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Becoming a Better Photographer 
by Jim McGee

Many a photographer has looked at a photo in a magazine or hanging in a gallery and thought "I wish I could take shots like that".  So how do you get that good?  

Here are some thoughts on improving your photography.  After I was done with this list I was amazed that most of these simple ideas apply whether you're a beginner or whether you've been shooting for years.

Practice - It sounds so simple but it's really true; practice will make you a better photographer.  Practice helps with all the technical details so that you don't have to think about settings.  It helps composition become second nature.  It makes for steadier images if you're handholding and it makes for better choices of lenses and filters.  

I find that on trips where I'm shooting 20 or 30 rolls over a period of a few days the later rolls usually have more keepers - especially if the day to day grind has kept me from shooting for a few days before the trip.

But I can hear some of you saying that film is expensive.  If budgets are tight there are no rules that say you have to shoot professional film every time out.  Grab a 10 pack of cheap negative film at your local discounter and drop it in the drug store developing bin for cheap processing.  The prints may not show the greatest lab work but they'll show you if you have some images that are worth scanning or printing at a quality shop.  Which leads me to...

Play with your equipment - Many of today's cameras are complex and it's easy to miss a shot because one of your settings is off or you can't remember how to get your camera into a specific mode.  By the time you figure it out the moment is gone, or worse the image you get isn't what you intended.  So pull out the camera and it's manual while you're watching TV one night and play will all the controls.  Going through the manual you may even discover that it can do things you'd forgotten all about.

Camera manuals have a well deserved reputation for being terrible,  so pick up a Magic Lantern or Hove guide for your camera and you'll discover some capabilities that you may never have found with the manual.  Some manufacturers even offer videos that show how photographers use camera features in the real world.

Looking away from the Cliffs of Moher, the 
west coast of Ireland

Patience - The downside of program mode is that it lets us pick up the camera and just start firing away.  Slow down and think about what you want to shoot.  If you're traveling don't just shoot that big monument that everybody shoots.  Stop and look around at what else is there - there may just be a better image that everyone else is missing because they're looking the wrong way. 

Or instead of just snapping the shutter at that monument, wait for the sun to break through those clouds to give you a more dramatic image.  Maybe return there at sunset or at night to see how it looks in different light.  You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Return to familiar places - Time has a way of not only changing the landscape but changing our perception as well.  If there is a picturesque spot nearby return at different times of day and during different seasons for dramatically different images.  Returning to different places gets you to think differently about what's before your lens - and that can expand your photography.

Look at lots of photos - Look at the work of other photographers every chance you get.  Just because someone is a big name, or they're hanging in a museum doesn't mean you have to like them though. 

Look closely at images you're drawn to and see if you can figure out what caught your eye about that image.  Try incorporating elements of that style into your own.  Basically you're creating a database in your head that helps you compose images quickly every time you look through the viewfinder.  This isn't cheating as some would suggest.  History's great artists and painters all built on the work of both contemporaries and those that came before.

Go to a museum - Photos aren't the only thing that you want to add to the image bank in your head.  People have commented on the fact that some of my images have an impressionistic look.  I've even used to the impressionist filter in Photoshop to create images that look like paintings.  Why do I see this way?  Probably because I've always been drawn to the impressionist style and my mental image bank finds these types of images pleasing.

Read everything you can get your hands on - just not all at once. Don't get so hung up on books that you're spending more time reading than shooting, but do read about photography.  Read magazines, read books, and get an understanding of how and why certain photographers get the images they do.  This will help your thought process and help you get the images on film that you pictured in your minds eye when you tripped the shutter.  Over time you'll do the right things because they just "feel right".

Why do you like what you like - Look for similarities in the images that you like.  What do they share in common?  An awareness of why images are pleasing to you will help you recognize those elements when you look through the viewfinder.

Take a class - Many colleges and community colleges offer night courses in photography aimed at different experience levels.  One of the best days you can spend is a day at the Nikon School.  The Nikon School tours the country, and the one day class presents information for students at all experience levels no matter what brand they shoot.  Classes are a good way to get the creative juices going.

Listen to criticism - Like a parent blind to their child's flaws it can be hard to see why an image doesn't work.  A common problem is to get too caught up in the technical aspects of creating an image so that you have a tack sharp image with perfect color and contrast that is just plain boring to look at.  Get opinions from people you respect who can point out ways to improve your images.

Ignore criticism - There is no "right" or "wrong" in an image.  There are rules of thumb to understand, and to then break as you see fit.  Some people never get the second part and will trash an image that breaks any accepted rule.  These are the folks you want to filter out.  The best criticism is the criticism that makes you think "what if?"

Learn the rules of good photography - now go out and break them - As stated above there are a lot of rules of thumb in photography.  They exist for a reason and in general will lead to better pictures.  But once you gain an understanding of why those rules work don't be afraid to break them.  Experiment then see if you like the results.

Be self critical - Look at your work with a critical eye.  Determine standards for your photos and then be hard on them to determine if they measure up, those that don't go in the almost pile.  But don't throw them away just yet. 

Don't be so self critical - You can be so self critical that the photography ceases to be fun.  "How can I make it better" vs. "How did I screw it up" is a huge difference in mind set.

Shoot what you like to shoot - If portraits are your bag, shoot portraits.  Spend time in your comfort zone shooting what you like to shoot.  If you're enjoying yourself you'll get better faster.  Most importantly don't try to be someone else, or shoot only what someone else will like.  Ultimately you are the person that has to be satisfied - unless you're a working pro - then the client is number one. 

Shoot something that makes you uncomfortable - Stepping out of your comfort zone occasionally makes you think about things that you take for granted - and you might find something else that you enjoy shooting.

Start printing your own photos - The great thing about the new scanners and printers is that they have brought the ability to print back to the amateur photographer.  It doesn't matter if you have the latest and greatest technology or the highest quality photo printer.  Get some glossy photo paper, and pull out a couple of images from your almost pile.  Take them over to the local mini lab and get them scanned to CD.  What was it about that scene that made you snap the shutter in the first place?  Experiment with cropping the image down to emphasize part of the original.  Is it a better photo now?  Does it look better with a warmer tone?  Printing causes you to look at your images in greater detail, at the good and the bad.  Learning to emphasize the good and minimize the bad in a print will help you to start doing it in the viewfinder.

Take shots even when you don't have a camera - I used to commute through the city of Philadelphia at sunrise and sunset everyday.  In the morning the sun would be at my back and illuminate the skyline before me.  Returning from the other side of the city in the evening the sun would illuminate the river and the opposite skyline.  From my elevated position on the highway I mentally composed hundreds of images, even though the high speed grid lock never allowed me to stop.  Strange as it sounds this is good practice.  It makes you think about composition, you notice the color and texture of the light, and you get to play with a familiar subject.

Give yourself an assignment - Pros will often give themselves self assignments to keep the creative juices flowing.  Sometimes they're short, and sometimes they span years.  I've been working one theme in particular for close to five years.  Self assignments are a great way to break out of ruts and rediscover the fun in photography - and isn't that what it's really all about?

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I wish I could take shots like that...





Slow down and think about what you want to shoot. 








you're creating a database in your head that helps you compose images










The new scanners & printers have brought the ability to print back to the amateur.


text and photography copyright 2001 Vivid Light Publishing