We aren’t going to talk about cleaning your lenses (although you should), I’m not going to tell you to use a tripod (you should know that), and I’m definitely not going to tell you to compare last year’s photography to this year’s (but that’s not a bad idea). No, I’m going to suggest you get out of your comfort zone and do something new.
If you open up your Flickr, 500px, or wherever you store your thousands of kitty cat photographs you might notice that there may be a lot of similar shots. Different subjects, but a similar style perhaps? Different styles, but the same type of subjects? Most of us have done it, it sounds like this: “I only do portraits”, “I only shoot landscapes”, or “I never use a flash”.
So, in an attempt to bust out of your comfort zones I’m going to share 5 tips with you to use this summer that have helped me overcome my own creative plateaus over the years.
Interesting fact: 77% of all photographers have at least one cat photograph in their portfolio. Another interesting fact: I have no idea if that is true, but there is a 50% chance that it is.
Five tips for improving your summer photography
Tip 1 – Same Place, Different Time
It’s time to master light, your photography will improve leaps and bounds with the mastering of one specific element – timing. Mastering the light means many different things in the art of photography; mastering your manual settings, mastering the flash, or mastering your timing. All of these things impact one another but the one that I want to focus on is timing. Besides, they say timing is everything.
Knowing where the sun sets, where the sun rises, and how the light will illuminate various subjects during different times of the day will help you master your timing. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, if you know which direction you are facing when the sun is directly above you you’ll have a better idea what time of the day to photograph any interesting subjects or scenes you may find.
There are apps and websites all over the Google machine that can assist you when you are traveling to new and exotic places. There is a program you can download onto your phone, computer, watch (not yet but maybe someday) called The Photographer’s Ephemeris that allows you to input a location and figure out exactly where the sun will be at a given time. You can plot your position on top of a topographical map and determine what direction the sunlight will fall, and then plan accordingly.
*Topographical maps are helpful when planning a photography trip where mountains raise up high enough to throw large shadows on areas you may be planning to photograph. The topographical map gives you the height and depth of the contours of the landscape of your location.
Tip 2 – Be Specific, Don’t Spray And Pray
Do you need a fresh 16GB SD card every time you take a photo walk? Maybe you take 100 photographs in the hopes that one ends up being acceptable. Before you take a photograph ask yourself if it’s really that interesting. Is it throwing a unique shadow? Does the light hit it in a way that will catch viewers eyes? Will it cause viewers to ask a question (other than “Why would you photograph that?”)?
Taking a great photograph doesn’t generally happen by accident. Ansel Adams once said a great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed. How many of the thousands of photographs squirrelled away on your hard drive were taken with the type of forethought Ansel Adams described?
This summer, challenge yourself to contemplate each shot, think about whether or not the subject is interesting enough to take the time to photograph. What you will find is that if you take the time to contemplate a shot before you press the shutter you’ll have less overall shots but more “keepers”.
Tip 3 – Use A Different Focal Length
Get out of your comfort zone and force yourself to use a different focal length this summer. If you don’t have multiple lenses then use a different focal length on your zoom lens. By using a different focal length you’re forcing yourself to think before you shoot. You’re forcing yourself to compose the image in your mind before ever putting the viewfinder up to your little peepers.
Renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson used a 50mm lens almost exclusively when he wasn’t on assignment. By using the 50mm lens so frequently he was able to see, and compose, an image without putting the camera up to his eye. If you focus on a single focal length long enough you’ll learn what will be in or out of the frame without having to take the shot.
Tip 4 – Roam Free Like Buffalo. You know, before we shot them all.
Get off the beaten path. Literally, get off of the trails, paths, and otherwise marked walking areas to find hidden gems buried in hard to reach places. The summer’s dry weather creates safer hiking conditions as well as the longer days which allow you to venture further off the beaten path without worry of being eaten by wolves in the dark.
There are a couple of ways to find hidden gems around where you live, searching the internet is the easiest. Flickr is a great resource, you can search the name of your home town and once you find an interesting area you can check the photographs info for a location (assuming the photographer included it). The other way is to grab a hand held GPS (or your phone) and venture off into areas you have not explored before, like Indiana Jones minus the whip and man-purse.
Tip 5 – Photograph In Bad Weather
Bad weather can be a bummer, moods get bent and plans are spoiled. Most people pack up their gear and head home (or don’t go out at all) if the weather is anything but perfect. Take advantage of the warmer weather and plan a photo outing next time the weather looks foul.
Plan to visit places that are normally bustling with people for an opportunity to capture unique shots. When bad weather strikes you’ll have an opportunity to capture people scrambling for a dry place or reflections in puddles. Alternatively, you have an opportunity to capture photographs of places that are normally busy, void of life (think empty sidewalks in the city).
Beaches are a great place to go right before or after a storm, the ominous clouds and rolling fog create dramatic scenes. Be sure to be prepared for rain and/or strong wind, Adorama has cheap covers for your camera that will keep the water and sand from damaging your precious gear. Try not to change lenses in sandy, windy, and wet conditions, there is a good chance that you’ll end up with debris inside your camera or lens.
Summer photography offers hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities to practice photography morning, noon, and night. The weather is warmer and the days are longer, there are festivals for everything almost every weekend. If you’re having trouble coming up with something to photograph check out local towns websites for their calendar of events, there is a good chance something is going on near you.