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Become a Better Photographer By Asking One Simple Question

A Guest Post By: John Davenport

Let’s be honest whether it is coming up with portrait posing ideas, photographing the stars, or avoiding danger in the field we all have a common goal here – gain more knowledge and put it to use in our photography – but there comes a time when we must be our own teachers.
We must venture out away from the tutorials, the guidebooks and those YouTube videos to simply do something for ourselves, without fear, and without guidance. Just with the knowledge that we already have in our heads. My friend, that is what this question is all about. 

What Happens When I Do This?

Image One.jpg

If I had not tried something different, something out of my comfort zone, I wouldn’t have been able to capture this photograph. I was attempting to create an HDR composite, but I wanted to see if I could create one with me in the frame. I’d never done this, I hadn’t even attempted it, so I just set my camera up to capture the brackets, put it on a timer, and walked into where I thought would be a good place to stand. However, while the camera was still taking the shots, I left the scene before the shutter had closed for the final time, and thus – a ghostly figure.

Image Two.jpg

Another example is this photograph of the night sky. It actually consists of four separate landscape orientated images stitched together to create a vertical panorama with a fisheye like effect to boot. I talk in a bit more detail about how I created this vertical panoramic image on my own site, but if you’re listening to the message of this post, you probably shouldn’t have clicked on that link ;).

It Takes Courage

Tutorials and guides make life easy. Follow the steps and you’ve got a great photograph, but is it original?
It takes courage to be able to do this style of learning and even more so to share your photographs with the world. You have to accept the fact that you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to feel like you’ve wasted some time, and you’re going to have people tell you that you’ve done it all wrong, but to that I say all this is part of a good learning process.

Don’t Stop With Taking the Photo

Apply this no-holds-bars-experimentation-attitude to all aspects of photography and yes, maybe even to life as well.

Whether you’re using Instagram or Photoshop to edit your photographs asking, what happens if I do this?, is key to creating something different. Sure there’s a lot more to experiment with in the latter, but if you’re always using the same filter and the same blur effect in Instagram are you really learning anything?

What Do You Think?

Is it more important to get out in the field and forget the books once you’ve got the basic knowledge or should you stay up-to-date with all the knowledge that’s being shared on the web every-single-day and miss the possible shot of a lifetime?

John Davenport is an enthusiastic amateur photographer and blogger who shares daily photos on his site Phogropathy. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • http://dewandemmer.com Dewan Demmer

    Pretty cool. I am spending a lot of time lately asking that simple question for simple things, I am constantly doing a so many diferent things I seems to forget I have done it and then go and do it all over again.

    I tried working with one flash and a flashlight:
    http://www.dewandemmer.com/london-wedding-photography-industrial-style-photoshoot-taster/

  • http://robertmillerphotography.smugmug.com/ Robert Miller

    Thank you for your post. In the last 2o years of digital photography, that is the one question that drives my photography and it has served me well.

    And as a rule i do not read tutorials, and rely on skill sets that are self developed. My thoughts on this is if you follow the crowd you will never be different. And, difference is what it takes to be a successful art photographer.

  • http://Takingamoment.ca Sharon

    Thanks for the thoughts – you encourage me to continue working as I have been. I love the winter scene you posted here – very spooky. On the other hand, the stars are interesting but the picture makes me dizzy. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.TonyBarkerMusic.com Tony Barker

    Brilliant advice. I’ve taught Music and Martial Arts, and the message is the same; fundamentals are important, and there are no shortcuts, but until and unless you can make these things your own, all the techniques in the world won’t help you when you need them.

  • http://www.photosofrockart.com Dave

    Hmmm, not sure I really understand the point here? Are you saying it’s better for me to go out in the night sky and TRY to create photographs, rather than learn the basics of it and THEN go out and do it? Got to say, I’m not sure I agree with that. Seems to me in lots of categories, like night photography, time lapse, etc., you would spend more time learning by trying to do it without having any idea of what you are doing, then you would have by reading a little e-book and then going out and practicing what you learn. The whole key is to be creative either way.

  • Paul Plak

    Well it’s still a sensible thing to try to learn what works and what doesn’t in photography, and get experience and tricks from others.

    But once you have some clues about what you like to put into your photopgraphs and how to get the results you want, it also pays off to simply try things like moving your camera around when it’s supposed to be still, not freezing the movement of moving objects as you know you should, zooming while the shot is being talen by the shutter, or not having the horizon on the right angle. What happens to your picture if you overexpose it by 3 stops or take photos of backlit objects. I’d call that creativity. It will fail 9 times out of 10, and produce a gem once in a while. And this gem makes it worthwhile to try again.

