A Journey From Novice to Natural Light Portrait Photographer

I’m here to share my photography journey that started few years ago as a novice, to where I stand today. As am amateur or hobby photographer, you may relate.

The journey from novice to advanced photographer

About two years ago, I bought an entry level DSLR, to use it as an expensive point and shoot camera.

The camera decided the fate of most of my pictures. On innumerable occasions, the pictures were blurry, under or overexposed, and were of poor quality.

The urge to work on my photography skills blossomed, when I was blessed with a little girl. An utmost desire to take only the best pictures of my angel, had taken roots in me. As you may also do, I started searching the internet fervently, for ways to capture the best shots.

This is the kind of natural light photography I do now, but that’s not where I started. Read on to find out how I got here, and you can too.

I realized, other than going through basic photography tutorials on YouTube, the thing that helped me the most was Flickr’s discussion groups. It has large community of knowledgeable professionals, and semi-professionals, who love to take a look at your picture and provide valuable feedback. Positive suggestions and encouragement I received on the forums, helped me to experiment further, and escape out of automatic mode. If you are in the same mode as I was two years ago, I strongly recommend getting feedback for your photos, through the online forums.

Moving out of auto mode and kit lens limitations

The very first step towards improvement for me, was shifting to Aperture Priority (Av/A) mode. Initially, pictures were blurry even in Av mode, but I could see that inside my home, my kit lens at f/4.5, ISO 6400, was still unable to shoot faster than 1/30th of a second. Such a slow shutter speed caused the motion blur. Shooting outdoors normally helped me to avoid blurry pictures, but I was not sure why my images didn’t have a blurry background like I saw online. Eventually, I understood the limitations of my kit lens, in not being able to shoot at a larger f-stop, to achieve shallower depth of field.

500px Photo ID: 53404702 -

This image is very noisy, focus is on her dress rather eyes/face, the out of focus raised hand actually distracts the viewer a lot.

One thing I would realize after many months of shooting, is that the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) is easy to comprehend theoretically, but really hard to apply in the field. I went out for a shoot almost every day, and started experimenting with aperture and shutter speed to get a more desired shot. On returning home, I always got an impression I should have used a different aperture or shutter speed for a better shot. The ability to learn through your mistakes is a major milestone in your journey.

Branching out

Once you are bit confident in your understanding of the basics, you start enjoying it – which is what I experienced. I started devoting time to reading topics such as composition, photography tips, and subscribed to sites like Digital Photography School. Another thing that helped me a lot, was connecting to local events and activity pages via Facebook. I started showing up at many local events and offering free photography to the organizers.

The experience of shooting events was quite chaotic and challenging, especially when there were far more people posing in front of the camera, and many arbitrary things happening – kids running around, or folks dancing to tunes of the festivities. Every such shoot gave me lot more insight into concepts of understanding concepts like plane of focus, controlling focus points, exposure compensation, tips to hand hold the camera firmly, etc.

One of my early event photos. The face and overall image is poorly lit and the face looks orange. Overall image is noisy and the eyes are not in focus. The person behind her is very distracting.

One of my early event photos. The face and overall image is poorly lit, and the face looks orange. Overall, the image is noisy, and the eyes are not in focus. The person behind her is very distracting.

Upgrading gear

It’s very easy to get overwhelmed when reading about, or watching, the type of gear that pros are using in the field. My advice would be to start with minimum possible gear, and upgrade only when you clearly understand the limitations of your existing gear. Be it body, lens, tripod, or anything. After understanding that I couldn’t shoot with very low noise in ambient light during evenings, or achieve huge shallow DOF with my canon T3i and a kit lens, I moved up to a 6D after few months, and bought a prime lens. Though I love to shoot 100% natural light, I added a flash to my gearbox as well, to use as a fill light in some situations.

Here are few things I learned so far, that you can also apply in your photography. Then I will move on to what kind of work I produce these days, and some explanation about how the results are achieved.

Understand the basics:

Read a lot about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and other beginner tutorials. Apply them as much as you can. These concepts are simple but take a lot of hands-on practice to start making some sense.

Very noisy, Focus is on the shoulder, a very bright area in the background is a huge distraction, very messy environment.

Very noisy, Focus is on the shoulder, a very bright area in the background is a huge distraction, very messy environment.


Do share your everyday shots and learning, to online discussion groups and forums, without worrying about the quality of your work. Google knows a lot. Give it a try by typing the question the way you would ask someone in person. Once you get some clue, make sure to try it out, to experiment and confirm your understanding. As I said earlier, do volunteer photography for local charity or non profit, etc., as that is a sure way to learn, and it is much more fun.

