Happy New Year! Hopefully you aren’t like me and haven’t broken your freshly made resolutions yet. Damn that leftover cake! If you have however or if you did not have any to start with , maybe I can suggest a few replacement resolutions to make for your photography in 2017. And this is by no means me claiming to know it all already as most of these resolutions are things I will strive to do myself in the months ahead.
1. Learn the basic rules
The ability to take and share pictures today is easier than it has ever been before. In recent results from photography site Flickr, nearly half of all uploads (48%) in 2016 were from mobile camera devices. Anyone who owns a phone with a camera can be a photographer. Who among us does not have a few thousand images stored on their mobile devices? And with advances in digital technology used in phones these days means that the pictures one can take with a camera are becoming better and better. But to take really good photos you have to start first by learning the basic rules of composition in photography. A quick search on google will give you thousands of articles but my advice on things to look out for will be a) filling the frame with what you wish to photograph; b) keeping horizons straight; c) watching amputations and what you cut out or keep in a frame; d) when to shoot in landscape or in portrait or other formats such as square; e) the rule of thirds (and other positioning rules) on how to position subjects in a frame and f) watching the background and keeping it simply as far as possible.
They say that rules are made to be broken, and this holds true with photography as well. But know them and apply them and you will learn to break them better. If you have been taking photos for a while you may already be using many of these basic rules and can start to see where they result in better shots. As an intermediate photographer the advice would perhaps be to take a short course to learn the rules, like I did, and shift the photography to the next level.
2. Know the capabilities and shortcomings of your camera
So yes, everyone can be a photographer, but there are limitations to what a camera can do. Even a top end DSLR, fitted with the wrong lens for the situation will struggle to get you a shot. So you have to know what you camera can and can’t do so that you know the photos you can take and those that you can’t. Most phone cameras for instance will shoot with automatic settings and perform best in good light. But if it is too bright or too dark the camera will struggle and you will end up with over- or under-exposed shots. There are two ways to get around situations like that – learn how to manipulate the camera settings and functionality such as using flash to get a better shot or resolve not to take the shot at all. And how do you learn the limitations of your camera? Read up and research, or watch Youtube videos. Or, if you have the time, go out and shoot and learn by trial and error. You may discover things that are not in the books or online that work for you – in my mind one of the best ways to learn.
3. Get to know about the work of other photographers
A great way to improve your photographic eye is to see what other photographers have done. Photography, and digital photography in particular, is relatively young and as such is still developing. But there are many photographers who are already hailed as masters or artists, particularly in specific genres. If for instance you wish to get better at landscapes, the first photographer I would suggest you look at is Ansel Adams. Everybody knows Ansel Adams and in particular his striking black and white landscape photography of the Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Street photography and Steve McCurry, the creator of the iconic Afghan Girl. Portrait photography and the name of Annie Leibovitz is top of mind.
Many contemporary photographers can be found on photography sites such as 500px or indeed Flickr or Instagram. There are many people still creating photos that push the boundaries of what can be achieved so these are excellent platforms to see what can be done and what you can strive to do.
How many photos did you take last week? Or last month. In 2016 as a whole. I think my tally was over 40 000. Which is an astonishing number but not surprising if I think about it as i can easily take 500 photos on a 2 hour game drive. Now I am not saying that all 40 000 photos are great. But, like Wayne Gretzky once said you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take. My photography advice would be the same. Take as many photos as you can. Get out there and shoot. Because it will teach you to see things different, to find the photograph. And in time it will also teach you to get better because trust me there is no greater motivation than sorting through 500 photos and finding only 20 that you can use. And even then, the 480 photos that you discard each teach you something you can do different the next time if you look closely enough.
It has been long asserted that humans are creatures of habit. If you do something with enough repetitions it will become second nature. The way to that in photography is to get out and shoot and treat each shooting as an opportunity to become more proficient at something you have recently learned or to try something new and different.
5. Research and learning
I think two of the previous points already touch on it but a lot of what goes into photography is background (almost theoretical) work that then supplements the practical act of taking photos.
I spend a large portion of time researching camera equipment that I either already own or wish to own soon. I use a Canon DSLR so the most time is spent on comparing lenses that would be possible acquisition targets. What other people are using when they shoot and what setting they use when taking certain shots (such as star photography). But I also look at equipment put out by other brand manufacturers – Nikon being the biggest rival to Canon but also the increasingly competitive offerings from other systems such as the mirrorless cameras currently on the market. I also spend a lot of time looking at second hand pricing on equipment as I buy a lot of my camera equipment second hand and it is a good way to save a few Rands every now and again.
Another aspect I try to learn new things about is editing to get the most out of the photos that I do take. Youtube again is the go to site and there is a tutorial on almost everything you need to do from editing the milky way to swapping peoples faces in family portraits. A lot of the techniques I learn I also then transfer to my own work flow in editing even if the photo is not the subject of the tutorial. Learning new editing techniques can also change the way you shoot in the field, allowing you to take a shot differently knowing that you will be able to apply a post processing technique to get an end result that would not be possible straight out of the camera. I only started editing in all seriousness late in 2015 so I had a lot to learn and a long way to catch up. After 2 year of doing it I think I have even further to go still.
