Becoming a Better Photographer

Over the past few months a number of readers have contacted me, asking for suggestions and ideas on becoming a better photographer. Some have enquired about specific genres of photography. Others have had questions about what it takes to become a ‘professional’. This article discusses a few factors that can impact becoming a better photographer. This is not an all-encompassing list, and the issues covered are in no particular order.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II @ 75 mm, efov 150 mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-4000, 10 mm and 16 mm Kenko extension tubes used

Stop reading gear reviews and comparisons.

Many photographers spend far too much time reading gear reviews and comparisons rather than learning and practising how to effectively use the camera gear that they currently own. When we fixate on the ‘latest and greatest’ camera gear we create a convenient excuse for the quality of our work.

Any of us who have thought, “If I only had that camera… that lens… I’d be a better photographer”… may have fallen into the gear excuse trap. I know that I’ve fallen into that trap in the past. It cost me some money… but more importantly it caused me to waste precious time in my own development.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 20 mm, efov 54 mm, f/8, 1/25, ISO-400

For every hour spent learning about photography, spend two hours actually creating images.

None of us will improve our photographic skills unless we are out regularly using our camera gear. It makes no difference what format or brand we happen to own. To get better we need to get practical field experience, and learn from it.

Exploring photography through books, articles and videos is important. But not at the expense of practical field experience, and being ‘in the moment’ with our camera equipment. If weather conditions make field work difficult, then spend time working on your photographs in post to gain additional experience.

Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 136 mm, efov 367 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-1000

Go back and assess your work with a critical eye.

One of the best things that we can do is go back through some old photography files and assess our previous work with a critical eye. The results of this exercise can be extremely revealing. What we once thought were acceptable images a few years ago… may now cause us to cringe. I recently had this experience and wrote an article about it. Assessing past work with a critical eye helps us identify and appreciate how much we have grown… and how we can continue to develop our skills in the future.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 16mm, efov 43mm,, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

Spend time to work a scene or a subject.

It takes time to compose photographs and to hone our craft. Whenever time permits, take a few minutes to really work a scene or a subject to discover different ways to compose your photographs and work with the available light. Save your failed attempts and compare them to compositions that you deem to be more pleasing or powerful. Becoming a better photographer involves making mental notes about what we learned through these comparisons.

Nikon 1 j5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 72mm, efov 194 mm,, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

Stop caring about what other people think of your work.

When we have a paid assignment obviously we need to deliver the images/video files that meet our clients’ needs. Outside of those specific situations we need to focus our creative energies on what is important to us… and how we see the world. Whether other people like what we do… or don’t like we do… is irrelevant in the big scheme of things. The biggest factor in becoming a better photographer is to follow our creative impulses and our desire for visual expression… wherever that may lead us.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 115 mm, efov 230 mm, f/2.8, 1 second, ISO-200

Push yourself in post.

There is so much for us to learn in post processing. At times we buy ‘new and improved’ software programs before we have become even close to being proficient with what we already own. Becoming a better photographer involves experimenting in post. Trying new and different approaches when we process our images in post is one of the things that can contribute to us developing our own photographic style.

Some folks talk about specific photographers having a ‘secret sauce’ that they use with their images that makes their work stand apart. Secret sauces aren’t found in a cookbook, or copied from other people. They are developed through trial and error… and are tailored to the visions found in the mind of a photographer.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.7, -0.7 step, 1/4000, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H

Capture the beauty and uniqueness of everyday subjects.

Most of us are not independently wealthy and don’t have the financial capability to travel the world to exotic locations to pursue our photographic interests. Sometimes being limited to our local surroundings can be a source of dissatisfaction and disillusionment. Much like fixating on the ‘latest and greatest’ camera gear, fixating on exotic locations can be counterproductive.

Rather than allowing ourselves to become ensnared in the ‘local boredom’ trap… we need to focus on the everyday beauty and uniqueness that surrounds us. Making the most of our surroundings each day, stimulates our creativity and fuels an inquisitive nature. Becoming a better photographer is rooted in making the most of whatever photographic opportunities we have each day.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/8, 1/40, ISO-200, subject distance 1.4 metres

Strive to get it right in camera.

Working hard to get an image right in camera goes a long way to becoming a better photographer. This approach encourages us to critically assess the available light and how we are composing a photograph.

When we strive to get it right in camera we often find ourselves using exposure compensation, or different exposure modes with a photographic subject. We tend to shoot from a number of different angles, use a range of focal lengths, and apertures. This deepens our understanding and application of our craft. When we’ve created a pleasing image that requires very little work in post, we know that we are becoming a better photographer.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/5, -0.3 step, 1/250, ISO-640, subject distance 730 mm, Handheld Hi Res mode

Photograph the same subject using different lenses and different technology.

