I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what steps I’ve taken over the last 11 years to become the world’s most reknowned landscape and adventure photographer. Clearly, I’ve also been daydreaming quite a bit. Seriously though, here are a five things I’ve done that have contributed to making me a better photographer.
1) Be Studious
I’ve looked at a whole bunch of photos. Thousands of them. And I don’t just look at them. I study them. I pick them apart and try to figure out what makes one photo stupendous while another one just sucks. How many times have you seen a photo of Half Dome, Delicate Arch or the Tetons from Snake River Overlook? Of all the images you’ve seen from these iconic locations which ones stand out and why? Was it the light or some nuance of the composition? Next time you’re sitting at home with nothing to do, scoot on down to the local bookstore. Grab a few coffee table photo books by your favorite photographers, sink into one of their comfy chairs and analyze a few of your favorite photos. Do this often enough and you’ll soon find yourself making the same analyses as you compose images in the field.
2) Photograph Often
Spend as much time as you can in the field. In 2000, just over a year after getting serious about photography, I had the opportunity to spend 5 weeks on the road. In that time I learned several valuable lessons, one of which was what that mysterious “depth of field preview” button actually does when you press it. I used my camera daily and by the end of the trip I knew where every control was and what it did, and I could operate the camera intuitively. There’s no substitute for knowing your camera inside and out.
This was in the pre-digital days, i.e. film, and I lost the photo album from that trip to an ex. But I remember looking at the photos from beginning to end and being blown away by the difference in the quality of images from the beginning of the trip to the end. Photographing something every day for 5 weeks had a profound impact on my creativity. Of course I realize we can’t all jet off on a 5 week road trip. But I believe that if you make a concerted effort to get out as often as possible, you will see improvement in your photography.
3) Mix It Up
After moving from Arizona to Colorado in 2002 I made the conscious decision to focus less time on photographing the grand landscape and more time on intimate scenes. Most people, even non-photographers, can see the beauty in autumnal aspens below a snow capped peak. Hell, even snapshots of a scene like that are likely to induce “oohs” and “aahs” from casual viewers. I wanted to be able to walk into the aspen forest and walk out with a successful image of those beautiful trees, with no mountain in sight.
My first few hundred efforts at intimate landscape photography weren’t so good. Actually, they sucked. But, I took those slides (still in the film days here), put them on a light table and studied them a la my first point. Doing this, and forcing myself to look at the world around me with a narrower focus, helped me develop a more refined eye for composition. I eventually got to the point where I was creating some pretty nice intimate landscapes. In doing so, I found that my grand landscapes also improved as I spent more time crafting cohesive compositions. The key is to really focus your attention on an aspect of photography that is entirely new to you. If you’re a macro photographer, try grand landscapes. If your wide angle lens has never actually been detached from your camera put on a telephoto and practice seeing the natural world through it. Just mix it up a little bit.
4) Don’t Fear the Critique
I’ve touched on this one before but it fits with this topic as one of the pivotal moments in my photography career came after a paid critique session. Bear with me as this story is a little long.
While living in Arizona I took a trip to Flagstaff with the ex who stole (and probably burned) the aforementioned photo album. It was fall, the San Francisco Peaks were dusted in snow and the aspen leaves were bright yellow. I had just switched from print to slide film. I shot a few rolls and dropped them off at the lab which, if memory serves me, was actually named “The Lab”. The next day I headed over on my lunch break to pick up the slides.
I tore open each box and laid the slides out on the light tables that had fancy loupes attached to the counter by a wire to prevent thievery. While viewing them another photographer came in to pick up his film. He told the lab tech his name and I immediately recognized him as a frequent contributor to Arizona Highways. I was standing next to greatness! He must have seen me gawking at him instead of my slides and made a comment about the images I was ignoring on the light table. We had a short conversation, I asked him what he thought of my images and he offered a couple short critiques. He said he’d be happy to offer more in depth critiques for $50 an hour. I bit and we set up a time and place to meet. Don’t ask me who it was because I can’t remember, but I think his first name was David (no, not Muench).
This guy looked at slide after slide and gave me invaluable feedback on each one. It was an eye opener as I’d never actually had someone look at my images with a critical eye. I also learned that there are about 50 different ways to say “this sucks” in a very pleasant and constructive manner. At any rate, his critiques were solid and really helped me define what it was about an image that worked or didn’t work.
These days you can still get your work reviewed and critiqued in person, but you can also do so online in critique forums. Keep an open mind and seek critiques often. Your photography is guaranteed to improve.
5) Never Stop Learning
Anyone who believes they have reached the apex of their photography career/hobby/obsession is a sad, sad person as far as I’m concerned. No matter how much you know there is always something you don’t know.
I don’t know squat about artificial light, I can’t understand how to operate a tilt/shift lens to save my life and there are still things about Photoshop that positively mystify me. I don’t do my own printing because the whole color management/profiling/sharpening for print/selecting the right paper thing scares the BeJesus out of me. I could spend all day writing about the plethora of things I don’t know about photography but that isn’t constructive.
Read books, attend workshops, watch video tutorials, follow blogs, join photography forums and subscribe to photo magazines. Identify a technique or an aspect of photography that confuses you and vow to master it. Push yourself to learn in whatever ways are available to you. The more you expand your knowledge base the more tools you’ll have at your imaging disposal to make dynamic photographs.
There is no true roadmap to better photography but these five tips should get you pointed in the right direction. Enjoy the ride!
What has helped you become a better photographer? Share your ideas in the comments section!
If you’re looking to take a photo tour in the red rock region of Utah, check out Bret’s trips in the Moab area: http://www.moabphotoworkshops.com.