How to be a better photographer

H51-B0008668 copy
Shoot happy. Somewhere over Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia

Question, statement or suggestion and directive? Or perhaps all of the above? I believe very few people are truly 100% happy with their work. I know for a fact I’m not, and most people at the top of their game never are: that’s a big part of why they are where they are. The gulf is one of education: when you start out, you might not know what’s wrong – but you know something is missing. When you’ve got experience, you’re searching for that fifth element of serendipity to bring the magic. But what can we actually tangibly do to keep pushing the game along? I’ve come up with ten things both from the world of photography and beyond, some of which I put into practice now, and some of which I’d like to. Read on if you dare.

1. Educate yourself
The acquisition of knowledge takes many forms – not just the obvious courses/ seminars/ videos/ workshops etc. Even examining an image shot by somebody else and consciously asking yourself ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ and why is often very useful in revealing something about one’s own tastes and preferences. An effective learning process is usually pretty simple: figure out where you want to be, where you can realistically be, and where you are now. Then the gaps become obvious, and the next task is to close them. This assumes that the basics are in place: you can’t write an essay if you’re not reasonably fluent in the language. Of course, one has to be realistic, too: if you’ve only got a couple of hours a week to spend on photography and you live in a city, becoming proficient at wildlife photography is going to be a bit of a stretch. But most things are doable if one has the determination – and perhaps a little help from a customised program such as my Email School.

2. Practice
A theoretical education is only useful up to a point: you may know by heart what The Four Things that make an outstanding image are, but being able to consistently ensure that most of your images have them in practice and by design is something else entirely. Often interesting situations move and change so fluidly that there aren’t opportunities for do-overs, and small errors can make the difference between an image that knocks it out of the park and one that’s an obvious (and annoying) near miss. For example, it’s one thing to know to look for edge distractions, but quite another to catch all of them all of the time when you’re also trying to time the right gesture in your subject – that might well lie in the centre of the frame. I think the only way to be consistent about compositional hygiene is to really shoot to the point that it becomes reflexive. And that take a lot of shooting to do – much the same way as golfers train their muscle memory by practicing swings.

3. Experiment
The previous item and this one are not the same: practice is really repeating execution of a concept so that there’s a high chance you’ll get it right the first time in future. Experimentation is trying something different in the process to see how the outcome changes, and to see how that new process can be useful in future situations – whether from an executional/ technical standpoint or a creative one. You need to perform experiments first to determine firstly if the outcome is one that’s desired, then to find the best method of executing that outcome consistently. Of course all of this has to be done in a somewhat repeatable and controlled manner – i.e. following the scientific method – so that you can figure out what’s gone wrong (if so) and rectify it. I often find that the difference between an experiment being successful or not can be the thinnest of margins – a small change in angle of lights, for instance – that executional discipline is essential.

There’s one more thing that falls between the cracks of 1. and 3.: that’s seeking inspiration. Photography is a visual medium: we need to see things in order to get new ideas of presentation and new potential for subject matter. If you can’t see it, you can’t shoot it – and the more variety of work one sees, the greater potential for inspiration. Personally, I like to use painting and film as a trigger point: in both cases, the environments presented are completely imagined and must be deliberately and carefully constructed, which means there are no accidents in composition. It’s often instructive to ask yourself why things were done in a certain way (doesn’t necessarily mean they’re correct) and how you’d do them differently.

4. Focus and be objective
Though this sounds at risk of sounding in conflict with experimentation, it really isn’t if done serially: focus on one thing, objectively determine if what you’re doing works or not, and then move on once you’re certain. It means not getting distracted by irrelevant things like new equipment 🙂 Objectivity is a little trickier, because every creative pursuit – and photography is of course no different – is highly subjective and therefore not possible to assess in a quantitative manner to say X is better or more than Y*. The only thing we can say for certain is whether we prefer one or the other – and hopefully, why. If no objective assessment of one’s images takes place, then you’re forever going to be either producing the same kind of work (no change = no improvement) or being scattergun about the outcome and hoping that you get what you intend to. At very least any degree of curation is a step towards improvement because it forces you to identify preferences (I’m loathe to use the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ because they’re too absolute).

