10 Photography Tips to Help You Take Your Photography up a Level

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10 Photography Tips to Help You Take Your Photography up a Level

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The best lessons are the ones you learn the hard way. Here are 10 photography tips I learned after lots of frustration, discouragement, money lost, and forever lost opportunities. These tips are not very common, I never heard them hence you probably never heard of them either. I hope they help you avoid the mistakes I made, and help you improve your photography. Let’s get to it shall we?

10 Photography Tips

1 – Always have a camera in your pocket. Always. Or else.

Pocket Camera Ricoh GRD IV

How many times have you been a situation where you kinda wanted to take your camera bag, but ended up not doing so because of the thought of lugging the bag, or even the DSLR itself?

It’s understandable. Do you want to take that DSLR everywhere you go? Who would want to dangle that thing while going to the grocery store? Nah. But one thing I’ve learned, is that images don’t wait for you. I’ve been through too many “I wish I had my camera with me” scenarios to know so.

Abandoned Cart Ricoh GRD IV

Caption: An abandoned cart on my way to get a sandwich

One of the best things I did as a photographer was to get myself a pocket camera (The Ricoh GRD III, now I have the Ricoh GRD IV) and take it everywhere with me. It freed me photographically, and it made me stop thinking in terms of “photo shoots” and start thinking in terms of “life photography”.

Distorted figure Ricoh GRD IV

Caption: At a hospital for a baby checkup

While the small compact ended up being my main camera, you don’t have to do the same, but do get a pocket camera. You have no idea how many images pop up in otherwise mundane situations like grocery shopping, or taking a stroll at the park.

In the park

Caption: In the park

In a nutshell: photographs don’t wait for you, get a pocket camera to fill in the gaps where your DSLR is absent.

P.S: Your phone might do but I don’t know about you but I can’t stand using it, there’s no buttons nor dials! Also check out the Canon S120,

2 – Your background is as important as the subject

Man bus Ricoh GRD IV

When making an image, there’s bound to be a subject. But the subject is rarely alone, there’s the background to deal with. When looking through the viewfinder and you spot your subject, the first thing to do is not to press the shutter release button….it’s to pay attention to your background first.

There’s only two things a background can do for your subject: it can either bring attention to it, or detract from it. Say you are having a conversation with a friend, you wouldn’t want someone else’s voice distracting from your own, would you? So why let your subject be distracted by the background?

Man bus explanation Ricoh GRD IV

This guy was on the bus and was just priceless, after some entertaining conversation (too much, he was drunk and the whole bus was watching), I told him I would make his portrait. Even before rising my pocket camera, while talking I was wondering how I could draw attention to him.

At first I wasn’t going to include the guy on the left, but by changing the guy in the back leaned back and bought further attention to my subject. I happily made the shot.

In a nutshell: be attentive to your background, ask about every object, line, color: Does this distract or enhance what I am trying to focus on?

3 – Everything is light

Building black white

What is the first thing you notice when you see your child or significant other? A person, right? Well that’s fine and all if you are dealing with them as another person, but when it comes to photography, you are dealing with LIGHT, so you have to train yourself to see everything in terms of LIGHT.

Did you ever notice how the face lights up when someone is watching TV? Did you notice that you feel differently when a landscape is shot at twilight versus dawn? Do you notice how there’s ugly shadows in the eye area when there’s harsh light?

The examples are infinite, but the skill starts when you force yourself to pay attention to the light. In the image above of the building, I was going to the bank and it was pretty overcast out, and I looked up. While I didn’t go to the bank to get this image, I knew what to expect (soft light, nice reflections of the clouds) and simply looked up and made the image.

In a nutshell: start noticing light, its qualities, the shadows it makes, the shapes it forms.

Clouds

4 – Treat your work as wine

Some photographs are either made by luck, or maybe you’re just a genius and you didn’t know it. I’ll vote for the second option because I like you. In all seriousness though, while your best photos might be made tomorrow, you could potentially have gold in your older work.

Woman walking

Caption: An image I found months later, I overlooked at first

Fact is, you might have something that you wouldn’t know the value of until you look at it with more mature eyes. I have shots from 10 years ago, (I never dreamed of becoming a photographer back then) that are stellar.

Vietnam hmong

I wouldn’t have seen them if I didn’t revisit the work. The image above was shot 10 years ago. Granted, there were only a few nuggets of gold in the whole pile, but who says no to gold? Plus after time has passed you won’t be as emotionally connected to the images, making you able to judge the images more objectively. Sometimes I go through my old stuff and I can’t believe what I missed! Or I am amazed at how I can recover images I believed were ruined.

