Photography Advice

10 Best Tips to Dramatically Improve Your Photography Skills

Hint: It's not YouTube!

Improving as a photographer is much easier than you may think. But it will take practice. Yes, practice.

Photography has been my world since the age of 11. (1971). From the beginning, I was fortunate to find a few excellent mentors who taught me the value of practice. Those early lessons have become a foundation that I have built a career on and won many awards with and it is still in use today. 

It is important to understand that watching YouTube videos, attending workshops, paying for coaches or website memberships, or buying new gear will not improve your photography; they will just waste your time and put you into debt if you don’t have a solid practice routine.

While new gear may enhance your capabilities, it is the skillful use of equipment, honed through practice, that truly makes a difference.

Be sure to read to the end. I will explain more about why reading is better than watching (even if you think you are a visual learner) and share practical examples of how I have used practice throughout my career.

“You Need to Practice” Is Hollow Advice

When we were kids, we learned that practice makes perfect. That phrase has existed for ages and won’t go away anytime soon. The reason? It’s sage advice.

While seemingly straightforward, the advice to “practice” in photography can feel hollow or vague without context or actionable steps. Effective practice is about repetition and mindful, deliberate engagement with your craft. 

Photographers can learn a lot from musicians about the value of practice, but drawing parallels might seem obscure at first glance. 

Both disciplines require a blend of technical skill and creative expression, and both benefit immensely from dedicated, thoughtful practice. 

📸 Did you know?
Ansel Adams, renowned for his breathtaking landscapes, often explored the great outdoors without his camera, believing that observing and experiencing the environment directly would enhance his understanding and appreciation of the scene, thereby improving his photography when he did return with his equipment.

Key Lessons Photographers Can Take From Musicians

Have you ever listened to someone learning to play a new instrument? If you have, you know that it is not a pleasant experience. A new musician must practice to play music that is enjoyable to listen to. The lessons they learn through practice are directly related to the lessons we must learn as photographers.

Mastery of Tools: Musicians spend countless hours practicing scales, chords, and techniques until their instruments become extensions of their bodies. Similarly, photographers must become intimately familiar with their cameras and equipment, understanding every setting, button, and feature. 

This level of familiarity allows photographers to react instinctively in the moment, focusing on creativity rather than mechanics.

Understanding the Fundamentals: Just as musicians must understand the theory behind music—such as harmony, rhythm, and melody—photographers need a solid grasp of the fundamentals of their craft. This includes composition, lighting, exposure, and color theory. 

These principles serve as tools that allow photographers to be much more consistent with their work and improve their creative abilities, much like musicians improvising a jazz solo.

The Importance of Routine Practice: Musicians often adhere to a strict practice schedule, dedicating specific times of the day to hone their skills. This disciplined approach to practice can also benefit photographers. 

Setting aside regular intervals for shooting, experimenting with new techniques, or even reviewing and critiquing past work can lead to steady improvement and growth.

Feedback and Performance: Musicians learn and grow by performing in front of audiences and receiving feedback from teachers, mentors, or the audience. 

Photographers, too, can benefit from sharing their work with a broader community and learning from mentors’ perspectives. This feedback loop is crucial for identifying areas for improvement and gaining new insights.

Experimentation and Improvisation: A significant part of a musician’s practice involves experimenting with different sounds, styles, and compositions. Photographers can emulate this willingness to explore and take creative risks. 

Experimenting with different photography genres, lighting setups, or post-processing techniques can produce unique and powerful imagery.

Patience and Persistence: Learning an instrument is a long-term commitment that requires patience and persistence, qualities that are equally important in photography. 

Developing a unique style and voice as a photographer takes time. It results from ongoing practice, learning from failures, and persistently pursuing your vision.

The Joy of the Process: Above all, musicians understand that practice is not just a means to an end but a rewarding process in itself. The joy of playing music, exploring new pieces, and mastering challenging compositions is akin to the satisfaction photographers find in capturing a compelling image, mastering a new technique, or seeing the world in a new light.

Incorporating these lessons from musicians into your photography practice can lead to a deeper engagement with your craft, fostering both technical proficiency and creative growth. 

Just as musicians practice with intention and purpose, photographers should approach their practice with a focus on continual learning and exploration.

📸 Did you know?
Alfred Stieglitz, a pioneer of modern photography, would spend hours observing the interplay of light and shadow in his gallery, practicing the art of seeing. He believed that truly understanding light was essential to creating compelling photographs, a principle that remains fundamental in photography education today.

