Shoot with purpose to shoot like a pro! Follow these simple steps to improve your photography skills.
For many people, taking pictures is just a fun way to share family memories and silly things on the street. For others, photography is a full time sport, or even a career. As with many sports or careers, photography requires rigorous training and regular practice to truly master.
Many experts simply tell enthusiasts to “get out there and shoot,” but that is about as helpful as a major league baseball player telling young aspiring athletes to “get out there and play.” In order to truly improve your photography, you must understand what you need to improve.
One of the most important philosophies for photographers to follow is also one of the simplest:
When you are out for a photo shoot, don’t just take photos. Challenge yourself and think about how you can take better photos!
For this philosophy, when photography is compared to a sport, self-improvement becomes much clearer.
The Photographer Athlete
By comparing a photographer to a sports athlete, we can analyze what skills we need to work on. This allows photographers to focus on one thing at a time and improve their photography.
How adept is a photographer at analyzing and understanding an environment? If a photographer steps out of the blistering desert sunlight and into spotted shade beneath a grove of wilted trees, will that photographer be able to understand the highlights, shadows, and handle the camera to take a winning exposure? How good is the photographer at setting up good composition of content in the shot? How about operating in tough environments such as a swaying ship out at sea, or even a chaotic city crowd?
The photographer’s strength comes from experience shooting in difficult or harsh environments. As the photographer’s strength increases, they will be able to handle taking photos in challenging environments, especially where there is minimal light or a dramatic range in lighting and shadows. Having a high level of strength makes shooting in less challenging environments much easier. This allows photographers to shoot a higher percentage of ‘keeper’ photos.
A weary photographer reclines after a rigorous day of shooting.
How quickly and proficiently can a photographer handle his or her camera and other equipment? If that photographer is shooting a sunset and suddenly needs to mount that camera to a tripod and adjust settings for shooting in low light, how easily can they do that? What if that photographer needs to change lenses in a harsh environment? What about setting up a series of flashguns and wireless receivers for a semi-controlled environment?
The photographer’s agility improves with experience and painstaking attention to detail. As the photographer’s agility increases, they will be able to operate efficiently and capture split seconds of winning exposures. As agility increases, there will be far less photos lost due to wasted time fiddling with settings or changing a lens.
Ducklings moving in and out of spotted shade make for difficult subjects to photograph, but offer great practice!
How accurately can a photographer adjust his or her camera equipment to take a properly focused, correctly exposed photo? Does that photographer take four or five shots before realizing they’ve got the aperture set too wide? What about making judgments about framing a shot? Does that photographer understand common photography theory, like the rule of thirds, and do they use it in the field? Out of 100 exposures, how many of those exposures can be considered ‘keepers’.
A photographer’s accuracy allows them to take an exposure that follows the rules of photography theory, and makes use of good exposure, depth-of-field, focus and framing. As the photographer’s accuracy increases with experience, their percentage of ‘keeper’ photos rises. The amount of time it takes to adjust to a shooting environment also decreases.
How to Improve Photography Skills
Talking about improving photography skills is easy enough, but without experience and time spent working in the field, no improvement will ever really happen! Here are some tips to improving a Photographer’s Strength, Agility, and Accuracy.
Shoot in Low Light Environments
All of photography revolves around light, and how it illuminates the world around us. Without light, we cannot take a photo. To truly take a great photo, a photographer must understand what light is doing in their framed scene, and how it affects the subject in the scene.
There’s no better way to understand and learn to appreciate light than to shoot in low light environments! Taking long exposures really brings out the highlights in environments and shows us what’s happening in the scene. Take night walks out into the bush or up in the mountains on a full moon night. Spend some time at the beach at night, or head into your favorite city to see the stars and the night lights.
Leave the flash at home and pack a tripod. Taking long exposures can be one of the most rewarding and creative forms of photography. Shooting in dark environments also forces the photographer to become much more intimate and proficient with their camera. The understanding of lighting gained during low light photography translates profoundly into all other forms of photography.
Spend a Day at The Zoo
Crowds of tourists, uncooperative or hyperactive animals and dramatically different shooting environments make zoos one of the best places to head to for training photography skills! Even though the zoo may seem like an unlikely place for photographers to embark on a journey of self improvement, the zoo in this case is a veritable piñata of pleasant surprises!
The object of this trip is to photograph the animals! Leave the kids at home. If you are unable to bring along like-minded photographer mates, go alone. The best time to go is on a brisk summer morning. By midday, as the air becomes hotter, the animals will spend their time hiding in the shadows, and this is no good. This will make the animals lazy and less interesting. Try to visit every enclosure to experience a wide range of shooting environments and subjects.
If there is a 200mm to 500mm barrel in your arsenal, pack that along! A monopod with a pivoting head is one of the most valuable tools on the market, and the zoo offers a great chance to gain proficiency with its use. Bring water and plenty of patience!
Don’t fear the metal fencing if it is in the way of your shots. If you are shooting with wide aperture and are shooting above the 200mm mark, you should find minimal distraction. Try to shoot where the fencing is in the shade, as opposed to in direct light, to reduce interference.
Critique Others’ Photographs
Understand what’s wrong with other people’s photos is often much more obvious and easy to do than critiquing our own photos. There are a number of magazines on the market that offer sections critiquing user-submitted photos. Often, editors will make suggestions and corrections to those photographers on how to improve those photos.
Studying theory and learning how to take a bad photograph is an invaluable skill and experience. By learning what makes a bad photo, we can start thinking about how to avoid those things. View others’ photos in magazines and on the internet. Speak aloud and point out what is wrong with those photos, as well as what you would have done differently to make a better final image.
Take others’ photos from the internet and load them into your photo-imaging software of choice. Convert that photo to black and white, then apply a heavy layer of blurring to understand which tones are shadows, highlights, and midtones. In grayscale, it is much easier to see where the faults in composition and imbalance of tonality lie.
After spending time roasting the photographs of others, turn around and grill your own photos. Invest time to increase your understanding of composition, lighting and framing by reading books, articles and tutorials. Become adept at verbally critiquing your own photos. You will be able to correct mistakes before releasing the shutter.
Attend Marches and Costumed Events
If you can make it to a major city, keep track of outdoor events. Many cities feature events such as Mardi Gras, Halloween walks, and Zombie Walks. Taking photos of participants in an event, such as a Walk for Tibetan Freedom for example, may seem awkward. Taking photos of people marching in a Zombie or Mardi Gras walk, however, is something that is socially acceptable!
Not only will photographers be forced to move quickly, but they will have to handle their photo equipment adeptly in order to get the shots they are looking for. This is the excellent opportunity to improve equipment dexterity and adaptability. Due to the subject movement, higher shutter speeds and a myriad of environments will make photographers fight for their shots.
The nature of costumed walks and marches will force photographers to be alert to a super-human degree in order to search out and lock onto subjects of interest. Keep both eyes open when shooting so you don’t end up missing something worth capturing on film.
This type of shooting environment will very quickly separate the inexperienced from the adept photographers!
Take day-long road trips and aim to build a portfolio with a common theme. Put yourself in challenging environments and really think about what kind of photo you want to take. Be an aggressive photographer! Most importantly, think before you shoot!
For more tips, techniques, and hands on time with cool camera gear, check out the upcoming The Digital Show Expo in Melbourne, VIC!
Good luck, and happy hunting!