The Biggest Mistake an Aspiring Photographer Can Make
Trying to improve your photography can seem like a lot of work. There's a lot of things you have get right, all at the same time to really nail it.
Yes, you can set your camera on its most fully automatic mode and point it every which way, hoping eventually to strike gold. But that doesn't sound like much fun to me at least, and I think we can all agree that it doesn't seem like a very efficient approach. Take control of any one variable yourself and you're bound to get better results than you would leaving it in the hands of your camera. Never mind whether cameras actually have hands or not. That's not my point. But whether that variable is the focus, the exposure, focal length or basically anything else involved in taking a picture, any of us can master its nuances if that's all we have to focus our attention on. Leave everything except that one variable up to your camera, and you will no doubt get pretty good at picking the right setting for what you have taken control of. That stands to reason.
It really gets hard though if you try to master a lot of variables at the same time. Juggling isn't difficult with just a single ball, but try it with enough in the air at the same time and things probably won't go so well. You're going to drop at least a few. In the same way, learning photography starts to get more difficult when you try to pick the right place to shoot from, pick the right aperture and shutter speed, focus and exposure simultaneously. And depending on the particular image you are going for, that's only the beginning of what you need to master. Keep the film plane parallel to the subject. Check for merges and distracting elements. Make sure you have enough depth of field while still blurring the background. Wait for the decisive moment. With this many variables, they ought to call it "algebra" rather than photography.
These variables aren't independent either. It would be one thing if you could figure out the optimum value for each one in turn. That seems at least possible, so long as you could dispatch with each choice quickly enough you might actually get there before the light changed or the subject walked away. But the difficulty here is that a choice for one variable will negatively impact at least one other variable. Every choice you make will force you to reconsider your other choices to rebalance the equation. Decide to shoot with a smaller aperture to improve your depth of field and you will be forced to use slower shutter speed to avoid underexposing. But then you might be leaving yourself open to a slight gust of wind spoiling things during that longer exposure time. What's an aspiring photographer to do?
The usual approach to becoming a better photographer is to learn the rules that govern all these choices and to understand which rules are most important and applicable in what circumstances. This method does seem like it makes sense, and at first it can wok quite well. If you can simplify the problem by learning which variables matter most, it stands to reason you will have an easier time juggling the important choices. But somehow it never seems to work out that way.
The problem is that all those photographic rules are, at best, approximations. Rules are generalizations that can't possibly take the specifics of any given situation into account. Rules simplify things by generalizing them in order to make them more widely applicable. But by so doing, they become unlikely to ever match the circumstances of what you encounter in the real world. Up to a point, rules can help you make sense of a complex problem like getting better at photography. But those same rules can become limits to what is possible by precluding whatever factors they leave out. Your success will always be limited by whatever gap there may be between the real world in front of your lens and the ideal circumstances assumed by whatever rule you are attempting to follow. Those rules can only take you so far.
So long as your approach is framed in terms of doing things the way you think you're supposed to rather than doing what you feel at the time just might work regardless of the rules, you are holding yourself back. So long as you're thinking about following the rules, you aren't fully thinking about whatever it is you're trying to shoot. At best, your attention is split between the two. Once again putting you in the position of trying to juggle too many balls the same time.
Sooner or later, you're going to have to rethink your approach to this whole thing. At some point, you need to conclude that you understand the rules as they have been handed down to you well enough that you can safely go beyond them. Sooner or later you're going to have to jump off and find your own way.
When you're first starting out, rules can be helpful. But the biggest mistake an aspiring photographer can make is not to know when to let go of those rules, and get back to focusing on each potential photograph on its own merits, rules be damned.