Best Way to Dramatically Improve Your Photography Skills
Hint: It's not YouTube!
Hey gang! If you’re reading this, then you’re either really bored, think I write better than J. K. Rowling (which I assure you I do not), or you want to improve your photography skills. If the last one is the case, BRAVO! You’ve come to the right place.
Improving as a photographer is not as hard as you may think. In fact, you are already doing at least one thing right – learning all you can about photography online. I wish we had things like YouTube back when I was first learning. As a matter of fact, I learned back in in the days when there was no auto exposure, no auto focus, zoom lenses sucked, potato mashers weren’t something you used in the kitchen and all the photography books were about numbers and ratios with black and white pictures that were at least two decades old.
My point is, new and young photographers today have incredible resources at their disposal, yet there is one thing that I find people consistently don’t do. And that is…practice.
Yes, practice. Now for those of you that just want to be entertained or razzle dazzled with cool photos, go ahead, click on one of these links here. I don’t want to waste your time.
If you are serious about improving, though, keep on reading, because I think I can help you out.
In my travels teaching and lecturing, I meet lots of new photographers who are struggling with lighting or posing or camera techniques. They’re spending loads of money on workshops and website memberships and new gear that they think will help them take better pictures. Yet, they’re still struggling. In fact, they’re beginning to get stressed out because either they are finding clients, but the quality of their work is not where they want it to be, or they can’t find clients who will pay them “real money” to do work. Sound like you?
The first question I ask is: when is the last time you took a picture? The overwhelming majority of the time, the person looks at me oddly and then says something like, well, last weekend, when they shot a wedding. So in other words, it’s been about six days.
Then I’ll ask: what about the time before that? And they’ll tell me about two weeks ago, when they did an engagement portrait. Finally, I’ll ask them how long they’ve been shooting, and their answer is usually less than two years.
So the net result is that this person is actually not practicing, has very little experience with a camera, and is basically hoping to find people to pay them to practice and gain experience.
When we were kids we learned the phrase practice makes perfect. That phrase has been around for ages and it is still around today and won’t go away any time soon. The reason? It’s sage advice.
The best athletes are the best, not just because of genetics, but because of a dedication to practice. The best musicians are the best, not because they were born with a talent, but because of practice. How did you learn how to ride a bike? Practice. How did you learn how to drive a car? Practice.
I promise you, the BEST photographers are the best, not because they were born with an extra creative gene in their DNA, but because of practice.
Practice makes perfect. Being a skilled photographer is the same thing as being a skilled athlete. It doesn’t just happen because you want it to.
When I was 15 years old, I got my first motor drive for my very used Nikon F camera body. I had a Nikkor 200mm lens and I 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 day after day and load a 36 exposure roll of black and white film. For those of you not around in the film days, you could buy film in 100ft long bulk rolls and then use reloadable film cartridges to load your own rolls of film.
I would walk down to the end of my street where there was a busier roadway and take a seat 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 and BEFORE even putting the roll of film in the camera. Then I’d load the film up and shoot the entire roll on the next car. Remember, there was no auto exposure, no auto focus, no 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 that 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.
Now, fast forward to two weeks ago when 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, I haven’t worked with speedlights in about 6 years. So, what did I do? For two full days prior to 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 if quality really matters to you, you practice.
So okay, enough of my lecturing… the question you should be asking now is HOW??? How do I practice? What can I do to practice? Below I’ve listed 4 habits that I have developed throughout my career that have, in my opinion, kept me in good practice.
Habit number 1: As famous photographer Minor White said, “I am always mentally photographing everything as practice.”
I can honestly say that I take pictures EVERY single day. I’m not about to try and convince you that I’m pulling my Nikon D810’s out and walking around with them all day every day – heck no. I use my iPhone 6 to shoot 27mb tiff files which will make a beautiful 11×14 print right out of the camera if I want to hang them on a wall.
Using this camera and taking photos all the time keeps me visually sharp. It is with me at all times so I never have an excuse. Plus, it empowers me to look at the world in a creative way because I can capture my visions easily and with some degree of quality.
Below are some images that I shot with my iPhone, just because they presented themselves; NOT because I had to.
Habit number 2: Simplify.
If you have watched many of my videos you have heard me say KISS IT – keep it simple stupid – many times. Do you have a new lens? A new flash? For a month or so, make all your practice shots just about that piece of gear. This will force you to be creative in your problem solving because you are potentially limiting your visual options with a lens or your lighting options with a flash.
You know when you get in your car to drive somewhere, with very little thought you put the key in the ignition or push the start button 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. Bottom line is, you are NOT trying to remember how the car works.
Working with your camera should be the same sort of thing. Don’t pick up your gear and try to remember how things work. If you don’t know your camera inside out and backwards, you’ll be dividing 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 can you do with that equipment. I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase the best camera is the one you have in your hand.
Habit number 3: Work your shot!
Yeah – this video… Watch it. In the film days, I had to mow lawns as a teenager to afford all that film. Today digital memory cards can be deleted and re-used over and over and over again. You have no excuse not to shoot from every angle with every lighting and exposure combination possible.
Look at the images taken by your favorite photographers – heck, go to Google and search the phrase iconic photographs – few if any of those photos are the result of one frame. They are the result of a photographer shooting many frames with different exposures, different camera angles, some vertical and some horizontal. Exhaust every single possibility. That effort will not only yield better photographs, but it will give you more experience.
Understand, also, that great photographs are not about exposure and lenses and lighting. Those are the tools that we use to solve problems. Great photographs come from capturing moments in a unique and interesting way. Eastman Kodak seized on that many years ago with the marketing phrase “Kodak Moment.”
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. You need to know, without the help of Google, what will happen when you use direct flash. It’s the database in your mind that reminds you that your camera’s light meter will cause you to underexpose a backlit scene, etc, etc.
You build that visual database by practicing. And then practicing some more. If you want to be among the best, you keep on practicing and never stop.
Another one of my teenage idols, who is still to this day a photographer that I admire, is named David Hume Kennerly. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of the Vietnam War and was President Gerald R. Ford’s personal White House Photographer.
As a sixteen-year-old, I got to see him photographing the President and wanted to grow up and have a career like his. I mention him, because I am friends with him today on Facebook and follow him on Instagram. He still covers politics and his bylines can be seen all over the world, but guess what… he still practices. He lives in Santa Monica, California and almost every day – except for when he is traveling – he goes for morning walks with his iPhone and posts some of the most amazing and creative images you have ever seen. Even when he is on the road, his iPhone images keep coming. He has a Pulitzer and a host of other awards – some of the highest awards any photographer can receive – and he still practices.
Last but not least:
Habit number 4: NEVER stop learning.
I don’t. I love the fact that I learn things each and every day from the comments in my videos, from my subscribers, and from the members of my Facebook group. Learning something new is like getting a new piece of gear: it’s a new tool that I have in my database to solve problems with and make great photographs.
I know for a fact that you’re already off to a great start with this habit. How? Because you’re here on my website, and probably on my YouTube channel as well, trying to learn.
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