We learn from our mistakes.

We grow in asking questions.

And we can encourage others forward by being open about our journeys and aha! moments in photography.

While the basics come easy now, there will always be more for me to learn and always new ways to grow. That’s something that gets me excited each and every time I pick up my camera.

1. Auto Flash

Please tell me I’m not the only one guilty of holding down that pop-up flash when taking a picture. When I first started photography, the flash on my camera was my biggest nemesis. My children always had these horrible little white (or red) circles in their eyes and the shadows—don’t get me started on the shadows. All of my images looked, well, they looked completely flashy.

photos with the pop up flash on

To be honest, when I bought my first DLSR, I figured all of my photography troubles were over.

In my mind, I could shoot in auto and the camera would automatically do what it was supposed to in order to create the perfect, professional looking image.

It never occurred to me that photographing in auto mode severely limited my control over not only my camera, but how my images would turn out. It was like I was only using just a small portion of the features available to me with this new machine.

So I read up, joined Clickin Moms, and devoured all that I could. If I was going to own a fancy camera (as my husband often called it), I knew I needed to take control over it. Learning to shoot in manual mode was the next step.

But as all learning processes go, it wasn’t without a bit of struggle along the way.

2. Slow Shutter Speed

I figured with this new camera that I’d be able to click, click, click, and could finally capture those fleeting moments that my point and shoot often failed to. I also knew that switching out of auto mode would give me more control, but I wasn’t exactly certain what to do with this new power.

I’d figured out how to let more light into my lens by twisting some of the dials, and that was a good first step. Exposure wise, things looked deceivingly decent. So imagine my surprise when every single image taken was a blurred mess. I’d heard that shutter click quickly, so what was the deal? My subjects were fuzzy, my images lacked focus.

blurry photos from a too slow shutter speed

It was a little something called shutter speed, a foreign term to me at the time. I had no clue what 1/5000 meant, much less 1/250 or 1/60. When we were talking fractions of a second, it all seemed fast to me. All I knew with my limited shooting-in-manual-mode knowledge was that when I dialed that shutter speed down, my images were suddenly brighter. So that’s what I routinely did.

This was before I grasped the important relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO—otherwise known as the exposure triangle. It was also before someone gave me the handy tip to never let my shutter drop below 1/250 when photographing children (not a hard and fast rule by any means, but it was a great starting point for me as a beginner and helped me grasp the importance of shutter speed selection in relation to my subject’s movement). Once I learned that these other factors worked together to allow light into my lens, I was able to capture the sharp and steady images I’d dreamed of taking with my new camera.

Learn more about the exposure triangle here.

sharp photo with a fast shutter speed by Megan Squires

3. Over Processing

So now that I could take a somewhat decent image, the real fun came: post processing. Holy Editing Batman! When my kiddos were little, either they actually looked like porcelain dolls with their too-smooth skin and over-sharpened, brilliantly white eyes in real life, or it was a case of me being all too eager to test out the latest action set I’d purchased. I’m sure I’m not the only one with images like these. And while I’m all for finding your style and playing around artistically, as newbies, we can definitely benefit from the less-is-more mentality. For me personally, much of my processing was the result of attempting to “fix” my images. Instead of getting it completely right in camera, I figured I could make it right during the editing process.

examples of photos with too much editing

The first step in combating this over-processing addiction was to learn how to properly expose an image. Having a good grasp on the exposure triangle helped me produce images that eventually needed little—if any—editing to get them to the desired end result. Another step was to learn how to select my focal point. When eyes weren’t tack sharp straight out of the camera, I tried to make them that way in my edits. This is one of the most common things I see in all of my beginner work and it noticeably stands out. The eyes of a subject are often the first things a viewer connects with, and if they don’t appear believably life-like, the viewer will instantly notice.

It took several years of practice and patience, but editing is now a much cleaner, faster, and oftentimes even unnecessary process.

gentle processing example by Megan Squires

4. Blowing Highlights

One of the many things I often attempted to “fix” in post-processing were those bright white portions of my images. I couldn’t understand why—even when I adjusted the exposure after the fact with my editing software—there were parts that were completely unrecoverable. Just blank, white sections of my image like nothing was there at all!

Learning to read a histogram was key. I needed to understand what it meant to clip highlights and how to avoid doing so with proper exposure. Also, turning on what everyone else called “blinkies” on my camera made the learning process even easier. (If you are just starting out and haven’t already done so, I encourage you to explore the highlight warning setting on your camera. The portions of your image that are blown will “blink” on the screen, making it easy to see right away what needs to be adjusted.)

Read how to read your camera’s histogram here.

picture example of being too bright and blowing the highlights

5. In Camera Cropping

Aside from exposure and editing issues, it also took me a while to grasp the importance of composition. My daughter had fingers as a toddler, I’m sure of it, but you’d never know based on many of my early images. Nearly every picture I took while a beginner included some sort of chop: legs, arms, foreheads, you name it.

examples of poorly chopping limbs in a photo

The tendency to in-camera crop was all too common. I was often quick to grab the shot, not benefiting from the knowledge (and practice) of truly composing an image. Even now I find myself looking at these photographs and wishing I’d included more of the scene, or even just more of her body.

Occasionally I still find myself wanting to crop in camera and will often intentionally force myself to take a breath and a moment, along with another step back. I can always crop out what I don’t want, but I can’t add back in what isn’t there.

Read the 6 rules for portrait composition here.

But keep in mind that in camera cropping is not necessarily a bad thing—maybe your vision for your composition calls for a tight crop, and in that instance it makes complete sense. My issue as a beginner photographer was that I didn’t realize I was chopping limbs and other body parts. There was no rhyme or reason to my composition, and my cropping was not purposeful. Now I tend to take a variety of crops for each pose, and when I chop, I chop with purpose.

good crops in camera by Megan Squires

I know it’s my tendency to look back at my early photographs with embarrassment, but the learning process is not something to be embarrassed about. Each blown highlight, every flashy shadow, and each chopped limb served its purpose in spurring me on to become a better photographer.

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