12 Steps to Becoming a Good Photographer

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The true key to growing as a photographer is to dedicate and immerse yourself in it on a consistent basis. Passion and enjoyment are key to becoming great at your craft.

That beings said, there are many things to consider in order to progress through this journey as effectively as possible. If I were to start all over again, these are the stepping stones that I would have preferred to have taken, beginning with the technical and ending with the conceptual.

SoHo, NYC.

Part 1: Learning the Technical

1. Look at Light

When you start out in photography, it seems obvious to say that learning to use your camera is the logical first step. However, thinking this way can actually confuse you. The camera is just a tool that has the ability to record light.

When you walk out the door to photograph, the first thing you should think about is light, and not the camera. What time of day is it? How strong is the light and what direction is it coming from? Is it sunny or cloudy? Is the light soft or contrasty? Is the sun in front of, or behind you? Where are the artificial light sources and what colors do they give off?

This is the first thing that a seasoned photographer will look for every time they begin to shoot, and constantly be aware of while they are shooting. They do this for a reason. The light will affect how they shoot and the settings that they use. Even a slight change in direction to your light source can completely change how an image will look. You can’t learn how to use your camera correctly if you do not first understand the light.

2. Learn Your Camera Settings

SoHo at Night, NYC.

SoHo at Night, NYC.

Once you evaluate the light and environment, and figure out how you want the image to look, that is when you want to think about camera settings. For instance, do you want as much of the image as possible to be sharp, or do you want a lot of bokeh in the background? Do you want to zoom in and have a compressed look to the image or would you rather use a normal or wide angle lens? Do you want it to be a high-key shot, or on the darker side?

That is when you change your settings to achieve the desired effect. It sounds like a lot of work just to take a single photo, and it is. However, if you start out shooting this way, eventually it will become second nature. It is just like learning a basketball shot or a golf swing. Doing it the correct way might feel unnatural and weird at first, but eventually it will come naturally and quickly, and you will be much better off for having spent time at the beginning to focus on it.

Take your camera off Auto and experiment with either shutter priority, aperture priority, or manual mode. Some photographers take pride in shooting manual, and sometimes it makes sense to shoot that way, but manual is no better than shutter or aperture priority modes, and in many situations it can be a worse way to shoot. It all depends on the situation.

Experiment with different zooms on your lens, with different apertures and shutter speeds, and experiment with different ISOs to see how the digital grain (noise) looks. Do not be afraid to raise your ISO when you do not have a tripod. Go back to look at your photos in Lightroom, zoom in to the details, and look at the settings to see how they altered the way your images look.

3. Composition and Form

Three Men, SoHo, NYC.

Three Men, SoHo, NYC.

Now is the time to think about composition. Some newer photographers tend to have a bad habit – they look up, see something interesting, then they photograph it quickly and move on. Yes, sometimes you’re on the move and this is the only way to shoot, but take some time to compose your image in the best possible way. The difference between a snapshot and a work of art is thought. If you see an interesting scene, you need to think about how to best capture it. Where is the best place to stand? Can I include other elements into the scene to create a more complex composition?

I prefer to think about composition in this way – if I made a larger print, put it on my wall, and a friend came over and saw it for the first time, where would their eyes begin and how would they move through the image? How would it feel to them? Where are the lines in the image? What is the relationship of the main subject to the background? Is rule of thirds better here or is it better to center the main subject? Are there interesting shapes in the image? Do the edges of the image look good and keep the viewers eyes from moving out of the composition? Is there a foreground, middleground, and background in the image and does the image even need that?

The difference between a decent image and a great image could be moving a foot to the left. This is another idea that can seem overwhelming at first, but will come to you more naturally the more you pay attention to it.

4. Color

Dean & Deluca, SoHo, NYC.

Dean & Deluca, SoHo, NYC.

Color (or lack there of) is a very important element of photography. Look at a color wheel and study how the colors work together. What do different colors represent? Do the colors add to the image or detract from it? I enjoy creating both black and white, and color images, and this is one of the first questions I think about when I am editing.

