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.
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.