*This is the source of a lot of the disconnect between the artist and the engineer, and a perpetual tension in photography: think about those chasing megapixels and ISOs vs those who just care about a particular look that’s only obtainable with a certain iPhone filter.

5. Get feedback from the client
If you’re shooting for yourself, you are the client. Getting feedback returns to the initial objective of being objective; the client can also be your intended audience. It doesn’t necessarily always mean the audience is right; they may need education, or they may well be pointing out something you might not have considered. It’s important of course that the people you are getting opinions from have opinions that are worth listening to.

6. Agonise less
I find a surprising number of photographers overthink things: both from a contingency/ ‘what if’ point of view with hardware and composition, which often leaves you completely unprepared for what actually does happen. I prefer to go into a shoot with some idea of what outcome I would like, pack accordingly, and be fluid enough to improvise around the rest. You’re far more likely to get a good image if you shoot and experiment more in an unexpected or unfamiliar situation rather than wishing you’d bought that 800mm. In short: work with what you’ve got, and remember that a large part of the enjoyment of the photographic process and results stems from serendipity.

7. Use the right tools
The wrong tools can create both frustration, anguish, elevated costs in the long run, and simply kill any desire to photograph because the process is not enjoyable. Unless you are doing this for a living, and unless you have no easier options to make money, then photography is almost certainly going to be a recreational pursuit: challenging, yes, but ultimately still fun. If it’s not fun…then you’re probably going to give up and do something else. Once you’ve figured out what you want to do from a creative standpoint – the kind of images you want to make – then it’s easy to determine what the best tool is likely to be, within physical and budget constraints. Be objective, ignore the badge, and then get back to the creative process with confidence that you’re already using the most suitable tool for your intention.

8. Don’t compromise
This is in reference mainly to curation. If you’ve noticed that we keep coming back to objectivity and assessment, that’s deliberate: you can’t improve if you don’t know what’s wrong or missing, and if you don’t know what’s missing you can’t improve or fix it. If you have a niggling feeling that something isn’t right with an image, then it probably isn’t; don’t be afraid to not include it in the final presentation. Showing 10 outstanding images is better than 100 very good ones. And also be aware that one’s thresholds and criteria for ‘good’ and ‘good enough’ will change with time – hopefully upwards.

9. Print
I believe the ultimate arbiter of curation is printing: for the simple reason that when you decide whether to convert that digital image into a physical one, you are committing both time, space and money to the process, and that investment somehow makes one think a lot more carefully before pulling the trigger. Not only is you curation process suddenly tightened when you go through what you previously thought of as your ‘final cut’ with the filter of ‘which ones would I print, and large?’ – but you’re also forced to consider which images are likely to stand the test of time, and you’ll find that the number drops significantly. It’s also probably the only output method in which the complete amount of captured information is visible and absolute – when two people look at the same print in the same light, they’re looking at the same thing. And unless it’s a small print or a low resolution camera, there’s going to be stuff visible there that isn’t on screen.

Lastly (and the most counterintuitive piece of advice of all): 10: Stop when it’s no longer enjoyable. Photography is a creative, not repetitive, pursuit, and if you’re in the wrong frame of mind – it’s simply impossible to produce anything worthwhile. There are exceptions to this, of course – being on an engagement is the most obvious one – but that’s where being a professional comes into play. I think for the majority of this audience, the fun factor shouldn’t be ignored: creation of images is meant to be enjoyable, not stressful! MT

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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Comments

  1. #10! Yes! I am on indefinite hiatus with no “plan” to return; just stumbling back now and again. So many other things to learn about in the world. And, this makes it fun again when photography overlaps and offers another layer of richness to other endeavors.