What is the color quality of the light? Is it cool or warm, is there a color cast, and does that add or detract from the image?

In addition to thinking about color while shooting, you will find yourself significantly improving your ability with color while you are editing. Play around with color temperature to see if you like an image warmer or cooler. Desaturate it, or add a little saturation, to see how it feels. How does changing the contrast affect the colors?

For doing quality color work, make sure that you have a good monitor that has been recently color corrected. All your work will be for naught if your monitor shows colors that are different from the file and final print.

5. Learn Lightroom

Editing is vitally important to developing your vision and becoming a good photographer. I suggest using Lightroom, as it is the industry standard and it works well for so many photographers. Photograph in RAW to get the most flexibility and quality in your images and explore all of the RAW development settings. Try to recreate the looks of other photographers to get a feel for how their editing was done.

Be diligent about organizing your archive. A little time spent each time you upload images will save you so much time in the future. Star your good images (Lightroom allows 1 through 5 stars) so they are easy to find, and create collections based on ideas that you grow over time. Viewing your work in this organized fashion will help you develop your skills much faster than if you have a messy archive.

6. Print

Maybe my views are rooted in the past and nobody is going to print in the future, but I do not feel like an image is truly complete until it has been printed and framed. That is the final step to all of this, and it is a great feeling to put an image on your wall.

Photography Inspiration Corkboard

36×48 inch Corkboard

But there is another aspect to why you should print. It is one thing to see how your images look on a monitor, but it is a completely different experience to see them in their final, printed form. This will allow you to see how the light, the color, and your camera settings all affected the final image. You will learn a lot about how to shoot, from the art of printing. Try different papers, and view your prints under different lights.

My favorite printer is the Epson 3880, but you do not need to do the printing yourself. Create a relationship with a local printer, or one of the reputable companies online, and have them made for you. If you do not print frequently, it can be much more affordable to have your prints made for you than making them yourself. But, don’t forget that doing the printing yourself can be very fun and satisfying, and it gives you the ability to make slight changes and see how they look right away.

Try creating a photography corkboard. I have a 36×48 inch board next to my workstation and I swear by it. Fill it up with 5x7s and 4x6s and constantly change it. See how the images play off each other, which images last, and which you lose interest in. Use this as a playground for your prints.

Part 2: Developing Your Photographic Voice and Style

Nerves, SoHo, NYC.

Nerves, SoHo, NYC.

Once you have gotten this far you are in a very good spot. Technically, you know what you are doing, your prints look beautiful, and they are well composed. But what’s next?

The next step is to figure out how to take unique and interesting photographs. It is now time to spend more effort thinking about what it is that resonates with you in photography, and what makes an image stand out in your mind.

7. Photograph!

This is so simple, but it is the key to everything and needs to be said. So many people only take their cameras out on trips or vacations. They go to places that are specifically for photographing, such as mountain ranges, zoos, gardens, safaris, cute towns, or cities with great architecture. While this is great to do, push yourself further than that. Take some photographs during the course of your everyday life. Even use a cellphone when you are unable to take your main camera with you.

The best photographers can take great photographs in the most ordinary of places. Practice this. Go out, anywhere, or specifically go out to someplace that you think will be terrible for photography, and figure out how to take an interesting photograph there. This practice will help you so much in your development. You can understand light and camera settings cold, but if you are not out photographing in a variety of situations on a somewhat consistent basis, then you are selling yourself short as a photographer.

8. Galleries, Photo Books, and Reading

Disconnected, NYC.

Disconnected, NYC.

One of the best ways to develop your own voice and style is to look at the work of others. Go to galleries, purchase photography books, and study the images of great photographers. The internet is a great place to view photography, but it is so easy to get lost. Galleries and books are curated for a reason. Study the images, think about how they were done, and figure out the context behind them. Sometimes images will hit you whether or not you know the context behind them, but other times it can be important to learn about the photographer and the history that are behind the image. This will add another layer to your appreciation.