  • http://www.phogropathy.com John Davenport

    Dave – First thanks for the comment!

    Yes I agree with you there needs to be some education whether it’s reading books or watching tutorials on Youtube, but sometimes I find that people rely too much on what others tell them to do rather than simply going out and doing themselves.

    I’ve known people that simply read a guide on how to photograph X subject in Y scene and then they go out and do exactly that they then will come back and learn how to photograph Z subject in W scene and they go out and do that. Now I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but are they really pushing their learning to the fullest? What’s stopping you from making mistakes these days? With digital cameras and 16gig SD cards?

    So to answer your question no I’m not saying that you should go out completely blind, but rather that you don’t need to read 50 tutorials on how to create 50 different photographs rather you read a couple on how to use your camera well and then you experiment with what you have learned in different settings and try and create your own photographs by asking yourself “What if I do this” as opposed to asking Google every time you see a cool photograph that you want to replicate.

  • http://fotoblog-reiseberichte.de Jens

    The first picture is a wonderful example of how trying something out of the normal way can result in suprising and wonderful results.

  • Joseph

    In response to Dave, you’re right. It takes much more time to do the trial and error method. But in photography, as in every other discipline I have been involved with, I have discovered that, for me personally, I need to make mistakes. Because it’s the only way I learn. If I don’t reinvent the wheel on most experiments then I don’t learn what to avoid in the future. Do I read tutorials and watch videos? Sure thing! But I don’t let that be the extent of my learning. I don’t fail, ever. I learn. And yeah, learning hurts sometimes. It’s the journey that I enjoy.

  • http://www.phogropathy.com John

    Thanks Jens! That first picture is still one of my favorites to date. :)

  • Scottc

    Great Advice! There’s no better “teacher” than your own camera, some of my learning attempts have turned out to be my favorites.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4274818672/

  • J Spain

    I like your articles. Thanks

  • Dan

    I love that ghostly shot by the lake. I played with that kind of a shot getting my (now) wife sitting ghostly at both ends of a sofa. It’s easier when somebody is standing behind the camera:
    Keep the lens open for a long time with somebody sitting in frame. Then after a set time put a black card over the camera and move to the other side then remove the card from the camera. It works really well.
    Never tried it on my own or to create such a stunning shot as that. One to try soon…

  • Generdawg

    It’s easier understood if you been there, done that. This seems to be saying, “You can educate yourself into a shoebox limit”, if you don’t stretch your own wings and try something outside the RULES. I’ve got a couple of shots I like that were just accidents which would never have happened if I hadn’t been daring.

    The winter scene is a great shot, but with you in it – well now, I just wished I took that photo!

    Cheerz

  • Mei Teng

    Great article. I love what you did with the first image. Excellent photography.

  • Taylor h

    I totally agree I am 21 been working on photography for about 3 years working on being pro photographer. And after all the study’s and time there is nothing better then just go out and do it the more time I mess with my Nikon I get better!

  • http://Facebook danny featherbe

    O K if youv’d passed the basics and I havn’t,show me how to walk and I will run.

  • http://www.phogropathy.com John

    Mei Teng & jspain – Thanks so much folks happy you enjoyed the article and photos.

    Scottc – I find that when you create something by accident or through experimentation it can feel better than when you follow the steps to creating an image. It feels more like it was something you made rather than simply copying something someone else made.

    Joseph – Well said! Thanks for helping to explain the point of this idea and yes – learning can hurt a lot – but that means you’re doing it right :)

  • http://www.lesleyleephotography.com Lesley

    All this year I’ve been taking a photo a week of myself, not for vanity, but because I’m always with me. :-) Obviously the same subject is going to get pretty boring, so I’ve bee trying out all sorts of different techniques, playing with lighting and composition and experimenting with aperture and exposure compensation. I’ve learnt a lot and am compiling the whole lot into a photobook with unretouched results, all annotated so I can see where I could have improved the awful ones, and how I’ve taken better ones on a second try a week or two later. The big bonus is that I now have a record of the year, my new grandson, my travels and other life events as they happened on the chosen day of the week.

  • Jenny

    That’s a very good question to ask, especially if one is still learning and finding one’s way around one’s camera, and also to ask to prevent boredom and predictability.
    Just love the the snow and night pics! So inspiring!

  • Jenny

    @Lesley
    That’s a good idea. You’re always available, not always gorgeous though,but no payment required.
    Photo doesn’t have to flatter. (Would be nice if it did though)
    Think I’m going to try this.

