Happy New Year Everyone! Every year I vow to become a better photographer. Last year I set some pretty lofty New Year’s resolutions for myself. This year I have very different plans that involve a little bit of travel — watch for an exciting announcement coming very soon ;) In the meantime, here are a few photography and life resolutions that I hope will help you on your quest to becoming a great photographer!
1. I will learn how to use my gear.
This is a resolution that everyone should commit to. If you don’t know how to use your gear, you will never get constant photos. Anyone can capture a happy accident on Auto, but a good photographer knows how take well-exposed, composed shots in any lighting situation. Moments happen so quickly that if you can’t react almost instantaneously, you’ll always be a few seconds behind that perfect shot.
If you are a beginner, I recommend reading your camera manual cover to cover. It’s tedious, but knowing the button to switch on live view or how to change your picture quality settings to RAW is important. Every time you get a new piece of gear, it’s wise to read the manual. I recently got a new flash and didn’t read the manual before doing a shoot. “How different could it be from my last flash,” I foolishly thought. Apparently, it was different enough that it made me delay a shoot for 30 minutes while I figured out how to detach my new flash from my camera. Fail.
2. I will practice my technical skills.
Once you’ve mastered how to use your camera, then it’s all about practising using it. Most of us start shooting without any previous knowledge about photography. Taking snap shots of your family vacation is very different from shooting a fashion shoot. I’ve taken photos since I was about 5 years old, but I didn’t become aware of composition and lighting until about 4 years ago when I got my first dSLR. I initially shunned spending time learning photographic technique, thinking that my natural ability would just carry me through until I magically learnt technical skills.
I was fine shooting random landscapes and some “casual” portrait sessions, but when I was hired to shoot someone’s wedding with rented gear I’d never used I was way out of my depth. I mistakenly thought that if I rented tons of professional gear, I’d just get great shots by pressing the shutter button. How very, very wrong I was. Firstly, I didn’t know how to use the gear and secondly, I had no clue how to deal with the extreme lighting conditions of shooting a wedding, like direct sun, dark banquet halls, and fluorescent change rooms. At the time, I didn’t even know how to identify different light.
While you can learn a lot about how to take great shots by doing, there is no substitute for knowing the actual technical skills necessary to take consistent shots. I’m not saying you have to know the math behind different f-stops, but you should know what an f-number is and that f/2 gives you a shallower depth of field than f/8 and when you should use one versus the other. All of this information is available online. It’s just a few Google searches away.
3. I will take more pictures.
I take about 200 photos a day on average. These days, I spend most of my time shooting with my iPhone. Regardless of what I’m doing or how busy I am I take photos. I’ll take photos of my wait in the Starbucks line, or my morning bagel, or my feet at a dentist appointment. I annoy my friends and family taking pictures of them everyday. While these photos are a documentary of my daily life, I’d say that about 99% of these shots would be considered rubbish to the outside artistic world. But, the other 1% are actually considered good photos that people might want to buy and stick on their wall.
The simple fact that I take so many photos, gives me way better odds that one of my photos will be great. The one thing I notice most about beginner photographers is how few photos they take. I would say the ratio of crap to good shots is about 30:1. We live in a digital age, where data is cheap, so there is no limit on how many shots you can take. Fill up your memory card, take 20 shots of a single piece of grass making sure the focus is tack sharp and the exposure is perfect.
4. I will not be limited by the gear I own.
Any camera can take a great picture. You can shoot a magazine cover with an iPhone or an award winning photo on a $10 plastic point and shoot. Never feel inferior to other photographers because they are sporting a $10,000 lens. When I first started shooting professionally, I shot with an entry-level Canon Rebel and one lens. Early on, I was invited to cover a nature photography workshop in Jackson Hole. Everyone had a giant luggage bag full of the very best gear money could buy, and I was there with my tiny Rebel and a $19 tripod. The other photographers joked about my crappy tripod and the fact that I was shooting a dramatic landscape with a 50mm lens. “You really can’t get nature shots without spending a bajillion dollars on this camera and this lens and this Gitzo carbon fibre tripod. Feel how light it is!”
I felt horrible. I confided about how I felt to Steve Simon, a legendary documentary photographer and one of the mentors at the workshop without a ton of gear. During the workshop, Steve toted around his Nikon and one lens in a small canvas shoulder bag. He didn’t shoot the landscapes, but instead focused on the people taking the photos. He was interested in the faces and the moments, rather than the landscape that had been shot a million times by Ansel Adams. Steve taught me that you don’t have to be limited by your gear, but rather shift your focus to what your gear is best at capturing. If you really need that $2500 70-200mm IS L lens, you can always rent it for $30.
5. I will learn to edit my photos and critique my own photos.
I get a lot of emails from people asking me to critique their photos. I’m always happy to help guide new photographers in the right direction, but ultimately it’s up to you to learn how to critique your own photos. Photography is art and the judgement of art is relative. I prefer photographs that are “pretty” with bright colours, beautiful models, sunsets, magic hour light, and bokeh. If you presented me with a photo of a gorgeous model on a beach with warm glowing light and a pile of stunning bokeh, I’d totally fave it. But that is just me and what I like. Some people think my style of photography is trite and unrealistic, preferring raw, gritty black and white images of street scenes.
Almost anyone can tell you whether a photograph is composed and exposed well, but does it capture a meaningful moment, does it say something about the world, does it present a new concept or change the way I feel someone feels about a subject? It’s up to you to decide what your answers and and present them in your own personal photographic style.
Once you’ve decided on a style, don’t let anyone shake your vision. People will inevitably disagree with your style, say mean things about your photos, and tell you how your photos would be much better if you did things their way. I get feedback like this almost daily. Almost every photographer I know, even the amazing, Trey Ratcliff of Stuck in Customs does. Unless someone I really respect gives me meaningful criticism, I ignore the noise.
6. I will not give up on a potentially great shot
Sometimes a great shot is snapped in seconds, other times it takes 4 long hours of freezing your butt off. I can relate to feeling tired, cold, sore, and frustrated as a photographer, but if there is anything I have learnt over the years, it’s never walk away from a potentially great shot. Odds are that if you just wait longer or try harder, you will get the shot, especially if you have right conditions for a great shot like billowing clouds, magic light, or a gorgeous subject.
Never say, “I’ll just come back tomorrow” or “I’ll get that shot later”. You never will. Persevere through your sore neck, cold feet, and frustration and get that shot now, especially if you are traveling. I have never regretted staying an extra two hours to get a magical shots. I have always painfully regretted not stopping to get a shot, but I never regret staying to the bitter end of a glorious sunset to get a perfect shot.
Now I just shoot until I can’t shoot anymore. I stop the car and jump out and shoot when I see a rainbow. Always think, “this is my only opportunity to get this shot,” so make sure I nail it before I leave.
Whether you are taking your very first photo in 2012 or your 50,000th, I encourage everyone to keep taking photos and sharing them. Adventure out into the world more this year and don’t stop believing in yourself and your photography. Quick, grab your camera – there are amazing photos out there just waiting to be captured!