Getting outside your comfort zone is good for your photography. The single, biggest factor that has helped me to improve my photography was becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. This has been across all areas of photographic work, from weddings, corporate through to my absolute passion, travel photography.
Let me explain. From the very beginning I had the same concerns as many beginners in photography, where do I even start? I had built-up an imaginary wall about how I would understand the theory and mechanics of the photographic process as well as being creative in how I approached my photo work. All questions that only served to stop me from getting out there and experimenting so that I could learn by doing and implementing the theory I had poured over so many times.
The moment I let go of concern over the results I would achieve, and more importantly, what other people thought of my images, was the moment I felt free to experiment and make mistakes. That’s where the real learning happens, as I soon discovered.
Play the long game plan
I also realized early on, that becoming proficient in photography is a long game plan. It doesn’t happen overnight. It also requires effort and focus to be able to approach each challenge with a willingness to keep trying until understanding and outcome produce results that meet expectation. After my first year of taking photos, I had improved, and that improving continues to this day. Why? Because I continue to push myself outside of my comfort zone to improve as an image maker.
There is nothing better on the road to discovery and learning than feeling like you have a good understanding of what you are doing while enjoying the breakthroughs of understanding. And ultimately, capturing the images you set out to. However, it is important to remember that staying comfortable in what you are doing and how you are doing it, will reduce your growth and further understanding of different types of photography or more specifically, different approaches.
A few years ago this theory was clarified for me while I was working in Antarctica. We were fortunate to have two National Geographic Photographers on the ship with us who were generous enough to do a couple of presentations during days at sea. One point, in particular, helped me to understand in a different way, what I had already been doing since the early days of my image making. And the beauty is, you can apply this approach to most scenarios, be it landscape, travel, wedding, portrait, or commercial photography.
The 80/20 rule
Devote 80% of your image making time to getting the images you set out to do. Play it safe to a certain degree to be sure you come home with your planned shots. Then for the remaining 20% of the time, throw caution to the wind and experiment with no expectation of any outcome. If you think about this approach, 20% of your image making time adds up to quite a bit. Pushing yourself with the 20% will not necessarily lead you to capture amazing new images every time, but it will allow you to have little discoveries along the way that can add up to thinking of new ways or approaches for the future.
Experimenting with shutter speed, white balance, aperture, ISO, focal length, and movement are all options that can result in new ways of doing and seeing things. Ultimately, this will help you to understand the best approach to a given scenario with controlled, positive results.
The list of possibilities is endless. But without regard for the outcome, you are left with a more innocent, concern-free approach to getting creative and pushing the limits of your knowledge and current space of understanding.
Side benefits of learning outside your comfort zone
The side benefits of further learning of my chosen craft, even if they seem unrelated, have also helped with my ability to shoot under pressure. In regards to my travel photography, I have attributed my ability to get solid images under challenging circumstance with limited time, to having shot and assisted on a lot of weddings. For me, weddings have proven to be the ultimate space for growth with my image making ability, and it is easy to see why.
When shooting weddings you have no control over weather, lighting, time of day, or the environment you are shooting in. You have the responsibility of capturing images in often very challenging environments. It also means you are shooting a lot, with purpose, which I’ve always been a big advocate of for helping improve your photography.
Now I’m not suggesting to go out and shoot a few weddings just to help improve your photography in other areas. Photographing weddings is something you have to want to do. You especially have to respect the responsibility that comes with taking on such a big day in people’s lives. You have no second chance and have to be at the top of your game to consistently get it right. Over time, though, assisting or working as a second shooter for an established wedding professional would be a good way to test the waters to see if this is an area of photography you would like to pursue.
Some practical exercises
You can, of course, replicate these same scenarios without the time pressure or expectation of outcome only a client can have.
An option would be to visit and photograph the interiors of some local churches to gain an understanding of what it means to shoot in low light. Then slowly walk from the inside of the church to the outside (assuming this is during daylight hours) and adjust your exposure to achieve correctly exposed images over what will be a massive change in light levels. This is an extreme example but there will absolutely be situations in the future where the learnings gained from this type of exercise will be put to good use.
Another great exercise is to visit a city (which could be yours) and set up your camera just before sunset when there is still plenty of light. Then slowly take images of the same scene over the next two hours as the sun sets and the lights come on in the city. The best option for this exercise is to have your camera on a tripod so the scene remains the same and you are able to get a solid idea of how the changing light conditions affect your results.
This exercise not only helps you to understand the process of changing exposure on your camera but gives you a solid idea of the mix between natural and man-made light during the change over from night to day.