  • http://www.phogropathy.com John Davenport

    Lesley – That’s a great project to do! I’ve wanted to try something like that for a while now, but always felt that it’d get boring really quickly – However I suppose if you are dedicated to experimenting and finding new poses, props, and locations it can end up being a very rewarding experience. The question is are you going to continue this into 2013?

  • http://www.facebook.com/PhotoDecc DANIEL

    I’ve been a witness to the usefulness of such advise… I have tried many new things in so many different scenes and types of photographs, and time hsa been proving to me that I have indeed improved my shooting skills, i do admit I’m not a natural skilled photographer, but I have learned and that’s just so amazing. If any of you could stop by my facebook page and give some feedback I’d appreciate it.

  • http://www.guigphotography.com/# Guigphotography

    I think a little encouragement of this liberating nature is a good thing. I’ve made some truly valuable mistakes in my first year – valuable because there wasn’t one I didn’t learn from. Even better, some provided shots I never would have thought of otherwise. The example here isn’t exactly award winning, but if I hadn’t decided to free myself from the tripod, I never would have been in place in time to catch it. Thanks John!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/8245486566/in/photostream

  • Jason

    Love it! Simply put-If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning. Tutorials are only a starting point, at some stage we need to go out and apply new techniques to our own style and work. Our greatest achievements are waiting for us just outside of our comfort zone. This is a no brainer-learn to shoot, shoot to learn! Thanks for the write up, healthy food for thought!

  • http://dpsphotographyschool.com Donald Winters

    Yes All of this is great advise,I myself love to,do things out of context,which means I will go out and shoot
    something,and not have a clue of settings or any of that,yet the photo came out great,and other things
    I shoot I have lernt by advise from utube its all great things to know

  • http://benchapmanphotos.blogspot.co.uk/ Ben Chapman

    I learnt alot in the first years of practicing photography without any guides, videos etc.

    Ive only been coming on here for the past couple of months but many guides have given me ideas to practice and adjust at my own will.

    I think sometimes looking at guides, videos etc give you inspiration when you are having photographers block.

  • Brad Horn

    Years ago I was as a National Press Photographer’s event New Orleans. We listened to a presentation of a photographer who shot in subways (I think New York) and took the most amazing photographs with a 4X5 camera and a single flash. When asked at the end what rule of composition he used for a particular photograph, he simply said, “It just felt right.”

    He knew all of the rules of framing, composition, lighting, etc. But, to truly be creative you have to get past all of the rules. Sure, learn the rules, but learn to get past the rules and shoot what feels right.

  • Stuart Wilson

    I love the ghost shot. I have a question that’s sort of connected to the replies on this topic… When I photograph heads I like to shoot the character and the expression. I have taken some that I have really been excited about. My model (wife, mainly) says that when I shoot women I should shoot them how they WANT to look rather than how I see them or how the camera miraculously manages to capture them. Some of the shots that I love are the shots that she hates. I am too shy to ever try being ‘professional’ although have done a couple of family weddings that have been very well received with photo book bringing tears and good emotion, so do I shoot what I see the way I see it or what they want? I use Lightroom but try to get the shots with minimal post processing.
    It’s not grounds for divorce, but its a constant complaint.

  • http://qacro.com/site/blog Qacro

    This article again is showing the beauty of photography as an art.

  • Advait Sontakke

    Thanks buddy for this article. (y)

Some older comments

  • Qacro

    March 20, 2013 12:52 am

    This article again is showing the beauty of photography as an art.

  • Stuart Wilson

    February 1, 2013 07:23 pm

    I love the ghost shot. I have a question that's sort of connected to the replies on this topic... When I photograph heads I like to shoot the character and the expression. I have taken some that I have really been excited about. My model (wife, mainly) says that when I shoot women I should shoot them how they WANT to look rather than how I see them or how the camera miraculously manages to capture them. Some of the shots that I love are the shots that she hates. I am too shy to ever try being 'professional' although have done a couple of family weddings that have been very well received with photo book bringing tears and good emotion, so do I shoot what I see the way I see it or what they want? I use Lightroom but try to get the shots with minimal post processing.
    It's not grounds for divorce, but its a constant complaint.

  • Brad Horn

    December 20, 2012 12:24 am

    Years ago I was as a National Press Photographer's event New Orleans. We listened to a presentation of a photographer who shot in subways (I think New York) and took the most amazing photographs with a 4X5 camera and a single flash. When asked at the end what rule of composition he used for a particular photograph, he simply said, "It just felt right."

    He knew all of the rules of framing, composition, lighting, etc. But, to truly be creative you have to get past all of the rules. Sure, learn the rules, but learn to get past the rules and shoot what feels right.

