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So Many Photographers Make This Mistake. Are You One of Them?

So Many Photographers Make This Mistake. Are You One of Them?

We all make mistakes. They are part of the learning process, and if we want to improve, we have to accept that we'll make plenty of them. Photographers are no different, but there's one big mistake I see so many photographers make time and time again, yet it's so avoidable.

If you want to improve at something, be it photography, or tennis, or driving, or drawing, then theory and practice are the two cornerstones you must focus on. Personally, I'm a much bigger believer in the practice side of things, and I think that honing your photography skills through repeated practice will be much more beneficial for you than endlessly studying theory through a book or YouTube video. That's not to say theory is overrated. It isn't. But to me, doing is much more important than thinking about doing.

And one way to really sharpen your skills is to find a photo location that allows you to practice all different types of photography in myriad conditions. I see so many photographers go to a magnificent location once, take a shot (which may indeed be spectacular), then depart that scene and never venture there again. It's such a massively wasted opportunity. To clarify, I'm not talking about somewhere that you visit on holiday or somewhere that takes hours to get to, I'm talking about somewhere near home that is easily accessible at anytime. We all have these spots, but most photographers I know fail to utilize what's in their own backyards to improve their practice and their understanding of theory.

People like Clark Little have made entire careers from shooting a single location time and time again, and it's something you should do too if you want to improve. To give you a visual example of what I'm talking about, I want to share some images with you of a lighthouse on an island in the south of Japan. This island is about a 15-minute drive from my house, and I have been shooting here for about 10 years. And it just never stops giving. So I keep going back to the well.

This is a shot I took early in the morning from the northern side of the lighthouse looking into the rising sun. There are always fishermen here in the early morning and I knew if I just waited I'd be able to get one with the sun and the lighthouse in the frame. At this time, I was trying to practice symmetry, and because of the low tide, I knew that fishermen would be able to cross closer to the lighthouse than if the tide was high and the rocks covered with water. So in this example, I learned about light and silhouettes as well as using symmetry. But I also became more acutely aware of the impact such things as tides and sun position might have on your composition.

This is a shot I took from a very similar position to the previous image. However, the tide was almost dead high, which means all those foreground rocks would be covered and uncrossable. In this shot, I was practicing using the rule of thirds, and in a horizontal sense, I put the rushing water in the bottom third, the deeper water covering the rocks in the center third, and the sky and lighthouse in the top third. I also placed the lighthouse on the left, upper side so I could get some glare from the awesome sun that morning. This also taught me about light and color and how different it can be even if you go somewhere at the identical time as another day or even the previous day.

Taken from a similar position at a similar time to the previous two, in this image you'll notice that the sun is much closer to the lighthouse than the first shot with the fisherman. It seems rather obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people don't actually know that the sun's position in the sky is always changing throughout the year. So if you want a specific type of composition, then you'll need to know exactly where the sun will rise in relation to where you want to stand. Understanding this concept introduced me to some wonderfully helpful apps such as The Photographer's Ephemeris, which can model an exact location of the sun's position throughout the day directly from your phone. This is incredibly useful when you're planning a composition.

This shot is very different from the first three, mainly because it was taken in the middle of the day. I was practicing long exposures on this day, and I wanted to get that silky smooth sky, but also wanted a reflection of the lighthouse in the foreground. This meant that I had to walk around a fair bit, because most of these rock formations don't have gaps between them, as you can see from those on the left. So, I had to find somewhere that had some still water. I found this here, but it meant I had to come in much closer and fill more of the frame with the lighthouse, because the water tapered off just at the bottom right of the frame. The position is also completely different. On the southern side of the lighthouse, you get these incredible volcanic rock formations that create stunning leading lines opportunities.

This final shot is a perfect illustration of the leading lines that you can utilize when the tide is low enough. I moved around further south to the previous shot so that these rocks led directly to the lighthouse, instead of being on an angle. The top half of this shot (except for the lighthouse), is completely white, because I wanted to use negative space to draw focus to the lighthouse and act as a dark/light contrast between top and bottom. This lighthouse also allows you to hone your black and white photography because of the incredible textures and patterns on the rock formations, as well as the contrasts, which always work well in black and white photography.

