Every photographer seeks to improve along their journey. For most, they hope that this improvement is closer to what can only be described as instant gratification. Although improvement paths are unique to the individual, some are of the opinion that a new camera body, a new lens, or a new piece of software will result in this immediate improvement. At a recent gallery opening, I overheard someone say, “I really want to improve my photography but I can’t afford the 5D Mark III.”
Yet, this is not a rehash of my “The Wand Does Make The Magic” article. Rather, this article focuses on the need to shift perceptions when considering your improvement pathway.
When I get asked how someone can improve their photography, my answer is very simple… I tell them to focus on learning how to better use your existing photographic tools. Let me explain.
My answer is based on two prerequisites: 1) You accept the notion of pre-visualizing a shot and 2) You accept the fact that the photographic tools you have at your disposal have more features and functionality than you are currently using.
Gear, software, computers, classes, workshops, or reading this article alone will not improve your photography. How could it?
Each one of the aforementioned items, however, represents a tool (or set of tools) a photographer has available to them. For me, I use my photographic tools to solve problems. When I look at a scene, I begin to evaluate what I am trying to achieve in making this photograph? I evaluate the things I can control (framing, composition, aperture, shutter speed, focal length, along with what I plan to do with this image in post). My decisions are based on my knowledge of how to use the tools I have in my photographer’s toolbox.
I may use a tripod and a cable release to overcome the problem of shake associated with a long exposure. I may throw a bubble level in my hot shoe to overcome the problem of an unleveled horizon. I may use Content Aware Fill in Photoshop to remove a person who was standing in my shot. And so on…
Becoming intimately familiar with the tools in your toolbox will result in the immediate improvement so many photographers are looking for. Increased familarity yields more options at your disposal when you are solving a problem.
Like most art, there is a lot of science that goes into photography. But the art of photography is revealed in the photographer’s ability to problem solve, both in the field and the digital darkroom.
This is not to suggest that you should never buy a new lens or a new camera, or upgrade your version of Photoshop, or attend a workshop. I encourage you to do all of this. But engaging in any of these activities should be done only when you can answer this question, What problem will the new lens, camera, software, or workshop help me solve? And how long will it take me to learn how to use it?
Adding new tools to your toolbox will require you to ramp up on learning how to use the new tool. This will not happen overnight.
The first step in solving any problem is identifying you have one. The second step is then coming up with a plan to solve the problem. In photography, you solve problems with the tools in your toolbox. How you solve those problems is what separates a photographer from someone who simply looks through the viewfinder and presses the shutter button. In the problem solving is where artists are formed.
Learn what capabilities you have at your disposal. Read manuals. Then re-read them. Then attend workshops and so on. This approach will results in more options for you to solve your own problems as they arise and turn your pictures into art.
Ok enough reading, go out there and chase the light.
Ted is a Colorado based nature and wildlife photographer (he dabbles in sports photography from time to time too). Besides writing on photography, he is the author of the UX for #togs (User Experience for Photographers) series. Be sure to check out his website and follow him on Twitter.