  2. Bookmarked!

  3. Vinod Johnson says:

    Nice perspective as always! I ran across another post – You may find the notions of ‘Reworking, Referencing, Releasing’ interesting/complementary. Best regards,
    http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2011/08/19/the-calculus-of-grit/

  4. ha, I come from a day and age, where prints were the only way to see what you’ve captured (unless one was into slides). And prints were sooo expensive, sometimes one had to settle for a contact print of the entire roll. One kinda learned to judge the negatives, purely for budget reasons. Not to speak of the cost of film rolls, to start with. The panic, when one fell into a shooting frenzy for some reason, ending up with three more exposures to go for the main event one wanted to shoot in the first place.
    It’s a different ballgame, nowadays, in the all new, sparkling, digital world. And therefore, so many more (bad and good) images one has to sift through.

  5. Fantastic! This deserves to go viral… or at least be etched in stone on a mountaintop somewhere.

  6. Very good items for life also

  7. Bill Walter says:

    These are excellent points, all of them, but the one that stands out for me is #3 Experiment. I would add one more and call it 3A… “Break the rules”. For many years I’ve read comments from seasoned photographers warning… “When taking portraits, never use a focal length longer than 85mm” (sometimes 100mm or 135mm is used). That stern warning encouraged the rebellious side of me to experiment with longer focal lengths (200mm, 300mm, 400mm) for portraits. I found that the compression from the longer lengths provided an interesting look that at times was preferable. Most of the time, breaking traditional rules associated with photography won’t work to your advantage, but at times it will and that makes exploring and trying out unconventional methods worthwhile. Breaking established rules is part of experimentation and something I try to do whenever possible. When “experts” are telling you never to do something, I say “do it” and see what happens.

    • This is one of the reasons I’ve never talked about photographic ‘rules’ here – I really don’t believe there are any. There are some guidelines (what I think of as ‘the four things‘) which aren’t rules but observations on human psychological response to be considered when constructing an image designed to yield a certain particular response, but that’s about it. If anything, the images that really do work and become memorable are the ones that break the mould and are different from other images – it’s precisely because they are different that they stand out and are memorable in the first place, which throws the whole notion of formulaic composition for success out of the window.

  8. Great tips. It is so easy to get stuck in your development and just take the same photos over and over again. I really need to focus on point 9 right now and get more prints of the photos I am the most happy with.

  9. The more you learn, the higher your threshold will be, both judging your own work and that of others. Without good foundations, it’s very difficult to have reasoned judgements, a simple ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ is not enough once you start climbing up the ladder, as you say, so that’s definitely the best advice you can give: learn as much as you can (from as many different sources/arts as possible) and practice along the way!

  10. Another very good and insightful piece Ming, thank you!

    I hope you’ll pardon the indulgence but I’m going to share some ideas I’ve picked up from the world of motorsport (a world I was peripherally involved with, in what now seems like a past life)

    I’ve found these notions (basically aimed at going faster) to actually apply to many areas of life!

    You have $10 worth of concentration, how do you want to spend it? All on one thing, or spread it around?

    Budget your concentration appropriately to the areas that need it. You’ll find you need a different budget distribution for different days.

    You want to go faster! But where are you slow? And is being slow in these areas actually helping you go faster in other areas?

    What reference points can you assign to expedite your concentration budget and overall performance? If you can easily identify things that indicate the mechanics of what you’re trying to achieve are covered, then your concentration budget can be freed up and better spent!

    • Thanks – and an analogy I can agree with, though personally it’s usually been more of an instantaneous momentary thing for me: in the second or so you might have to capture an image, how much of you is fighting your camera, and how much of you is concentrating on the action/composition? The former is bad, the latter is good. The very best cameras reduce the former to almost nil. I can see how it would apply to self-improvement, though…

      • My pleasure, I just hope you enjoy writing them as much as we do reading them!

        Zone focusing is a good (and obvious) example of re-deploying a concentration budget; one better spent on capturing the moment rather than dealing with things like AF lag or miss focus. (Good skill to have to stay happier with your gear for longer too !!)

