Important Things to Consider as a Learning Photographer

Note: May I direct your attention to Olympus Ambassador of South Africa, Dallas Dahms who runs an amazing blog rich in useful Micro Four Thirds contents here (click).  I think it is great seeing more and more people shoot with Olympus OM-D and Micro Four Thirds in general, and more importantly share their thoughts, photographs and experience.

I have often been asked questions, either by my beautiful blog readers here or friends in real life, on how to make good photographs. I think that is too general of a question, and it is not as simple as answering in a few lines of descriptions. It is also not as straightforward as coming to a classroom and me giving you all the tips and knowledge (from whatever limited experience that I have) on photography and you will walk away being able to make good photographs. Often I observe people looking for answers at the wrong directions, or asking all the wrong questions. Therefore, I want to share what I think that new/beginner photographers should watch out for in their learning process in becoming better in their craft. 

Before I go on sharing any further, I mention that this blog entry is written for learning photographers, mostly newcomers and beginners who are very young to the photography world. Although that was the main target audience, strangely, I also acknowledge that a huge number of blog readers here are actually much more experienced, and better photographers than I am. I have often been humbled by the sharing of great photographs by my readers and I have had great privileges to meet a few great photographers who happen to read my blog in real life. Ultimately we admit that there is no right and wrong or hard written rules in photography, what we find mostly are guidelines, tips or recommendations that can positively help us improve our photography. 

All images in this blog entry were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko Lenses, 45mm F1.8 and 12-50mm F3.5-6.3 kit lens. 

Bridge in Morning Sun


Vegetables and the Cat. 
Taken at ISO5,000, in a dimly lit environment. E-M5 is still as awesome. And yes, this was taken with the 12-50mm kit lens. 


There are important reasons why basics are called basics, because they should not be forgotten, and should be kept as  useful reminders as we venture further and further into what we do. When all things fail, the basics will not

I have seen many photographers trying too hard, too fast and too blindly too soon. Let's take street photography for easier reference of discussion. Many would have come across books of famous and successful photographers such as Henri-Cartier Bresson, Bruce Gilden and Martin Paar. Having that "ideal" photography goal in mind, and rushing to accomplish greatness, there are many who would push and try to imitate the advanced execution or techniques used by the famous photographers. They even reverse engineered the thought process and ideology behind each iconic photographs taken, in hopes of being able to reproduce similar process in adaptation to their own real life shooting. Much energy was spent in calculating the "geometry" and seek the mysterious secret of framing that made some photographs so outstanding. These are regarded as very high level photography and require very deep understanding in attaining that level of perfection, and superiority. Workshops and workshops after that, with supplementary reading books piling up, I think that trying too hard is not the wise way in going about photography. Do not get me wrong, it is great to attend workshops to learn, and read to broaden our perspectives and views. Overdoing so won't help any further either. 

Sometimes we run too far to seek the answers that may appear right in front of us. We all have to go through the basics of what and how to construct a strong photograph. Nothing fancy, nothing too advanced. In fact it can be as simple as looking for leading lines, playing with the available light direction and shooting with multiple subjects contradicting each other in one frame. It can be as simple as a subject versus a simple background, and no more than that. Sometimes we complicate things too much, and often simplicity is the best way to go. Did it ever occur to you that some of those famous photographs taken by those celebrity photographers (pick your choice) could have been done by the photographers instinct and intuition, as he was shooting and approaching his photography opportunity? I am not saying that luck plays a huge parts (there are times it does) but we should not read too much into things that might not even be there. Come back to Earth, get yourself grounded on the basics of photography. Rule of Thirds. That S-Curve. Get as close as you can to your subject. Watch your timing for that "decisive moment". Shoot at the best times of the day for the best lighting impact. Things that are so basic but stand the test of time. 