Try out the different styles of photographers that you like. Try to shoot like them to learn how they did it and why. Pick and choose your favorite elements from different photographers and merge them to create your own style.

Purchase some prints. I’ve heard this a few too many times (sorry for the gender stereotyping) but it’s usually a wife saying something to me like, “I’d love to get this for our wall, but if my husband sees me buying the work of another photographer, he’ll kill me!” The average home has a lot of walls; enough for many artists.

Yes, there is something satisfying about seeing an image, then going and figuring out how to create it for yourself, but it is really important to appreciate the works of others. Buy prints from other photographers to display along with books. Immerse yourself in the works of others to create your own inspiration.

Finally, one of my favorite ways to gain inspiration is to read about things unrelated to photography. Learn about where and what you are shooting. Read poetry, read current events, read anything. This practice is about growing your voice outside of photography; the two are related.

Nerves, SoHo, NYC.

Nerves, SoHo, NYC.

9. Keep Coming Back

Pick an area or a subject and immerse yourself in it. Go back to the same place at different times, in different light, and keep photographing it. This is very important for your growth since it will allow you to learn the area or subject like the back of your hand. Your images will take on more depth. There are photographers who have spent 40 years photographing in the same area.

10. Curate a small group of photographers and friends to show your work

The internet is an amazing place for sharing your work and learning about photography. However, it is also a very impersonal place. Everyone sees thousands of images a day from hundreds of people. While it’s definitely possible, it can be tough to get a proper critique and evaluation of your work over the internet.

Find a few people and put together a group to show physical images to every once in awhile. You ultimately want to shoot for yourself, but seeing how others relate to your images is important for your growth. The more they get used to your work and your style, the better comments and thoughts they will have for you.

These people do not have to be photographers. They can be friends, creatives, even significant others. A good tough critique from your partner can be very valuable. It can sometimes be tough to hear at first, but figure out how they really feel about an image. Your partner will know you well enough to be honest and not hold back, and that will be good for you to hear. Figure out what they like, and what they don’t like.

11. Put together an edit of similar images

One of the most beautiful aspects of Lightroom is that it allows you to create collections of images outside of your normal file structure. Start to group and sequence your images that relate to each other. Begin to turn them into a project. You can see how the images in this post relate to each other. This was done over time, not all at once. You can, and should, think about projects from the very beginning and go out to photograph them, but often projects and ideas will come about naturally during the process of daily shooting.

Doing this will help you notice these moments when photographing in the future and over time you will develop ideas organically into beautiful projects.

12. Develop a voice in your photography

Stroller, SoHo, NYC.

Stroller, SoHo, NYC.

If you have done the rest of these steps, your voice and style will develop organically over time. Think about it, and pay attention to it as you progress, but do not force it. Let it come to you over time. You can learn to use your camera quickly, but you cannot become a good photographer overnight. Take your time and try to improve a little bit each day and you will make huge strides over the course of a few years.

Have you followed these steps? Do you have any others you’d add as part of the learning and growth process? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • I couldn’t have summarized my own opinions better, James! I agree on all your comments and also on sequencing you have chosen for them. First you need to understand the basics (which include technicalities and the way photography works: light, composition, framing, also post-processing software), practice to the point of apprehending all these things at an almost subconscious level, and then move to the next stage, where you start planning, seeing, and developing your own voice and style.

    The one area that I have yet to venture into is printing, but, hopefully, that is going to start happening very soon! Having a blog forces me to stay consistent, focused, and also it’s a very easy way to see the changes and improvement you experience as a photographer, so I recommend that! This is my latest post, from a National Park in Thailand, as en example:
    http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2015/06/sam-roi-yot-national-park.html

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  • Denny Cloud

    Your advices are awesome. Thanx a lot. I am just a beginner but I want to become a professional as fast as possible. I study hard and read a lot about photography. Your blog and this https://keepsnap.com/blog are my favorite=)

