I love photography, I just wish I was better at it! But it is a hobby thankfully and not a profession for me, but honestly that doesn’t mean I don’t want to get better. I’m always working to try to improve my photography, and I would love to try to help people improve theirs’ if I possibly can as well. Usually a lot of the advice out there is about how to take better photographs, but there is so much you can do to improve your photography without physically taking a picture. So I tried to think of the things that have helped me improve the photos I have taken over the years.
Find other photographers you admire
One of the things I love about the internet is how much amazing photography there is out there, how many wonderful photographers are sharing their work on so many sites, blogs, social networking, etc. From flickr.com, 500px, and various blogs it is easy to go out there and just find amazing work that other people are doing. It is a fantastic way to get inspiration, understand how other people look at things, find subjects, find ideas. Art is not created in a bubble, all artists get inspiration from others, from the world, from cultures and civilizations that came before them. I find plenty of inspiration in photographs taken by many artists, and with the internet this process is made even easier. Don’t look to simply copy what others are doing, but use ideas you find to improve your work. Those photographers got inspiration and started where you are today and over time started to develop their own style. I know myself I have a long way to go, but really without having something to compare yourself against how do you know?
Examine your own work
Have you ever really taken a look at your own work? I mean really…? Even the bad ones? This is something I find myself having trouble with often, it is very hard to critique my own work sometimes. Usually I just cringe about how bad it is! Ok I don’t think it is all bad, but often I find fault in it more than I find things going right. Being negative about your work is not always good, but being able to examine your own work is important. I try to look through the photos from a previous shoot. Find which photos I like and which I wish I could do over? Then ask I ask myself why… I see if I can find two photos, preferably of the same subject. Why does one of the photos work and the other doesn’t? Examine where my eye focuses on in the photograph. Does my eye move through the photo? (I often have trouble with this, since when examining this I sometimes seem to force my eye to move unnaturally). Is there areas that are too bright, too dark? Is there anything distracting? How does it make you feel? It is important to ask yourself questions and figure out what you like about your own work. Figure out which ones failed technically, which compositions could be better, etc. I try to really look at the failures too, even if I cringe. You often learn more from what you did wrong than what you did right. I try think about how I would have done things different if I could have or possibly the next time I find myself in a similar position.
A little help from my friends…
Take a bunch of your photos, the ones you really like and start asking others for their advice too. I try to find some friends who’s advice I trust, some who are photographers and possible some who are not as well. It is interesting to see how people who are not into photography perceive your work too. Now I don’t simply just ask them “Hey do you like this?”, or “Hey what do you think of these photos?” More often than not they are going to say yeah it’s great, wonderful, fantastic. While this might make me feel better it does absolutely nothing to improve my photographs. If it was all great you would have nowhere to go. Instead I ask them to rank the photographs from lowest to highest. Ask them which they like best, etc. I ask them why? What makes them like this particular photo over another? Is it the subject? Is it a particular angle or creative way I did the photograph? Many of the non-photographers friends will often overlook and disregard technical aspects of the photos and they usually have insights that I never anticipated. Some of the best photos are not perfect technically but emotionally they end up connecting with people more.
