I've learned a few things during the course of my photographic endeavors, most of which I already knew. I'd heard them or read about them, but some didn't really hit home until I'd experienced them myself. Nothing here is new. There are no startling revelations, just some insights I've come to accept as fact.
1. Pretty Much Everything Is More Important Than Equipment
Don't misunderstand me, quality equipment (notice I didn't say the most "expensive" equipment) will produce higher quality images than junk equipment. But having the best of everything money can buy is not the most important part of photography. Too many people buy expensive gear and are disappointed when their photos don't turn out the way they expected.
Lighting, composition, subject elements, and creativity are more important to a photo than equipment. Even knowledge of the equipment is more important than the equipment itself. All the things that make up a great photo rank higher on the VIP list than equipment. Don't let the fact you don't own top of the line gear distract you from making fantastic photos. While quality equipment is certainly beneficial, the gear itself is too often overrated, particularly camera bodies. I've learned that the elements of a good photo are the most important part of my arsenal.
2. Looking Is NOT The Same As Seeing
I've gradually learned that looking for things to photograph is not the same as seeing what's around me. We all look for subjects, but we don't always see subjects. Seeing is having vision. I don't mean you wake up one morning with a grand vision imparted by a photo fairy while you were asleep. Seeing is having the eye for spotting photographic possibilities others would miss. Vision is seeing beyond the ordinary as well as making the ordinary interesting. Some call it having a "creative eye". I've learned it's not enough just to look, but to really see. It's the difference between a plain photo and a great photo.
3. If You Snooze, You WILL Lose - Eventually
This has happened to me more times than I care to admit. I've been waiting for a long period of time for something I know is going to happen, I get distracted briefly, and then realize the thing I was waiting for happened while I wasn't paying attention. This is especially true when photographing wildlife. It's Murphy's Law at work. I've learned to stay focused (no pun intended) if there's a shot I really want to get. Photographing herons as they hunt has been a huge lesson in patience and focus.
4. Getting Physically Close Is Better Than Optically Close
Generally speaking, getting physically close to your subject is better than relying on a long lens to get close. I'm not knocking long lenses at all. Too many people, however, invest in a big lens with the idea it will cure all of their long distance ills. I use my big glass a lot, but along the way I've learned that I get better results with it by getting as physically close as possible. I think having a long lens also creates laziness. Why bother moving my feet when I can just use a big lens? This actually applies to lenses of all focal lengths. Get physically close first, then use the appropriate lens. And "close" is relative to the subject you're shooting and the situation.
5. Close Is Not Always Better
In case you think I'm contradicting myself, this is not the same thing as the point above. What I'm talking about here is the idea that the frame has to be filled with a single subject in order for the photo to be good. Often that is indeed the case, but there is also too much emphasis placed on getting that "eyeball" shot of an animal or bird. For a long time, I thought the best photos were those where the subject was up close and personal. And those do make very interesting shots. However, I've learned to see beyond just the close up and include other elements. I now try to show an animal's habitat and other things that are a part of the whole scene. I'll take close ups if I want them, but then I also look at the bigger picture and try to include those things that make up an animal's habitat. Showing a critter in its element can be just as interesting, if not more so, than zooming in for that frame-filling head shot.
6. Preparation Prevents Disappointment
Like the rest of life, preparation in photography can prevent the majority of problems. For example, there's no such thing as having too many memory cards. With you. That's a fact. I carry four 32GB cards with me at a minimum. Running out of memory is probably the biggest issue I hear people talk about. Having a fully charged battery is another example. And speaking of batteries, if you own a DSLR and don't have a spare battery, that should be the very next photography item you purchase. Having a second battery (with you) can be a photo saver.
I often spend several hours at a time in the field. Sometimes I'm close to my vehicle and sometimes I'm not. I always take something to snack on and something to drink even if I don't plan on being gone a long time. I check the weather and take the appropriate foul weather gear if necessary. Taking a few minutes to double check you have everything (cards, batteries, lenses, tripod, monopod, cleaning kit, etc.) can save hassles later.
7. Don't Be Afraid To Delete
I've learned to delete photos I know I'll never use. This goes beyond the bad shots. Those get deleted without question. I try to keep only those photos I know or think I may use. If I look at a shot and don't like it, even if it's technically correct, I delete it. I've heard both sides of the issue. Some people say you should never delete anything other than the obviously bad shots, while others say you should delete anything that's not perfect. I take a middle road. I'm not a photo hoarder, but I don't delete just for the sake of deleting. I often take duplicate photos in the field and I'll look at them later and keep a few and delete the rest. I've also learned that if I go back a few months later and look at older shots again, I will often find more I don't like. My goal is to keep the photos that could be useful and delete the excess.
8. Get It Right In Camera
Getting the shot correct in camera is better than trying to "correct" it later in post-processing. I've always tried to do this, it's not really something I had to learn the hard way. Digital cameras and editing software have created some lazy photographers. I've heard people say they just shoot and worry about fixing things later in Photoshop. That's a bit like painting a room without taping things off or using drop cloths and then going back after the fact and trying to remove the paint from things you didn't want it on. I started in the days of film long before digital came along. I had to get it right in the camera or the photos would be useless. You might get a photo lab to make some corrections, but for the most part, what you shot was what you got. Getting it right in camera (as close a possible) is the best policy. On a side note, the photo of the heron I included in this post was shot at ISO 1000. Using the lowest ISO possible is usually the way to go, but don't be afraid to use a high ISO if it means getting the shot you want.
Photography is a learning process and I've certainly had a lot to learn. I'll never know it all and even knowing it all doesn't guarantee great photographs. I try not to make the same mistakes over and over and I try to learn everything I can from other photographers. I'm sure there will be a time when I'll have a whole new list of things I've learned that I already knew, but had to do some of it the hard way.