Avoid GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome):

Avoid the mindset that you cannot do good photography without expensive gear. In the beginning, your cheapest camera is enough to get you started. Photography is not 100% driven by expensive gear. There are way many areas to catch up like composition, understanding of light, angle of shooting, etc. Learn the basics and how to use the gear you have first.

Shoot, shoot and shoot:

There is no shortcut to get good at photography. You have to keep shooting to learn, and learn more to confirm your understanding and get better.

Understand Light:

Taken in the middle of the day when sun was overhead with caring about harsh shadows. From composition point of view the image has a very busy background and viewer will be completely distracted at other elements of the image.

Taken in the middle of the day, without caring about harsh shadows when sun was overhead. From a composition point of view, the image has a very busy background and viewer will be completely distracted by other elements of the image.

It doesn’t matter what genre of photography you shoot; you need a firm understanding of light. This is a key ingredient for a good picture. So, read about the direction and quality of light, and how it affects the shape, size, shadows, and contour of objects it falls upon.

Master your camera:

This tip is especially important if you aim to shoot events, happening at fast pace like kids photography, birds, action, sports, etc. You will really miss opportunities if you are unable to change settings quickly on the fly, without looking at the controls.

Go Manual:

This needs to be your ultimate destination in terms of shooting modes. It’s true that 80% or more time you may be happy with Av mode, but ideally you should have no hesitation in switching to the manual mode in a blink.

Depth of Field:

Technically, in simple terms, aperture controls the depth of field. However, this is the area that took me the longest time to get a good grip on. It’s very hard to stop the desire to shoot at f/1.2, if you own a lens capable of that. However, lenses are not the sharpest at so small f-numbers, plus the depth of field is so thin, that it could be unusable if you are not at the right distance from the subject.

Though there is a nice catch light but looking at the distance it has been shot the f stop should have been chosen higher. The face is not completely in focus and the image does not appeal the viewer. The subject should have been moved a bit to get rid of uneven shadows.

Though there is a nice catch light, but looking closer, it has been shot with an f-stop that should have been higher. The face is not completely in focus, and the image does not appeal the viewer. The subject should have been moved a bit, to get rid of uneven shadows on his face.

Positioning the Subject:

Another key point I have seen even very mature photographers lacking, is realizing the importance of where you should ask the subject to stand. Key mistakes are: placing subject in front of a very busy background, having undesired points of interest in the frame, a brighter large light source behind the subject, etc.

I hope you find the above tips useful. In the final part, I would like to show some images, and a bit about my thoughts on post-processing. All the below images have been published in one or the other magazine.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy 5

85mm, f/1.6, 1/1600, ISO 800

Location: Milwaukee, WI. This was taken at golden hour, with the sun facing the subject. The trees with some fall colors, are very far behind her.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy 3

85mm, f/3.2, 1/400, ISO 400

Location: Redwood Shores, CA. This was taken at golden hour with sun facing her. The intensity of the light was low, as only partial light was passing through the tree. It was shot from above at about a 45-degree angle.

70mm, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 800

Location: Los Angeles, CA. This was taken in the middle of the day, in an apartment, where model was facing window light.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy 6

135mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO 400

Location: Palace of fine arts, CA. Taken in the middle of the day, where plenty of ambient light was available. Behind the subject is a little darker area, due to trees and pillars. I positioned her at a spot where light was just right to avoid on her face which were too dark.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy 484

85mm, f/1.8, 1/6400, ISO 100

Location: Fremont, CA. Again taken during golden hour, with a bit of shade from the door structure.

Dps fb ca viks photogrphy 4

85mm, f/2.8, 1/2000, ISO 800

Location: San Jose, CA. Taken in the middle of the day, using the shade from the ceiling above the model, and avoiding sunlight falling directly her.

Importance of Post-Production:

As a beginner you will surely hear or read a lot something similar to these statements, “I love straight out of camera pictures” or “I hate editing pictures”. However, I have found that you can delay getting into the post-processing of images, but cannot avoid it.

The extent you go to post-processing an image, is totally a different debate. Some do it to enhance the existing elements of an image, and others do it to make it into a totally different image. I am in the first category, and spend time doing things that improves the overall image appeal.

For beginners, I would advise that you stay away from it until you are comfortable with your gear and the basic concepts of photography. Always aim to get the image right in the camera.

The first step for post-processing, you can start with Adobe Lightroom, which is a great piece of software to enhance your images. Spend time in achieving mastery with Lightroom, and, once you understand its limitations, then start exploring Adobe Photoshop on a need only basis. In my typical workflow, all the images go through Lightroom, then for some final touches in Photoshop.

Your journey

So where are you in your photography journey? Did you just pick up a camera and can relate to my early experiences? Have you been practicing for a while? What is your experience, please share in the comments below.

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