How to Improve your Photography in 21 Days
The web is saturated with top ten lists of how to be a better photographer. Heck, I’ve even written a number of them myself. Yet, one has to wonder, how much better can someone really become after reading just one article? Wouldn’t a larger transformation involving several weeks or months be necessary?
Depending on your current amount of personal bandwidth, you may not like the answer. There are some shortcuts, but ultimately you are looking at a minimum of 21 days to really make an impact.
For an even deeper understanding of how it all works, you need to dedicate a little bit of time every day for three weeks. It’s a big commitment, I know, but at the end of this period you will be shooting with the best of them. In the grand scheme of things, it’s actually not that long. Just 21 days is all it will take. Let’s get started with the essentials.
Day #1 – Believe in Yourself
I know it’s only day one, but this first step is a critical part of your growth as a photographer. It’s where you tune-out your inner critic and start thinking positively. The transformation your thoughts can make is truly remarkable. Be careful though, negative patterns will try to creep back in. Squash them as they arise and replace them with something positive about yourself. This tip is first because it’s the foundation that everything else is built upon. Without it, you’re building a house on sand.
“Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.” – Author, Normal Vincent Peale.
Day #2 – Get a Library Card
Amazon is convenient, but the library has its own charm. It’s where you’ll find treasures you didn’t realize you were looking for. It’s in those long aisles full of books that you’ll find a heaping dose of inspiration. Flip through the pages, study how the masters composed and created their shots. Look for titles by Ernst Haas, Eliot Porter, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, and more.
Don’t stop there, however. Take the time to learn about photographers you’ve never heard of. Read about what inspired them to get started and any tips they may offer. One of my favorites is the Nature Photography Field Guide by John Shaw. He has the simplest way of teaching the most complex topics, including manual metering.
“Everything you need for better future and success has already been written. And guess what? All you have to do is go to the library.” – Henri Frederic Amiel.
Day #3 – Face Your Fears
If there is some type of photography that really freaks you out, make a concerted effort to schedule time for it. Perhaps you only shoot landscapes and nature. If so, now is the time to try your hand at portraiture or street photography.
I talk to many photographers who never use flash and claim that they only use natural light. That sounds reasonable, but deep down you know it’s just an excuse to avoid learning about guide numbers, slave units, TTL, etc. Don’t avoid this step as it will come back to haunt you later on. The more educated you are, the more jobs you’ll be able to accept. This will make all the difference in your potential earnings, should you choose to go pro.
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” – Dale Carnegie.
Day #4 – Reach Out for Help
Okay, so you’ve identified your weakness, but you have no idea where to turn for guidance. This is where you get to wave the flag and ask for help from a professional. Sure you can visit a photography forum, but you may get poor advice from amateurs or those who think they know it all. A better option is to find a local mentor or one who offers online training and Skype calls. Many sites offer this type of service for a reasonable fee.
Regardless of who you use, be sure to check out their work, and read any testimonials from past students. With a trusted advocate by your side, you can speed up the learning process. If you’re hesitant about seeking guidance, consider this; asking for assistance proves your strength, not your weakness.
Day #5 – Learn a New Camera Feature
Cameras have never been so sophisticated. Unlike the cameras of old, they are essentially mini computers. With such features like live view, autofocus tracking, electronic viewfinders, histograms, and white balance. It can seem daunting at times. Yet if you don’t get ahead of technology, you risk being left behind.
That’s why I recommend upgrading your camera every few years. It doesn’t mean your current camera is no longer relevant, but consider using it as a backup to your new model. If purchasing isn’t a viable option right now, then I’d recommend renting a camera for a week or so.
If you’ve only used DSLRs, then a mirrorless camera would be an eye-opening experience. Another educational experience is to really dig into the camera menu. Mess with every button and play with every feature. Keep the camera manual nearby to cross reference anything you’re not sure of, and learn it.
Day #6 – Start a Website
There is no excuse for a Facebook page being used as a website (especially if you want to do this as a business). Your web presence is the first impression people will have of your work, and you know what they say about first impressions. When someone is viewing your images for the first time, send them to a professional website with big bold images, a contact page, and perhaps a short bio.
Today there are totally free options like Wix and Weebly which are perfect for slick portfolio pages. If you want a more powerful platform, check out Squarespace with their photography templates and e-commerce integration.
“First impressions matter. Experts say we size up new people in somewhere between 30 seconds and two minutes.” – Elliott Abrams.
