If you’re reading this, you are an aspiring artist and photographer. You might be just starting out or somewhere on the amateur, hobbyist, professional spectrum. Whatever your personal or professional aspirations may be, you might agree that there is room for improvement in your work. The purpose of this article is to suggest five strategies leading to the improvement of your craft. While not an exhaustive list, any single strategy or strategies described below, when practiced regularly, will result in significant improvements in your picture making. You can use this list to establish your photographic goals for this year and beyond.
1. Study photography
There are formal and informal paths to get better at just about everything. Photography is an art form and craft just like many others. If you wanted to learn how to make clothing, paint, or work with wood, you would take classes and lessons to learn how to do those, right? Photography takes time to learn and a lot of effort to become really proficient. You may even decide to go to art school and work towards a Bachelor of Fine Arts or similar academic credential at an accredited college or university. There are many good options in many countries if this is the route for you.
Depending on your situation and other factors, you might take the path that I did that was to pursue a professional certificate in photography online. The online option works well for people who have families, full-time work in another career, or just not enough time, money, or interest to enroll in an undergraduate program in the arts.
Other ways to study may include subscribing to online blogs and newsletters like Digital Photography School and read the material each week. Weekly newsletters get pushed to your e-mail, and you can reap incredible benefits from the wealth of free information online.
Online subscriptions are usually free and so easy to use that every photographer should be exploiting these valuable resources.
2. Go to the show
Art and photography exhibits are everywhere all of the time. We are surrounded by opportunities to view real art and images by rising and established professionals. There is a terrific site called photographmag that hosts information about current photography exhibits and shows across the US and other countries. If you travel from time to time as many of us do, take advantage of the opportunities to see photographs in these places. Use the site above to plan your photography excursions around your travel plans, and check out what is going on. Go and see the show!
Often you can get access to new work closer to home. Purchasing photography books (rather than new camera or lens), attending local museums, and of course reading through the plethora of websites related to photography should be a regular part of your artistic and self-improvement diet. Any or all of these activities, when practiced regularly, should lead to significant improvements in your work.
Looking for and recruiting “likes” will not improve your photography. Social media should work for you rather than you working for social media (unless you are employed by Instagram). Real improvement happens when you make and share your image and then receive a proper critique on your work. What’s a proper critique? The purpose of critique in the art world in its most simple form is about two things 1) describing the work, and 2) making statements about whether or not the image works, doesn’t work, and most importantly, “why.”
Critique isn’t really about whether someone likes or does not like an image. A proper critique goes beyond the obvious and subjective statements about an image in favor of a discussion on what constitutes a photograph that works. When viewing art becomes an objective process, we all benefit and can discuss the piece using more sophisticated vocabulary. This is the purpose of critique, and the process is not only extremely beneficial to the artist, but I would also submit that critique is essential to a photographer’s growth.
Avoid asking your friends and family about your work since they will likely love almost everything that you do. Seek proper critique by accomplished and successful colleagues, or professional photographers if you have access to some. Meetup groups or local photography clubs are an excellent source for periodic critique sessions where the participants aim to provide constructive criticism and proper critique of each other’s work.
Cross train for big gain
There are many interesting genres in the field of photography, such as aerial, events, food, macro, portrait, sports, wildlife, and many more. You might be lucky enough at this point of your artistic existence to be able to say “I shoot weddings and portraits, but I don’t do macro.” Maybe you are still learning what you like and dislike. I would strongly suggest doing a Project 365 and shoot every day to learn over time what you like, dislike, and what you are good at. This helps you narrow down your genre that is the first step in developing your own style.
Somewhere along your personal journey as an artist and photographer, you should experiment. Each genre within photography has its own lessons and techniques that can benefit your work in the area of your preference. Plus, the process of shooting across multiple genres, artistic cross training so to speak, will force you out of your comfort zone. You will have the opportunity to learn new lenses, processes, and techniques. The benefits and lessons learned will benefit your work in your genre of preference. If you prefer to shoot portraits of people, shoot landscapes for a while or vice versa. Try shooting sports, wildlife, or trick photography techniques.
If you really want to mix things up, shooting film and even developing it at home yourself may be the best photography lesson you can engage in. Composing, developing, processing, and scanning images from film teach you everything about the process of making images. Plus, it’s super fun!
Shoot, process, and repeat
I’m reminded of the old adage “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
Practice, practice, practice!
It is self-evident that to improve at anything you must do it a lot. Do you shoot everyday? Do you wear a camera? Perhaps you should. If you do embark on a Project 365, you will wear a camera every day. This provides many opportunities to make images of all types. Shoot with your smartphone if you prefer, but shoot often, and learn to edit ruthlessly. Become your own best or worst critic.
Learn post-processing. Even if you are generally opposed to post-processing images, the techniques at your fingertips these days, are far beyond those of the darkroom days. Post-processing is a terrific way to see your image making through and aids you in the development of images that match your unique artistic vision.
When you think about making images, you have a sense in your mind’s eye of the finished image. Camera, film, and gear may get us close to the final image that matches our artistic vision, but post-processing may be needed to get you there. There are many applications available to us these days, although Lightroom and Photoshop are some of the best for this sort of activity.
In summary, you now have five steps to making better pictures. Each of these five strategies will lead to significant improvements in your photography. If you choose one, two, or all of these strategies, and work on them regularly, your images will improve. However, this will take some time. Start small and work at it regularly. You can only get better over time.
The light is always right.