        Another motorsport analogy?!

        The top racers can replay the entire lap in their brains… both a theoretical lap in advance and the actual lap after the fact.

        I think in photography the more we’re able to both pre-visualise what we’re aiming to do, and factor in any historical experience we have of a similar saturation, the more we’re able to take profit (I don’t mean monetary) from the current situation.

        BTW – I’m not trying to re-hash what you’re saying, I just enjoy the dialogue that you offer your readership 🙂

        • Wouldn’t do it otherwise 🙂

          I definitely do a shoot in my head first – both to know what I want to get and to figure out what hardware I might need beforehand, or other props etc. I know I’m not alone; a lot of the other top pros I’ve spoken to do the same…

        • Very interesting analogy Adam. I used to do trackdays on an MV Agusta F4 (almost all the pre-2010 iterations) and used to do entire laps in my mind at night. The speed of correct sequential action needed was quite horrifying.

          Photography might seem slower, but in reality it isn’t. Looking, seeing, adjusting, framing… click.

          • Thanks, the more you prepare for something, the smoother it goes when you arrive! Be that the hairpin at the end of the straight, or the photographical moment! In fact also job interviews, what to take on holidays, what to buy from the supermarket etctetc!

  11. May I suggest another point, perhaps forgotten, but it should never be forgotten.

    0. Love
    Love the thing that you’re doing, love the things you’re picturing. If this fails, iso-9001 is all you can hope for.

  12. Per Kylberg says:

    Currently I am at the point 10 stage knowing I have to let it come to me….
    All very points very useful, would like a point 3a: Curiosity and playfulness. Do what you never did before, be it subject, theme or methodology. Care less about results for once and just see what you get. May lead to you pick up new ways to make images – or understand what is rubbish for you. Both are positive knowledge!

  13. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Point 9 was very much in my thoughts this morning, Ming, while my Dobe and I were walking around the park. I find a great deal of value in looking over my shoulder, reflecting or meditating on recent efforts with my photography, and walking the dog provides a wonderful opportunity for this.
    Was it Pascal who said recently that something over 90% of photos aren’t printed, and for most people it’s sufficient to “get it right” on screen, because people just shunt their photos around on the net or by cellphone? It was said in the context o a suggestion we’re being engulfed by cellphones, and the implication seemed to be that QA was no longer a top priority.
    It’s probably an intergenerational thing, but I’ve always liked the printed format. Of course (like everyone else, these days) I share my stuff on the net, but it’s not my target.
    Printing can be very demanding, too – adjusting the screen, the printer, the digital image, and bringing them all together in a print which is acceptable.
    And the reason why I am rambling on about this is quite simple – digital images are produced electronically – they have a totally different dynamic range, because they are produced by transmitted light. Whereas prints can only reveal their image by reflected light. The difference in dynamic range can be enormous, and the effect on the image – when taken off all this electronic gear and transferred to a sheet of printing paper – can also be enormous.
    That said, it seems to me that it is only when I reach that point, and overcome those issues by producing an acceptable print, that my work as a photographer is complete. And it is at that point, that I can evaluate for my own satisfaction whether the photo is “up to standard” or “acceptable” or one that “I am happy to show to other people”. Consequently, it is only by producing prints that I can evaluate the images I have produced, in order to improve the quality of my photography.
    And that comment goes beyond “technical issues”, to include other issues, such as composition. Yes its main contribution IS on technical qualities. But it doesn’t stop there.

    • Ironically, as screens and digital output improves, that’s going to change: it’s going to be more obvious where the photographer has been sloppy compositionally or technically. So perhaps we go around in a circle.

