First off, I’m not a professional photographer. During the day, I work with computers, databases, software, and websites. I don’t enjoy it, but it pays the bills and allows me to get cool camera lenses from time to time.
I’ve been shooting photos for almost 40 years. For a long time, my photos never changed that much. They never really improved over the years.
Recently though, my pictures have gotten better. A lot better. I sat here this morning wondering why that is. And, lucky for you, I figured it out which I’ll now share.
I traced my photography improvement to three significant things I did:
1. Always Do a Camera Check Before Each Angle/Lens/Environment Change
This is a big one. I recently shot Dragon Con 2018 with two Fujifilm X-T2 camera bodies. About 1/4 of those photos were unusable. Why? Because I had the ISO set too high in some of the shots. I was shooting in manual mode inside the dark hotels with the ISO set at, say, 5000. Then, when I walked outside in the sunshine to shoot street photography, I kept shooting without lowering down the ISO to 200. One quarter of my photos came out looking white and washed out. Ugh.
Another mistake: not increasing the lens aperture from f2.0 to 5 or 8 or even 11 as I switched from taking a still, single portraits of a cosplayer to a large group shot in the lobby of, say, the Hyatt where Black Panther cosplayers were standing around at all distances and angles. For my lack of checking the settings, I got what I deserved: out of focus shots on people.
Check your camera settings. Check them every single time. Every single time you switch angles, lighting, subject, and environment. It just takes a second and you can save yourself a lot of missed images. I generally check in this order:
- Shutter Speed. Even with lens stabilization, or heck, even if you are on a tripod, the action you are shooting often moves fast. I rarely lowered mine below 125/sec.
- ISO. Cameras are getting better at this. But if you go outside during the bright daylight then for heaven sakes make sure you have it between 200 and 800. The lower the ISO, the better.
- Aperture. This obviously depends on the kind of lens you have, but I generally tend to go wide open as possible. Again though, checking my setting after each shot often quickly reminds me to close it down a bit if the scene changes.
Sometimes in the rush of street photos or crowds, camera settings get knocked around. Your wheel gets moved into bracket mode instead of burst mode. This happened a lot of times to me. I’d go to take the shot of a cosplayer, and the camera would be stuck in panorama mode or whatever.
Check. Every single time.
2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
I tend to shoot nature and landscapes. This means lots of filters, tripods, and long exposures, as well as worrying about the perfect light.
So it was a total mind f–k to be in the Dragon Con 2018 parade shooting the cosplayers in the street. Or in the city at night when everyone is out cosplaying in the hotels and bars.
Shooting people is a whole lot different than shooting landscapes. You learn new skills, you learn new tips/tricks to save time, and you feel more confident when do get some great shots. And what you learn by getting out of your comfort zone, you can take back into your normal area of photography.
For me, I found that I actually prefer shooting people as opposed to landscapes. I had no idea that I’d enjoy it so much. I find it more fun, dynamic, and unpredictable – particularly with cosplayers.
At the end of the day, I still love and shoot landscapes/nature. However, I now have new appreciation and a whole new universe has opened up for me to improve my photography craft. Try it. If you aren’t into sports, go shoot a baseball game. If you feel weird around crowds of people, head to city center and take a photo walk. If you are a model/portrait shooter, then put on a backpack and head up to the mountains for a day or so.
Get out of your comfort zone. Shoot something you normally would never shoot.
3. Ditch Facebook
As in, completely. Don’t suspend the account, but actually delete it.
I know some of you may be recoiling at this thought. But hear me out just for the next few paragraphs.
I could write an entire blog post on how eliminating Facebook has made a huge improvement in all areas of my life. But in keeping this both short and photography-focused, here are the main reasons:
- You will have a lot more time for photography. The average person between age 18–32 checks their smartphone over 150 times per day. Most of that is Facebook. There are only 1,440 minutes in a day. Those times when you “check in” add up over the weeks/months/years. Think of all the sentences you typed on your phone in Facebook post. Heck, most people could have written a published novel by now. And sadly, all too often some amazing bloggers/writers/photographers have stopped updating their own sites and have instead become very ordinary, mediocre Facebook posters. Focus your time on your photography. I did, and instead of sharing the fact that I checked into an airport, I used that recovered time to:
- Start a photo blog.
- Shoot thousands more photos. And hundreds more really good photos.
- Write articles (like, ahem, this one).
- Learn new camera techniques.
- Connect with photographers in real life. To be clear, I’m not talking about ditching all social media; just Facebook. In fact, social media such as Meetup, etc. can be very helpful because they are more meant to coordinate a get-together in real life – and are much more doable and effective. But Facebook is just too big of a time-suck to be useful anymore. Signal-to-noise ratio is terrible with Facebook.
- You won’t be taking photos just for the sake of ‘LIKES’. Another major improvement in your photography will be that you get back to basics: the art/craft of the photos themselves. Sure, I could shoot a photo of a bunch of clouds with sunbeam shining through it – then post it in, say, a Facebook religious group and get a shit-ton of LIKES. But is it really a good photo? Am I growing the craft and improving my photography? Am I experimenting learning from mistakes? Am I growing? Or, am I focused on numbers, likes, “engagement”, etc. I guarantee you that Ansel Adams would not be on Twitter. He’d be out in Yosemite improving his craft – and perhaps his assistant would maintain those social media accounts for him – which are low-priority tasks that anyone can do. He would focus instead on his photography.
- Instagram. This is a tough one since it’s so photo-focused. It used to be awesome back in 2012, but Instagram has gotten much worse since Facebook took it over. Yes, it still can lead to opportunities, such as allowing you to selectively follow other photographers, etc. I see it being useful as a promotional tool to direct people back to their own photography website to showcase their work. To put it a simpler way: #OwnYourOwnContent
Bottom line: social media can be a useful supplemental tool to both enhance your photography, connect with other people, and get important feedback. However, checking Facebook constantly significantly erodes your time and creativity. Try ditching Facebook at the very least, since it has the most noise and the least actual real life value. If you don’t have one, get yourself a photo blog/site. Share your stuff and own it! You won’t just be amazed or surprised. You will be absolutely blown away. I promise.
So there you have it.
(actually, that sentence sounded so cliche, but sorry because I have to get to work now -- and wasn't sure how to end this post!).
I hope these tips are useful to you. Even if you only did 2 out of 3 tips above you’ll see a big improvement in your photos.
Good luck and let me know if it does improve – and share your pics with me! Just not on Facebook cause you won't find me there. :-)