Summing Up

I've given you five different pictures of this lighthouse today that demonstrate how shooting the same subject or the same location can teach you so much about photography and things such as light, color, tones, composition, genre, and timing. If truth be known, I have close to 100 shots of this lighthouse and was there just two days ago, 10 years after I first took a shot there. So if you have a location that you like, keep going back there at different times and use different compositions and different lenses and different light. You don't need to go to new places every time you shoot. It doesn't matter if you shoot landscapes or weddings, you can harness a location's nuances to really improve how you approach photography and improve your skills.

What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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Good point on really seeing a scene in its entirety.


Been there. Done it :-). I spent two years returning to a Lonely Tree on top of a hill, in various conditions and tines of the year (though it was a sunset location). Really enjoyed it. Did it improve my skills. Not sure. It did stretch me to come up with new compositions.

Creating unique compositions is an underrated skill

The island is called Aoshima, where a famous shrine is located. My wife and myself were there about two years ago. At the time I took the picture high tide prevented me from getting any closer to the actual lighthouse. It is located a rather short drive South of Miyazaki. Sorry for the horrible water mark on the picture, at the time I was experimenting.

Yes you’re absolutely right Steve. My little secret has been exposed haha! I’ve been living here about 10 years, just across the main bypass and through the ricefields from Aoshima. Nice shot too!

My wife lived in Japan for four years in the JET program (Japanese English & Training) so we have been going back to Japan every few years. We will be in Hokaido coming this September. Sorry for exposing the location. However I just about dropped my coffee cup when I saw your great shots of the lighthouse realizing we had been there. Mataneh and thank you for your response.

Awesome that you have such a connection with Japan. I've been here close to 15 years now - the first 4 up in Chiba (near Tokyo) and the rest down here in Miyazaki. I love it and Miyazaki is an absolute dream for landscape photographers, in particular. Where was your wife posted for her JET assignment?

Iain, my wife was mostly in Chiba Prefecture teaching, but later on ended up in Nagano and Osaka. She has made life long friends with her host families who treat us as if we are family each time we visit. I might add at the time we visited Aoshima I did the drive from Kagoshima from where we were staying. But you are aboslutely right Japan is a photographers dream. I think I might of burned out the shutter on the old SLR! Sadly I lost most of my Japan Pictures last year in the 'Paradise Camp Fire' which took out my backup drive along with the entire town of Paradise CA along with my home and business I have thankfully restored some but not all from the cloud which saved me from losing everything.

Wow, I’m sorry to hear about the fires and I hope things get better. My wife is from Kagoshima - an island south of the mainland called Tanegashima where Japan launches its space rockets from. That photo looks like the (mostly) disused cafe near the entrance to Aoshima Shrine...?

You nailed it. I was trying to figure out the purpose of the spot. The sad part was the sheer amount of trash we seen especially in Rokko-zaki Cape, Noto Peninsula along the sea of Japan. We were told much of it comes from Korea, and China. Gorgeous views, and beaches littered with trash. The day we were on Aoshima island a local Japanese crew was doing storm debri cleanup along the shoreline around the island. We also went as far as Ibusuki and drove around Mt. Kaimondaki (tunnels) are cool to go through.

Yes unfortunately it’s a sad but unavoidable reality if living in southern Kyushu. Every typhoon season the winds and storms are generated down south and travel up past China/Taiwan/Philippines/Okinawa etc.....

By the time the storms hit land in Miyazaki/Kagoshima there is a lot of trash and uprooted trees and debris that has been collected along the way. The one good thing is that, in Miyazaki at least, the council or local governments are pretty quick to get the diggers and bulldozers out to clear things up.

But with 25-30 typhoons every year all coming from the south it’s kind of like chasing your tail......

I don't know why people keep writing stuff about how theory and practice are both important but then go on to argue that one is "more important" just because they personally can't seem to figure out that balance is the answer. Why can't they be equally important? Actually, let me rephrase: They're equally important.

I believe this way of thinking is actually the reason it takes some people so long to improve. They spend too much time doing without enough time evaluating what they're doing. Yes, there's no substitute for doing. There's also no substitute for studying. Thinking that one is better than the other is only hurting your own progress. Saying that one is better than the other is potentially hurting others' progress.

Study, do, review, study some more, regroup, then do again with more preparation and significantly better results. Unless your goal is to take millions of mediocre photos with only marginal improvement between every thousand or so. If your goal is to just have fun shooting, go for it. If your goal is to create great images, stop pretending it's one or the other. It's both. Equally.

Returning to the same location over and over again won't change anything unless you've changed since the last time you were there. If you happen to get a better shot the 3rd time than the first time that's luck, not improvement. It's not about going to the same place repeatedly; it's about going to the same place with better vision.