Morning Ray

Morning Ray 2



Your Move


I have also observed a group of photographers dabbling with advanced technicalities of photography such as multiple wireless flash execution, but without strong knowledge on how ISO settings and aperture opening would affect the light, and whether stopping down the aperture would alter the outcome of their images or not, and blindly just tinkling with the flash settings in hope to magically produce that effect that may not even be clear in their mind what they wanted to do in the first place. There are many cases where the photographer using a very advanced camera but did not even know where to change the focusing points, and just stayed with fully automatic modes. There are also many users who know that shooting images in dark conditions will have higher chance of camera shake, but did not know why. So it was because of shutter speed not fast enough. Then they set their camera to very high shutter speed (eg, 1/8000sec) to minimize the shake, and then ask "how come the image came out black?"

Again, as I have blogged several times before, there is NO shortcut in photography. Get your photography foundation right. 

Learn and master the exposure basics and their triangular relationship: ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture.  Most people know individually what ISO, aperture or shutter speed is, but when you put two or three of them together, they are lost. These settings are inseparable and you must know how they all work together hand in hand to produce a photograph.

And before you even started doing all that, learn the right way to hand-hold the camera, and how to steady them even further as you are shooting with slower shutter speed. It is crucial to pay attention to where the camera is focusing, and set the focusing point manually. Do not expect the camera to do everything, because the camera is as smart as any computer, giving you only an average reading of whatever situation you are in, without being able to read your mind. What the camera sees and what you see can be something completely different, and it is your part to tell the camera to do what you want it to do. Without strong understanding and mastering these very crucial controls, it is difficult to bend the camera to your will. When the camera is smarter than you, you can't control it, and you won't get the results that you want. 

Walking By

Market People

Portrait of a Young Boy


These days, modern digital cameras have more buttons and controls and are even more sophisticated than an ordinary car!

The truth is, it takes time to get to know a camera, and it takes even longer time to REALLY know your camera inside out. 

That is why I am often disappointed when I found out about my friends selling their gear when they have just only used them for a few months, and their reasons are: the camera was not fast enough, it was not "professional" enough, or did not give them the results that they wanted. How can you expect the camera to perform at its best if you do not even know how to fully utilize it? How would you know the camera cannot give you what you wanted if you did not spend enough time getting to know the behaviour of the camera to overcome its limitations and successfully exploit its strengths? Changing or upgrading the gear will not solve that problem. 

I rarely talk about what the camera can do for you, I always talk about what you can do with your camera. There is a difference. 

The camera is just as good as the photographer gets, not the other way around. A photographer is not defined by the camera he uses, but his photography style and needs dictate what choice of equipment he is using. A great photograph may not necessarily be made by a great camera, but a great photographer can make great photographs with any camera. The photographer may not be using the best camera ever made in the world, but the photographer can take a better photograph if he knows how to fully use his camera, in contrast to another photographer with the illusive best camera but knows not how to maximize its potential. Use the right tool for the job, learn how to use the tool. A pen may be more lethal than a sword, if the person using the pen has killed hundreds of people with the pen before, while the swordsman has never even cut a single thing in his life, but just swings his sword arrogantly in the air. 

Do not give up on your gear too soon. Sometimes, the fault does not lie in the gear. 



By the door

Artificial coloring



There is no other better way to improve but to shoot more, and learn from your mistakes from all the shooting sessions. The more experience shooting in the field you have under your belt, the faster and better you will progress, that is just how things work. Some people will learn faster some people slower, that is completely normal. Over a course of time, everyone improves, and that amazing piece of artwork by that famous photographer was not achieved in one year, or two years or five years of photography experience. It may be 20-30 years of dedication, hard work and sacrifice to be able to make those kind of photographs happens. You never knew what they went through and how they got to the level they were at. 

The old saying "practice makes perfect" is fitting here. Keep shooting, no matter how slow the steps are, eventually we will get there. 

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  1. Very nice blog post and a lot of truth in there:
    - know the basics
    - know your gear
    - focus on your own abilities
    - review your pictures and even older pictures

    Especially about the last part, which wasn't in your blog post, I think that is quite a good tool to monitor your learning progress. Sometimes you will see "oh my god, I learned so much in such a short time", during other moments you will rather think that you have learned and improved so much, but if you compare your current and older photographs, you'll be like "that actually doesn't look all that different".

