand that my humble little 50mm lens was capable of a lot more than I initially gave it credit for.
The best camera is the one you have with you
Every now and then I would get lucky and have an animal cross my path. Then almost as if it were aware of what I was doing, it would pause and wait for a picture. Of course, this type of scenario is only possible if you have your camera with you instead of sitting on a shelf at home.
No matter what type of pictures you are pursuing, by not practicing and not having your camera with you it will not help you advance. I also learned to conquer some of my fears and do what it takes to get the shot even if it makes me uncomfortable.
I made this image of a snake after seeing it crawl across the street and into my front yard. Not knowing whether the snake was venomous or not (turns out it wasn’t) I made sure to keep my distance and have an escape plan ready. But I wasn’t about to let an interesting photo opportunity pass me by.
You’ll learn what gear you need
Several years ago I took the following picture of a spider outside my house and thought it was decent. But it was not nearly as good as it could have been because my lens would not focus any closer. (Are you seeing a theme here? You don’t need to go far to take wildlife photos!)
There were also problems with the picture from a compositional standpoint: the light is too harsh, the subject is somewhat unclear, and it’s not all that obvious exactly what is happening.
As I learned more about my gear while refining my skills I realized that I simply didn’t have what I needed to take close-up shots of bugs and insects. So I bought a set of close-up filters for about $35 that allowed me and 50mm lens to get much closer to subjects than before.
I also spent time studying light, composition, mood, emotion, and other principles of photography because I knew I had a lot to learn in those areas. The result is a similar image that I took recently which, in my opinion, is far superior to its earlier counterpart.
Use what you have to its potential
The lesson here is that you don’t necessarily need to buy new equipment to get the kinds of shots you want. But you do need to know how to use what you’ve got and what you know.
Are you shooting with the kit lens that came with your camera? That’s fine! Those lenses are great for wide-angle shots and short telephoto images, and you can get fantastic shots especially if you have plenty of light.
Your camera might even have features you don’t know about, like fast autofocus or good high ISO capabilities that would make it well suited for sports or nighttime photography. The more you learn about what you have, the more photographic possibilities you will see open up right in front of your eyes.
Manage your expectations
No matter what type of photography you want to pursue it is essential that you have your expectations in line with the reality of what you are attempting to do.
If you want to take amazing poster-worthy images of basketball players going for a slam dunk, by all means, go for it! Are you looking to capture some brilliant wedding photos and fun memories from the reception afterward? Or maybe you want to do like I did and get into photographing animals and wildlife.
Whatever type of photography you want to pursue, know that you won’t get from here to there overnight. Getting the pictures you want takes years of practice, education, and an intimate knowledge of what your photography gear can and can’t do.
Pursuing those photos is certainly a lofty and admirable goal and one that is obtainable given enough time and effort. But when you start out your photos will almost certainly not look like what you might be picturing in your mind.
Even if you can clearly define what you mean by portrait, sports, wedding, wildlife, landscape, real estate, or family photography and you have a solid understanding of your camera gear and your own abilities, your initial pictures will probably fall short of your expectations.
That’s perfectly fine, and it’s all part of the process of growing as a photographer. As long as you don’t let your initial shots get you down. Go into it with an understanding that you have time and room to grow. In the meantime, don’t let anyone tell you your pictures aren’t good enough, you don’t have the right gear, or you aren’t as skilled as you need to be.
What are some of your photography goals, and what are you doing to make those goals happen? Is there a type or style of photography you have always wanted to try but never thought you could do? Leave your thoughts in the comments below–I’d love to hear from the DPS community on this and hopefully help others find some encouragement and inspiration on their photographic journey.