In a nutshell: your photos are like wine, they get better with age, but you have to dig them up

5 – Shoot with your heart first

You know your stuff. You know what aperture is, when to bump up your ISO, you know how to expose well. But when you look at your images, you just can’t put your finger on what exactly is missing. Let me suggest that it’s the heart element that’s missing. You are not emotionally engaged with your work.

Photography is not about capturing what’s out there in the world, it’s about capturing what’s inside your heart. Shoot what matters to you and put more of yourself in the images.

Here I was in a dark spot:

Dark photograph

Don’t judge me by this image, I was just in a really bad spot. Here I was more optimistic:

Hopeful

Here I was feeling the familial spirit:

Family

In a nutshell: shoot how you feel, your images will be more powerful. Plus, humans are hardwired to relate emotionally.

6 – Ask why

Not everyone is into photography for the same reasons. Some want to get rich, others do it because they like it, others for fame or to document their kids growing up – you get the point. We all have different motives for doing photography.

Question your motives and your photography path will become clearer. Knowing your why is like having a loupe in front of a light source, it will help you focus and get where you want faster. I can’t tell you your reasons because only you know that.

For me, photography is my way to dream awake. Don’t worry, my mom knew she had a dreamer in her hands early on. Don’t call the looney bin on me, but everyday I SEE things, no, not dead people, but slithers in the fabric of time that reveal my imagination. Take this image:

Take on life

When I saw this guy, I saw a hero ready to take on life itself. In reality, it was just a guy going to the beach. That’s my reason for photography: It helps me be in the world and in my imagination at the same time.

In a nutshell: it’s your turn, what’s your reason for photography? What is it about photography that attracts you so much?

7 – You are less limited by your gear than you think

Airplane

Take it from a guy that lost $1000s in gear buying and selling, it’s not about what gear you have, it’s what you do with it. As a photographer, there are things that can keep you from doing your work, one of them is being too focused on your next purchase.

All the images in this article, (with the exception of 3-4) were made with a pocket, small sensor camera, with a 28mm fixed lens which I used with its upgrade for 4 years (the Ricoh’s mentioned above). Other cameras used were other compacts, my phone and one image with the NEX7 (the next point’s portrait).

Man running

Believe it or not you are more creative with less than more. The puzzle-solving brain is much more creative when limited in some way or another. For example, if we could fly, we wouldn’t have invented airplanes.

In a nutshell: whatever gear you have, find new ways to use it. Plus having too much simply makes you miserable anyways (been there).

8 – Let go of technical perfection

Son portrait

I think you should learn to expose correctly, learn when something is in focus, etc., and then let it go. I think too much time has been spent arguing on how a photo is slightly out of focus, or other small technicalities.

Some of the world’s most iconic photographs are slightly soft, some are outright blurry (Robert Capa – D.Day soldier), some even have white skies (Alberto Korda’s iconic image of Che Guevara – Guerriero heroico) amongst others.

Why didn’t you notice these imperfections? Well you didn’t seek them out, so you didn’t see them. The artistic qualities of a photograph are superior to its technical imperfections, so let go of them. Heck the Japanese have a concept, “Wabi-sabi” that basically means beauty in the imperfect.

So stop worrying about if you are 10000% in focus, if your white balance is the neutral greyest of neutral greys and start looking at what the photograph is about and how it makes you feel.

In a nutshell: let go of technical perfection, and focus on emotional impact.

9 – Think making photographs, not taking pictures

Being a photographer is an attitude, and one of the fundamental shifts that must happen is making the difference between taking a picture and making a photograph. What are you doing when you rise your camera up to your eye?

  • Are you taking a picture? In other words, are you content replicating what’s in front of the lens?
  • Or are you making a photograph? In other words using what’s in front of your lens as a starting point to communicate what’s inside you?

If you learned how to use your camera through the dPS Newsletter, you have the power the express yourself. Now you have to understand that you don’t take pictures, camera owners do that; you make them, photographers do that.

Angel heaven

I was at a coffee shop, sitting down, writing on my device when I saw this dress flow in front of me. For one second I believed I was in heaven and looking at an angel. I used what was in front of me (a girl’s dress, how boring) and made a photograph, replicating the feeling I felt.

In a nutshell: start thinking like a painter, focus on making something, not taking.

10 – Make your photographs sticky

Picture this with me for a moment: a beautiful van is driving down a road, a soothing voice enumerates all the features of the van, AC, GPS, windows, kids are smiling in the back. Ah, life is good, the van flows nicely in the streets. The van is making a turn when all of a sudden, a nasty crash happens. Shock!

“You didn’t see that coming” says the tagline. It wasn’t a commercial for a van, it was one for safety.

This commercial stuck in the minds of many because the ad spent its time building up a pattern (that of a typical van commercial) and then broke it. The human brain sees in terms of patterns and expects things to go in a certain way, when it doesn’t, it forces us to remember to be ready for next time.

