Five Signs You're Becoming a Better Photographer

Five Signs You're Becoming a Better Photographer

Photography can be a slow process, with lots to learn and improve upon and many mistakes made along the way. As such, it can be hard to tell if and how you're improving. Here are five signs that you are becoming a better photographer.

1. You Read the Image and Edit With a Purpose

When you're first starting out, you probably find yourself moving the sliders and editing tools in Lightroom or whatever program you're using a bit arbitrarily, testing adjustments out and slowly piecing the edit together as you happen upon changes that you like. This is entirely normal, as the bevy of adjustments you can make on an image can take a lot of time both to understand and to intuitively use in combination with one another. If you watch experienced photographers, however, you'll notice that they're much more deliberate in their editing. They can look at an image and analyze it in their head to know exactly what adjustments they'd like to make — things like raising the shadows, adding contrast, and adjusting white balance. 

Image edits can often go a lot of directions. Do you know which direction to take yours?

Developing this skill is important for two main reasons: efficiency and consistency. In terms of efficiency, when you can quickly read an image, you can dial in the desired/needed edits immediately instead of happening upon them through trial and error, which can drastically cut down the amount of time you spend on larger sets. In terms of consistency, you end up with a lot more variability in your portfolio when you're taking semi-random routes in your editing. 

That's not to say arbitrarily playing with the sliders is always a bad thing. Sometimes, it's good to experiment and see what happens. But having the ability to see an image and know exactly what you want to do to it and how to accomplish that is a sign of maturity as a photographer. 

2. You Previsualize Images

When you were first starting in photography, how often did you think of an image in your head, then do everything you needed to to create it, rather than hoping to happen upon a great photo? One of the marks of a good photographer is the ability to pick up a camera already knowing what they want the final image to look like and how to get there. For a landscape photographer, this might mean finding a scene you like, then carefully figuring out when the sun will be in the right position in the sky and coming back at that time. For a portrait photographer, this might mean knowing the sort of mood you want to render your subject in, and being able to quickly dial in the lighting setup that matches your creative vision. If you notice yourself searching for images less and acting in a more deliberate and directed manner with your camera, that's a very good sign. If not, that's ok too. It's great to explore, and you can take time to begin thinking about creating more intentional photos. 

3. Spray and Pray

I'll be honest: my first headshot session, I photographed eight volunteers, and I shot all of them on burst mode, hoping statistics would take over and I'd come home with one lucky shot of each of them. I remember coming home with well over 2,000 images. It was an absolutely ridiculous way to operate, and it created a ton of unnecessary work. I also left the ISO at 3,200 by accident, but that's a different story. 

One well-timed shot beats 500 spray and pray shots.

It's totally common to "spray and pray" when you're a beginner, as you simply haven't developed the eye and timing for the right images yet. It's not even necessarily a bad thing, as you'll get plenty of raw data in the form of lots of images to begin to understand what works and what doesn't. Where it can become a problem is if you never move past it. If you find yourself coming home with less images, but more keepers, that's a great sign that you're becoming a discerning and capable photographer. 

4. You Don't Blame the Gear 

Photographers of all levels love to think that if they just had that better autofocus or that sharper lens, their images would take a major step forward. I'll be the first to say that I think the whole "gear doesn't matter" mantra is a gross oversimplification, and there are most assuredly situations where gear can make the difference between getting or missing the shot. That being said, many photographers vastly underestimate how much they can improve their photos by keeping their current gear and working on their technique. If you find that when an image doesn't turn out the way you hoped that your first instinct is to evaluate where your technique or creative vision went wrong instead of blaming the gear (unless it truly was a situation where your equipment was at fault), that's an important sign of maturity as a photographer, especially since it'll help you grow much more quickly when you can be honest about yours skills and actively improve yourself.

5. You're Consistent

Do you have a solidified style that you can recreate in varied situations?

Any photographer can occasionally create a good image. A great photographer can create excellent images no matter the conditions, the lighting, the setbacks, etc. You'll hear longtime professional photographers often say that their job primarily consists of problem-solving skills. Clients expect good images, period. If you find yourself not being stopped by whatever issues arise during a shoot and instead coming up with whatever solution is necessary to get the image, and you find the look of your portfolio becoming more and more consistent with a strong, developed style, it's a great sign that you're reaching a high level of capability and maturity as a photographer. 


Developing as a photographer can be a slow, arduous road, and as such, it can be hard to see how you're truly progressing and improving as time goes on. It's important to take time to check in, nonetheless, not only to find areas where you can improve, but simply to give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back once in a while. Have you noticed signs of improvement in your own work? Share what you've noticed in the comments! 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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When your clients are happy, and your enemies are not.

IS that from "The art of RAW" by Sony Tzu? ;)

Essential reading in Themyscira ;)

Enemies ?

Happy clients? for sure, but enemies?

Who is a photographers enemy? Saltwater?

" I also left the ISO at 3,200 by accident" ehhh, guilty.

I also spent about half a Big Bend hiking trip with the camera accidentally in crop mode. Gee, I thought I got a wider angle of view with this lens.

My favorite is "you don't blame the gear". This is absolutely true. Another one I like is, you take less shots than you used to and most of them are keepers

"Most of them are keepers". No such thing lol. Unless you're talking about a really controlled environment like an indoor portrait shoot, even pros aren't capable of making most of their shots keepers.

That's a great summary, I reckon it's spot on. I have most work to do on (5)Consistency then in second place (2) Previsualisation. Perhaps (4)Blaming gear is my third priority on the list.

I'd be interested to see what others feel they need to work on most, from the list?

