Put Down Your Camera and Improve Your Photography

Put Down Your Camera and Improve Your Photography

We have all heard it before: shoot more, do a 365-day challenge, or attend a workshop. This advice is fine, and it can improve your photographs, but how about putting your camera away to improve your photography?

I can’t argue with the old adage that practice makes perfect and that we should photograph as much as possible. Shooting more sharpens our technical skills and increases our comfort with our cameras. And this is something we should all strive for. Having a history of photographing many images gives us a mental Rolodex of solutions to fall back on. But photographs are about more than just technically correct exposures or shutter speeds. 

Whenever I have my portfolio reviewed, the comments I receive the most are focused on the composition and how the subject is conveyed in the photograph. This isn’t to say that I never receive comments about technique, but the vast majority of the creative criticism is focused on the artistic side of the photograph. I believe this is probably true for most photographers.

Photography is art. When I think of art, an image of a museum comes to mind for me. So, if photography is art and art is displayed in museums, then perhaps we should spend some time in museums to better understand the artistic side of photography. And that’s just what I did this past summer when I had a few days in Madrid, Spain. I spent two days just kicking around the numerous museums that featured various types of photography. While I enjoyed just looking at the multiple photos of the many featured photographers, I went to the museums with the intention of studying the photographs. I encouraged myself to look at the pictures to see if I could identify what I found to be interesting about the picture. Then, when I thought I determined what was interesting, I tried to describe how I felt the photographer used the elements of the image to convey the subject to the viewer.

OK, perhaps I mislead you with the title of the article, because I would encourage you to take your camera as I did. I used my camera to take a snapshot of various photographs in the museum that I thought would remind me of something I learned or wanted to remember to work into my photographs. For example, the image above is from the ICO Museo that was featuring photographer Carlos Canovas and was taken so that I could later look at it to see how he used leading lines in the three photographs. This is another point that I would like to suggest. When looking at the photographer’s images, look for the similarities between the photos. Did the photographer use a common artistic approach such as light and shadows? Perhaps the use of color or the lack of color was used in different ways. Take your time as you look at the images and try to identify as much as you can. Don’t just slowly stroll by the photographs.

Now, before everyone starts writing that they don’t live in New York, Paris, Madrid, London or any other large city with museums, I would encourage you to stop before hitting that keyboard. Even smaller cities have some museums. And what if you don’t have easy access to any nearby museums at all? I would suggest two other options. The first is to look at the artwork that exists in other public buildings in locations such as universities, government buildings, and office buildings. The second option is the Internet. Google museums or famous photographers. Spend time not just looking at their images, but rather, study their pictures. Make some notes of what you see. It doesn’t have to be the school type of studying. Just have fun with it. Then, go try incorporating some of that newly gained knowledge into your photographs.

A few suggested museums:

  • Pier 24, San Francisco, California
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York
  • Helmut Newton Museum, Berlin, Germany
  • Fondation Cartier, Bresson - Paris, France
  • Galleria Carla Sozzani, Milan, Italy
  • Magnum Gallery, Paris, France

Lead image used with permission. Copyright Charles Villyard, courtesy Pier 24 Photography.

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Simon Patterson's picture

I think that's very good advice. It can be very worthwhile looking at paintings, too. Seeing physical artworks is a completely different experience to seeing pictures on a screen at home or at work.

I find myself trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in those artworks. Especially when they include aspects I wouldn't have considered myself in their shoes, or if they break conventions I generally follow. It is fascinating and enjoyable to see the outcomes of the imaginations and skills of good artists.

Linnea Lenkus's picture

Yes! Put thought into your seeing. That will make your photography so much better.

Elan Govan's picture

I do seem to have a tiny advantage here. Both my daughter and wife are accomplished artist and after editing, I normally share it with them. And yes, they do tell me when it is carp and why.

I do recall my daughter being ask to leave Glasgow Art Museum for throwing her tiny wellington boots about the place. She was about 5 years old, so we had ice cream outside instate. And yes, I do have a photograph of that day.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

Better yet - “put down your stupid cellphone and improve pretty much anything”

Deleted Account's picture

I would love to go on a workshop or course where museum photographic images could be explained to me. Maybe I just haven't got the "eye" but I do sometimes struggle to see what the photographer is trying to convey in museum images.