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Game Changers: How to Take Your Photography to the Next Level

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The other day, one of the students I was mentoring asked me a really interesting question, “How do I take my photography to the next level?” The conversation that followed was the inspiration for this article.

Photograph subjects and experiences that you love, in a way that is unique to you

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“The artist sees what others only catch a glimpse of.” – Leonardo da Vinci

When you photograph the things you love, you will always be excited and inspired. If you are excited and inspired by something, you are naturally going to want to spend more time doing it. The more time you spend doing something, the better you become at it.

I spent the first half of my career focusing on fashion photography, because I thought that was what I should be doing. I was okay as a fashion shooter, but to be 100 percent honest, I never really got the whole fashion world, and it didn’t consume me like it does the best fashion photographers in the world. The photographers who excel in this genre live and breathe fashion; some of them are fashion.

It wasn’t until I started to focus more on portraits, and travel lifestyle photography, that I really fell head over heels in love with photography. I’d finally found my “thing”! I could happily shoot portraits or travel lifestyle images all day long. I felt energized, and on a high after each shoot. I was always exhausted after shooting fashion.

Are you photographing the things you really love? Is this work making you feel excited and energized, or depleted and flat?

The way we see and experience life is something that is unique to each of us. If you want to take your photography to the next level, focus on photographing the things that matter to you, in your own world, and in a way that is unique to you. This is the one thing that will set you apart from all the other photographers.

Passion, not perfection

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If passion and perfection had an arm wrestle, passion would win every time. Why? Because the thing that makes photography great, is the way it makes us feel. If there is no passion in an image, and it doesn’t inspire a reaction, then it’s just a snapshot.

If you want to take your work to the next level, show your passion for your work.

Given a choice to shoot a photo that was technically brilliant, sharp, correctly exposed, and perfectly composed, yet void of emotion – or an image that was a bit rough around the edges, slightly soft, grainy, with a few blown highlights but captured the feeling – I would choose the latter every time.

Don’t just focus on what something looks like, focus on how it feels.

Technique, not gear

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Michael Schumacher is the best F1 driver in history. If he were to challenge me to a race, and I drove a Ferrari and he drove a 1981 Toyota Corolla, he would still win. Why?

Schumacher is a master, who has spent years driving. He knows how to drive fast, and take corners at high speed, without rolling the car. He would probably lap me three times before I’d even had a chance to get out of third gear. In the wrong hands, the best gear in the world is useless, if you don’t know how to drive it.

So many photographers get hung up on the notion that having the right gear will make them better photographers. While it’s true that the right gear will give you a better quality image, it’s not going to guarantee that you will be a better photographer.

Instead of worrying about the gear, focus on the technique. It’s what you do every day that makes you great; not what you use every day. Dedicating as few as thirty minutes a day to your photography, every day, will do more to improve your skills and develop your style than owning all the high end gear in the world.

Learn to peel potatoes before you cook a soufflé

Last supper

Fat Tony & Co/Nine Network Australia

During the first few years that I was building my photography business, I had a night job working as a cook in an Italian restaurant. When you train to become a cook, you must master a task before you are allowed to move on to the next one. The first task each apprentice cook must master is peeling potatoes. Then they move on to the salads, entrees, pasta, steaks, and seafood. The last thing I was taught to cook was one of the most technically difficult dishes, the soufflé.

The photographer who attempts a complicated studio shoot right after buying his or her first camera, is like the apprentice cook who walks into a kitchen and insists on cooking a soufflé on their first day.

Taking a stepped approach to learning, will take your photography to the next level much faster than trying to learn it all at once. Many photographers will try complicated shooting or lighting styles, then become frustrated because their images are not working out the way they had hoped.

Master peeling potatoes first. It’s definitely a game changer!

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Ask for help

Putting their work out there, is something that many photographers struggle with. Yet, seeking and implementing constructive criticism is one of the fastest ways to take your photography up a few notches.

The fear of ridicule or criticism prevents some from sharing their work. This is really sad, because many of the fears people may have are imagined. FEAR is an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real, it’s our mind trying to keep us small. When you create beautiful art, and you don’t share it with the world, you deny so many people the opportunity to experience beauty.

If you are ever in doubt, take Mother Nature as an example of best practices for artists. Every day she puts her work out there – sunset, sunrise, storms, sunshine, and rainbows. Some are absolutely spectacular. Other times, her art can be mediocre, yet she puts her work out there every day for us to enjoy.

Other ways you can ask for help:

  • Join a photography group
  • Find a mentor
  • Attend a workshop where your work can be critiqued by an expert whose work you respect

Confidence

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“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” Henry Ford

You can read books, take courses, and listen to podcasts until the cows come home. But if you don’t have self-confidence, it will be very difficult to take your work to the next level.

Confidence is knowing that you’ve done the hard work and put in the hours, and can now turn up and nail the shot.

Many photographers and artists really struggle with confidence. It may be due to old programming from a lifetime of being told they weren’t good enough, of having the people they spend the most time with not offering enough support, or a hundred other reasons, all of which undermine a person’s self-esteem.

Look for ways to improve your self-confidence. Spend more time with people who value and respect what you do. Find ways you can get rid of destructive self-talk.

The good news is that self-confidence can be trained, just like a muscle in the gym. Gaining self-confidence and self-belief is, by far, a major game changer. It will help take your photography to the next level.

