An accomplished amateur photographer knows you to use light, composition, and technique to be what I refer to in my workshops as a deliberate photographer. However, there are times when even an accomplished photographer can feel that their photos are not inspired. They might just be going through the motions of capturing good technical photos, but they are not seeing the world with their best photographic eye. When you feel you might have lost your photographic mojo, you need to try to find it again somehow. Meanwhile, as a beginner, you love every photo you take, until at sometime you reach a learning plateau and you need to find inspiration to push through to the next level. In this article I give some simple tips to improve.
It sounds a truism, but the best way to improve your photography is to take pictures. Many times, I will have a student arrive for a lesson a week after they have taken a previous class and they will tell me they haven’t had time to shoot. If you never take a picture, how do you expect to get better at it? You have probably heard of the 10,000 hours rule, coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. He explains that behind every overnight success is a person who has done 10,000 hours of practice. I’m not saying you have to do that many hours, but try to stop making excuses for not shooting and get your camera out, even for five minutes.
During Covid, I was not able to teach or get outside much, so I set up some funny scenes describing living in lockdown and shot them in my condo. Also, whenever I saw an interesting scene out of my window I photographed it, whether I thought it would be a good picture or not. I recently turned these pictures into a coffee table book called Balcony Views.
Why not do the picture-a-day challenge where you try to take a picture every day for a month or even a year? You can use your smartphone camera if you don’t have your main camera to hand, because looking for and seeing a scene that will make a good picture is half the battle.
Print some nice big prints
The way I choose photographs is that I like is to view them on my computer as thumbnails. If they don’t make an impact at this size, I think they probably won’t make an impact on me when I blow them up big. However, what looks good as a thumbnail can have glaring issues when it gets blown up to a large canvas size. I’ve found people in my pictures I didn’t know were there or distracting signs I hadn’t noticed before. There’s something about the quality of a print that really makes you study it, plus the definition is much sharper than even an HDTV monitor.
It’s cheap original art if you hang your own pictures. I’ve seen a blog post online that says good photographers would never hang their own pictures. What utter rubbish! Why the heck are you taking pictures if not to enjoy them?
Pick a subject and keep shooting it
Instead of scooting around everywhere taking pictures of everything, find a subject and really concentrate on it. Walk around it; try to capture the essence of it in your photos by getting close and concentrating on detail, form, light, and color. It could be a person, pet, statue, scene, or building. Whatever it is, don’t stop thinking about it and shooting it until you believe you have caught exactly what it is that attracted you to photograph it in the first place.
Pick a technique and learn it
Knowing something thoroughly will help you get the results you want from your camera. Choose a technique and stick with it for at least a week. Shoot everything using the technique. For example, only shoot in portrait orientation (long side vertical). You will start to see what pictures work best in this framing.
Never lose your sense of learning
The worst thing you can do is to believe you know everything and don’t need to learn any more. If you are a know-all, you will turn people off from sharing ideas with you. Your photography will become stale and your images will no longer inspire you. It’s a good idea to try and have humility and know that you can learn something from anybody.
Don’t just look at your own pictures, but spend time studying the works of others. Go up to a photograph in a museum and ask yourself “Could I take that?” If yes, then why didn’t you? Study the picture and look at all the elements of composition and tone. Get inspiration and ideas from it that you can put into your photography. Ask yourself what it is about the picture that makes it good and learn to apply the criticism to your own pictures.
Be your own critic
Having learned to be your own critic through studying the works of others, don’t post pictures in Internet forums. You are probably doing so because you think the picture is good and are expecting praise. Try to treat all praise and criticism equally and learn to criticize your own work constructively. Be confident and deliberate in your art and know that if you meant to do something and were successful in executing it then that is all the criticism you need. You should know that if you enter photography competitions and win it does not necessarily mean you’re a good photographer. What it means is you can identify and shoot what the judges are looking for. You do get a warm feeling and a sense of accomplishment though, so I am not knocking competitions.
Don’t become a gear freak
You might be better off spending your money on books or classes to improve your skills rather than buying new equipment. Try to get the very best out of the equipment you have before moving on. Modern cameras and lenses are all very good. For years all I had was an SLR and 50mm F1.8 lens and shot everything with it. I was so busy taking photos I never thought there were more lenses to spend my money on! I was finally forced to upgrade my equipment when my girlfriend left my camera in a café in Germany. (Yes, I am still bitching about it 30 years later!)
Declare a chimp free zone
Chimping is the slang term for taking a picture and immediately viewing it on the LCD screen. If you’re the kind of person who reviews a shot on the screen of your DSLR as soon as you take it, now is the time to reach for the black electrical tape! Learn to trust your camera. Learn to know when your meter is going to under or over expose and adjust accordingly. If you are shooting a wedding and having to check the histogram on every shot, maybe you’re out of your depth. You should be using the screen as a tool and not as a crutch for bad technique.
Gain some computer skills
People who know me might find it strange I’d say this. I try to get the best picture I can in the camera and even frame the way I want it as much as possible. However, we can’t get away from the fact that it’s a digital world and having a good grounding in Photoshop, Lightroom, etc. will improve the finished look of your pictures and make them more sale-able. Maybe instead of a new camera all you need is some good software and a good monitor.