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How to Use Goal Planning to Grow as a Landscape Photographer

How to grow as a landscape photographer

“I invest so much time in my landscape photography, but I can’t tell how much I’m improving or even where I’ll be in a year. I think I’m getting better, but slowly and haphazardly.”

Does that resonate with you? Does it sound slightly familiar? It’s a problem that many landscape photographers struggle with: How can you effectively grow your skills when there’s no well-worn path to follow? And if your skills are growing more slowly than you’d like, how can you see major progress in weeks or months rather than years?

In this article, I explain the importance of taking an active, intentional role in your learning. Specifically, by setting measurable goals and frequently evaluating your photos (and yourself), you can double your learning speed.

How do I know this? Because I’ve done it myself.

Several years ago, I wasn’t noticing much growth in my landscape photography. My skills were definitely increasing, but it happened slowly and I didn’t have a clear direction of how I wanted to improve in the future.

How to use goal planning to grow as a landscape photographer
Sella Towers, Dolomites, Italy

Fast forward to my recent trip to Oregon, where I made a point of applying some goal planning and introspection before, during, and after the shoot. I learned more in two weeks than I had in two years, and I brought back some of my favorite photos to date.

Maybe you’ve heard of objectives and key results (OKRs) or the value of being results-oriented from managers or personal trainers. These seem like fuzzy topics, but there’s nothing more empowering than charting your own course to improvement, as became clear on my Oregon trip.

I couldn’t be happier with the improvement I noticed while peeking at photos from just two years ago. I can see measurable improvement that directly correlates with intentional goal planning. And it’s not just the keeper shots that have improved. I shoot noticeably fewer photos, more of which end up being keepers, and it takes less editing for me to finish them up.

Want to take an active role in growing as a landscape photographer? Here’s how to do it!

1. Record clear objectives

How to use goal planning to grow as a landscape photographer
Smith Rock Bend, Oregon

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you’re a landscape photographer in the first place? Your “Why?” doesn’t have to be etched in stone, but a clear answer will guide how you invest your time and money into growing.

Here are some example objectives. “I invest time in my landscape photography because…”

  • “I want to travel.”
  • “I want to make a full-time living.”
  • “I want to capture unique locations.”
  • “I want to grow my local following.”
  • “I want to be the best at my craft.”

You probably have several objectives in mind, so the next step is to prioritize them. Which objective(s) trumps the others in the competition for your time? Objectives are critical because they help you identify conflicts of interest. Once you start formulating goals, you want to ensure they naturally support your objectives.

For example, you might be a landscape photographer because you love traveling, but your goal might be to sell prints at local art shows. These may well clash with each other, as manning a booth three days a week means less freedom to travel. In that case, you may need to adjust your goals and find another way to support your wanderlust, even if it’s unrelated to photography.

You should write your objectives out on paper, or at least on the computer, by the way; this is important because it helps clarify your thoughts and gives you accountability.

2. Set effective goals

How to use goal planning to grow as a landscape photographer
Mt Bachelor, Cascade Lakes Bend, Oregon

Setting a goal often has a disheartening tone. We’ve all made goals or resolutions that yielded no results other than self-reproach.

“Oh, I didn’t lose 10 pounds.”

“I didn’t write half as much as I wanted.”

“I didn’t read a book this month.”

But self-reproach is often a symptom of a poorly chosen goal. Effective goals aren’t about slapping yourself for missing them. They’re about deliberately deciding how you want to invest your time and resources. It’s about determining the trajectory you want to take instead of going with the fluctuations of each day.

Here are two of my personal goals:

  1. Capture and produce better photography.
  2. Expand my photography audience.

But while these goals offer a general direction, they aren’t concrete. So I like to follow them up with more specific formulations for what success looks like.

  1. Expand my portfolio with shots that have a compelling foreground, middleground, and background.
  2. Write for two new publications.

Of course, your goals probably won’t be the same as mine (though they can be!). As you write your goals, pay careful attention to your objectives, and try to pick specific, practical, measurable goals that will help you take steps toward achieving each objective.

Note that goal-setting can involve significant brainstorming and even guesswork; if your objective is to make money with your landscape photography, for instance, then you should think about various options (leading workshops? selling prints? teaching classes?) and craft your goals accordingly.

3. Apply and adapt “shoot” goals

Along with your general goals (see the previous section!), I recommend setting specific goals for each landscape photography trip. I call these “shoot” goals, and I often select them in response to notes I took in the field on a previous outing, or based on frustrations I faced in post-production.

How to use goal planning to grow as a landscape photographer
Man-O-War Bay, Dorset, England

Your “shoot” goals should be highly practical and focused on your photographic approach. You can use the same goals across several shoots, or you can make adjustments depending on your progress. Bear in mind, however, that different locations offer different landscape photography opportunities – so a goal to capture water-based long exposures may work great on the Isle of Skye but not translate well to Arches National Park.