  • Ben Chapman

    December 11, 2012 08:20 am

    I learnt alot in the first years of practicing photography without any guides, videos etc.

    Ive only been coming on here for the past couple of months but many guides have given me ideas to practice and adjust at my own will.

    I think sometimes looking at guides, videos etc give you inspiration when you are having photographers block.

  • Donald Winters

    December 11, 2012 12:14 am

    Yes All of this is great advise,I myself love to,do things out of context,which means I will go out and shoot
    something,and not have a clue of settings or any of that,yet the photo came out great,and other things
    I shoot I have lernt by advise from utube its all great things to know

  • Jason

    December 9, 2012 02:39 am

    Love it! Simply put-If you're not making mistakes, you're not learning. Tutorials are only a starting point, at some stage we need to go out and apply new techniques to our own style and work. Our greatest achievements are waiting for us just outside of our comfort zone. This is a no brainer-learn to shoot, shoot to learn! Thanks for the write up, healthy food for thought!

  • Guigphotography

    December 8, 2012 08:13 pm

    I think a little encouragement of this liberating nature is a good thing. I've made some truly valuable mistakes in my first year - valuable because there wasn't one I didn't learn from. Even better, some provided shots I never would have thought of otherwise. The example here isn't exactly award winning, but if I hadn't decided to free myself from the tripod, I never would have been in place in time to catch it. Thanks John!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/8245486566/in/photostream

  • DANIEL

    December 8, 2012 07:51 am

    I've been a witness to the usefulness of such advise... I have tried many new things in so many different scenes and types of photographs, and time hsa been proving to me that I have indeed improved my shooting skills, i do admit I'm not a natural skilled photographer, but I have learned and that's just so amazing. If any of you could stop by my facebook page and give some feedback I'd appreciate it.

  • John Davenport

    December 8, 2012 04:20 am

    Lesley - That's a great project to do! I've wanted to try something like that for a while now, but always felt that it'd get boring really quickly - However I suppose if you are dedicated to experimenting and finding new poses, props, and locations it can end up being a very rewarding experience. The question is are you going to continue this into 2013?

  • Jenny

    December 8, 2012 04:11 am

    @Lesley
    That's a good idea. You're always available, not always gorgeous though,but no payment required.
    Photo doesn't have to flatter. (Would be nice if it did though)
    Think I'm going to try this.

  • Jenny

    December 8, 2012 04:08 am

    That's a very good question to ask, especially if one is still learning and finding one's way around one's camera, and also to ask to prevent boredom and predictability.
    Just love the the snow and night pics! So inspiring!

  • Lesley

    December 8, 2012 02:48 am

    All this year I've been taking a photo a week of myself, not for vanity, but because I'm always with me. :-) Obviously the same subject is going to get pretty boring, so I've bee trying out all sorts of different techniques, playing with lighting and composition and experimenting with aperture and exposure compensation. I've learnt a lot and am compiling the whole lot into a photobook with unretouched results, all annotated so I can see where I could have improved the awful ones, and how I've taken better ones on a second try a week or two later. The big bonus is that I now have a record of the year, my new grandson, my travels and other life events as they happened on the chosen day of the week.

  • John

    December 7, 2012 10:38 pm

    Mei Teng & jspain - Thanks so much folks happy you enjoyed the article and photos.

    Scottc - I find that when you create something by accident or through experimentation it can feel better than when you follow the steps to creating an image. It feels more like it was something you made rather than simply copying something someone else made.

    Joseph - Well said! Thanks for helping to explain the point of this idea and yes - learning can hurt a lot - but that means you're doing it right :)

  • danny featherbe

    December 7, 2012 10:31 pm

    O K if youv'd passed the basics and I havn't,show me how to walk and I will run.

  • Taylor h

    December 7, 2012 01:59 pm

    I totally agree I am 21 been working on photography for about 3 years working on being pro photographer. And after all the study's and time there is nothing better then just go out and do it the more time I mess with my Nikon I get better!

  • Mei Teng

    December 7, 2012 11:55 am

    Great article. I love what you did with the first image. Excellent photography.

  • Generdawg

    December 7, 2012 11:34 am

    It's easier understood if you been there, done that. This seems to be saying, "You can educate yourself into a shoebox limit", if you don't stretch your own wings and try something outside the RULES. I've got a couple of shots I like that were just accidents which would never have happened if I hadn't been daring.

    The winter scene is a great shot, but with you in it - well now, I just wished I took that photo!

