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Five Ways to Improve Your Photography

March 10, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what steps I’ve taken over the last 11 years to become the world’s most reknowned landscape and adventure photographer.  Clearly, I’ve also been daydreaming quite a bit.  Seriously though, here are a five things I’ve done that have contributed to making me a better photographer.

1) Be Studious

I’ve looked at a whole bunch of photos.  Thousands of them.  And I don’t just look at them.  I study them.  I pick them apart and try to figure out what makes one photo stupendous while another one just sucks.  How many times have you seen a photo of Half Dome, Delicate Arch or the Tetons from Snake River Overlook?  Of all the images you’ve seen from these iconic locations which ones stand out and why?  Was it the light or some nuance of the composition?  Next time you’re sitting at home with nothing to do, scoot on down to the local bookstore.  Grab a few coffee table photo books by your favorite photographers, sink into one of their comfy chairs and analyze a few of your favorite photos.  Do this often enough and you’ll soon find yourself making the same analyses as you compose images in the field. 

2) Photograph Often

Spend as much time as you can in the field.  In 2000, just over a year after getting serious about photography, I had the opportunity to spend 5 weeks on the road.  In that time I learned several valuable lessons, one of which was what that mysterious “depth of field preview” button actually does when you press it.  I used my camera daily and by the end of the trip I knew where every control was and what it did, and I could operate the camera intuitively.  There’s no substitute for knowing your camera inside and out. 

This was in the pre-digital days, i.e. film, and I lost the photo album from that trip to an ex.  But I remember looking at the photos from beginning to end and being blown away by the difference in the quality of images from the beginning of the trip to the end.  Photographing something every day for 5 weeks had a profound impact on my creativity.  Of course I realize we can’t all jet off on a 5 week road trip.  But I believe that if you make a concerted effort to get out as often as possible, you will see improvement in your photography. 

3) Mix It Up 

After moving from Arizona to Colorado in 2002 I made the conscious decision to focus less time on photographing the grand landscape and more time on intimate scenes.  Most people, even non-photographers, can see the beauty in autumnal aspens below a snowcapped peak.  Hell, even snapshots of a scene like that are likely to induce “oohs” and “aahs” from casual viewers.  I wanted to be able to walk into the aspen forest and walk out with a successful image of those beautiful trees, with no mountain in sight. 

My first few hundred efforts at intimate landscape photography weren’t so good.  Actually, they sucked.  But, I took those slides (still in the film days here), put them on a light table and studied them a la my first point.  Doing this, and forcing myself to look at the world around me with a narrower focus, helped me develop a more refined eye for composition.  I eventually got to the point where I was creating some pretty nice intimate landscapes.  In doing so, I found that my grand landscapes also improved as I spent more time crafting cohesive compositions.  The key is to really focus your attention on an aspect of photography that is entirely new to you.  If you’re a macro photographer, try grand landscapes.  If your wide angle lens has never actually been detached from your camera put on a telephoto and practice seeing the natural world through it.  Just mix it up a little bit.

4) Don’t Fear the Critique

I’ve touched on this one before but it fits with this topic as one of the pivotal moments in my photography career came after a paid critique session.  Bear with me as this story is a little long.

While living in Arizona I took a trip to Flagstaff with the ex who stole (and probably burned) the aforementioned photo album.  It was fall, the San Francisco Peaks were dusted in snow and the aspen leaves were bright yellow.  I had just switched from print to slide film.  I shot a few rolls and dropped them off at the lab which, if memory serves me, was actually named “The Lab”.  The next day I headed over on my lunch break to pick up the slides. 

I tore open each box and laid the slides out on the light tables that had fancy loupes attached to the counter by a wire to prevent thievery.  While viewing them another photographer came in to pick up his film.  He told the lab tech his name and I immediately recognized him as a frequent contributor to Arizona Highways.  I was standing next to greatness!  He must have seen me gawking at him instead of my slides and made a comment about the images I was ignoring on the light table.  We had a short conversation, I asked him what he thought of my images and he offered a couple short critiques.  He said he’d be happy to offer more in depth critiques for $50 an hour.  I bit and we set up a time and place to meet.  Don’t ask me who it was because I can’t remember, but I think his first name was David (no, not Muench).

