The Secret That Makes You a Better Photographer

It is not difficult to get an okay shot as an advanced photographer. The problem is not seeing the things that would bring your photography even up to a world-class level. What if I would tell you that there exists a tiny subgenre in photography that makes not only most of the things you have to improve visible for you but also makes you a better photographer in all genres of photography?

My latest video is about that one often overlooked type of photography that can make you a better photographer, and it doesn’t matter if you are a landscape photographer, a portrait photographer, a street photographer, or whatever you might prefer to photograph. This article is not meant to change your preferences; it is just all about showing you how engaging with this one subgenre of photography could improve your photography. Get your mind open and join me on an excursion to something different.

Cheating With Bokeh

This is just one of dozens of photography mistakes, but a fantastic example, as I see this so often. And I have to put my own hands up here, as I did this so many times by myself, especially in the first 10 years of my photography in the 1990s. It is so easy to photograph any subject with an open aperture. Unused things around the subject get blurry, and we don’t have to care about them anymore, right?

Not really. If you engage deeper with composition you know, that there are lots of things to be considered like balance, flow, or visual weight, for instance. World-class photographers don’t only engage with the subject, they engage with the entire scene, and the background, even if it is blurry bokeh, is part of the composition and can support or destroy the story your image should tell.

Considering Each Part of the Composition

Getting to the next level in photography means developing a sense of considering the whole scene. Each element is important, including the not-so-obvious ones. But how can we develop such a sense? The good news is, that this is something that gets developed automatically over many years. But I already had photographers in my workshops with more than 15 years of experience who still struggled with this one important thing. So, in the case that you are interested in a rocket-fast development and improvement, let’s dive into an excursion of something different that was a big game-changer for my improvement.

Landscape Photography Makes More Visible

Landscape photography? If you photograph portraits, wildlife, or sports scenes, you might ask yourself now how landscape photography can help you to improve in your specific genre. Well, the thing is in landscape photography, we want to get the entire scene sharp in most cases, especially when we want to photograph a vista scene.

When you want to photograph a vista, you can’t use a typical figure-ground association, as you are used to in most of the other genres of photography. There is simply not always a clear subject in front of a backdrop. This can be quite tricky if you have never tried to photograph in that way. There is nothing we can make blurry. Each part of the scene should add to the composition. It is tricky in the beginning, but having this skill will help you to improve your ability to see compositions. Landscape photography forces you to engage with the whole scene, with every single element in the composition, even the very small ones. In my case, it brought me to engage with elements I have simply not recognized before, even in the bokeh.

Have you ever heard the sentence: “I’m good at photographing everything, except landscapes, but I don’t know why?" This is the reason: the affected photographers simply don’t engage with the whole scene. They don’t work on the entire composition.

I’m not saying you should change from your genre to landscape photography. But photographing landscapes for a while or at least from time to time can massively boost your ability to fine-tune compositions. You will start to see things in your portrait, wildlife, street, or astrophotography compositions you have never recognized before. And this gives you a fantastic chance to improve your overall photography.

Woodland Photography Makes Everything Visible

Ready to go even one step further? It is easy to get an okay shot of a wider vista when the sun is going down and dunks the entire landscape in subtle reds. But why do so many photographers struggling with woodland?

The problem with woodland photography is simply that the forest is the place where we have the biggest amount of chaos on our planet. There are so many branches, sticks, and roots. All the elements, lines, and shapes overlap each other. We have to bring order to the chaos— a skill that is used in each other genre of photography as well, but you don’t need that for getting an okay shot there. You need it to make world-class work. If it is not autumn time, the color contrast is missing, as everything is green in spring and summer or orange shortly before winter. Woodland photography will train your ability to see compositions and stories even more than landscape photography does — but everywhere, not only in a forest!

This Is Your Big Chance

It is quite easy to get an okay shot in landscape photography, but it is so difficult to get just an okay shot in woodland photography. And now, here comes the shock: getting a masterpiece in woodland photography is not more difficult than in landscape photography or in any other genre of photography. Woodland photography is just the ticket to make all your compositional mistakes visible to you.

This is your chance to work on those particular things that make you better. Photographing woodlands for a while can be a massive game-changer for you. Give it a chance and don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t work in the beginning. It takes a while to get it, and it is normal that you don’t always have a masterpiece in your bag when you are headed home. 

Many more reasons why woodland photography makes you a better photographer, with lots of tips, are revealed in the video above.

Christian Irmler's picture

Christian Irmler is a passioned landscape photographer from Austria who comes from a line of artists.
He engages already his whole life with the compositions of the paintings of his family. In 1990 he began with photography and started to implement all his knowledge from painting into his photography.