    It is good to understand your learning progress and to know where you're at. And it is good to keep using your equipment for a long period of time.

    In terms of not blaming your gear, I completely agree with you. And I knew that when I was a beginner too, but I also knew myself and the fact that I would have definitely blamed my equipment in many situations.

    My solution was, that I went ahead and bought a better camera to begin with. I made quite a big jump from a fixed lens super-zoom bridge camera to a fullframe DSLR with good lenses, when I clearly wasn't ready for such a tool yet. However, my intention was that knowing the camera will never be the limiting factor, I can grow freely. I knew that the better camera would not make me become a better photographer - but if I bought one of the best on the market, I could never blame it for not performing well. I could always just blame myself. I know I otherwise would've had blamed it in some situations, but that "trick" didn't allow me to do so. Hence all I could do was analyze my own mistakes, see what I could've done differently and improve upon it.

    My point is: even if you are like me, knowing that you can't be reasonable and logical all the time, you can force yourself in such a way that you have to be :)

    1. Hi XTJ7,
      Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for adding to the list of items. Appreciate your sharing and thoughts, I am sure many learning photographers will benefit from them.

    2. Thank you Robin, I really hope so too. And there is actually one more thing I would like to add:
      These days you really don't need to go for a fullframe camera anymore - in a lot of scenarios a MFT camera is much better suited.

      In fact I often wish I had a second camera like the Olympus E-M1, but I can't justify a second camera system infront of my wife :)
      I could probably fill a whole article with the advantages MFT cameras have over fullframe cameras - and vice versa. It all depends on the situations and requirements.

      Neither fullframe nor MFT are for everyone :)

  2. some good tips Robin - keep up the great work!


    1. Thanks Shaun! Looking forward to seeing more of your photos on your blog!

    2. there will be updates soon Robin :-) Have been working on lots recently.

  3. Dear Robin,
    Simple tips yet very enriching. Many thanks for sharing.


  4. Great post as always, Robin! And thank you for the kind words about my Fotozones project. :-)

    1. No worries, Dallas. Keep the good stuff coming. How I wish I can just fly off to South Africa now, so many things to shoot there!

  5. I think the best tips are the last one, shoot shoot and shoot. Got to spare more time to shoot.

  6. Hi Robin,

    I wonder, when the history of KL is written from the perspective of the future, if the historians will use your photos of the markets and street scenes in KL as evidence of a certain kind of lifestyle. When I look at your photos I always find myself examining the details in the images, and the apparent relationships among the persons being shot. Street photography at it's best.

    David in Seattle

    1. Hello David,
      Thank you for the kind words, but I do not think I deserve such praise. There are still so many flaws and weaknesses in my photos. Learning and improving but hey, if the subject is good, the photo itself has a strong content already.

  7. Those are some great words!

    I have often told people to learn every setting in the camera by trying them. They usually have no patience and ignore the suggestion.

    I met someone in a computer class once who told me that he had sold the same computer as I had because it just couldn't do enough. Once I showed him what I could do with one, he bought another--his third time, actually. He still couldn't make it work the way he wanted. I showed him how to do a few things, but I said that he had to try a little of everything to learn. Thirty years later, people want to learn less, and just have everything done for them. Auto this, Auto that.

    It's good that they can come here, and see what happens when you turn the dials away from auto.

    1. Hi Sakamoto,

      Thanks for the kind words. Patience is the keyword, and I should have used that more in my description!

    2. I have no patience to learn now. I don't want to do trick photography. These days, I just want to get the job done.

      I've been writing a lot about products lately. I held the FujiFilm X-T1 on Friday, compared it to my GH3. The X-T1 is so much like the E-M1 in many ways but it's definitely a FujiFilm product.

      Oh, and I've sworn off Panasonic lenses. No more of my money will go there. I wrote about that, too.