You can also do that with photographs. You can create a pattern and then break it. Roland Barthes, a philosopher, named the pattern the Studium, and the pattern breaker the Punctum in his book Camera Lucida. So, if you want your images to stand out, seek the Punctum.

Studium punctum

Meh. How many palm tree images have you seen in your lifetime? Well I’ve seen them a lot too, so in order to make this one stick out from the crowd, I decided to align the shadow of a tree that was behind me, to the tree in the middle in front of the camera. What started as an average palm tree image is now much more interesting because of that pattern breaker. It’s unexpected. You expected a complete tree trunk and I replaced it with a shadow.

In a nutshell: anticipate the expected in your photograph, then break it.

So what other tips do you have for beginners? If you are just beginning yourself what do you struggle with the most? Share with us in the comments below.

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Olivier Duong is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese graphic designer turned photographer, he is the co-creator of Inspired Eye Photography Magazine. This ex-gear head now teaches photographers how to develop their eye, heart and mind. Join his photography newsletter to keep in touch. You’ll receive weekly inspiration, a free beginner’s course, tutorials and more.

  • Hey man, thanks! You did not misread me.
    I believe I say it in another way but for the same point. I you look at the image that he is describing of the nuns with the soldiers, there is an expected pattern, we expect to see guns, soldiers, rubles….and then an unexpected element is introduced. The nuns. Expectant situation, unexpected element.

    Let me know what you think 🙂

  • A lifelong learner is the basic requirement in my opinion and it seems you are one 🙂 thanks for the nice comment!!!

  • Nicole Gardinier

    I love this article, so different from all of the technical ones that keep telling me what I am doing wrong LOL I am 37, have been in love with photography since I was in HS…the good old dark room days, and I often go back to those photographs for inspiration and smiles. i just love where my mindset was when I was younger and just having fun. I am not a professional in the sense that I have a full time job, but I do portrait photography on the side, especially around Christmas….clients love the traditional pics but the ones that get the most attention are the ones I take when they aren’t posing, these are just priceless and I couldn’t stage them if I tried! So kuddos to you for expressing the importance of the artistic side of photography, I think some may have forgotten that aspect in the digital age…

  • Graham Underwood

    Graham Underwood

    You have answered many questions I have had thank you! I have a good camera with three as I see it or forums advise necassary lenses.. A macro Lense, Telephoto Zoom and also a 50mm portrait Lense, I have been worried in getting all settings correct on the camera instead of as you say ” making a photograph ”

    Thank you.

  • Great advice, #9 especially. I always try to teach people that you should be concerned with photographing moments, ideas, or stories instead of just things that look “cool” great article

  • Michael Jon

    Great article! I have a small Canon PowerShot SX130 IS that I often carry to avoid lugging my Sony DSLR around. This article inspired me to use it more often!

  • Kevin Kinnett

    WOW….Great article…

  • Steve Teoh

    Thanks for the wake up call Olivier!

    At times I am so caught up with the technical stuff that I lost sight of what a photo is all about. You are spot on over the emotion and connection a photographer needs to have before shooting away. Sometimes others may not see or feel the connection of our photos but our private inner feelings are simply private and we need to be ‘selfish’ by taking shots that meaningful only to ourselves.

  • Biljana

    Great article. I think I will save it and reread it, just not to forget why I live to make photos !

  • Larry

    Great article!

  • Outstanding Article.

  • Reading your article is the first thing I did this morning, and I can say that you make my day!
    Much more that photography tips, it’s a true refection on why we love photography.
    Holding a Canon S90 in my pocket everyday, I find myself in your words when you say “everything is light” there’s so many photo opportunities missed not having a camera to hand. Thank you very much for sharing your experience. Merci beaucoup, et au plaisir de vous lire à nouveau !

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    Yeah, I gotta start carrying my Sony RX100 more often.

  • Wim

    Extraordinary..

  • Looking at all these photography blogs got me thinking; my view of good photography isn’t painting, it’s sculpting.

    When you paint, you add paint onto the canvas. If you approach photography this way, you will add your self onto the end result image. Sounds good, right? Well, I don’t quite agree with that methodology.

    Photography is like sculpting because you are taking away the non-essential material and accentuating what is left after. You don’t add your self or anything else to the image; you make it the best image it can be by trimming the negative and the unnecessary and highlighting the positives of that image.

  • Leigh Gillmeister

    love this poem

  • Leigh Gillmeister

    thank you for the insight Oliver. I find myself trying to explain why I photograph everything. They “want to live in the moment and not behind a camera”; I want to dwell on how it made me feel, and possibly help someone else to feel it too.

  • Regina
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