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One of my favorite types of photography is a subset of this small genre; environmental portraiture of wildlife within a woodland environment. Not only does the photographer have to figure out how to photograph the woodland in a way that looks awesome and is free from all distractions, but he/she also has to capture the animal within the scene in a visually pleasing pose and in a position where it doesn't overlap any of the woodland elements in an awkward way.

If you thought that taking world-class photos of a woodland was difficult, try doing so with a live, wild animal in the scene!

Hi Tom, oh yes - definitely. In your case there is the time critical component to add, what makes it quite difficult :)
Woodland photography instead offers us this kind of establishment phase. There is no stress, we can think our composition to the end, what is an advantage for improving. What I found out is: The more I engaged with woodland photography, the better I got in time critical situations was well. Also in landscape photography there are time critical situations when any light spot appears for just a few seconds, or anything like that.
But however, your mentioned wildlife photography in woodland sounds fantastically, by the way.
Thanks a lot for your comment and nice greetings,

Greetings to you as well, Christian!

I think I would like to get out and try some woodland photography this winter, while the woods are clad in snow. I like woods best when snow and frost cover everything. Snow and frost are so beautiful, and make everything that they cover so much more beautiful than usual!

Hard work applied over time.

That's it. There really are no tricks, shortcuts, or secrets.

This applies equally to any business, including a photographic business.

"I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it." ~ Thomas Jefferson.

Yep. You need to put in the time and effort or you'll never improve. Henri Cartier-Bresson knew how to expose an image without a light meter and could tell just by looking at the available light. He wasn't a genius but learned what worked from the many hours he devoted to photography.

I think a big part of the problem is people want the easy fix. They'd rather take a pill than fix their diet and exercise every day.

This problem of the "easy fix" syndrome is especially apparent to me in wildlife photography.

Every year I get messages or phone calls from several people who want to know how to get good photos of some species of wild bird or mammal. When I tell them what they need to do in order to get quality photos - which usually means spending at least 10 days in the animal's habitat at a specific time of year - they lose interest and give up, before even trying. They just want to be able to go somewhere for a day or three and come away with great photos. What a joke!

Why are most photographers so scared of dedication, patience, and work ethic?

Hi Sam, yes definitely. Quality is time multiplied with effort :)
Thanks a lot for your comment and nice greetings,

TBH, most photographers who pay attention can also expose without a light meter, it doesn't take an genius. When on location we used to play guess the exposure before shooting a polaroid. Loser bought lunch.
HCB genius was when and where he took the picture.

Hi William, that's definitely true. But there are anyway always methods that are more or less efficient, when it comes down to learn anything new or when we want to improve anywhere.
The known achievement-orientated principles to improve in anything are the impulse-above-threshold-principle, the progressive-strain-principle and the principle of variation, what is generally possible with each kind of photography, of course - although we would never think about those things when we are photographing, of course :) What I like at landscape and woodland photography is, that it offers us also a kind of "establishment phase" as well - simply enough time to think the compositions to the end and to fine tune and tweak about them. This helped me a lot over the years to be rocket-fast with building up compositions, also in time critical situations.
And you are so right also with the "easy-to-fix problem", that many would rather take a pill. I'm sure many photographers would like to have a "make-everything-better" button on their next camera :)
Thanks a lot for your comment and nice greetings,

Well according to FotoTripper (YT) that's what the A button is ! A for Awesome ;)

This article hits some good points! I also fully agree with William murray with his statement about just putting in the work.

Hi John, thanks a lot for your positive feedback! And yes - if we want to improve, it is definitely all about putting effort into that we want to achieve.
Have a great weekend and nice greetings,

It's not a matter of "hard work," "secrets," etc. It's a matter of spending a ridiculous amount of time with the subject(s) you want to photograph. For woodlands, that would mean hours upon hours of hiking around in them because you love that environment, and don't want to be anyplace else. And if you don't love woodlands? Then find something or someplace you do love spending ungodly amounts of time in (including what it takes to actually get to them, like backpacking, camping, etc). Otherwise, you're just wasting time. Intense interest in the subject is what makes you a "better" photographer. Nothing more, nothing less.

That's exactly what hard work is.

But if the linguistic ambiguity introduced by the adjective "hard" bothers you, we can just call it *work*.

Two different kinds of hard work, though. Hard work that you like can be fun most of the time. Hard work that you hate will be horrible most of the time. Guess which one you're likely to do better at...

"...linguistic ambiguity..."

But if you don't enjoy it, wtf are you doing it for?