Is This the Quickest Way to Improve Your Photography?

Is This the Quickest Way to Improve Your Photography?

It sounds counterintuitive, but heading out without your camera more often will make you a better photographer and not for the reasons you may immediately think.

The best camera you have is the one that's always with you; that's how the saying goes. Most of us travel around with smartphones in our pockets, and many photographers never leave home without a camera for fear of missing something. This makes sense if you hope to catch something so rare and unrepeated that it'll catapult you to fame in an instant, but I believe this constant attachment to the camera is actually a trap.

Man with smartphone on location
It's tempting to turn up to a nice location and take a snap on your smartphone, but it's a bad habit to fall into

How many times have you arrived at a stunning location or viewpoint, whipped the phone out of your pocket, and snapped a picture before doing anything else? I know I have. And it's interesting to see so many other people, tourists and photographers alike, doing the same thing. They wander up, find the spot, out comes their phone, and snap! They look around for a second or two and carry on.

Man reviewing images on camera screen
Even after you're done looking through the viewfinder, reviewing images on the rear LCD screen takes you away from being in the place, in real time

Here's why that's detrimental to yourself as a photographer. In the case above, the person records the scene. They mark a place where they weren', looking through the pixelated screen of a phone or perhaps the small window of a viewfinder, thinking about exposure and composition. They never really took in the scene at all. In my opinion, I think it's better to head out without a camera and be there among the environment, absorbing everything it has to offer.

By really engaging with the scene and your thoughts, you get a more authentic experience. That's something you'll better achieve without a camera, because otherwise, the temptation is to draw it out and have a look through it, and before you know it, you're hooked. There are a few ways I like to put my method into action.

Be More in the Moment

Mindfulness has been the buzzword at the top of the mental health pile for some years now, and I think it extends to photography as well. You've got to know what it feels like when you're there, not how a photo might turn out. Feel the wind against you, the smell of the trees, the landmarks in the landscape. All these things should instill an emotion in you. Feel that and embrace it. 

Woman in forest scene
Take the time to notice how the location makes you feel, instead of worrying about technical details on the camera
Remember what this feeling is like; it'll inform your choice of composition when you return with a camera and how you process the shot in image editing software to help convey the feeling to viewers that will never get the opportunity to be where you are.

Take Notice

Take some time to move around your scene. Hold still, pausing for a few minutes or an hour at a time to get a sense of movement in the landscape. Perhaps it's a bustling inner city, with trucks and cars winding around every corner. Or maybe there's a quiet forest, and among the trees are birds flitting among the branches that weren't visible when you first approached.

Foxglove flowers in sunset light on hill
It took me a while of looking at a wonderful sunset across the Somerset hills in the UK to find this small patch of foxglove bathed in evening light
Practicing this method of noticing things can reveal a different angle on your environment, something that others simply wouldn't see as they pass by in haste. It can help bring a unique charm to your photographs that few others will be able to reach. You'll be able to practice this most easily around where you live.

Look for Patterns

Trees in pink sky on landscape
When I spot cirrus and stratus like this, I know that about twenty minutes after sunset the sky is going to roar with pink

There's a rhythmic dance in photography that you can latch onto, and it's limitless in type. Look up and you can see how the colors in the sky change during sunset and how it depends on the cloud cover. Sometimes, you'll get a rich purple in the direction of the sky opposite to sunset, other times only a thin slither of orange on the horizon. There's a pattern in bird behavior from day to day, with invertebrate movement picking up in warmer times and dying off when it's colder. 

Man with smartphone in tourist spot taking photo
As soon as someone gets settled in with a smartphone or camera in a popular tourist location, sure enough more people will imitate them and flock to the same area - it's a common pattern

You can even find these patterns in street photography, with rush hours being busy or street corners becoming congested due to the local delivery vans as they pull up next to the shop. In the middle of a city, there are still patterns to notice when there are no sidewalks. For example, if you're trying to capture light trails of cars at night, you'll need to learn when the traffic lights turn green in order to get long exposures of the light streaks as the cars move, instead of coming to a stop on a red.

In Conclusion

There's plenty to learn from just being in a place, without bringing a camera up to your eye or pulling a phone from your pocket. Waiting and noticing what's going on around. How the colors make you feel and what it feels like to be there. Then, the learning process begins, as you try to figure out how to relay that experience through a two-dimensional, flat image that may never even exist in the real world, but only appears for a split second on someone's Instagram feed.

Hawthorn flower against orange house background
Even though the distant houses, lit by the setting sun, looked abhorrent to me when compared with the natural forest in front of them, it actually provided a pleasant, bright, and colorful backdrop for this hawthorn flower when shot with a long lens

How are you going to frame that shot? Where do you want the focus? And how do you process an image in order to convey the emotions of where you were to your viewers? These questions and more start to bubble to the surface and influence your unique style as a photographer when you stop taking out your camera. I think this is much more useful than just following a trend or copying someone else's work because it's true to who you are and what you've experienced.

Log in or register to post comments

4 Comments

Scott Kiekbusch's picture

I'm 100% in agreement with the idea of being more present and in tune with our surroundings. However, there's no reason photographers can't have their cameras with them while also being in the moment. People taking snapshots at scenic locations to share on their feed and harvest likes are just looking for the dopamine hit. They're more interested in using the snapshot as a means of boasting about their lives/travels than the actual practice of photography. Having my camera with me encourages me to slow down, take in the environment, and regard what I'm seeing from different perspectives. It also means that I increase the chances that I'll take more photographs which means I get more practice—improving my photos.

Sam Sims's picture

I tend to use my camera with a single prime lens and like to be able to see the shot before reaching for the camera. A smartphone is useless in this regard as the lens perspective is nothing like my prime lens. I prefer, not only to take in the surroundings but to see shots that would work for my lens’ focal length. I like to take my camera with me as much as I can, even if I don’t use it that much as it’s also great for reference shots and ideas, as well as potentially great photographs.

Dinah Beaton's picture

I couldnt agree more with your artical. I have taken to go out and about wirhout my camera, Canon 70D for two reasons, one being as youve pointed out in your artcle and the other being that i found myself forgetting to enjoy "Just being there". and seeing so much more there is to be seen.
It also amuses me to find myself still mentally composing the shot yet enjoying the subject or the scene far more intensely though.

Richard Kralicek's picture

The image of foxglove at sunset is gorgeous.

Well, having a camera with you and not taking tons of shots helps too. I restrict myself to one lens only when hiking, and within this restrictions it's easier not to take an image if you can't find a composition that works with that special lens. I rarely have time to go back and visit that place a second time.