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.
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.
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.
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.