Get a great support system
This might be a bit on the line since it does require a camera in the end, but I think it is important enough to include. It was a bit of a long road for me to become a convert to a good tripod under my camera. I often whine about carrying a tripod, but more so I end up annoyed about the photos I cannot get for not having it. Like many people I went through all the alternative options. I tried to get better and more disciplined in my shooting, said I needed better quality glass, image stabilizing, etc. Eventually you just realize that in the end if you want to get sharp photographs you need to get a tripod. Sure there are many circumstances when sure you need to handhold a camera, but there are often times (and many circumstances) where to get the shot you want a tripod is necessary. If you want to get good night shots, or do long exposures you are going to need a tripod. Learn from my mistakes too and don’t get the cheapest system out there. Get one that is more than adequate for the weight you are planning to carry. And don’t skimp either. You cannot confidently expect a $20 tripod to hold up a $2000 camera, so make sure the tripod is of good quality. If you can afford it (and save yourself the iterative purchasing) buy a nice professional tripod and ball-head. In the end the lower end ones you will find will work ok for most circumstances and then they will slip when the weight gets a bit higher, or won’t quite lock down as well as you hope. I’ve even had one fail on me and then I was there in a foreign country trying to find an Allen wrench to at least get it work at all for the remainder of my trip. Oh and get a tripod you are willing to carry, if it means paying more for the fancy carbon fiber or more compact one, then do it. Nothing worse then buying something and never carrying it. If you have to cut costs anywhere, I would recommend spending more on the ball-head and maybe saving a bit on the legs. The heads tend to have more things that can fail and a high quality one will hold up significantly longer and you will spend much more time fiddling with the head than with the legs in the end.
Improve your photo editing…
“Did you Photoshop that photo?” I get asked this so often, that it’s often hard to understand exactly what that means anymore. Does it mean did I make modifications to the photograph, or did I go and modify the photo so much that it doesn’t even represent the original anymore? If it is the former than yes, I did make changes to the photograph. I wish I was good enough to get that “photoshopped” look! It’s almost funny sometimes how it becomes such a badge of honor to not make changes to your photograph. Oh this was “right out of the camera”! Or people who refuse to use Photoshop (or other editors) because they don’t want to mar their work. I know I used to say this all the time before I actually started practicing and learning photo editing techniques.
It’s like those people who don’t want to lift weights because they don’t want to get huge muscles. I hate to break it to you before there is a huge gap between lifting and getting huge, just like their a big gap between editing photographs and “Photoshopping” them. And it doesn’t matter what software you use, Photoshop, Lightroom, Picasa, iPhoto, gimp, etc., most photographs probably can do with some editing. My favorite tends to be Lightroom personally, but I’ve used many editors over the years. Sometimes even just simple picking the “auto” can make a huge difference to the photo that it would be silly not to try to make it your best. Do you shoot in RAW? You certainly need to do some editing on your photos, sharpening, etc. to make your photos their best. If you shoot in JPEG you are basically just leaving it to the camera software programmers to come up with their best opinion on how your photos should look.
All digital photos have been processed, whether it’s in camera or on your computer later.
It’s just a matter of deciding who will do a better job, you or the committee of folks who decided on how the camera’s algorithm would work. Don’t shy away from all modifications, and being able to do some editing will certainly make your photographs better. I used to think it was cheating, but then realized even in the old days there was a lot of work that was done in the dark rooms too. I might not be cutting out cardboard pieces to do dodging and burning, but the end result is similar. There is always going to be stuff done in camera and other stuff done in post processing. Learn to do some tweaking, fix the levels, learn to dodge and burn. Even sometimes simply understanding what to crop in a photo will make a huge difference in how the photo looks. The more you practice the faster you’ll be able to do it and the better they will end up looking in the end. I may not want the “photoshop” look myself in my photos, but I can’t fault others who do. I think it just matters in the end who your expected audience is and where your feel that line is.
RTFM: Read the freaking manual
Yes that sizable paperweight that is translated into 85 different languages and makes your camera box 4 times larger than it probably needs to be. There is actually some useful stuff in it! I know, since I so often ignore the manuals and just figure I know it all or will learn it on my own. You know how stupid I felt when I didn’t realize my camera could auto-bracket? Pretty darn stupid yeah…and now I find myself using it all the time. Do you know how to set exposure compensation, adjust flash compensation, exposure lock, etc. on your camera? Maybe, but I’m sure there are probably dozens of other functions that would make either your life easier when photographing or allow you to do things you didn’t know where possible. You don’t necessarily have to read it from cover to cover, but I know I try to skim through it occasionally to look for things that would be useful or I didn’t try before. Heck I can’t put together an Ikea chair without a manual and modern digital cameras as more complicated (or at least as complicated).