    3. Hi Sakamoto,
      I would like to hear more about your X-T1 experience!

  8. Very nice! Your pictures have a pleasing grunge look that draws you into it.
    Do you set your camera to auto or normal gradation? Are your pictures OOC or edited at all other than size? One other thing I notice is you are not afraid to let highlights blow even though this is sometimes taboo, it looks good in yours.

    1. Hi Bryce,
      Thanks for the kind words. I rarely use Gradation Auto, and all the images here were Gradation Auto. All the images here were post-processed. I have shared my post-processing setup not too long ago. I emphasize on my main subject, and if the background or secondary subjects do not have proper exposure (blown highlights) I would be ok with that.

    2. hi Robin, awesome photos, and blog... Could you please be so kind as to repost the list for your typical post-processing when you get a minute?

      I've been admiring your images, and recognize that this skill of the photographer is #1, the lenses maybe #2, but I'd also admire the exposure, skin tones, and color values etc. that you achieve, would welcome learning about your post processing ...

  9. As usual...brilliant sharing of information...i have not been on your site for 19 months now...I promised to God to give up something great to save my mum from Cancer...unfortunately, God wanted her, so now I am back...thanks once more for such pleasing reading...i think i will go out and spoil myself and buy the compact ep5 and continue to follow you for a long time.

    1. I am sorry to hear about your mum, I am sure she is at a better place now. No worries, go out and shoot! Shutter therapy should be enjoyed!

  10. Excellent information and encouragement here, Robin. I love how you emphasize (and keep hammering on) the basics. As with so many things, the basics are quite simple but absolutely crucial. It's like a chess game: it only starts making sense (and becomes fascinating) once one masters the basics. I am with Reichmann on this: at least 10.000 hours is required to really master your art and craft like a pro.

    And another colossal truth you mention: "Sometimes, the fault does not lie in the gear". Personally I would say, "Most of the time, the fault does not lie in the gear". I collect and own cameras - many are really old, quite a few even pre-war. Guess what? One can make stunning pictures with such old gear, "primitive" uncoated prime lenses and all. Not that I am such an artist -to the contrary- but it's all about the basics.

    The rules, where the Neanderthals on the various fora keep on harping about are just artistic guidelines that *can* sometimes help to get a better exposure and/or composition - but that is about it. The only "hard" rules are the basics - and they are easy once mastered. With your excellent examples (and pictures to prove the point) anybody can do it - and be rewarded with fantastic memories.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Hey Andre,
      thanks for the kind words. 10,000 hours! And I only clocked 2-3 hours per week, I am still so far behind!
      I think we should not be too hard-pressed on the rules, as you have mentioned, after all, what is the fun if we do not have the freedom to explore photography as we love? Taking out the fun does not make photography any better!

  11. BTW I love the morning shots (morning ray 1 and 2). Especially the peanuts shot is magnificent - almost like "painting with light" a la Rembrandt and such old masters. Superb!

    1. Thanks Andre for the kind words, it is always rewarding to pay a little closer attention to the light!

  12. Always love to read your blogs on learning photography. Thanks for sharing.

    Love to join you on your hunting ground (wet market) for photography when I'm in KL someday.

    1. It was a pleasure to share. Do come to KL, it is such a vibrant place.

  13. Dear Robin: how do you manage the reaction of the people?? Your photos show a great self-confidence; but your people look very "easy going"; is it the general attitude of people in your city??

  14. Fantastic set, Robin! My fave is 'Your Move'. Brilliant composition! (as are all the others!)

  15. Nice read and very useful tips. As an aspiring photographer based in Bangkok ,I appreciate tips like these. Back to basics and knowing ones gear strikes a cord to me. I was currently trying to fight GAS (Gadget acquisition syndrome) and focus more in my skills. I realize it's not the gear but how I am using it that I needs to be upgraded. Regards from Bangkok. I will later add your blog as one of my favorite in my own photoblog. Thanks - Alex