Visit your local beach maybe an hour and a half before sunset and take images during the changing light conditions. You will see a number of things during this experiment as there are big changes in lighting and color. You will have a greater understanding of what you need to do to continue making correctly exposed images based on the changing lighting conditions which would be different to the city example I gave earlier. Look closely at the changing color and corresponding white balance and the effect it has on your images.
To take this a step further, take your kids or some friends down to the beach and use them to experiment with taking portraits at this time of day.
Getting off Automatic
If you are currently using your camera on an automatic setting, you can start to experiment with a more manual approach to your image making. Let’s assume for a moment, you are using automatic settings for everything on your camera, aperture, ISO, and shutter speed.
Play with aperture
One option would be to experiment with Aperture Priority (setting your camera so you take control of the aperture). You can experiment and start to see what different effects you will have in your images by using specific apertures. Set up an object, focus on it and then cycle through all of the different apertures to see what happens. This is a fantastic exercise to apply to portraiture so you have a better understanding of what results you will achieve based on your chosen aperture.
Play with focal length
Changing focal lengths on a fixed subject is also a great exercise to help develop your learning. The portraits below are perfect examples of a fixed subject with fixed camera settings. The only change was moving backward while zooming in (going to a longer focal length) the subject. The difference between the resulting images is clear.
Play with shutter speed
The same can be done with shutter speed. A popular subject for longer exposures is waterfalls, allowing you to blur the water to achieve a misty look. Keep in mind, a tripod is essential for this type of image. When you have time, find a local waterfall or flowing stream (preferably on an overcast day). Set up your camera on a tripod and cycle through the shutter speeds to see the differing results you will achieve based on long and short exposures and the effect it has on the water.
Practice, practice, practice
The above exercises may seem a little boring, but it is only through continued practice that you will understand with confidence, what you need to do to achieve the images you want. Over time, and through experience, it becomes an instinctive response to what is in front of you based on knowing, or having an idea of what result you are after.
There are many benefits to exploring locations in your area. You are able to revisit them on a number of occasions during different weather, times of day, and different seasons. You can really test yourself and build your understanding and experience in dealing with these differing light and brightness scenarios.
The other area where you may have limited time and no control over the variables earlier mentioned is travel photography. Often when traveling, these limitations will leave you feeling a level of pressure to get the image. It is the practice, understanding, and development you implement before you go traveling that will help you capture images with confidence, even when the time of day and lighting are not at their best.
For example, if you’re traveling to Africa to photograph wildlife, you’ll be using long lenses a lot more than if you are doing a church tour of Italy where wide lenses would often be the order of the day. The important thing here is to push yourself and get out there as much as possible to replicate, as best you can, the type of shooting you will be doing in order to build that skill set before you travel.
Challenges of travel
Travel also often leaves you tired due to the realities of what you need to do to get to your location or full days trying to see and experience as much as possible. Try to be as healthy and fit before you go in order to maximize all the photo opportunities traveling can bring. There is nothing worse than coming home feeling like you have missed opportunities due to needing to rest or not using your time efficiently.
Successful travel photographers are always well-researched and prepared to go as much as possible. The know that they need to maximize their time in order to come home with a full body of work that will help justify all that goes into a travel gig. This usually means starting before sunrise and working through to night time to capture specific locations in all their various forms.
This has been the case for me on many occasions. When working in Antarctica and South Georgia, we had a lot of exploring time in the zodiacs (small inflatable boats). On one particular occasion, we were advised of a one hour cruise which turned into 3.5 hours due to the many photo opportunities we had. It was a cold day and snowed the entire time. That added to the challenge of shooting, often with a long lens from a moving craft amongst 10 other people also working hard to get the shot in the confines of a small boat. Once we were all loaded safely back on board, almost all participants went inside immediately, either for a warm shower or warm drink, and rightly so, it was very cold.
Another photographer and I stayed outside the ship to see if there were any other photo opportunities that presented themselves before we pulled anchor and continued on our way. The images above were just a few that made the effort completely worthwhile. We pushed ourselves and were rewarded with many great images which no one else captured. We were only outside for a further 30 minutes, however, the response from fellow passengers upon seeing our images confirmed we had made the right decision to continue pushing on and taking advantage of the conditions in front of us. This has been a consistent factor with all of my photography based trips over the years.
When you travel, you are surrounded by so many photographic opportunities. Remember to take full advantage of these and everything that travel offers. Of course the most important thing is to enjoy yourself, however, if images are a top priority, be sure to take advantage of the time you have and be out and about as much as possible.
It is also worth researching other photographers to see what they have done in the same locations you are planning to visit. Look at what you like and don’t like, then try and photograph the same scene in a way not yet done by others.
Growth in photography, as with most things, comes from pushing yourself to improve, going beyond your comfort zone and identifying areas you can experiment with and learn from.