One: finish Everything, Two: leave physical marks, Three: set a personal standard, Four: upgrade skills not equipment, Five: create a journey.
We all do photography for various reasons: work, enjoyment, or simply because its a good reason to get out (and unlike golf, doesn’t ruin your walk) but there is one thing that we all want. We want to be better. Here’s how I intend to be better.
One: Finish Everything.
Whatever you do, finish it. The only thing you ever waste is uncompleted work.
If you have an idea that you don’t want to expand, at least share it as a complete concept that others can pick up. If you take a series of bad photographs, compare them to your best work and reach closure by knowing what went wrong.
Two: Leave Physical Marks.
Every year, select your single best photograph. Get it printed on a canvas. Sign it on the front and date it on the back.
We live in a digital, social world, and it is easy to believe that the online world is where your final work sits. It doesn’t.
Print your best photograph for posterity every year. Canvas prints don’t even cost much anymore, (even archival canvas prints are now cheap). Over time, they will become your body of work: a display of your best stuff. More importantly, you will have this final medium in mind whenever you raise the camera, and will start thinking ‘what do I have to do to make this one my best of the year?’. Competing with yourself is the best game because there are no losers.
Even if you do not intend to earn a living or find fame through photography, those canvases will go to your family when you die. Something for them to remember you through what you did. Forget Facebook and Instagram: those canvases will become real social media.
Three: Set a Personal Standard
If you want to get better at photography, you have to set a standard.
- The main subject must be sharp unless there is a good reason for it to be otherwise.
- The main subject must be within 0.3eV of correct exposure out-of-camera.
- I must be able to explain the composition to myself.
- I must be able to explain the artistic direction or theme to myself.
Here’s an example of this:
OK, my four rules are not much of a standard, but they do something crucial. They allow me to recognize an unsuccessful photograph through structured self-criticism.
Have a look at this photograph. Lots of mistakes here! A few years ago, I would have discarded it because I can see my thumb (bottom left), the scene is crooked and the lighting is a dull grey. Despite that, I now know it meets rather than breaks my standard: it’s a keeper.
I know I took this shot specifically because the lighting is grey (I can easily re-color or even replace it in post because it is so uniform), and the composition is sound despite the camera being crooked. The finished shot is the first photograph in this article, and it is exactly what I was thinking of when I took the shot. In fact, the big difference between me as a photographer now and five years ago is that now I can see the final, post-edited shot when I raise my camera (because points 3 and 4 of my standard rules are always now at the back of my mind).
Four: Upgrade skills, not equipment
Upgrade your camera only when it is preventing you completing a project. Don’t upgrade simply because there is a newer model.
Upgrading hardware is a fool’s errand: there is always something better out there. Instead, identify the skills you need, and buy the equipment that facilitates them. Further, if there is no client with high spec deliverable requirments, a good photographer can get good results from almost any equipment irrespective of the price tag and manufacturor badge.
My main DSLR is an APS-C camera (a Sony Alpha A77). Full frame cameras are now cheap, so perhaps I should upgrade to one of those. Thinking about future work though, I realize I am poor on lighting skills, so I have instead kept the A77 and bought a set of flashes and modifiers/stands, the cost of which would have got me a second hand Canon 5D or Sony 7r. That Full frame camera would have been obsolete in two years, but a new set of photography skills created by investing in lighting will never go out of fashion.
Consider the photograph above. There’s direct sunlight coming in from the right, the subject is in shadow, and I only have a prehistoric HTC Desire cameraphone with very poor dynamic range and awful high ISO. I made it work by reflecting sunlight into the shadow from my red t-shirt. I knew to do that because of practice with speed-lights and modifiers, and the photo you see is practically as-shot (I’ve increased contrast, but that’s about it).
Five: Create a journey
Photography is a journey. If you look on the internet, you will be forgiven for thinking it is a technical journey: getting better at photography is a process of being comfortable with more advanced equipment. That’s the ‘upgrade path’ to becoming better, but there are alternative journeys:
Look at photographers you admire and see what they were doing when they were you.
Social media is a wonderful thing for learning: pick an upcoming photographer and they will have a 500px, Flickr or even Facebook site. Don’t look at their best photographs though: look at their first few. You will find that they started taking photographs just like the ones you started with, then they got better.
Look at that transition from the early photographs to the final style and you can see the journey you would have to take if you want to end up at the same point as them. By breaking it down to the actual photographs, you get the literal path they took.
Invariably, you will find that everyone who becomes famous sets a theme or style early on, and then quickly gets good at it. That’s a big clue: you do not get better by simply taking lots of photographs: you get better by setting yourself a direction then defining and completing projects within that direction.
As a good example, I just Googled ‘500px’, and one of the top results that came out was Elena Shumilova. Some nice shots of her kids growing up there, but look at the earliest five, and work forward to see the progression of skills: it’s obvious the photographer here started with solid photography skills but has seriously ramped up Photoshop skills to get the final look. Look carefully and you can identify the specific post-editing skills develop, because they start off obvious and get better with time.
Do what interests you
You’ll only ever complete anything if it interests you or you are getting paid for it. There always has to be a ‘more’ factor to make you care. For me it is an interest in places, stories and motion-graphics/video. Find what that ‘more’ is for you.
Everyone who excels sets themselves projects early on that fast track a skill-set. They finish what they start (or keep it all related and ongoing) to create a body of work that meets a standard they have set for themselves. To do the same, you have to do all the things I have already mentioned:
- You have to define projects and finish them to a self-imposed standard.
- You have to create a physical body of work because that is the end medium for photographers.
- You have to define your equipment by the projects you envision yourself doing, and not define your projects by your equipment.
- You have to enjoy and have a passion for what you do.