6 Steps To Better Photography
A few weeks ago I received an email from a new photographer who asked, “How do I make my images better?” At first, I chuckled, realizing that question has resulted in the production of thousands of articles here at dPS, and uncountable books, websites, and magazines. There is just SO MUCH information on how to do better photography that it’s easy to get lost in the sea of advice, photo tips, and expert opinion.
In my response to that struggling photographer, I sketched out six things and quickly sent the email. My answer was off the cuff, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my advice was actually pretty darn good. These six things really will help you improve your photographs. Some are easy to accomplish and some reach to the core of the art of photography. All of them, however, will push you further into your process and lead you a bit closer to the images you’ve always wanted to create.
Aerial image of the Hula Hula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.
1. Know Your Camera
This is the easiest one to tackle. One of the places where I’ve noticed new photographers stumbling is having a poor understanding of their camera. Know what each setting means, what it does to your image, and how to quickly change from one to another. Know the five essential camera settings backward and forwards, how to set them, and what impact they will have on your final image.
Understanding how bright, snowy conditions will impact your image, and your camera’s ability to meter correctly will allow you to quickly capture fleeting light like this, when others may stumble.
But don’t stop there. Spend some time in the menus and custom settings. Know things like focus and metering modes, and how those relate to different shooting situations.
I recently added a new camera system to my quiver (Panasonic Lumix) and am having to re-learn all these things for a new camera brand. It is daunting, but it is also extremely important. Get friendly with your camera until you understand it intimately. Then, when you are in the field and need to make changes quickly, you won’t have to think twice, or god-forbid, have to look it up while your opportunity slips away.
2. Learn the Rules
Rule of thirds composition. It’s a “rule” because it usually works.
If you’ve spent much time reading about photography online, you’ll have read the words “Break the rules!” so often it’s become a platitude. Everyone is pushing you to break rules, but there is very little discussion about the rules themselves, what they mean, and why they should be broken. The fact of the matter is that the “rules” of photography are guidelines for a reason – they often work.
The “rule of thirds” for example, is effective because it results in a pleasing composition. (There is a mathematical reason for this, but a complete discussion of the topic is beyond the scope of this article.)
Proper focus, exposure, and color balance are all “rules” because they result in a pleasing image. Know how to effectively achieve these in your images again and again in a variety of shooting situations. Once you’ve mastered the “rules”, you can move beyond them (see #6 below).
3. Study Images Until You Know WHY They Work
As you are browsing through images on the internet, in magazines, or books, take a few minutes to study the photos that catch your eye and consider:
- What did you first see that captured your interest? Was there an action, color, or story that was compelling?
- How does your eye move through the image? At what point do you lose interest?
- What colors or points of contrast are interesting?
- Is there a story being told? What is it?
What about this image catches your eye? Is it something else that causes you to linger?
Images can be effective alone, in groups, or as part of a larger story being told in the surrounding text. Social media has a tendency to raise up stand alone images, but I encourage you to go farther. Good images are often a part of stories, and stories need to go somewhere. Sometimes that’s to the next photo in the series, sometimes it’s integrated into the text.
Successful photographers know this, and will cater their images to reflect the context. Magazines like National Geographic are very good at it, and many of the images in their pages do not stand alone well, but work beautifully within the context of the story being told.
Consider the images carefully, how they do, or do not integrate with their surroundings, and then try to reverse engineer them. How did the photographer create the photo? Is there artificial light? What exposure was likely used? Often there is a reason why successful photographer’s images look a certain way. See if you can suss that out by looking.
4. Make Lots and Lots of Photos
There is an old adage about becoming a good writer, “Write every day.” It’s no different with photography. Practice is vital. Make images, waste pixels. Delete lots, but make images, one way or another.
An atypical composition on a bright, flat-light day. The almost upside-down composition makes this image successful despite the poor light.
When you have successful images, study them as I recommended above in #3 to find out why they worked, and what you could have done to make them even better. Honest self-critique is tough. We can almost always find a way to justify our errors or to overlook the mistakes we make. We have a tendency to like our own images because they remind us of our experiences creating them, but our viewers don’t share those memories. The experience of viewing the images has to be sufficient.
Try to look at your photos as an outsider would, take note of the distracting elements, the clumsy balance, or off-kilter compositions. Consider would could be better, and work toward that goal your next time you’re out with your camera.
Getting away from our home environment is a great way to find inspiration. That can be a trip to some photogenic destination a world away, or simply driving to a different part of town. The trick is to break out of your rut, and make some new images.
When you come eye to eye with a grizzly bear, it’s easy to get overly excited and screw up your images. But, if you have the fundamentals of photography and your camera controls mastered, your odds of success improve dramatically.
New places also tend to inspire, but I caution you here. More than once, at a new place, I’ve been so enthusiastic to make images, oohing and aahing at the sights I’m seeing, that I failed to pay attention to the basics (See #1 and #2). I have utterly blown entire mornings of beautiful light because I was so caught up in the excitement that I didn’t notice my compositions were wonky, or my exposures were blown out.
Escape your normal routine, but always remember the fundamentals of photography.
6. Become Your Own Photographer
Storm light, shadows, and the sun, play across the northern foothills of Alaska’s Brooks Range. It isn’t a classic composition, yet I knew this image would work when I made it.
Much of the advice I’ve shared here relies on comparing your own work to that of others. This is a great way to learn, but eventually, you run the risk of stagnating, or worse, imitating others.
Every shooter is inspired by the work of other photographers. We all have gone through stages where we want to make similar images (or even identical) to what others have made. That’s why some sites are so famous: the Firefall in Yosemite, the bears catching salmon in Katmai National Park, the Tetons over the Snake River. Photographers crowd these locations, trying desperately to emulate, imitate, or re-create famous images they’ve seen before. This can be a great way to learn, but please don’t stop there.
Nothing about the lighting in this image follows the rules. It was blistering hot, midday, washout light. If I had followed the rules, I would never have lifted my camera.
Once you’ve mastered the basics and have a strong understanding of what makes an image succeed or fail, it’s time to break out on your own. Make images for yourself, compositions that are a-typical, weird, strangely composed and focused. Take the rules of composition, focus, and exposure and push their limits. Here is where the rules can be bent and broken. This is where you experiment, play, and most of the time – fail utterly.
But sometimes you won’t fail. Sometimes, that strange composition, that weird exposure, will work, and work beautifully.
Make images because they speak to you, not because you think your Instagram followers will like them. When you break away from what you think is expected, and to what you care about, your images will become your own. For me, this took a long time, but once I found my groove, my own style, I started enjoying the art of photography even more.
Caribou in winter on the arctic coastal plain of northern Alaska. Nothing typical about the lighting or composition of this image, yet it’s one of my favorite wildlife images. I’ve never seen another image like this, and that’s a big part of what I like about it.
Don’t try and please everyone. If you do, your work will appear generic and it will not push you to excel. In other words, be willing to fail. A willingness to fail will eventually lead to success.
Do you follow these six tips? Do you have any others that you would suggest to beginners to help them do better photography? Please share in the comments below.