Day #7 – Create a Savings Plan to Buy Good Gear
Lenses are a long-term investment, and as such, they are usually quite expensive. Still, a good lens will absolutely make a big impact on your work. For example, a professional quality lens will typically be sharper, faster to focus, easier to create a shallow depth of field with, and have a tougher build for all-weather conditions.
I would go as far as saying that the lens will make more of a difference than the camera. For this reason, it makes sense to build your kit with quality glass. Rather than starting off in photography with debt, start a savings fund for photography gear. Anytime you make extra money (from your photography or otherwise), save a portion of it. If you’re working a day job, try to squirrel away a little each paycheck.
When you do eventually purchase your lens, be sure to pick up a quality UV filter to protect the glass. I once saw a rented 300mm lens smash to the cement. The filter was shattered in hundreds of little pieces while the lens itself was 100% intact.
Day #8 – Accept Your Faults
Whether you’re a reclusive introvert or an over-the-top outgoing type A, there is a type of photography for you. The trick is to work with your faults, not against them. If you’re not a people person, perhaps wedding photography isn’t the best role for you. Instead, consider a more solitary pursuit such as travel or wildlife photography. For those with the gift of gab, portraiture might be a perfect fit.
“The learner always begins by finding fault, but the scholar sees the positive merit in everything.” – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Day #9 – Embrace Success
It sounds counter-intuitive but many people are actually afraid to succeed. Similar to the fear of failure, this can hold one back from fulfilling their dreams. Because success is heavy, it carries a responsibility. It is much easier to procrastinate and live on the “someday I’ll do it” philosophy. Don’t sabotage yourself! Stay focused on all of the good things success can bring.
The writer Denis Waitley says – “People procrastinate because they are afraid of the success that they know will result if they move ahead now.”
Day #10 – Commit to Waking Up an Hour Earlier
I’m not talking about catching sunrise every day, but simply using the extra hour towards your passion for photography. This could be blogging, working on your website, studying, networking, or editing photos. There are endless ways to use the time. Of course, it’s also the best time to take photos as well. Besides there being no one around to spoil your composition, the light is spectacular at dawn and sunrise. It’s also when wildlife and birds are most active.
The coach, George Allen, Sr. said – “Work hard, stay positive, and get up early. It’s the best part of the day.”
Day #11 – Build an “I Quit” Fund
Imagine handing your boss a resignation letter to pursue your career in photography. It happened to me, and it can be your reality as well. Ideally, you want about six months of reserve funds, you can probably get by with three. I know this sounds like a tall order, but it all starts with a single step.
Start a special savings account and add to it every month with funds from your day job. Need help raising the cash? Raid your chest of photo gear and sell anything you haven’t used in at least a year. If you need more, get a part-time job for a while. Eventually, you’ll have enough to leave behind a job you are unhappy with and begin your new career as a photographer.
Day #12 – Meet People in Real Life
Social networks are terrific, but face to face meetings are even more valuable. You may be wondering where to find these like-minded people. Start by joining a local camera club, or visiting a nearby art gallery. Perhaps you can take a photography class at a community college in your area. Bring your business cards to popular photography spots and talk to fellow photographers. You can exchange tips, geek out over gear talk, and share favorite locations.
As another perk, they may recommend you for a job they aren’t interested in. You can potentially get work and experience by simply being cordial. Hey, you may even make some friends along the way. The photo industry is small, so it pays to stick together.
Day #13 – Listen to Your Heart
I know, it’s the title of a song by the 80s band, Roxette. That’s not the point. What is important is to find your passion.
When you look around the web it’s easy to slip into a nasty funk. Don’t compare yourself to what others are doing, even if they’re successful. Follow your gut and do the type of photography that makes you happy. Some people may tell you that being a jack of all trades is not wise. However, if you feel like photographing all kinds of subjects, don’t let anyone stand in your way.
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” – Steve Jobs.
Day #14 – Ask for More Work
It sounds painful, I know, but seeking out more photography work could be one of the best decisions you make. Go on Craigslist, offer to be a second shooter at a wedding. Ask to assist on a portrait shoot, or offer your editing help to a local studio. You have to create your own opportunities as jobs will rarely fall in your lap. As you gain more experience, you’ll also enjoy more exposure.
“There exist limitless opportunities in every industry. Where there is an open mind, there will always be a frontier.” – Charles Kettering.