Spray and Pray. Among other things, I've shot a lot of girls varsity soccer. I *never* spray and pray even on that. Do I miss some shots? Maybe. Yet I get into the rhythm of the game, as much as soccer can be predictable, and I generally get the shots I want. Some shots are just for practice such as kicks from the goal keeper, mainly to keep up with my timing. The couple times I've tried spray and pray with sports I felt as though I'd missed shots. I get spray and pray. I also get making *my* photos.

I've been a photographer (professionally and as an avid amateur) for 65 of my 77 years. I shoot a lot. I'm still learning. I do take one issue with the spray and pray statement. I shoot sports and things that don'e move much. I always take a lot of images.With sports I can't tell exactly when the action will happen or have the reactions to capture it when it does. I shoot at high framer rates and do come back with 3000 plus images from a single event. Is editing work - you bet. But it is the best way I've found to get that better or even best shot. The same is true with portraits or nature. There are small changes from frame to frame and being able to choose the best is the result. My approach is to leave no image that I had previsualized behind if it was possible to capture it. I spend much more time planning and editing than I spend shooting.

I don't shoot a lot of sports but I agree. I shoot the occasional tennis tournament and one of my favorite 'catches' is to have the ball on the racquet. My 5DIV shoot 7 fps and I KNOW there's times that I would have gotten more of that 'perfect shot' had I been using a 1DxII. I'm not good enough to be able to predict when a forehand or volley will be at the perfect point. Yes, it does take a bit more work once in the computer, but it's always neat to get that shot you wanted.

I bet you don't shoot RAW....

Most dedicated sport shooters/photojournalists don't because they have to get shots out almost instantly. No time to process, so they have their cameras programmed to produce the best Jpegs that the camera will produce.

I, on the other hand, shoot sports in RAW because I don't have a deadline. ;-)

I do shoot RAW because the processors I have still allow for high frame rates. I don't shoot for journalist uses, so I don't have the immediate deadline. My images are highly processed and used primarily for promotion pieces or on the event's Facebook page.

I totally agree with John Ellingson here... if you think that you KNOW what is going to be the very best shot and only have to shoot a few images to accomplish that, you are probably shooting product in a lightbox. People, faces, scenes, real-life settings change on an imperceptible level in microseconds. And within those moments lies the magic. Consequently, you are better off shooting more than less (now so easy and economical digitally). Although I've been shooting professionally 40 plus years, truth be told, and please don't tell my clients, my very best shots are the ones I didn't know I got when I released the shutter. Because Magic happens... and that's why I still love this game. So Spray and Pray away, you just might catch lightning in a bottle... and never knew it was there in the first place.

Stop taking pictures of pretty places and things and start taking photographs – becoming a photographer.

When we are first learning about photography, we look for pretty things or places to take pictures of. This is because we don’t know how to create a photograph. A pretty picture is made in a camera. A photograph is made in the mind of the photographer. A pretty picture is the result of a mechanical process. A photograph is the product of a creative process by a photographer.

There are several major components to learning to be a photographer instead of just a camera operator. First, is obtaining a full understanding of how the scientific process of capturing light on film or a sensor works. This includes understanding the relative qualities of shutter speed, aperture and ISO and the interrelation and equivalence of each. Second, understanding the benefits and tradeoffs between each. This is a lot of information and it should become intuitive when put into practice. Second, is understanding the equipment of photography. This is not just the camera and lens, but memory cards, sensors, film, tripods and monopods, remote releases, filters, lens hoods, computers, monitors, darkrooms (the list of darkroom equipment and chemicals can be large if you are doing this), lighting, software, etc. There is a lot to learn here.

Having accomplished the technical education to the point that you can use all of this knowledge without having to spend a lot of time trying to remember what each component contributes to the resulting image takes time and a lot of practice. This can take years. Getting proficient with all of this knowledge enables one to make a technically correct image as intended by the operator. An exercise that you can do to determine the extent of your knowledge is to look at any image produced with a camera and have an understanding of the likely focal length and aperture used, the sensor size, any processing that was involved, etc.

Third is the creative part of the process which enables the transition from technician to photographer. This is about gaining the knowledge and skills to create an image in your mind with your vison of the finished product – what Ansel Adams called previsualization. You can do this any time. You don’t need any external equipment. You only need what you have between your ears.

One of the things that I have done over the years (over 65 of them) and still do today; is to look at other photographs that I find appealing and art I like and ask the question: Why do I like this? When you see someone spending a lot of time looking for a long time at an image, whether on the screen, in a publication or in a museum this may be what they are doing. This is a challenging and very enjoyable process. If you can recognize a particular photographer’s style and understand what it is about that style that makes it recognizable you are learning about both the photographer’s vision and developing your own. A goal hear is to develop your own vision and implement it in your own style.

There are questions you can and should ask yourself when you are planning a shoot. What am I trying to express? How well can I do that, and will it be apparent to those who view what I produce? And, lastly, is it worth doing? Am I expressing something that I want to express; is there something that I want to convey in my vision to the viewer?

If you get to the point where these things are naturally part of your approach you will have become more than a photo-technician – you will have become a photographer!

My newsfeed's just popped this article into my inbox - November 10th! However, great article Alex, and I agree with all 5 points although have less experience of No. 3 "spray and pray".

I'd like to add No. 6. As a committed amateur, I've just spent 6 months developing my first website and having reviewed a lot of my images and practice, my recent biggest revelation is understanding WHY I'm taking the shot in the first place? What is it saying about the inner me? and How am I trying to connect with my viewer at a deeper level?

I wonder if this resonates with anyone else?

Great straightforward list, useful for those getting in the game. And thank you for showing CLE some love!

For me there's one 1 way....when I hear people going from..."Mm hmm, mm hmm, nice shots to WOW, incredible shots." On a consistent basis. I could be wrong though, but.....