3 Bad Habits You Need to Break to Improve Your Photography

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Teaching our photography workshops over the years, my wife and I have come to recognize there are three things many people do habitually which do not help the advancement of their photography experience. Here are three bad habits for you to break in order to improve your photography.

Man who works making gold leaf in Mandalay, Myanmar - 3 Bad Habits to Break to Improve Your Photography

1. Don’t always stand when you take photos

Most beginner photographers do this. They stand at their full height to take a photo. It’s very natural to stand upright and take photos, but it is incredibly limiting. Sure, you see the world from a standing position most of the time, but it’s not always, (or even often,) the most interesting point of view from which to photograph something.

Climbing up on a chair or lying down on the ground will often give you a far more interesting perspective. Getting low or getting up high will afford you a different view of your subject which may be far more interesting because it is not how your subject is typically seen.

Parents and young daughter working in a field in Myanmar - 3 Bad Habits to Break to Improve Your Photography

Squat down to make eye contact with your smaller subjects.

Look around you for opportunities

I am always looking around for opportunities to get above my subject to make photographs. But you don’t have to go to extremes. Just squatting down or even bending your waist slightly and you will see your subject differently than when you’re standing upright – as will the viewers of your images (that is the key to standing out from the pack).

Snacks on a blue table in Myanmar. - 3 Bad Habits to Break to Improve Your Photography

Getting up higher, above your subject can create a more interesting photo.

Think about it each time you go to make a new photo. Consider getting lower or higher up than your subject. If you can, make a series of photos at each position and compare them all later on your computer. If you do this, pretty soon it will become a new habit.

men sitting having breakfast in a market in Myanmar - 3 Bad Habits to Break to Improve Your Photography

A lower perspective and using the man’s arm in the foreground created this interesting portrait.

2. Research and understand your subject

Starting to photograph something new and not knowing anything much about your subject is limiting. If you don’t have some understanding of what you are creating photos of they will be more likely to look like anyone else’s photos of the same subject. Getting to know and understand your subject, even a little, before you take any photos will help improve your photography.

I am often surprised when we begin a day photography workshop here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, how little our customers know about the location. We don’t spend a lot of time teaching about the history or the economy. But some essentials about culture and way of life are so beneficial to help people have some understanding of what they are photographing.

For example, knowing that it’s okay to politely photograph monks, knowing a few phrases in the local language, knowing which direction the traffic moves on the road, etc. These are all simple things that can help you have a richer photography experience if you know about them in advance.

Young novice monks in a morning market in Mandalay, Myanmar - 3 Bad Habits to Break to Improve Your Photography

Monks in a morning market in Myanmar.

Connect with people

Getting to know a person before you photograph them will help you relate to one another and certainly alter the type of images you will make compared to having no communication with them beforehand. Photographing someone you already know is often easier, unless they are adverse to having their picture taken. But when you meet a stranger and want to photograph them it’s often best to connect with them first, even on some level (a smile can work too).

Happy market vendor in Mandaly, Myanmar. - 3 Bad Habits to Break to Improve Your Photography

It does not often take much to encourage a smile.

A smile and saying “Hello”, (preferably in their language) are the best icebreakers most of the time. Often when I am photographing in the streets or markets I will just smile, say hello, and nod at my camera. If the person smiles back I go ahead and make a few pictures. I will then show them the back of my camera so they can see their photos. If I get a favorable response I will turn the camera around and continue to make some more photos.

When I find a person who enjoys the interaction and the experience I will spend more time. This relationship is valuable. Taking the time to relate to and get to know your subject even a little, will help you to make more creative photographs of them because they will be more relaxed and happy that you are showing an interest in them.

A quick internet search on anything you are want to photograph will provide you with more reading than you’re willing to do in a single sitting. You don’t have to go overboard with it, but do spend some time finding the essential information about your chosen subject so you are more informed and more interested in the location and/or person.

blue yellow and green painted boat on the water. 3 Bad Habits to Break to Improve Your Photography

3. Use Manual Mode

Learning to use Manual Mode consistently when you are photographing will help your photography more than anything. Having your camera set to any of the Automatic or semi-automatic modes means your camera is in control of the exposure.

Photography is so much about light. The word “photography” literally means drawing with light. If you have no light you cannot make a photograph. The more you can appreciate and understand light, the better you can learn to control the exposure settings on your camera, and the more you will develop as a photographer.

Worker in a field in Myanmar - 3 Bad Habits to Break to Improve Your Photography

Learn to master your camera

I know there are a lot of hard-core photographers who prefer using auto modes, but it’s really not that difficult to learn to master your camera in Manual Mode and gain the maximum amount of control and creativity with your exposures.

Your camera is incredibly intelligent and capable of making even exposures in many situations. But your camera is not creative. You are!

Kayan long neck woman cooking outdoors in Myanmar - 3 Bad Habits to Break to Improve Your Photography

Taking the time to study a little about how cameras function to capture an image will help you to control your camera more precisely. It doesn’t matter that much which camera you study as they have not essentially changed how they make an exposure since they were first invented.

