So I read an article called 10 Ways to Improve as a Photographer. I didn’t think it was a very good article (to say the least) so I won’t link to it, but it did get me thinking. I think all of us who engage in any form of creative activity are on a learning curve and that learning process doesn’t stop until the day you die. There are no perfect photographers, just like there are no perfect artists or musicians. So with that in mind here are 10 ideas for you to help push your photographic experiences forward and develop your skills.
1) Stop looking at other people’s photos
Okay so I regularly break my own rule, but I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a good idea and I’ll tell you why – it doesn’t help when you’re trying to develop your own style.
If you think of all the photographers you do like, then I’m willing to bet good money that each one of them has a very distinctive style. It might be the kind of photos they take or the post-processing they perform on them, but they all have a unique look. Did they arrive at their particular style by copying other photogs? I don’t think so. So in the same way that a musician might inadvertently copy a snippet of song buried deep in their unconsciousness, so a photographer might emulate another.
2) Stop stressing about your camera
One of the absolute worst things you can say to any photographer is this – ‘Great photo. You must have a really good camera.’ To put that in context, imagine going to someone’s house for a dinner party and, after you’ve enjoyed your fine meal, turning to the host and saying, ‘Great meal. You must have a really good oven.’
Cameras are dumb instruments and can take good, bad or indifferent photos depending on who’s pressing the buttons. $10,000 cameras can take shitty photos and $25 point-and-clicks can take great ones. So stop stressing about your camera and the cameras that other people use and concentrate on taking great photos.
3) Think before you click
If I’m guilty of any of the usual crimes against photography, it’s probably overshooting. If you get back from a location and you’ve nearly filled a 32Gb card with images then you’re probably guilty of it too. I think there’s a danger in this digital era, that we come to rely on chance supplying us with the right conditions to meet the settings we’ve dialled in to our cameras. And to compensate for that we repeatedly press the shutter button in the hope that one of our exposures will be correct.
So in an effort to stop myself from doing this, I ask myself some questions when I’m hunched over that viewfinder:
1) Has the light changed substantially since I last pressed the shutter button?
2) Have I moved to a significantly different location since I last pressed the shutter button?
3) Have I oriented the camera on a significantly different axis since I last pressed the shutter button?
4) Have I significantly changed the exposure, aperture or ISO settings since I last pressed the shutter button?
5) Am I already working out in my head how to ‘fix’ this image in Photoshop?
If the answer to some or all of these is a big ‘no’ then I take my finger off the shutter button and re-evaulate the scene. Like all the rules of photography mine can and should be broken on occasion, but I think they’re handy to keep in mind.
4) Learn when to give up on a photograph
My grandfather always used to say to me – ‘You can’t polish a turd’ and I have come to agree with this sentiment. In this era of digital negatives, Photoshop and advanced add-on filters we seem to have got away from the idea of getting it right in the camera. And while I have no issue whatsoever with post-processing of any kind – I do still strive to get it right in the camera.
I think there’s sometimes a temptation to persist with a photograph that we should perhaps consign to the rubbish bin. This is particularly true if taking the photo in question was more difficult than usual or if its circumstances were unique – for instance a very early start, a long journey, a particularly rare kind of weather event etc. Chalk it up to experience and move on.
5) Step outside your home zone
Again, a lesson I could do with learning myself. If you take a photo of a location and it’s great I think there’s a temptation to return to that location in the hope that the success we had will happen again. It’s difficult to get away and we all have our ‘patches’ but when the opportunity arises, travel somewhere else. Even better, try photographing a different subject matter completely.
6) Look behind you
We photographers often begin to view the world through a viewfinder and that unfortunately means that we’re sometimes blinkered to other possibilities. One evening I was out photographing a glorious sunset on my local river estuary and I was so fixated on the setting sun and the reflections in the river that it never occurred to me to look over my shoulder. When I did eventually turn around there was the most amazing rainbow arching over the beach behind me. I took some shots but I’d clearly missed its most colourful stages. So the next time you’re hunkered down over that camera of yours, have a little look over your shoulder.
7) Embrace technology
Photography has always been a technical process. From its earliest days of film, chemical developers and enlargers through to the current era of advanced digital cameras, all photographers are also part-geek. So embrace your inner-geek and make the most the many gadgets and technical aids that are out there. Whether it’s cool lens extenders, neat tree-hugging tripods, awesome filters or iPad apps, make the most of them and spend your time in the field productively.
8) Innovate not emulate
When you’re starting out there’s a temptation to try and emulate the photographs or photographic styles of others. There are also key locations that everyone likes to photograph even if it’s just for the sake of completion. That’s cool, but it’s not something you should persist with once you’re technically competent with your camera.
9) Stay Later
Landscape photography has always been a waiting game; it often has as much to do with dogged persistence as it does technical skills. So when you’re at a location and the scene is unfolding before you – hang around and see what else happens. If you’re photographing sunrise or sunset, this is particuarly true – quite often the sky will become colourful and dramatic long after the sun has dropped below the horizon or after it’s begun its arc across the sky.
I also have my own personal checklist of locations that I’m waiting for the right conditions to photograph. I revisit them fairly often in the hope that luck is on my side and every now and then it is.
10) Take your camera everywhere
I realise that a DSLR camera is a pricy bit of kit, but resist the temptation to treat it as a special item like a hobby car that only comes out on sunny weekend days. I leave my camera in my car pretty much all the time although obviously some of you experience higher crime levels than I do. That said even if I lived in Somalia I’d still find a way to keep the camera in my car all the time. My point is that some of the best photos I’ve ever taken were the result of chance – happening upon a particular scene. I never want to be in a situation where I say, “If only I had my camera.”