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
“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
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
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
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!
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
“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
If 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.