The good news is 2020 is over. The bad news is that 2020's woes appear to be coming with us into 2021. So, if you want to improve in photography, it's going to take more effort and focus than usual.
My 2020 started brilliantly and then nosedived faster than the 2008 housing market. I went from traveling and shooting for magazines to 12 weeks of solitary confinement in my house with a worrying amount of day-drinking. When lockdown first began, I made a point of taking my camera on walks for my daily exercise allowance. I'd also practice macro photography in my garden, take portraits of my cat, and consider self-portraits. The self-portraits didn't materialize, but I considered them.
Roll forward six months and I'm down to only shooting for clients (on jobs that could be performed in my studio or socially distanced, so markedly fewer, of course) and am deeply uninspired. My craft stagnated by my usually high standards of progression, and while understandable and probably acceptable, that mindset cannot follow me into 2021. I know many photographers and videographers have suffered similar fates — it's been hard not to — so it's time to make plans for war.
There's a strand that runs through all these tips that I will highlight at the end.
1. Take Your Camera on a Daily Walk
For most of us who have been stuck in lockdown for large portions of 2020, daily walks or exercise were the thin thread dangling us above insanity. But this practice, whether you're in lockdown or not, can pay dividends in a number of ways. Firstly, it's good for you, let's not forget that. Though in photography terms, it's useful, and not how you might think.
Unlike much of this list, it's less about technical improvement and more about improving your eye for images. Going on daily walks, unless you have a lot of control over your time, will likely mean somewhere local. Save for the staggeringly lucky (and in which case, I don't want to hear from you), finding shots to take daily will be a struggle. This will quickly push you to get better at spotting interesting images, though you'll likely return with nothing of note, most of the time. My girlfriend now regularly asks "what are you even taking a photo of?!"
If you want an example of just how good these can end up being, look at our own Andy Day's recent series of shooting trees in the woodlands near his home.
2. Create Regular Self-Portraits
For many, self-portraits are not only a natural part of being a photographer, but an important creative outlet, learning tool, and testing platform. I am not in that group. Even if I am in my studio utterly alone, with the shutters down, the door locked, and patrolling hounds, I'm going to feel desperately uncomfortable. And yet, I look at others' self-portraits with unadulterated admiration. It's a hang-up I need to... well, hang up in 2021.
By shooting portraits of yourself over and over again, in many different ways and with as many setups as you can think of, you are truly mastering your craft. It's easier to photograph other people in almost every conceivable way (save for perhaps, direction, depending on your subject.) Though I have shot some self-portraits — not in recent years — and have seen the benefits of testing lighting and useful practice, I still avoid it. Well, no more. Of course, if you have a subject you're completely comfortable with who happens to live with you, they'll do nicely too.
3. Take a Course
This may seem difficult at the moment with in-the-flesh workshops being scarce and often ill-advised, but there is a wealth of online courses that can teach you a new genre, fine-tune a genre you already shoot, or push you as a professional. We have a fantastic library here at Fstoppers. I have just finished watching our most recent tutorial, "The Fundamentals of Fashion Photography" with Shavonne Wong, and can wholeheartedly recommend it if you're interested in fashion photography.
The value of a course over just watching some free YouTube videos is not only the quality of the product, but the depth of information, supplementary files, and the detail, and with many of our Fstoppers tutorials, you can join private groups with the instructor. This may seem like an advert, but I simply believe in the products, and they are a solid way of improving, even if you can't leave the house.
4. Take on a Year-Long Challenge
I've spoken on challenges before, but I always get the impression they're a little underrated. It's as if many of the more seasoned photographers think that challenges are aimed at new photographers, still wet behind the ears. The beauty of challenges, however, is that they grow with your skill. If you're a new photographer and you have to share an image every day, you'll be somewhat content with a nice snap. If you're a professional, you will expect a level of quality in your images that will be difficult to maintain with such relentless regularity and moreover, a lack of direction.
In addition to the famed 365 challenges, there are also lots of themed competitions and tasks that have you shooting on a wide-open brief every week or month. For example, you might be instructed to interpret and shoot on the theme of "the color blue" or "industrial." These sort of curated and directed challenges tend to be more useful in growth, but whatever gets you shooting more images, and more importantly, thinking about the craft and how you do it, is fundamental to improving.
5. Enter Competitions
This is similar to tip four, but with a competitive element, which brings about a requirement for higher-quality images. Entering competitions doesn't have to be the Sony World Photography Awards; there are competitions large and local, and they serve similar purposes. The important part is to pick around your own skill level. Entering a coveted international competition might be off-putting with its lofty heights (though it's definitely better to aim there) and current restrictions in many countries, but then, entering competitions for rank amateurs when you're highly experienced would be worse. If the goal is improving as much as it is winning, you want to aim for competitions that have work you admire and try to shoot to that standard. Examine previous winners and honorable mentions to see what you need to produce. If you're after a list of competitions to sift through, here is one that ought to help.
6. Join a Community for Feedback
This is the tip I'm most reticent to put forward just due to how wrong it can go. I've joined so many communities over the years, and I still get it desperately wrong. In fact, just this week, I joined a community based on a specific element of my current work. The group had over 10,000 members and was, for the most part, the worst collection of snobby but underwhelming "artists" I'd ever found. However, I'm a part of many groups that I would regard as invaluable. Several are based on the tutorials mentioned above, but one that I can offer that isn't is the Retouching Academy. If you want to be a brilliant retoucher, this is where you need to be. There are images in there which I would regard as excellently retouched that then get torn apart by some of the best retouchers in the business, with eyes hyper-attuned to imperfections most would miss. That sort of feedback from gurus of their craft is worth more than almost anything else you can do if you're looking to improve, though you'll need thick skin.
7. Try Everything
This is an article in itself, but I'll give a condensed version: try everything. There's a real focus on specializing within photography, and that's good advice for professionals most of the time. But if you're not a professional trying to increase your profile, go out there and experiment. If you are a professional, just experiment in private. Try shooting genres you've not touched before, or borrowing equipment you've never used, or mimicking styles disparate from your own. The skills and knowledge you will gain may surprise you and can often be transferred to what you do shoot, or at the very least, may come in handy one day.
If you want broad advice rather than specific, actionable tips, then here you are: shoot. Shoot as much as you can and wherever possible every day. Critique your own images and figure out why they're not as good as you hoped. Whether it's from a lack of subject matter (you should work on improving your eye) or poor lighting (you should take a course on lighting), you can use it as a platform to learn and improve.
How will you be improving in 2021?