  • Natalie4528@outlook.com

    I’ve been freelancing over internet for quite some time now, working basic jobs that only required a computer and access to internet and I am so happy with it… After 6 months on this job and i had profit so far in total 36,000 dollars… Basicly i get paid 80 dollars each hour and work for 3-4 h daily.And the best part about this job is that you can make your own schedule when you work and for how long and the payments are weekly -> If this got your attention then Online job opportunity! <-

  • Natalie4528@outlook.com

    I started working over internet, by working basic jobs which only require a computer and internet access and I am happier than ever… After six months on this job and i had profit so far in total 36 thousand dollars… Basicly i get paid close to 80 dollars/hourly and work for 3 to 4 hrs daily.And the best part about it is that you get to choose yourself when to work and for how long and you get paid weekly -> If this interest you, Extra cash opportunity! <-

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    I wouldn’t work for $80 an hour

  • Point #6: I would say that printing in 4×6 and 5×7 is nowhere near as satisfying as printing, for example, a 12×18. Moreover, the big print will let one see the mistakes much easier than the smaller prints, which then makes the photographer re-think about his or her shot and the post-processing linked to it. The smallest mistake will show a lot, forcing one to spend more time making sure every single flaw has disappeared.

  • Good info James. I particularly like 2. Before I mastered manual mode – I spent a ton of time in AP and SP modes. I still rely on both heavily, today. Only thing I would add is a strong recommendation to take some formal photography classes. Doing so really helped me in so many ways. I began just thinking I’d take a class or 2 and now, 2 years later, I’m still taking photography courses in pursuit of a degree in photography. Classes force you to shoot – often, and in various settings. Classes also help you meet others who are at the same level. I found that a big help, and have maintained so many great connections with others this way.

    Again, great article – thanks!

    Rusty

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  • Tim Lowe

    A nice organization of the principals. But after teaching photographers for years, I can tell you, there needs to be some talent there to cultivate. Some people just don’t have “the eye” and it cannot be taught.

    Also, I firmly believe that digital photography has produced more horrible photographers. I insist that students shoot film, or at a very minimum, turn off their LCD displays. The mantra is “See. Think. Shot.” Digital cameras encourage “See. Shoot. Think.” And the last part becomes increasingly optional. Additionally, I think the concept of each shutter release having a zero cost encourages laziness. And I can demonstrate with my own images, every lousy frame can be traced back to a lazy photographer.

  • Tom Bohon

    The article mentions “reputable companies online” but as someone just getting away from the ‘print it myself’ I have no idea who is reputable, who other photographers have used and like (and conversely who to stay away from). Anybody have any thoughts on that???

  • George Johnson

    ( with due respect)
    #13 – Be wary of using internet lists about photography as pure checklists on how do it. Draw inspiration but ultultimately follow your own path.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    I heartily agree. Having been a B&W photographer for decades (before digital; before I could afford colour), I saw the effect of printing large on the attraction of my best images. I also saw that by printing large, the flaws in the shot were magnified. It helped me improve my ratio of good : poor images. The pictures that I am proud of are all printed on A4 paper these days.

  • My own favorite shots (even if I haven’t been at it for that long) are printed on 13×19 paper, but A4 size is also pretty awesome compared to the small prints! My first time printing anything that big was quite recent, ans I remember how much it made me see the flaws easily.

  • Karlene Savedra

    I don’t know if i had gotten the light right. It was supposed to be a silhouette.I am still an amateur photographer that’s why I was hardened up on how to take the rules into my shots. Thanks a lot with the article, it helped a lot.

  • Dianne

    Wonderful advice here! I love photography and I take photos everyday. I found it very interesting to read about taking photos of places that you wouldn’t necessary think would be good photography material – I recently came back from New Zealand with some great photos and felt a bit deflated about coming back to such a ‘normal’ environment but as I’ve discovered some of my favourite photos have definitely come from the most unusual places.