Practicing in Manual Mode, (and not cutting corners and slipping back into an auto mode,) will help you build your confidence and speed every time you come to make photographs.

Kayan long neck woman in a house in Myanmar - 3 Bad Habits to Break to Improve Your Photography

Conclusion

Stepping out of your comfort zones and breaking some (bad) habits will help you to develop your style and you will come to enjoy your photography experience more and more.

Move around, look for alternative locations to make your photos. Learn about your subject. The more interested you are and the more knowledge you have will enhance your experience and you will therefore also produce more interesting photographs. Take the time and practice in Manual Mode. You may be frustrated at first because it is more difficult, but the results you will achieve will be well worth your effort.

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Kevin Landwer-Johan is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and filmmaker. He began his career in newspaper photography in the late 1980s and has freelanced, covering many different genres of photography ever since. Kevin is offering DPS readers a generous discount on his popular online courses “Master Your Camera - Master Your Creativity” and "Lightroom Digital Workflow." Click Here to enroll. Learn more about the photography workshops Kevin and his wife run in Thailand.

  • Roland Haegeman

    Interessante uitleg

  • Robsshots

    Excellent. A few basic “modifications” to old habits and suddenly, photography results take a giant leap forward. Thank you!!

  • TByte

    “Having your camera set to any of the Automatic or semi-automatic modes means your camera is in control of the exposure.”
    No, it doesn’t.
    There’s this thing called Exposure Compensation. It’s usually a button. Look it up in your manual.

  • Neil Robertson

    I quite agree. Let the camera make its determination then adjust relative to what the camera says. If you shoot in manual mode, you’re still going to set exposure based on what the camera meters unless you’re using an external light meter. In full automatic mode it’s trivial to adjust the relative shutter speed/aperture ratio and as TByte says, use Exposure Compensation to adjust relative to what the camera thinks.

    The advantage over manual, of course, is that you don’t have to adjust camera settings when a cloud covers the sun (or any other condition that causes the light to change).

  • Cheryl Adams

    It’s great to understand manual mode and very useful if you have plenty of time and preferably a tripod taking a photo of a static object or in unusual lighting conditions. I find shutter and aperture priority modes far more useful for capturing moving (or potentially moving objects such as grandkids) and for shooting creatively. Today’s cameras are pretty darn smart.

  • TByte

    Yep. People get quite silly regarding “Manual Mode”.
    Hey, you’re not a real photographer unless you use manual mode on a pinhole camera and develop your own plates, right?

  • ShowHarmony

    “Don’t always stand when you take photos”

    Good suggestion, but most new cameras have flip up screens, so you can still stand more-or-less upright and change the level of your picture. Works fine, so just think about your composition.

  • Kevin Lj

    When we teach our workshops I never push people into using manual mode, but most people we teach are open to trying and find they improve their photography because they are taking a little more time. I figure that if you’re making the extra step of using exposure compensation you may as well be using manual mode anyway 🙂

  • Sagar Kalasa

    Thanks for the amazing tips Sir, I wish you had given before and after examples of photos for beginners to understand better.

  • Michael Barnes

    i first started with a small compact camera and i found it i could fit it into all sorts of nooks and cranys! I realised that photography can be so much interesting in different positions.

  • Crunch Hardtack

    At the first workshop I ever took, we were taught to shoot in manual mode. It was a landscape workshop held in Moab with Moose Peterson. I’m so thankful Moose taught us this way, as it showed us how shutter speed and aperture affect file outcomes and each other. Later, after learning to master manual, it was much easier to wrap one’s head around the different priority modes and how they can be used to best effect.

    It’s kind of like first learning to drive with a stick: you learn to feel the nuances of your vehicle and learn better control. When jumping in to an automatic, these lessons go with you, and driving one is a piece of cake.

  • Marc Thibault

    manuel mode is good for inside for portrait ex with tripod we have time to adjust…but outside i prefer semi auto- P..A,S…depend the subject..

  • Jmalcodray

    Clean, simple and great advice, thank you Kevin. This is affirmation that i’m on the right track. One additional tip when meeting people and taking photos – if the connection is strong, i often show them the photo I took and if they like it, I offer to send them a copy via email if they give me their address. Great way to make a human connection and then when i send the photo (when I’m done traveling and maybe post edits), they’re surprised and thrilled to see the pic. Thanks again for the article.

  • Purza

    How many times have people tried to take a spontaneous picture only to find their aperture priority mode decided not too and the moment is missed?

  • Neville Baker

    using speed or manual photography is governed by circumstances. We use P Mode and its accessories (av or tv) for necessary speed, i.e. birds, butterflies, animals, sport, country you live in, etc., where there is no time for box-camera tactics. Manual works fine for grave stones, but not for 98 per cent of what you do. In S.Africa you wouldn’t dare stand around too long with a camera in your hand. People get stabbed for 50 cents. Use manual when obviously required, otherwise best use speed. Cameras today are made to work this way, so do so.

  • Roy Ladds

    Why can’t I see the images in thi

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