This guy looked at slide after slide and gave me invaluable feedback on each one.  It was an eye opener as I’d never actually had someone look at my images with a critical eye.  I also learned that there are about 50 different ways to say “this sucks” in a very pleasant and constructive manner.  At any rate, his critiques were solid and really helped me define what it was about an image that worked or didn’t work.

These days you can still get your work reviewed and critiqued in person, but you can also do so online in critique forums.  Keep an open mind and seek critiques often.  Your photography is guaranteed to improve.     

5) Never Stop Learning 

Anyone who believes they have reached the apex of their photography career/hobby/obsession is a sad, sad person as far as I’m concerned.  No matter how much you know there is always something you don’t know.

I don’t know squat about artificial light, I can’t understand how to operate a tilt/shift lens to save my life and there are still things about Photoshop that positively mystify me.  I don’t do my own printing because the whole color management/profiling/sharpening for print/selecting the right paper thing scares the BeJesus out of me.  I could spend all day writing about the plethora of things I don’t know about photography but that isn’t constructive.

Read books, attend workshops, watch video tutorials, follow blogs, join photography forums and subscribe to photo magazines.  Identify a technique or an aspect of photography that confuses you and vow to master it.  Push yourself to learn in whatever ways are available to you.  The more you expand your knowledge base the more tools you’ll have at your imaging disposal to make dynamic photographs.

There is no true roadmap to better photography but these five tips should get you pointed in the right direction.  Enjoy the ride!

What has helped you become a better photographer?  Share your ideas in the comments section!

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2010 9:11 am

    All of the tips are wise! The best I believe (through self experience) is self criticism, learn to creatively criticize your work and you have done a huge step!
    Learn to see what is wrong in your capture, what should you improve and you know you are improving!
    Thanks for sharing this Bret, it’s something I am also writing as an amateur photographer, I am writing it as I learn to see creatively into my captures! 🙂

  2. March 10, 2010 9:39 am

    Great post, great tips!

    In conjunction with “mix it up” and “shoot often,” I would also suggest picking a favorite local scene and going back often. Learn what different times of day / seasons / weather conditions can do for your photography.

  3. Bill Brennan permalink
    March 10, 2010 10:34 am

    Thanks for the coaching tips. All good.

    Bill Brennan

  4. Joe Rogers permalink
    March 10, 2010 10:38 am

    You give sage advice in your current blog. As a studio photographer for the last 30 years I can say each of your points should be well taken. Creative people bore easily and need new challenges to avoid burnout, something I have experience on several occasion in that 30 years. I do a lot of landscape now to keep my studio work fresh. I still attend both portait and landscape workshops, and have other members in my profession whom I respect critique my work often. I belong to several forums. Luckily the digital world opened up a fasinating world for us film photographers with so much new to learn we should feel like old filled cups turned upside down into which a new brew of creativity could be poured. Keep up the good work. I am the guy who met your fellow worker in Moab last fall and your name came up because of the RMNP forum.
    Thanks again,
    Joe Rogers

  5. March 10, 2010 11:59 am

    As someone who is still new to being a photographer (made the switch a little over a year ago) I found all of these to be great advice. I have sought out and read a lot of advice from a wide variety of people and places, and you hit on at least two of the common denominators. Take pictures every day and always keep learning.

    With that in mind, something that has helped me (and continues to) is having a 365 project. Taking at least one picture a day of something. It is forcing me to learn my camera, experiment with lighting, and making me more creative. I would suggest it to anyone.
    Since it is a vanity project of mine, I don’t keep it on my website but on my facebook fan page.

    Thanks for all the good advice, hope I added something to the conversation.
    Mark Manne

  6. March 10, 2010 12:01 pm

    Wow! So many salient points I don’t know where to start so I’ll address my favorite: Never Stop Learning.

    I think that we, as photographers, are like sharks in some ways. If a shark stops swimming it sinks to the bottom and dies. If a photographer stops learning, same thing. A very wise man once told me “Any day that you don’t learn something new is a wasted day.”