      As for printing, I think it’s the only medium where we can see all of the information we captured – every monitor at the moment is going to be downscaling somewhat to display even a 36MP image, let along a 50 or 100MP one. Not so with a print…

      Many images that work digitally do not work as prints because of the dynamic range reason you mentioned – and vice versa. However, there are also a precious few that work in either medium, and quite a bit of understanding how both vision/physiological response and technical processes is required to make such an image without the obvious ‘turned up to 11’ effect…

      • I’m really looking forward to the coming of 6 to 8k screens. I used to do a lot of slide shooting up to 10 years ago. I loved aranging these into a presentation. No print I have seen to date has reached the brilliance of those slides. In addition, who has the space a home to present more than a dozen large prints? It really limits the body of work a private person, shooting for recreation, can display to family and friends. In any case it is MUCH less than the number of pictures you can show in a slide presentation.
        Future high resolution screens could allow screen saver style picture alterations. This will be a lot of fun!

        • Agreed, though I think we are some way off those being affordable yet…but eventually I guess it will happen. We need the screen resolution to pass that ~200-300PPI mark to be ‘enough’ though – which might get far higher than 8k on a decent large size monitor…

  14. I like these thought-provoking posts.

    There’s a scene in one of Jay Maisel’s training videos with Scott Kelby where Maisel says something to the effect of “you never reach perfection, and if you do, then you are creatively finished”. He quoted Ernst Haas, who said (approximate paraphrase) “I’m always frustrated but never bored”.

    I teach English for a living (which is why I’m very careful when I type!) One of the things I’ve come to notice is that many people have absolutely no idea of the level that they could reach, and I’m sure this applies to any field. A year or two ago, my modest blog hit ten thousand visitors (which you probably get in a month!) and to mark this, I did a post comparing photos I took when I had just started getting into photography with photos I had taken in the last year or so. The difference was considerable. Yet even looking at the “newer” photos now, I see things which are not right.

    I can’t entirely agree on point 4 though. I think that if you work at something with the right attitude, you can’t fail to improve over time unless you have bad habits from the very beginning.

    Education is definitely good, but not at the expense of going out and shooting (practice). Where I live (Japan), there is a considerable emphasis on test-taking, and the general perception is that if you have a lot of certificates and have high scores in tests, you are good at something. This may be applicable to medicine, and certain other fields, but for languages it proves very little. I have worked with Japanese people who have extremely high scores on the various English tests which abound here, but whose pronunciation is terrible and who can barely have a conversation about the weather. Conversely I have students who don’t do well in school, but who have done homestay programs in English-speaking countries and who are already starting to sound like native speakers. Similarly, I’m sure there are photographers out there with credentials up to their eyeballs, but whose photos are bland and lack any sign of imagination or creativity.

    Oh, and as an aside related to point 10 – if you ever get into a creative rut, check out Brian Eno’s “Oblique strategies”.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Mark, you’re doubtless aware of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody” – the story of a teacher who outraged the Scottish School Board with her heretical notion that she “educated” – from the latin root “ex ducere”, meaning to draw out. She did NOT “instruct”, from the latin root “in structere” or whatever it is. Meaning she encouraged the children in her class to expand and develop, and she had no intention of creating yet another flock of parrots who passed exams by rote learning.
      A person with a broad perspective and a range of skills is much more likely to succeed, overall, than a person with a diploma in some single monoculture.

      • Unfortunately, it seems that most modern structured education seems to be very much in the instruction model…lots of learning and regurgitation by wrote, but completely zero in the way of practical and useful skills.

    • Thanks Mark. I agree: once you’re happy or perfect (or both?) then the incentive to continue experimenting, and thus improving, is gone. One’s output won’t change. I hit the wall many years back – in 2009 or so – and didn’t feel like it was going anywhere or I was going to do any different work. A job-enforced break from photography fortunately broke that duck. Am I 100% happy with anything I produce now? No, not in the long run – which can be a good and bad thing, I suppose. On one hand there’s always a sense of malcontent, on the other, at least one is always pushing…

      That said, improvement is relative: and yes, you have to practice no matter how much education you have – otherwise, it’s nothing but theoretical. It’s for that reason I’ve always thought the best specialist is also the generalist who’s handled the most edge cases…

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