    Cheerz

  • Dan

    December 7, 2012 11:29 am

    I love that ghostly shot by the lake. I played with that kind of a shot getting my (now) wife sitting ghostly at both ends of a sofa. It's easier when somebody is standing behind the camera:
    Keep the lens open for a long time with somebody sitting in frame. Then after a set time put a black card over the camera and move to the other side then remove the card from the camera. It works really well.
    Never tried it on my own or to create such a stunning shot as that. One to try soon...

  • J Spain

    December 7, 2012 09:46 am

    I like your articles. Thanks

  • Scottc

    December 7, 2012 09:09 am

    Great Advice! There's no better "teacher" than your own camera, some of my learning attempts have turned out to be my favorites.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4274818672/

  • John

    December 7, 2012 08:58 am

    Thanks Jens! That first picture is still one of my favorites to date. :)

  • Joseph

    December 7, 2012 08:57 am

    In response to Dave, you're right. It takes much more time to do the trial and error method. But in photography, as in every other discipline I have been involved with, I have discovered that, for me personally, I need to make mistakes. Because it's the only way I learn. If I don't reinvent the wheel on most experiments then I don't learn what to avoid in the future. Do I read tutorials and watch videos? Sure thing! But I don't let that be the extent of my learning. I don't fail, ever. I learn. And yeah, learning hurts sometimes. It's the journey that I enjoy.

  • Jens

    December 7, 2012 08:13 am

    The first picture is a wonderful example of how trying something out of the normal way can result in suprising and wonderful results.

  • John Davenport

    December 7, 2012 08:02 am

    Dave - First thanks for the comment!

    Yes I agree with you there needs to be some education whether it's reading books or watching tutorials on Youtube, but sometimes I find that people rely too much on what others tell them to do rather than simply going out and doing themselves.

    I've known people that simply read a guide on how to photograph X subject in Y scene and then they go out and do exactly that they then will come back and learn how to photograph Z subject in W scene and they go out and do that. Now I suppose there's nothing wrong with that, but are they really pushing their learning to the fullest? What's stopping you from making mistakes these days? With digital cameras and 16gig SD cards?

    So to answer your question no I'm not saying that you should go out completely blind, but rather that you don't need to read 50 tutorials on how to create 50 different photographs rather you read a couple on how to use your camera well and then you experiment with what you have learned in different settings and try and create your own photographs by asking yourself "What if I do this" as opposed to asking Google every time you see a cool photograph that you want to replicate.

  • Paul Plak

    December 7, 2012 07:55 am

    Well it's still a sensible thing to try to learn what works and what doesn't in photography, and get experience and tricks from others.

    But once you have some clues about what you like to put into your photopgraphs and how to get the results you want, it also pays off to simply try things like moving your camera around when it's supposed to be still, not freezing the movement of moving objects as you know you should, zooming while the shot is being talen by the shutter, or not having the horizon on the right angle. What happens to your picture if you overexpose it by 3 stops or take photos of backlit objects. I'd call that creativity. It will fail 9 times out of 10, and produce a gem once in a while. And this gem makes it worthwhile to try again.

  • Dave

    December 7, 2012 06:34 am

    Hmmm, not sure I really understand the point here? Are you saying it's better for me to go out in the night sky and TRY to create photographs, rather than learn the basics of it and THEN go out and do it? Got to say, I'm not sure I agree with that. Seems to me in lots of categories, like night photography, time lapse, etc., you would spend more time learning by trying to do it without having any idea of what you are doing, then you would have by reading a little e-book and then going out and practicing what you learn. The whole key is to be creative either way.

  • Tony Barker

    December 7, 2012 06:19 am

    Brilliant advice. I've taught Music and Martial Arts, and the message is the same; fundamentals are important, and there are no shortcuts, but until and unless you can make these things your own, all the techniques in the world won't help you when you need them.

  • Sharon

    December 7, 2012 05:24 am

    Thanks for the thoughts - you encourage me to continue working as I have been. I love the winter scene you posted here - very spooky. On the other hand, the stars are interesting but the picture makes me dizzy. Thanks for sharing.

  • Robert Miller

    December 7, 2012 05:20 am

    Thank you for your post. In the last 2o years of digital photography, that is the one question that drives my photography and it has served me well.

    And as a rule i do not read tutorials, and rely on skill sets that are self developed. My thoughts on this is if you follow the crowd you will never be different. And, difference is what it takes to be a successful art photographer.

  • Dewan Demmer

    December 7, 2012 04:00 am

    Pretty cool. I am spending a lot of time lately asking that simple question for simple things, I am constantly doing a so many diferent things I seems to forget I have done it and then go and do it all over again.

    I tried working with one flash and a flashlight:
    http://www.dewandemmer.com/london-wedding-photography-industrial-style-photoshoot-taster/

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