    There’s a couple of photographers out there touring the country giving weekend seminars and I go see them every time I get the chance. It’s always the same info for the most part and by now I could probably give the lecture for them but every time there is at least 1 nugget of information. That’s what keeps me coming back.

    Good stuff Bret.

  7. March 10, 2010 2:27 pm

    Great advice, Bret. And with the digital revolution, we can shoot forever without incurring the sort of cost that film carried – all we invest is our time and energy, which is (or should be) a joy.

    When I was a kid, the greatest learning aid was simply that my dad got me the “dumbest” SLR-type camera he could find. That was my first camera, and it forced me to learn the basics of exposure without any input from all the technogizmos we have today. When I first started, I pestered dad for what settings to use, and he would give me meter readings; I very soon got the hang of it and was too impatient / independent to keep coming back. I figured it out. I seriously doubt he could have given me a better start.

    So I guess what that translates to, today, is: always have a camera that can operate on fully Manual – and don’t be afraid to use it that way! We learn from our mistakes. Er, hopefully.

    These days, I’d have to say one of the best ways to improve (that I’ve found) is sort of a combination of your first three tips. Be studious with the camera: find a subject – any subject, landscape, person, object, whatever – and shoot the heck out of it. Different angles, different heights, different framing / compositions. Mix up the lenses. Mix up the exposure (I lean toward underexposing, myself, but that’s the result of long experimentation and I still mess around with it) and use your automatic exposure bracketing for kicks. Hoof it from one place to another to get different perspectives on the same subject. Zoom in, zoom out. Sun behind you, sun behind the subject, sun coming in from the side… none of it is wrong until you decide you didn’t like the results. All of it can produce great shots in the right circumstances.

    Once you’ve done that – then get studious on the computer. Upload your shots – and if you’ve really gone to town there will be hundreds – and just spend a few hours chewing on them, sorting what you like vs what you’re going to scrap. Why are you going to scrap that one? Why is it no good? Why do you really like this one, but that one not so much? Once you’ve identified what you like – get back out there and shoot something else, and try to replicate the settings / circumstances that worked for you before. If it works again – that’s something to make a note of in your mental shooting files. If it doesn’t – why not? There’s something more to be learned, there.

    Quick tips:

    – Once you’ve taken a “conventional” shot, turn 180 degrees and see what’s behind you. Maybe you won’t like what’s there, maybe you’ll discover something wonderful.

    – Don’t just complain about the light (it’s all cloudy today, it’s no good, bwaaaa). Get out and shoot anyway – boy, do I need to do more of this! I’m coming to the conclusion that in just about any lighting situation, you can find something that will give interesting, maybe even great results.

    – Be patient. With yourself, with the wildlife, with the light as it changes. All things come to him (or her) who waits. It might not be today or even tomorrow, but patience and persistence will pay off.

    – Never be afraid to ask questions (related to seeking critiques, but expanded to cover gear, technique, everything). Many guys especially have a tendency to want to avoid any possibility of appearing clueless; I’ve been an instructor, so I’m not just saying that because I’m a woman. But in my experience the ones who will go the farthest, who make the best colleagues, and – strangely enough – who know the most are the very same ones who will ask (and answer) the most questions. Nobody knows it all, and anyone who says they do is an idiot.

    Thanks for all the great posts, Bret. You just keep coming up with good ideas!

  8. March 10, 2010 4:02 pm

    Great post Bret!

    Two things changed my photography big time in the last year. One was color calibration for my monitors. Two, taking the camera Raw class at from Chris Orwig and others. I look back at my older images and cringe!!

    Keep up the great work!


  9. March 10, 2010 7:41 pm

    Hi Bret,

    I thought your posting, as well as all the comments it provoked, were great!

    I’m a photographer – Paris street photography is my speciality – and I genuinely appreciated all of your points. I offer photo critiques on my blog, and your posting made me reconsider my own critiques, which I try to make as fair and positive as possible, but your comments made me really think about whether I was being as positive as I could be.