Do you have a strategy that I might have missed? What techniques have you used to take your work to the next level? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

All images: Copyright Gina Milicia


fastflash_bookIf you want to learn more about using flash for creating portraits, pick up Gina’s brand new dPS ebook: Fast Flash for Portrait Perfection. Now on sale for an introductory price for a limited time only.

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Gina Milicia has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. She has photographed some of the world’s most high-profile people including royalty, billionaires and A-list celebrities. Often travelling the world, Gina also runs photography workshops and private mentoring sessions. You can sign up for her free ebook on "Portrait and Post Production Essentials" and see more of her work here. Check out her podcast “So you want to be a photographer” on iTunes.

  • Excellent post! Wish I would have stumbled into this 8 years ago when I bought my first camera.

    http://www.gabrielleorcutt.com

  • Oz Wuermli

    Really inspiring Gina!
    Thank you!
    BTW, may i qoute some of your inspirinig words in my blog?

  • Mary Hudgens

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  • Sadly, Michael Schumacher had a severe skiing accident in 2013, so he is probably in no condition to drive any kind of car.

  • Gina milicia

    Thanks Oz, glad you enjoyed it and yes please share the quotes 🙂

  • Gina milicia

    Thanks Gabrielle, it’s never too late to learn new things 🙂

  • Gina milicia

    I’m so sorry to hear that Ame. Thanks for letting me know.

  • PLewis

    Truly inspiring ! I can see your mastery not only in the photographs but also in words. I am so glad that I found your tutorials.

  • Donna

    Thank you for such an inspiring article. I, too, started with fashion but lacked the obsession with it. It took another photographer friend telling me to photograph what I love to get me out of the photography doldrums.

  • pete guaron

    Rolling on the floor laughing, Gina – for the “wannabe’s” who think the way to improve their photography is to buy something more expensive than the gear they’ve got, you just gave us all the BEST EVER comment – “Learn to peel potatoes before you cook a soufflé”!

    Modern cams for amateurs are generally highly sophisticated in their design, high quality throughout, and designed to get rid of most of the probs an amateur will run into. Buying something “better” (ie more expensive or complicated) won’t help, when the user can’t get the right shot with the cam he or she has. Because the more “professional” gear actually demands more expertise, to get the results it’s intended to produce. And buying it, ahead of “learning to peel the potatoes”, is the certain path to a very flat soufflé!

    Thanks for making my day!

  • Ramneek Kalra

    It was an eye opener article for me.
    I just have one question. You mentioned step approach to learning photography, could you please list the steps that need to be mastered in the order you feel is correct.

  • imtiaz

    “The way we see and experience life is something that is unique to each of us.”
    An amazing article. Thank you.

  • imtiaz

    “The way we see and experience life is something that is unique to each of us.”
    An amazing article. Thank you.

  • Becky Pearman

    Gina, you are spot-on about passion! I have lived and breathed horses since I could point them out to my mom at age two. I inherited my dad’s Zeiss-Icon when I was thirteen and he passed away.

    From that day on I shot horses every day of my life. By age 18 I received my first money for photos and have never looked back. I am now a professional (who still needs to learn more technical aspects of my equipment), but I’ve been blessed to shoot as the US team photographer at international endurance riding events the past two years. Passion about your subject is so much more important than expensive equipment. It took me many years to afford my first 70-200 2.8 lens and even that one wasn’t Canon. But I managed to take better-than-average images with it because I knew how horses were supposed to look and I had peeled my potatoes and paid my dues first!

    I’ve attached an image which I feel shows the passion. Shot while in Chile last fall at the World Young Rider’s Championship in Santo Domingo of one of our US riders having as much fun as I was!

  • Gina Milicia

    Hi Becky,
    That’s a great story and I can feel your passion and how awesome that you are able to combine your two loves.
    Thanks for sharing your image, it’s beautiful!

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks imitiaz 🙂

  • Gina Milicia

    Look out for my next blog post Ramneek Kalra I outline my step by step approach to lighting
    and will write a detailed post about photography but basically it’s about taking baby steps
    1. learn the mechanics of your camera
    2. Study natural light at different times of the day
    3. Work in auto mode
    4. Move to manual mode
    5. focus on one aspect of photography at a time and stay with it until you fell confident
    6. Photograph the things you enjoy because this will ensure you will dedicate more time to learning your craft.
    Good luck!

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks Pete! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  • Gina Milicia

    That’s awesome to hear Donna!

  • Gina Milicia

    Thank you PLewis that means a lot!

  • Pixelgreat

    Great post. Ive only just recently discovered photography and am definitely at the peeling potatoes stage! Im also trying to get some feedback through a blog I’ve started, do you think that’s a good way to try and get some constructive criticism?
    Will also look at joining some online photography groups too. Blog is http://www.pixelgreat.wordpress.com if anyone interested.

  • Matthew

    I hardly post on boards, but this article was great — I felt like you wrote this specifically for me. Great job!

  • E B

    Thank you for this article. A friend and I were just discussing this. I’m still figuring out what a potato is, let alone how to peel one, but she’s definitely almost to soufflé level 🙂

  • Thomas A. Jones

    One other task that a person can take on that can serve to strengthen their own work is to STUDY photographs by top photographers. Pay attention to framing, light, perspective, and content. Learning isn’t all about reading and doing, but also by viewing great works and understanding what makes the image great. Don’t limit yourself to just studying photographs, either. Much can be learned from studying paintings by the masters. Every artist eventually develops their own personal style but, you can see influences in art the same as you can hear influences in music.

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