10 Best Tips to Improve Your PRACTICE Skills

Let’s break down how you can transform the seemingly simple advice “to practice” into a powerful tool for growth and improvement as a photographer.

1. Define Your Goals

Start by setting clear, achievable goals for what you want to improve or learn in your photography. 

These could include mastering a specific technique, understanding a type of lighting, or becoming proficient in a genre. Goals give your practice direction and purpose.

2. Structured Practice Sessions

Randomly taking photos without focus can lead to stagnation. Structure your practice sessions around specific themes or techniques.  Psychologist Anders Ericsson coined the phrase “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is not just about repetition but about practicing with the specific goal of improving performance.

For example, dedicate a session to working with natural light at different times of the day or focus on capturing motion with varying shutter speeds without pressuring yourself to create a portfolio-worthy image.

Structured practice leads to measurable improvement in targeted areas.

3. Experimentation

Part of your practice should involve experimentation. Try new settings, angles, and compositions. Use your camera’s manual mode to understand how changing one setting affects the overall image. 

Experimentation fosters creativity and can lead to unexpected breakthroughs.

4. Review and Reflect

After each session, review your images critically. Ask yourself what worked, what didn’t, and why. Reflection helps you internalize what you’ve learned and recognize areas that need more attention. 

Don’t be afraid to put the camera down for the purpose of reflecting on your experiences. Consider keeping a journal of your observations and progress.

5. Seek Feedback

Share your work with others and seek valuable feedback. Valuable feedback comes from mentors who have taken a sincere interest in you and your work, not from people online in Facebook groups. Engaging in photography communities, either online or in person, can be a helpful learning tool to gather knowledge from like-minded individuals. Still, it is rarely the best way to find valuable feedback.

Feedback from mentors can provide insights you might overlook. 

Understand that there is more bad feedback than good, often labeled as Constructive Criticism. 

I encourage you to read this article: STOP Asking for Constructive Criticism on Your Photography

6. Learn Continuously

Practice is not just about taking photos; it’s also about expanding your knowledge. Read books and study the work of published and iconic photographers. 

Learning the theory behind the practice can provide new ideas and inspiration.

7. Challenge Yourself

Set yourself challenges or projects. Choose challenges that require one or two sessions or projects focused on a specific theme or subject that may take a week or two.

I am not a big fan of 365-day photo challenges. Like New Year’s resolutions, they tend to end in failure.

Do you have a new lens or a new flash? Make all your practice shots just about that piece of gear for a month or so. This will force you to be creative in problem-solving because you can limit your visual options with a lens or lighting options with a flash.

When you get in your car to drive somewhere, you put the key in the ignition or push the start button with little thought, and you begin driving. At this point, you are not thinking about how to drive. You’re just driving. You are probably paying attention to other traffic, concentrating on the directions, or even singing the words to your favorite song on the radio. The bottom line is that you are NOT trying to remember how the car works.

Working with your camera should be the same. Don’t pick up your gear, and try to remember how things work. If you don’t know your camera inside-out and backward, you’ll divide your attention between your subject and your gear when you shoot. That’s how you miss things and make mistakes.

It’s also worth noting that the guy with the newest or most equipment is not necessarily the best photographer. In fact, it’s usually the complete opposite. It’s all about what you can do with that equipment. I’m sure you have heard the phrase the best camera is the one you have in your hand.

Challenges can keep your practice focused and exciting.

8. Mindful Observation

Practice doesn’t always require a camera in hand. As Minor White said, “I am always mentally photographing everything as practice.”

Spend time observing your surroundings, visualizing how you would capture them. Think about composition, light, and subjects. 

Ansel Adams would walk the national parks with a notebook, a pencil, a #9 Yellow Wratten filter, and a cardboard cut-out to replicate the field of view of his favorite lenses. He would take notes about locations and lighting at different times of day and different times throughout the year.

Adams left his cameras at home because they were large and cumbersome and got in the way of his ability to “see” and create the image in his “mind’s eye.”

Mindful observation can sharpen your photographic eye even when you’re not shooting.

9. Repeat with Purpose

Repetition is key to mastering any skill, but it should be purposeful repetition. Revisit techniques or concepts you find challenging until you feel confident. 

Each repetition should be an opportunity to improve or refine your approach.

10. Enjoy the Process

Remember to enjoy the journey! Photography is a form of expression and a way to see the world through new eyes. Embrace the learning process, celebrate successes, and learn from mistakes.

By approaching practice with intention, focus, and a willingness to learn, you’ll find that it becomes much more than just taking photos. It becomes a pathway to mastering your craft, developing your unique voice, and expressing your creative vision.

