Let’s just debunk a myth real quick: Better gear doesn’t equal better photographer.
Everyone wants to capture those amazing photos that look like they’re straight out of a magazine, but too often we spend money on expensive lenses and fancy new cameras thinking our photography skills will improve with the right gear. True, any photographer who makes a living off their work will have an arsenal of cameras, lenses and other complicated equipment, but many of us forget the qualities that matter when it comes to shooting beautiful images. We need to be explorers and use photography to fuel that constant drive to discover and capture.
Fashion and beauty photographer, Julia Rabkin, has worked for over 70 magazines and editorials. Her work is often lauded by her thousands of followers and fans, but finding her calling as a photographer was never easy. Before attending Rochester Institute of Technology for advertising photography, Julia spent five years on the road attending festivals and following musicians, such as Warped Tour, Coachella and Paramore. Whether in San Francisco or NYC, she never stayed in one place for long before moving on. Even South America was an occasional destination, including a few months in Buenos Aires, Argentina where she worked on a rebranding campaign for shopping bags.
“I took a lot of risks, not all of them paid off but I’m really still glad that I did that. Honestly, I worked with bare-bones equipment until I got to RIT. I had no lighting kit, I made my own reflectors, I had two lenses, an old camera body and I just worked with what I had and made it work for me.”
For her, being able to travel was a dream come true and despite her lack of experience and equipment, Julia simply did what she loved most about photography: meeting new people and exploring new places. When she first started, she spent an entire year attending at least one concert per week often 4-5 hours away from home, and to this day, she still uses the same DSLR camera (Canon 5D) she’s had for the past eight years. Like many of us, she started out self-taught but never missed an opportunity to use every feature on her camera and relied less on automatic settings. (You can learn more about shooting in Manual Mode with this handy guide!)
“It’s a process of learning your settings, of learning your camera. You can take a million classes, but until you go out and work with it all the time on your own, you’re not gonna grow as a photographer.”
Should all of us begin planning massive road trips across the country just for the sake of our photography? Maybe not, but having that motivation to push beyond our comfort zones and taking those steps to see and do things we’ve never done before is the most crucial aspect in becoming a better photographer. Perhaps that’s why many photographers who go to school for fashion or advertising are often required to take classes in photojournalism or encouraged to pursue street photography as a hobby. Sometimes knowing the ins and outs of your equipment isn’t enough to make you a better photographer. Like Julia, there has to be a need to explore and have your camera with you at the right place and time. You can take steps to improve your photography skills by simply getting out there and using your camera.
Whether it’s 10 minutes or 4 hours away, don’t limit yourself to proximity. Get out there and start exploring! Google search scenic hotspots like beaches and natural parks, or be bold and find isolated places not well known to the public. Many photographers use the “golden hour” as a rule of thumb for picking their times to shoot; or simply, the short amount of time after sunrise or before sunset when lighting conditions are softer and more appealing to photograph.
When shooting landscapes, the less equipment you have the better. If you’re just starting out with DSLRs, remember to bring a tripod for stability and try bringing just one lens with you. Switching or deciding between lenses on a shoot is time consuming and distracting, which is why being prepared ahead of time can help you focus on your photography. 35mm and 50mm are great choices for shooting landscapes and you can find incredible bargains on Amazon!
Don’t let your camera call the shots. Take charge of your photography by learning about every setting and feature it offers. If you’re shooting with DSLRs, try switching to manual mode and really experiment and learn the basics of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. If you can master these settings and how they relate to each other, you will notice a dramatic difference in the quality of your photography.
See more of Julia’s photography at juliarabkin.com
Bonus Pro Tip: When shooting portraits, it’s best to set a wide aperture (around f/2.8-f/5.6) to capture a shallow depth of field. This makes the background behind your subject nicely blurred, making them stand out better. If you’re just starting out, use Aperture Priority to achieve this. Then you can adjust the aperture as you please without having to manually compensate for other exposure settings (ISO, Shutter Speed).