On my last trip to Ireland and the UK, these are the goals that I set for myself (and that I reread during each shoot):

  • Create a sense of depth with fog and haze
  • Root the image with stronger foregrounds
  • Consciously identify shapes in the composition
  • Capture the energy in water and clouds with long exposures
  • Take 20% fewer photos with a higher ratio of winners
  • Shoot more verticals to emphasize height
How to use goal planning to grow as a landscape photographer
South Stack Lighthouse, Wales

Referencing these goals when I hit the field pushes me beyond my conventional shooting habits. Over the past two years, I’ve found that most of my measurable growth as an artist came from setting and intentionally applying shoot goals.

4. Break your goals into results

How to use goal planning to grow as a landscape photographer
Brunate Lago Di Como, Italy

Objectives give you direction. Goals give you outcomes. But neither tells you how to accomplish them or how much progress you’ve made towards them. That’s where results come in.

How will you accomplish your goals? You can’t – at least, you can’t accomplish them all at once. They’re too big, and they say nothing about what actions you should take. To reach your goals, they need to be broken down into small, measurable steps – i.e., results. These are small tasks you can complete in no more than a day, and that contribute toward the overall goal.

Results need to be carefully phrased so they reflect tangible outcomes. Here are some examples of poorly formulated results:

  • “Edit for one hour every day.”
  • “Spend 30 minutes writing about photography.”

These results are ineffective because they involve time. Who cares whether you spent 30 minutes editing or three hours? Instead, phrase them in terms of tangible outcomes:

  • “Finish a rough edit of three photos today.”
  • “Finish outlining my landscape photography article.”

Each of these results produces something of value – edited photos and an outlined article – and can be completed in one sitting. Plus, the faster you complete each result, the sooner you can move on to other things.

Breaking down goals into results is hard to do in any field, whether it’s productivity, photography, or software development. But failing to formulate effective results is the number one reason we fail to accomplish anything.

Don’t tackle a goal and plan as you go. Planning and execution are two different skills. And when you do them simultaneously, you ironically spend the least amount of time on the hardest part: planning. It sounds counterintuitive, but (at least for me), once I break the goal into results, executing them is usually the easiest part.

What about self-imposed deadlines? Personally, I’ve had limited success with them because time is a poor measure of progress. I sketch out a rough timeline (“by this time next year”), but I write those dates alongside my goals instead of my results. As long as my results are prioritized, deadlines are often arbitrary because I’m always working on the most valuable results.

How are you spending your time so each minute counts? Focus on results, not time.

5. Do a retrospective

The learning doesn’t end after a shoot. In fact, I learn the most by reviewing photographs from shoots that didn’t quite work out. It sounds counterintuitive, but thanks to something called survival bias, we tend to:

  • Overestimate what we can learn from successful shots
  • Underestimate what we can learn from shots that didn’t make the cut.

Consequently, we end up discarding our best source of learning material!

To beat survivorship bias, conduct a retrospective on some of your failed shots to understand why they didn’t work, and what you’ll do differently next time.

How to use goal planning to grow as a landscape photographer
Slea Head, Dingle, Ireland

None of my shots from Slea Head on Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula worked out. But later in the trip, I applied the lessons I learned about S-curve placement and busy water textures to capture this shot of Loch Garry in the Scottish Highlands:

How to use goal planning to grow as a landscape photographer
Loch Garry, Scotland

Retrospectives are incredibly effective for identifying mistakes and learning lessons that will set your next shoot up for success. And for me, they often form my shoot goals for the next trip. On this year’s trip to Oregon, my goals changed to reflect the lessons I learned from Ireland and the UK. I’ve reproduced them here:

  • Capture two stunning images per day for a total of 26 from the trip.
  • Identify the emotion of a scene, then highlight it with composition and light.
  • Spend 30% less time snapping photos and instead spend it testing compositions.
  • Shoot exclusively at dawn and twilight and spend the rest of the day trying compositions on my smartphone.
  • Use an ND filter for water without exception.
  • Identify a strong foreground, middleground, and background before snapping.
  • Don’t waste a second on angles filled with busy textures.

I would have forgotten many of these shoot goals if I hadn’t written them down and reviewed them before each shoot. But I took my shoot goals seriously, and being so intentional paid off. As I said earlier, I learned more in two weeks than I had in two years of shooting – and I produced some of my favorite work to date.

How to use goal planning to grow as a landscape photographer
Roads End, Oregon

Start intentionally growing as a landscape photographer!

While approaches to goal planning come in many flavors with various terminologies, they all aim to help individuals connect desired outcomes with strategic actions. The key to accelerated growth is to learn intentionally, not passively.

Spend a few minutes over coffee today to document why you are a landscape photographer, what you want to become, and how you will accomplish it. Whether you’re in the field, behind your computer, or in an office crunching through tangential work, goal planning will ensure you’re investing your time well and learning as much as possible from your efforts!

Now over to you:

What are your objectives, goals, and results for growing as a landscape photographer? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Jonathan Martin
Jonathan Martin

is a globetrotting digital nomad and fine art landscape photographer from Atlanta. By day he works remotely as a developer and international trainer, but at twilight, you’ll find him scaling mountains to discover non-touristy landscapes. He teaches about photography and the digital nomad lifestyle behind it on his youtube channel. Learn how to get started on the path to becoming a nomad.

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