Day #15 – Invest in Your Mind
Invest in yourself, as there is nothing more valuable than your future. As Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
For photographers, this can be done in a number of ways. Group workshop are a terrific way to expedite the learning curve. If you prefer one-on-one training, you can take private photography lessons. Of course, not all of your efforts have to be paid options. Watching free online tutorials and reading articles (like those here on dPS!) will cost nothing but your time.
Day #16 – Take a Sick Day
You know those extra hours you’ve been saving up at work? Use one day for a photography outing. There are rarely awards for perfect attendance, so what’s the point? There’s nothing quite like an impromptu road trip to lift your spirits and break you out of a creative rut.
Everyone deserves a day to pursue their passion, plus, you’ll be more productive when you return to work. Recharging your batteries is a necessary way to strike a balance between work and play. This is an essential step, so don’t skip it.
Day #17 – Do Volunteer Work
Not only will this make you feel good, but you are using your skills to make the world a kinder place. Coincidentally, my entire business started by volunteering a single print to a non-profit organization’s fundraiser. The winner was an amateur photographer in a nearby town. She reached out to see if I did private lessons. Fast forward nearly 10 years, and I now teach photography full-time.
Although it’s a hotly debated topic, it can absolutely pay to work for free on occasion. Bare in mind, I’m not talking about shooting a wedding for free. The idea is to find an organization you can back, and donate your time or services to them for an afternoon.
“Research has shown that people who volunteer often live longer.” – Allen Klein.
Day #18 – Forget the Haters
When people are hateful, remember this quote by author Shannon L. Adler, “You will face your greatest opposition when you are closest to your biggest miracle.”
Let’s face it, some people will just not be happy when you’re on the verge of something great. Don’t take it personally, as it’s their issue, not yours. Perhaps the most common place for haters to lurk is online, especially in blog post comments or on photography forums. There are even “trolls” who look to instigate trouble under anonymous names. They want you to engage and waste your time. Don’t take the bait, expend your energy, or let them limit your success. They don’t deserve your attention which can be used for much more positive things.
Day #19 – Cut Out Bad Habits
Do you leave your camera on automatic and just fire away? If so, you are doing yourself a disservice. Work to break these bad habits once and for all. Put the camera into manual mode and learn how to properly expose by using the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. This is one area where there are no shortcuts. Without it, it’s like you are driving blindfolded.
Bad habits aren’t formed overnight. Similarly, it will require considerable effort to break them. In photography, you need to be your own coach. This requires that you be honest with yourself. If you catch yourself cheating, replace the bad habit with the proper steps immediately.
“People try to change too much at once and it becomes overwhelming, and they end up falling off the program. So gradually changing bad habits makes much more of a difference than trying to change them all at once.” – Ian K. Smith.
Day #20 – Plan the Night Before
Laying out your clothes the night before is always helpful, but what about taking it a step further. Imagine how much more productive you could be if you planned the entire next day before hitting the sack. This is especially important when you want to spend time doing photography. It involves charging all batteries, formatting memory cards, packing your gear, getting the tripod ready, and gassing up the car. Don’t leave these things for the last minute or you’ll end procrastinating.
It may also help to write down your five most important goals for the next day. Block out the time, add them to your calendar and get ready to have a terrific adventure. If you need caffeine to get going, be sure to set the coffee pot to automatically brew the next morning.
“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.” – Paul J. Meyer.
Day #21 – Start a Journal
You don’t need to write like Anais Nin to keep a journal. For photographers, a simple notebook with sketches and ideas can have a number of benefits. For one, you’ll retain more information by writing it down. You can even spark your creativity by capturing your thoughts in a daydream.
Dr. James Pennebaker, author of Writing to Heal says, “When we translate an experience into language we essentially make the experience graspable.” This means that complex topics can be worked out on paper in a way that’s easy to digest. Mistakes can be documented as well as solutions. When you look back at it, you can see just how far you’ve come. This ushers in a feeling of accomplishment and encourages you to keep going.
So is it possible to improve your photography in three weeks? I believe it is, and the keys to do so are listed above.
Granted, it’s going to be hard work, but you’ve read this far so you must be hungry for change. In addition to transforming your photography, some of these items can improve the quality of your life. Of course, it doesn’t all happen at once and will require patience. Stick with the program for 21 days, however, and you’ll see the impact.
Consider this my personal guarantee to you. If you really try the steps in this article, I promise you’ll not only be a better photographer but a happier person as well. Leave me a note in the comments to let me know about your progress.