  • A. Blas

    i am not a pro but it seems you would like us to give our opinion on your photo. if you wanted this to be a silhouette one, it is easy in lightroom.. but personally i would like this if i see the faces of the couple..so you should have used flash ont his…only my opinion 🙂

  • Thanks Gonzalo! For the printing I definitely suggest you get a corkboard and pop some images on it, in addition to printing some larger images to frame. The corkboard is a great way to have fun with printing.

  • I agree Amaryllis – Even 8×10 is a big enough size, but 4x6s and 5x7s do hide flaws in images. However, for an inspiration corkboard that you’re changing constantly and playing with images and their relationships, 5×7 and 4×6 work really well. It’s a good way to stay motivated and to play around with printing.

  • I agree with this Bob. I’m a huge fan of the 12×18 size. Big enough to see all the detail and get close to, but not too big.

  • Thanks Rusty – I definitely agree about photo classes. They are a fantastic way to learn, to experience new things, and as you mention, to make photographer friends.

  • Perhaps for some people Tim, but I actually think most people can learn to become talented at photography. For some it will take longer than others to get to this point, but it’s a skill and it can be learned.

    Practicing on film can be great to do, and everyone should try it to think through their photography, but I would actually argue with your point and say that Digital Photography has given a lot more people the chance to get involved and to improve their photography. Yes, it’s a system that makes it easier for people to share all their bad photos as they are learning, but it allows people to evaluate themselves as they are shooting and to experiment much more than they would.

    The think part needs to be focused on Tim. It think that’s the big key that teachers need to impart in students, especially in the digital age. But I don’t think digital has made people worse.

  • You can check reviews Tom and see how the prints come out. My personal favorite is a company called Digital Silver Imaging. They are great and ship! http://www.digitalsilverimaging.com/

  • These are fundamental tips George that everyone needs to learn. Number 12 means to then go in your own direction as you say, but you have to learn some technical aspects before you can really spread your wings as a photographer.

  • I would classify this as a silhouette Karlene. It’s not fully black but it’s close. I like it!

  • Thanks Dianne! Yes, I personally think that’s a big key to growing as a photographer, when you can learn to make amazing and interesting photos in seemingly ‘normal’ places. You don’t need to go on a vacation or to some beautiful vacation spot to take epic photos.

  • Tim Lowe

    I’m puzzled that you think talent is not involved in the process. If all your students turn out to be great photographers, I applaud you. All I can teach is the skill. And we all know what comes of all skill and no talent…

  • It definitely is involved in the process and some people are better at learning than others, but I think talent for photography is something that can be developed. Give me someone that’s a slower learner but will go out shooting every day over someone that’s a great learner but will not work as hard.

  • Tim Lowe

    Hard work and desire are essential. But I will send you some former desirous hard working students. You’ll hate me for it though. 😉

  • Miguel Ricardo

    Hello James! Great article, thanks for sharing information and knowledge.

  • My pleasure Miguel!

  • Roshio Dive

    I am amateur, and I want to improve my photos, This articule show me the way. Thanks James for sharing.

  • Tyrone Daroca

    Nice tips but where are the good photographs?

  • K.G.W.Abeytunge

    Nice shot, even without the couple.

  • Great article! Especially for those of us who are still learning this beautiful art. Thanks for sharing!

  • Michael Wacht

    Great advice! I’m struggling most with defining my personal style and niche

  • Lana Zhang

    Thank you very much for all the advises. I always loved photography and have been taken photos on my phones. However, I would like to start learning properly and go on professional route. So I have been searching a right path and the internet rendered me your page and I am grateful for it.

    I have a question regarding these points and hope for your advice:

    – Is it really a step-by-step sequential guide that I should follow, or many of the processes could be done parallel? I understand that the second part’s tips are definitely something that should be done parallel, however, based on your writing, it seems that I would have to master the concept of lighting before I get to work on the setting of the camera. Did I understand it wrong?

    Kindly let me know and hopefully you are still viewing the comments.

    Best regards,

    L.Z

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    Sorry James… there are other important steps before your Step #1. I am referring to what makes the difference between a good photographer and a snapper.

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