That's why I qualified it by saying "personally......." To me, you don't need to study something 50 hours then do it an equal 50 hours in order to improve. I grew up surfing, so I'll use that as an example. If two people start surfing and they have 200 hours to improve, I guarantee the person who spends 180 hours in the water "doing" and 20 hours " studying" will be better than the one who does 100/100. Same with photography - I don't need to read about the rule of thirds for 20 hours and go shoot for 20 hours. 2/38 is good enough for me and will be much better for my skills. Yes, you need balance, but you don't need absolute equal balance. But again, that's just my opinion and why I qualified it with "personally....."

Thanks for your comment.

I think you're interpreting "time" too literally, and you're conflating it with importance. Just because two things are equally important doesn't mean they require the same amount of time. It's one thing to suggest spending more time on a particular task vs. another; it's altogether different to suggest that the first task is more important because of this.

Also, studying isn't just about reading rules and textbooks and diagrams. In fact, if your idea of studying is limited to that mindset I'd say you're altogether missing the point. It's about analyzing your work and process, deconstructing ideas, brainstorming, questioning, planning... THINKING. Sure, you have to think on your feet when you're out shooting, but that's not the same thinking you should be doing before & after.

Going back to your surfing analogy, a person who spends 180 hours in the water and 20 hours studying is likely to improve faster than the person who does the inverse. But that doesn't automatically add up to either being "good" after 200 hours. It just adds up to 200 hours. You're thinking quantity when the point is quality.

The person who will improve the fastest (and most) is the one who realizes that both are equally important, and knows when to do each.

Also, personally, I don't think one is excepted from opposing viewpoints just because they begin a paragraph with "personally". See what I did there?

It sounds counter intuitive, but I, as an amateur, would really like to see what talented and experienced photographers consider to be their failures, rather than their successes

I guess the beauty of digital photography is that every time you go shoot you probably take 10-20-30 images or whatever. But you only ever end up with 1-2 genuine keepers. Whether the others are mistakes or not I'm not sure, but you do find slight nuances in different angles, different light, different positions etc....

On top of revisiting the same locations, I recommend doing so with different lenses. The biggest newbie mistake I see is thinking that wider is better. The number of times my advice to a new photographer has been “try a longer lens” is mind boggling.
I’ve in or around Tokyo for over 5 years, but it wasn’t until I looked at it through a 70-200mm lens that I realized how many opportunities there are for unique images.

Absolutely, yes. In my last paragraph, I touched on lenses but as you said, different lenses even in identical situations can make a massive difference. Especially in a place like Tokyo where you might do a lot of street photography, a lens like the 70-200 could make you a little less conspicuous too (in a good way haha!)

I go to a local public garden all the time, although its the same, its always differebt with plants blooming at different times of the year. Lots of fun and good subjects everywhere.

Gardens and flowers are a perfect example - always changing. And you can use such a variety of lenses too. The good thing with flora photography is that teaches you about colour theory as well, which you can then apply to different styles of photography.

To quote Albert Einstein “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” I find by revisiting a site over and over I learn to see better by being aware of the light, the weather, and compositional variances. But for me, the greatest variable turns out to me my mood.

Great quote! And yes, mood also plays a huge part in how you might see the same scene from one day to the next.

The content of the article is good, your spot reminds me of Ile de Ré. You should try an ICM on that location, it would be interesting. But that's like the most clickbait-y title I've ever seen lol, it's textbook. Why don't you say the article is about revisiting locations ?

I think you could do a kind of composite ICM on the rocks and then lead it to an in-focus lighthouse....that might work

I often think to do this but have yet to. Now I will.
Thank you for the insight.

Thanks for the tip! I really need to spend more time in Kyushu!

It is indeed a wonderful part of Japan that's far less explored.

Thank you! It is very interesting

Excellent idea, Iain, though I'm not so sure I'd term this a mistake, more like not fully taking advantage of an opportunity. Back when I worked for a newspaper and had no assignments, I would often drive the same circuits or visit the same places, in search of what we called feature, wild art, enterprise, caption-only, etc. This lighthouse would be a good location to visit in all kinds of weather and at different times of day, as you've aptly demonstrated.

Indeed! Using the same location has many advantages: knowledge on details makes much easier planning, and exploring many concepts on the same place puts emphasis on concepts rather than content.

If course, the content, surrounding, has to have enough of inspiring potential.