    Your first point – ‘Be Studious’ – reminds me of pointing my piece-of-crap old SLR at the local park’s daffodils maannyyy years ago!

    Your second point – ‘Photograph Often’ – I have two things to say. One is, with the digital revolution, you have no excuse – just delete the crap afterwards, but Get The Shot. This is one of the most important photographic principles. Without a photo, there is no discussion. The other thing is just to get out there and do it. If you don’t have your camera with you, there is no way you can get the shot – that much goes without saying.

    The third point – ‘Mix It Up’ – is great. I recently started a new iPhone photography blog, featuring only photo taken by the ‘piece-of-crap’ lens that passes for a camera, and yet which lets you publish photos on the web in about two minutes flat. What a marvelous tool!

    The fouth point – ‘Don’t Fear The Critique’ – I’ve pissed off more people than I’ve pleased in my life, I swear that’s true! But you absolutely have to say what you think and what you feel – otherwise, quite simply, what’s the point?

    The fifth point – ‘Never Stop Learning’ – is in my mindset, and the main reason I actually talk about my photos at all. I just want other to know a bit more about why I took them, and I likewise read and reply to all comments received and regularly visit many excellent photo blogs and web sites, picking up lots of fantastic tips all the time that keep me forever thinking and looking for new angles, both physical and mental, for my pics.

    Thanks for the tips / inspiration Bret, and the comments everyone else!


  10. March 10, 2010 10:26 pm

    Another home run, Bret. I recently had my first portfolio review recently and found it valuable. Unlike internet forums, the portfolio review can evaluate a larger body of work and pick up on consistant traits that probably would not be noticed on an image by image basis on a forum.

  11. March 10, 2010 11:00 pm

    Wow, you have all left some really thoughtful & constructive comments. Thank you! Lively discussions like this certainly are of benefit to many, myself included. I appreciate all the interactions.

    One of my favorite points made in the comments comes from Moira, regarding finding something to photograph regardless of the weather/light/conditions. Amen! I used to bitch and moan when everything wasn’t perfect. With the help of my wife I learned that there is ALWAYS something to photograph in every kind of light. Cloudy? Do macro or intimate. Mid-day? Do slot canyons, petroglyphs, or adventure photography. Raining? Look for waterfalls cascading off the cliffs. Seriously…there is always something to photograph. I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes that illustrates this point perfectly.

    “Some times you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” – Jerry Garcia

  12. March 11, 2010 6:16 pm

    For anyone hoping to get the most from their photography experience, this post is full of common sense and so comprehensive that I’d suggest it should be mandatory reading for anyone hoping for a successful photography experience.

    Not surprising to me, Bret left out one thing that made an incredible difference in my photography. I wish he had mentioned how important it can be to work side by side with a pro. While certainly not a shortcut, it can be incredibly instructive to see someone else actually do what you thought you were doing. That’s a roundabout way of saying that I thought I was doing everything right, when in fact, I was actually a bit confused from all the studying I’d done. By working with Bret even briefly, I finally had the opportunity to see someone apply, and confirm that I too was properly applying the fundamentals of photography. By taking some of the mystery out of technique, Bret freed my mind to trust my instincts, to finally have the patience to wait for the “image” to appear before me, and to know that while I may not always get exactly what I thought I was after, I was in the hunt.

    Today, as my world expands by meeting other photography enthusiasts, I listen better and I understand more. And my images show it! For me at least, learning with a guiding hand to help me has been the best tip of all.

  13. March 28, 2010 1:00 pm

    The best advice for the money! Can’t beat that. If I may add one element of advice it is one that we seldom remember and that is the first one we forget: HAVE FUN. This is the very reason most of us pick up a camera for, yet we get so intent on progressing and pushing ourselves that we forget to have fun.

  14. March 28, 2010 8:52 pm

    Younes: I can’t believe I forgot to include that little tidbit. You are soooooo right, though. Photography should be fun. I lost track of that for a while and my lovely wife reminded me of it in a not so subtle way several years ago. Now I just enjoy the fact that I’m out somewhere beautiful. Have fun out there, folks!


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