You Are Responsible for Improving Your Photography

You Are Responsible for Improving Your Photography

Photography, as with any creative pursuit, requires the creator to have their hand in the process for the results to shine. Countless Facebook ads, online workshops, and even our camera companies would have you believe that they if you just buy that next magic bullet, everything will change for you. If they are to be believed, swiping your credit card just one more time is the key to making great images. Rubbish. It’s time to break away from that thought.

Just like in any breakup, feel free to tell them it’s not them, it’s you. You are responsible for improving your photography. I’m not saying don’t purchase that lens or take that class. Of course, those things have a place in our photography. Heck, I love to watch a tutorial or two and play with sexy new glass. What I am saying is that if you give more space to your own process and take actions to improve your own photography, you will make better use of those things and, in the long run, improve your photography greatly. Back in my university days, I studied Japanese and Korean languages. As anyone who has studied a language knows, countless hours of repetition and practice are required to even make a small step forward in fluency in the target language. Photography is no different. You need to be active and deliberate in how you approach your development as an artist. Repetition, conscious effort, and attention to detail are necessary components of this process. 

Deliberate Learning

One of my tasks as a student was to learn the Joyo Kanji, a list of 2,136 commonly used Chinese characters required for day-to-day life in Japan. That might seem like a lot to a beginner, but it did give me a goal and that was the key to learning everything I needed to know. By working backwards from that goal, I was able to set myself targets and work towards achieving the final result. First, I learned the meanings of the radicals and looked at the history of them to understand how they formed the meanings contained within the more complex characters. Then, I broke the list up into familiar and unfamiliar and slowly began practicing the familiar mixed with the unfamiliar, followed by mixtures of only the unfamiliar. All the while, I was deliberately trying to trip myself up with complexities. I tested myself at every stage using every possible combination of characters and worked hard to correct any mistakes I was making. In the end, I passed confidently because I’d prepared myself adequately for what I needed the do. Learning photography is no different than learning anything else. It requires the same attention to deliberate learning. The first step is to identify your weaknesses. Once you know what you don’t know, you can set it as a goal and go about dissecting and practicing using the process above. Just like language learning, it’s not going to be an overnight fix. It will take time, and sometimes it will feel like you’re getting nowhere. But you will get there.

One Thing Per Day

I make an effort to learn one more thing every day. That might be something I get from a conversation with a colleague or friend. It might be something I get from Fstoppers or maybe from a video on YouTube. Wherever it comes from, I try to make sure that I do something each and every day to augment my understanding of our craft. At first, what you’re learning may not fit into the puzzle you’re solving now, but over time the pieces will come together. Things you have heard in the past will take on new meaning as they merge with the things you’re learning now and things will start to click. This is why I try to find something new every day. I encourage you to take up this habit. Take 15 minutes out of your day to absorb a new piece of information and store it away. You never know when it will come in handy. This is similar to learning the radicals of Chinese characters; these pieces of information will become the building blocks of your shots later on. 

One Thing at Each Session

At each session you photograph, I also recommend trying something new. Of course, if you’re on paid time, get the safe shots first so you have your delivery covered, but after that, try one thing out of your comfort zone. I like to do this on my family sessions by looking over my collection of inspiration before I head into a session. I have my list of go-to shots and techniques in my head and I can knock those out to make sure I have all of my bases covered. Then, if my session is going well, I’ll choose a more difficult shot to try to pull off at the end.  By keeping it for the end of the session, I know that I have established my rapport with the family and got the shots I need to deliver. The basics are in place by this stage and we’re all primed to try something new. If the final shot fails, they never need to know and I can return to the drawing board for my next shoot. If it succeeds, I have a great new piece to show and the family gets a couple of extra shots in their delivery. 

Test Yourself

By analyzing how I approached the shot and how it turned out, I can learn from my mistakes and work towards perfecting the shot next time. This works a lot like testing yourself in the lead-up to an exam. I’m looking at what I did right, what I did wrong, and where I need to improve. Once I’ve got it down, I can move on to question two and keep learning. Or, maybe I’m just not ready to try a shot of that complexity yet. In that case, I might need to work on a simpler shot while I build my background knowledge again. 

In Conclusion

Just like textbook manufacturers are not responsible for your hard work in using their materials to practice a language, camera manufacturers are not responsible for your work in making great images with their equipment. You have to step up to the plate and make the images, and that means that you need to know how. That takes knowledge and hard work. This is one way that I like to approach learning and improving my craft. If you’re having trouble learning a new skill, give this method a try. Set a goal, work backwards from it to figure out what you might need to learn in order to reach that goal, a work at achieving these small steps to get you where you want to go.

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Elan Govan's picture

“Konnichi wa gokiken ikaga desu ka?,” That's me done for the day with exhaustion. need to lie down and take a nap...

Anonymous's picture

Bad analogy. I've been trying to learn Japanese for years with very little success. My take away is, I'm never going to get any better at photography and will have to practice every day in an attempt to not forget the little I know. :-)

Elan Govan's picture

Just turn the knob to Program....and let the camera do the thinking....nobody will know.

Anonymous's picture

Will that improve my Japanese? ;-)

Elan Govan's picture

It might...then again, it might not....but worth remembering Asahi beer is famous in Japan.

Anonymous's picture

I don't drink beer. Oddly, every time I go, my Japanese friends and relatives drink coffee and I drink green tea. They think that's funny. :-)

Elan Govan's picture

Green are not alone. Know a few people who drink Green Tea.

Matthias Dengler's picture

So true!
On a daily basis, I meet people blaming the system, blaming politics, blaming whatever thing in the world for their non-success. If you are bad at something, just blame others and be jealous at them. That's the easy way in life. The hard way is, to set yourself goals, be self-critical and analytical to achieve your goal.
And that's exactly how I learned photography!
I improve because I care. If you don't care enough, photography schools won't help you. It's up to you to improve!
Stop complaining, start caring!

PS: I studied geography but I didn't care, so I suck at it.

I like your article Dylan, thank you. The more analytical approach you describe is what I need in my own work. I also agree that too many people use their credit cards to improve their photography. It's always been that way, even in the predigital days.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Great article, thanks, Dylan.

A useful starting point is "learning to see". Since photography is all about capturing images of what we see, learning to see - learning HOW to see - is a basic starting point. It also trains your mind, for the next stage - capturing the image that you see.

Another thing that puzzles me. In a different group, I am told that over 99% of all photos these days live their entire lives in digital format, and never leave the wonderful world of computers, smartphones, etc. Sadly, I think the final part of the process - producing prints of our photos - is being overlooked by millions of photographers around the world. And for me at least, it's a basic part of the process of reviewing my photography, to create a print and then review the print. It's yet another point at which I can learn, and from which I can move forward to improve my photography.

When I was a mediocre photographer I sold the occasional photograph & won an occasional contest. Now that my photography has vastly improved, no one is impressed but me...