Becoming stuck in habitual ways of using our existing camera equipment can be self-limiting. It can restrict our ability to grow and mature as a photographer.  Experimenting with different lenses and technology helps to keep us fresh and fuels our creativity.  It helps us develop a deeper, hands-on knowledge of how to use the camera equipment and technology that we hold in our hands.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/13, -1 step, 1/1600, ISO-5000

Look beyond a subject and feel the emotion it can represent.

When scanning our environment for a photographic subject it can be critical to see it from an emotional context. Does it represent pain or hurt? Pity? Sorrow? Determination? Triumph over adversity? The way that we photograph a particular subject can help determine how a viewer experiences our photograph and the emotions they feel when doing so.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.7 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 24.8 metres

Recognize when investing in camera equipment can make a meaningful difference.

Often we can get wrapped up in the hype that surrounds new camera gear. Sometimes we spend our money on equipment that doesn’t really make a meaningful difference to the work that we produce. We get caught up in insignificant differences that are marketed to us.

Don’t waste your time worrying about sensor size, the number of mega pixels, or how much dynamic range or colour depth a sensor may have. The type of work that you predominantly do will help determine what camera format is best suited to your needs.

There is no such thing as a perfect camera. Everything comes with some kind of trade off. Use whatever equipment best suits your needs and has the least number of shortcomings for what you do. Whether that ends up being medium format, full frame, APS-C or M4/3 really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the gear you use is the best format for your specific needs.

Where investments in camera equipment often make meaningful differences is in the lenses that you choose, and the technology that the camera body possesses… primarily in its firmware.

Lenses and technology that allow you to create images that were impossible for you in the past, represent a truly meaningful difference and are worthy of potential investment.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 69 mm, efov 186.3 mm, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO-200

Becoming a professional.

Becoming a better photographer means that you’ve invested the time, and put in the real effort, that it takes to learn how to use your camera equipment. As well as your post processing software. When you’ve reached the stage when you can create consistently good images… you’ll start to look for paid work.

One day you’ll find yourself in front of a prospective client who is particularly discerning. You’ll both look each other in the eye as you size the other up. Then, that all important question that has been hanging in the air unstated, will be asked. And, you’ll need to answer it without hesitation.

“Why should I hire you for this project rather than any one of the hundreds of other photographers who are out there?”

When you can answer that question in 10 words or less… and it passes the ‘Why should I care about that? test… you’ll know that you’ve made the transition into being a professional.

Kylemore Abbey Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 f/4-5.6 @ 100 mm, efov 270 mm, f/5.6, 1/160, ISO-1600

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear and technology as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

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10 thoughts on “Becoming a Better Photographer”

  1. Precious advices in your article, thank you Thomas!

    I couldn’t agree more with practice, practice, practice and also looking at images from previous years to follow up on the evolution of my photography and see how to improve.

    Like most I am also vulnerable to GAS though but I think I am getting better at keeping that under control with age 🙂

    Best Regards,

    Mauro

  2. I have to admit that a new piece of gear from time to time pumps up the juices a bit. The best way to stop G.A.S. is to review one’s purchases and see which of them are not used enough to make the purchase worth while. Try to remember what you were thinking of when making the purchase and then develop the discipline to not repeat the error. We all have hopes that the new piece of gear will allow us to move to a different level/view of photography but did it actually work?
    If we were able to know for sure when a piece of gear “would make a meaningful difference”, and only purchase at that point, I think we might be limiting our dreamtime photos becoming realities to the best of our ability. Photography is exploring.
    And yes, get out and shoot. Repeat.

    1. Thanks for adding to the discussion Lewsh!

      The worst camera equipment purchases that I’ve made in my life have all been a result of listening to the advice of other people and their ‘must have’ recommendations.

      I think its fairly simple to determine a meaningful difference. For example, a photographer may be considering a next generation camera that offers nothing more than a few tweaks with sensor performance and perhaps very slightly enhanced auto focus performance. Those factors will not enable the photographer to capture images that they’ve never created before.

      Let’s say that the photographer has an interest in bird photography and their longest focal length lens has an efov of 200 mm. This severely limits their ability to capture photographs of birds as the lens doesn’t provide enough reach. Now let’s assume that the cost of a 100-400 lens is the same as the newer generation body that they are considering. The new 100-400 kens would allow the photographer to create images that they are currently unable to get because of the significantly longer reach. The 100-400 lens would be a meaningful difference and would represent a better investment.

      Tom

      1. I hope that the people who’s advice you listened to was not camera sales people. If the sales person knows you, they may give good advice but their bottom line is to sell.

        1. Hi Lewsh,

          🙂 rest assured that was not the case! It was advice from some professional photographers that I knew at the time. The lesson learned was a piece of gear or a camera format, may be necessary for another photographer… but may not be the best fit for my needs.

          Tom

  3. Great article. During times when I cannot travel to a new location, I will revisit a convenient location or subject at different times of the day and different seasons. It is amazing how different it looks and how it challenges my skills including post processing. I guess this is similar to your bird photography in your backyard location. The scene always changes!

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