Seven Skills to Help You Improve Your Photography

Want to improve your images? Here are seven rarely talked-about approaches, not involving the camera settings or composition, that may help you take your photography to the next level.

1. Serendipity Isn’t Serendipitous

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, serendipity is “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” That rarely happens in photography. One of the greatest, yet hardest, skills to learn is to stay still and wait for the photo to come to you. If you wander around searching for the image, then you are going to be looking for a long time before you get a great shot. You’ll certainly, and unknowingly, miss the action that happened where you were 10 minutes before.

It’s a matter of probability. Interesting and photogenic things happen randomly and infrequently at all locations. So, if you stroll around searching for the shot, you are unlikely to be in the right place at the right time, looking in the right direction, with your camera poised and ready. Instead, find a location and wait for that perfect moment to come to you.

Wildlife photographers are the masters of this. They sit quietly in a bird hide or by a burrow and wait for the creatures to appear. Blundering through a forest will just make the wildlife flee or conceal themselves in fear.

The same applies to most genres of photography. If street photography is your thing, find a great backdrop, blend into the environment, and wait for something interesting to happen there. Similarly, if you like shooting early morning landscapes — and that is usually the best time to shoot landscapes — then survey where you should stand and wait for the perfect light from the rising sun to glance off that rock or tree. You’ll walk away with a few great shots instead of dozens of mediocre ones.

2. Plan, Plan, and Plan Again

You also increase your chances of getting the photograph you are after by planning. I have a penchant for capturing images of the full moon or sun rising behind an island just off the coast from where I live. Of the 13 or so occasions a year when the full moon rises, there are usually four when it is visible and not hidden by clouds. Consequently, I have a 30.7% chance of getting the shot. If I turned up anywhere at any time along the shoreline, the probability of getting a good shot reduces to nothing. I must plan.

Firstly, I use an app to identify where those heavenly bodies will be rising and at what time. I then open Google Earth to work out where I should stand, sometimes visiting the location in advance. That helps me choose what focal length lens I should fit to my camera — my locations can be anywhere from one to three miles from the island depending upon the time of year — and I check the weather forecast.

This planning isn’t limited to land and seascapes. Stand in the wrong place so the person you are photographing is squinting into the sun, or miss that same sunlight catching a bird’s eye, or have it shining from the wrong direction, making the features of a building look flat, then your image will be spoiled.

So, before you start shooting, survey the location: look where the light is coming from, verify the wind direction, look for potential distractions, check what’s happening to the tide and the waves, see if anything will appear unwanted in the shot, and consider any other local variables that might apply.

3. Know Your Subject and Anticipate Its Behavior

Every location and every subject have their own unique features that you should get to know. Many good street photographers will look for a backdrop and visualize the shot they want. They will then wait for the right person, doing something interesting that fits their vision, to wander into the frame and complete the image.

Meanwhile, wildlife photographers will study and understand creatures’ behaviors. They will not only know where to be at what time, but they will also know that birds take off and land into the wind. They understand that a particular movement will indicate that an animal is about to run off or that the bird is about to take to the wing. That anticipation of capturing the “decisive moment”, as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it, is created by a combination of planning and spontaneity, plus being able to anticipate what the subject will do. Successful anticipation only comes from studying and learning the subject's behavior.

4. Methodically Hone Your Skills

When you get your photos home, wait a few days before looking at them. That gap will give you an emotional separation from the shoot, allowing for more objectivity. Then, analyze them.

What do you like about the shot? What didn’t go quite as well as you hoped? Should you have chosen different exposure settings? Was the composition good? Did you focus on the right place? Was the subject compelling? Did you shoot it when the light was in the right direction? Are there unwanted distractions in the background? Were you close enough?

Don’t just look for what went wrong; consider what you did right too. Write down your critique. Next, go out and shoot that same subject again, correcting those things that went awry, and repeating those things that worked. Replicate that process until you perfect it. In time, it will become second nature.

When you know that subject, file those skills away. Then, next time you head out, try shooting a different subject. Analyze those images in the same way. Bit by bit, you will build up a portfolio of photographic skills to call upon in any situation.

5. Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Pictures

Shot many years ago, I saw from the weather forecast that the wind that had created the big swell on the sea had changed direction, so it would blow spray from the wave tops. I then checked the sunrise time and direction and fitted a vintage long lens to get the effect I wanted.

Instead of just heading out with your camera, decide upon what you are going to shoot. Then, prepare just the kit you will need for that: choose the right lens; make sure the batteries are charged and the memory card is empty; if necessary, attach your tripod’s quick release plate to the camera; check the batteries and settings of your flash; and set the camera to the right focusing, metering, and shooting modes. Leave everything else stored away, as you don’t need it. On the shoot, this minimal amount of equipment and its preparation will help you concentrate on getting that one perfect shot. You won’t have the distraction of swapping lenses or changing the camera’s settings on location.

6. Don’t Take Your Camera

That is the retelling of an old joke. But the truth is that we photographers need to be both of those people. Of course, we must know how to use our cameras. However, we should also notice the world and all its wonder with photographers' eyes that see it in a way most people don’t. If we cannot see the world with wondrous awe, how can we portray that in our photos? Consequently, sometimes, we should leave our cameras behind.

Just as everyone is glued to their smartphone, missing what’s happening in the world around them, the same thing can happen when carrying your camera. If you are going out to achieve your 10,000 steps, take that as an opportunity to observe and enjoy the world and not be distracted by your camera. Instead, just notice what is going on around you. Look how the light plays upon the landscape at that time of day. Discover the tree that a squirrel usually sits in or where old friends share their gossip.

Think about the picture you would take, and then, come back later with your camera and shoot it.

7. Take a Break From Photography

A long time ago, I taught myself to play guitar. To this day, I’m not particularly good, but I do enjoy it. Back then, there was one song I could not get my fingers around. Subsequently, I had an enforced break. I was away from home and my guitar for a week. When I returned, I picked up my guitar and played the tune without mistakes. By accident, I had discovered a learning technique called incubation. That involves taking an extended break — it can be from a few hours to a few days — and letting the subconscious mind work on it. That technique works with problem-solving and with improving creative pursuits, like playing the guitar and photography.

Thank You for Reading

I hope you found one or two of those worth considering and will try some to see if they work for you. Please let me know if you do.

Have you any tips you can share that don’t involve camera settings or composition theory that can help others improve? It would be great to hear about those too. 

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10 Comments

Matthew Lacy's picture

Excellent suggestions and article all around, Ivor. I truly enjoyed your insight.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you for the kind comment, Matthew.

Ed Elliott's picture

Great article that focuses on perception and perspective rather than hardware or procedures. I started serious photography in 1970 with a 4x5 view camera. I was lucky enough to take class with Ansel Adams in Yosemite early 70’s. The two things I learned that have stuck forever: previsualization and Zone system.

I practice both to this, more often without camera than with. It’s a way of seeing. My specialization is street photography, or “reveling in the super ordinary”. Your comments are wonderfully applicable.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Wow! I envy you having a class with Ansel Adams. (I've just checked out your portfolio on this site and you have some excellent images.) Thanks for the great comment.

Zachary Adams's picture

Excellent article, especially for those just starting out. #1 can be difficult to stick to for beginners but it pays off in the end. Planning as mentioned is critical. The last couple years I've been trying to hone my astrophotography skills, taking notes and writing down what I did right and what I want to change or try is critical, like your full moon shoots you only get so many new moons, then enter weather and you only have 4-5 opportunities each year to practice, I'd find myself making the same mistakes at first because I'd forgotten I made them 2 months earlier!!!

I also really like the above of leaving the camera home, or putting it down for a bit and enjoying the world first hand!! This not only improves your vision but also gives you that break to!!

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you for taking the time to register and post a great reply. It would be great to see some of your astrophotography in your portfolio for this site.

Pete Coco's picture

So much great advice. I recently started getting into street photography, and I never thought about how similar it is to wildlife photography. Today I did as you suggested and stayed in one nice spot and just fired away as the people moved about. It resulted in some nice images. Great insights, thanks again!

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks Pete. I'm glad it worked for you.

brian Walsh's picture

Very helpful

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Brian.