Examples of the Benefits of Practice From My Career

I learned the basics of photography back in the days when there was no auto exposure, no autofocus, zoom lenses sucked, potato mashers weren’t something you used in the kitchen, and all of the photography books were about numbers and ratios with black-and-white pictures that were at least two decades old.

When I was 15, I got my first motor drive for my very used Nikon F camera body. I had a Nikkor 200mm lens and desperately wanted to learn how to take great sports photographs, like one of my early idols, Sports Illustrated Photographer Neil Leifer.

I would come home from school daily and load a 36-exposure roll of black-and-white film. For those not around in the film days, you could buy film in 100-foot-long bulk rolls and then use reloadable film cartridges to load your own rolls.

I would walk down to the end of my street, where there was a busier roadway, and sit on the curb. I would practice follow-focus as cars came up the road. My task was to keep the front passenger bumper in focus as the car approached and then passed me.

I would do this for about 15 minutes BEFORE even putting the roll of film in the camera. Then, I’d load a roll of film and shoot the entire roll on the next car. Remember, there was no auto exposure, autofocus, or zoom lens. I just had a 35mm Nikon F with a motor drive that sounded like a machine gun and a 200mm lens.

I would then run home to my darkroom, which my Dad had helped me build in the basement, and develop the roll of film. I never printed these photos, but I did go frame by frame with a magnifying loupe to see how many were in tack-sharp focus, and I kept a chart on my darkroom wall so that I could track my progress. Yeah, I know—total geek.

But it all paid off. When I was 18, I won my first of several awards for newspaper sports photography.

A few years ago, I shot a fashion layout for a local designer. I used the shoot as a backdrop to film an upcoming YouTube tutorial about speedlights. The fact is, though, that I hadn’t worked with speedlights in about ten years. 

So, what did I do? For two days before the shoot, I tested and shot a mannequin with speedlights to be sure I was ready for whatever obstacles I encountered during the fashion shoot.

If you are passionate about your work and quality matters to you, you practice.

Build a Visual Database

Life is all about experiences. We learn from each and every one of those experiences. And where do we store all that learning? In a database in our minds. 

Photographers have to build a visual database without the help of Google or YouTube. It’s the database in your mind that reminds you that your camera’s light meter will cause you to underexpose a backlit scene, how to modify a light to soften shadows, etc.

You build that visual database by practicing. And then practice some more. To be among the best, keep practicing and never stop.

One of My Idols

David Hume Kennerly was President Gerald R. Ford’s personal White House Photographer. At 23, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of the Vietnam War.

I mention him because he still covers politics, and his bylines can be seen worldwide, but he still practices. He lives in Santa Monica, California, and almost every day – except when traveling – he goes for morning walks with his iPhone and posts some of the most unique and creative images you have ever seen. 

Even when he is on the road, his iPhone images keep coming. He has a Pulitzer and many other awards – some of the highest any photographer can receive – yet he still practices.

📸 Did you know?
Vivian Maier, a nanny whose prolific photography was discovered posthumously, practiced her craft in obscurity, capturing thousands of street scenes and portraits. Her story is a testament to the idea that the act of practicing photography can be a deeply personal journey, independent of recognition or acclaim.

The Last Frame

Photographers today have incredible resources at their disposal. If you are still reading this article, CONGRATULATIONS! You are already taking a significant step to improve your photography.

You are reading instead of watching a video on YouTube. 

Now, don’t label me a Boomer and click away, PLEASE read on. Besides, I’m not a Boomer; I am Gen X – so don’t mess with me. ;-)

Science has taught us that being a visual learner is a preference, not a fact. The fact is that we retain more information by reading.

It is also a fact that adults are experiential learners, meaning that you need to actually “do it” to “learn it.”

In my travels teaching and lecturing, I have met many photographers with a lot of knowledge about photography stored in their heads, yet they still struggle to make great images.

The primary reason for their struggles is that they don’t practice. They tend to only pick up their cameras when they photograph something significant or, worse yet, when they are getting paid for it.

The net result is that this person is not practicing, needs more experience, and hopes to find people to pay them to practice and gain experience.

Photography is not just about the end result but also about the journey, and the moments of unexpected beauty and insight encountered along the way can be powerful motivators.

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

Have more questions about improving your photography? Would you like to continue the conversation? Join my TOGKnowledge Photographic Community, where you will find photographers from over 30 countries passionate about learning and sharing their photography as they develop their craft. It is FREE to join and participate!

Curious about the gear I use?

Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
Back to top button