Have you ever had the feeling, when you’re out walking with your camera, that the photo you take today, any photo you take today will not be as good as the one you took in the same location five years ago? Are you actually regressing as a photographer? Well, then you need a better photography workout.
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I’m not the Photographer I used to be!
When we start our photographic journey, we’re thrown into a fast-running stream of new ideas and swiftly evolving technology. No lens is wide enough, and no amount of pixels is sufficient. We devour new information like fast food and try out and discard new ideas like confetti. God help anyone that actually offers sensible advice, they’re too old, boring and you know, those that can, do…we’re going to win prizes and woe betide anyone who gets in the way.
Reality though has a way of deflating all but the most deluded, and the reality is that as time ticks inexorably onward, the best photographers become more discerning about what they take on board and crucially, more objective about the worth of their own work. Some consciously decide to work on improving their attitude to photography and their relationships with other photographers. Some even devise ways of improving, and that’s where a better photography workout comes in.
There is worse to come. Whether you shoot Canon, Nikon, Fuji or Leica, you will encounter times when inspiration is dim and enthusiasm flags. At its very worst, this can become the dreaded “Photographer’s Block” where you wonder why. your current pictures are worse than your old ones!
A better photography workout aims to help you stay on course after the thrill of the new wears off so that you can be the best photographer you can be. Peak Photographer if you like.
Photography is not a Sport
Photography is not a sport, and I will explore that metaphor and explain why that particular idea is actively unhealthy. Let’s look at the sports metaphor and see why it can have the opposite of the intended effect.
I’m talking about competition. The whole point of competition is to be better than your peers. By definition, sports pits one person or team against another and winning is all that matters. A photography workout should not be about competition, photography is not about fine margins (unless we’re talking about composition) it is all about creativity.
Unlike sport, producing a picture that is marginally better than somebody else’s picture will not win you recognition or prizes. Producing a new idea will. The irony is that the most creative photographers are also the best photographers but you can bet they didn’t get there by competing with somebody else’s style.
Creativity vs. Competition
When I moved to Shropshire, I encountered fearsomely competitive photographers for the first time. A real dog-eat-dog small-town mentality. My reaction? Find something none of them were doing and concentrate on that. 360° Photography was the niche that got me noticed, and I still get requests in the west midlands for that five years later, even though I live in Spain. I soon found myself shooting Roses for David Austin Roses, Wine for Tanners Wine Merchants and Property for Air B’nB. An early professional commission involved models and make-up artists and when I asked the client how she had found me, she said “We just loved the drama in your black and white landscapes” The penny dropped. What works is creativity.
If your focus is on another photographer’s work, the best that you will achieve is to become the “other photographer”. As in “Get Fred, not that other photographer”! You should always focus on becoming a better photographer, not the best one. One way will improve your skills across multiple genres, the other will lead only to frustration and bitterness.
So let’s dive in and check out a better photography workout.
I like to divide my free time between what I call Purposeful Photography, Research and the much more relaxed, Pointless Photography. You need all three, because continuous improvement is the keystone of Purposeful photography, and that can be exhausting. Never forget the joy of discovery or why you started this most expensive of pastimes!
Improve on Your Last Photograph
The principle of continuous improvement is competing with yourself. Visit the same location and try to find a better angle or aim for the ultimate expression of that location, be it winter, spring or autumn.
Photographers that do this are motivated and focused. Purposeful photographers plan their shoots, determining where the best light will be and when.
Learn a New Technique
Switching genres or learning a new technique is a great way to improve your photography and flex your creativity. A new technique will stimulate your curiosity and show you how far you’ve come. It’s the equivalent of a painter switching hands. Checkout my ultimate guide to infrared photography for an example.
You’ll find it surprisingly difficult to switch genres smoothly and that is the key takeaway. There are no shortcuts to mastery, only slightly better ways of achieving it.
Learn about your Camera
When I taught multimedia at the University of North London, I found that the speed of technology made what was new in year one, redundant by year three. And this was a course that offered a four-year part-time degree! Most photographers I know get good at stuff that directly affects the niche they operate in, and as they acquire new kit, they end up using an ever smaller percentage of their improved kit’s capability.
Knowing what your camera is capable of is worthwhile, without necessarily becoming a slave to the industry gobbledegook that prizes pixel count above everything else. Sure you can survive without it, but technical knowledge can be incredibly useful in solving problems out in the field.
Reflect on your Keepers
When you are culling the latest shoot, there are some images that jump out even before they are processed. Why exactly is that? Take a long hard look at the photos adjacent to the one that pops. Were you working towards the best composition? Did the light change? Did the subject change? Sometimes these are subtle differences, sometimes they are huge.
One time I found myself shooting at Natural Arches Beach in California, I had a very fixed idea of the shot I wanted and failed repeatedly to capture. Eventually, the sun got too high in the sky and I gave up and started to trudge towards the car. On the way, I came across a family enjoying the beach, the sun and the sand and without thinking, dropped to my knee and shot three frames. The whole thing took maybe twenty seconds, The best of the three images remains one of my favourite pictures to this day.
The lesson learned here is that while it’s great to shoot with purpose, sometimes you set yourself up for failure by blocking out every idea that isn’t the one you woke up with. So I find it helps to leaven my purposeful photography with a dash of pointless photography.
I indulge myself with pointless photography every once in a while because it helps me to stay in touch with my creativity. No-pressure shooting often throws up ideas that can be reused in other contexts.
Take One Lens
This is a great way to familiarise yourself with your kit. Go out with just one lens and make your compositions work. Not only is this good for composition skills, but it’s great to embed the characteristics of a lens in your mind because it adds to the information that you subconsciously use in your decision-making.
I often wander the streets of Granada with a camera, without a specific goal in mind. it may turn out to be street photography; it may be architecture or cityscapes. The important thing is to free your mind. Your mojo will surely follow. The worst that can happen is a decent cup of coffee in a new cafe.
Experiment with Composition
Throw out the rulebook and try different heights and angles. Think about how to draw the viewer into the photograph. Check out How to Approach Composition. and for ideas about exercises that may prove useful in cultivating a photographic eye, How to Take Better Photographs using a Shared Visual Language.
Good Things Happen to Pointless Photographers
Decisions I’ve made while wandering pointlessly in Granada –
- Get rid of the camera strap in favour of a handgrip. (safer and more secure)
- Replace that wonky ball head (how many years have I suffered this!)
- Take less kit (watch my back)
- Get a taller tripod (watch my back)
- Try this shot with more/less foreground
- Get an old camera converted to infrared
- Buy a Drone
All of these ideas had been considered and rejected during my professional work. The interesting thing to me is that they all surfaced and were acted on when I was less focused. A little like dreaming, ideas surface in different contexts.
The best argument for pointless photography is that it creates the space for ideas to be considered and evaluated properly. Every one of the above ideas has benefitted me either in the moment or long term.
Everybody needs a better photography workout
The point I’ve tried to make here is that photography, like any other art form is a blend of technique and creativity. The proportion is different for everyone, but creativity needs to be nurtured as well as technique and a combination of ‘exercises’ seems to work better than a relentless focus on improvement. We’re not automatons and we can extinguish the creative flame if we ignore that fact. Burnout by another name.
Enjoy your next shoot, purposefully pointless!
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