The best way to take the photos in the magazines of the far of and exotic destinations is to actually visit those exotic destinations and take the shots. But to do that you will have to do additional research as a photographer than if you were just travelling. First you have to learn what you will see in the place you will visit, then where you will see all of it. Finding things like the London Eye may be easy enough but often the little gems are hidden and take research to find. Then look at whats been done, what photos have been take, at what time they were taken and how the photographers created their own impression of something millions of other people have seen. Often it could lead to the discouragement of saying that the shot has already been done so why take another photo. I however believe that until you do it you cannot count it as having been done. And who knows what you will see that somebody else may not have seen.
Once you know what photos you want to take and can take you can pack the camera equipment that you will need. Travelling forces you to pack light, thereby stretching the abilities of your equipment as far as you can with as little as you can carry. Hopefully the research you do can inform decisions such as the need for a longer lens or perhaps a tripod (which is a mission to carry around if you do). Hopefully you can also tell the story of why the particular photo is significant and learn some history or random facts in the process. And when you go back, the photographs are sometimes the best way to share your experiences with other people, so travelling will in time inspire better photography skills.
7. Find adjacent interest
Getting more serious about photography means that you will need to spend more time taking photos. Developing adjacent interests therefore means that some of that time is spent on things that you love outside photography. My love for nature, animals and birding means that I spend a lot of time outdoors doing my photography, which is an absolute bonus. And if you take photos of the things you love, you will start to find that the passion shines through in the end result.
The other thing I have found is that adjacent interests often lead back to photography and the need to take good pictures. Stories of foodies whose natural love of food lead to developing food photography skills. Or fashion lovers doing model shoots or animal lovers developing the skills to beautifully capture their best friends. Photography can lead you to other pursuits and other pursuits may well lead you into photography. So broaden your horizons and dip your toes into new and different waters every so often.
8. Step out of your comfort zone
I have seen and admire many photographers who are masters of a specific aspect of photography, portraits, landscapes or maybe animal photography but then seldom venture out of what they are good at. Why mess with a winning formula right? I am not great at any particular genre so I am more willing to dabble in many different areas, doing landscape, animals and even some birds. My advice is that while you may have a tendency and proficiency in a specific aspect of photography, every now and again venture out of that comfort zone. Shoot portraits where you are required to interact with other people and get their comments if you are comfortable shooting wildlife or pick up a wider lens every now and again and take some landscape pictures if you don’t normally do that. My own focus in 2017 is probably going to be to learn how to do better product photographs and take more people pictures. Hopefully I will be able to post the results in a follow up post soon!
9. Join a photography club
Photography clubs have unfortunately become a bit archaic or at least are dominated by older folk here in South Africa. I joined my club in 2014 and have found great benefit in the bi-monthly meetings where you submit your 5 or 6 images that will be critiqued by an independent judge. Because a lot of the judges have many years and in some instances decades of photography experience the criticism received is constructive and is sometimes just the push you need to step up another gear in your photography. The evening also allow you the opportunity to see the work of often more experienced photographers and allows the opportunity to share learning and develop technical skills that you would sometimes may not be able to develop by reading or watching YouTube videos. This interaction makes things more personal, your club members are real people you can use as role models and still have access to. I would liken it to a Monday night kick about with a national league player.
You have to develop a thicker skin quite quickly though and accept the critique that you do get, which can sometimes be difficult. The photos that you sometimes love are the ones often judged the hardest and there is often merit in run of the mill images you would not look at after the evening is over. If you prepare yourself to learn you should be ok though and soon find yourself looking forward to hearing what the judges have to say.
10. Teach and share
There’s an old adage that says if you want to learn yourself you must know your subject well enough to teach it to somebody else. I found that this is often the case for me with understanding of what I am doing only fully coming to me once I try to explain it to someone else. So resolve to teach someone something that you have learned. In exchange perhaps ask that they teach you something that they do well as well. I find that technical details comes more naturally to me. The how of getting something done is often easier for me. Once I know the what that is. And for many photographers it is the what that comes naturally. They have the eye. So that is often the exchange I make, technical know how for a different point of view.
Sharing what you have learnt doesn’t always have to be through one on one teaching. I have quickly put down some of the tips and tricks I have learned in this blog. But Instagram and other social media platforms are also great for sharing quick tips and tricks and how tos. And if you have questions, the best is to ask as many other photographers are as willing to share their knowledge with anyone willing to learn.
11. Learn how to make a good cup of tea…
This last one may seem like an odd one out. However one of the biggest things I have learned in the last year in particular is that you need patience as a photographer, especially with wildlife and bird photography but often with landscapes as well. I have spent many an hour in the bird hide waiting for something to happen or for a bird to show up. I have woken up early to chase the sunrise and stayed up late to catch the stars shining brightest. And many of those occasions called for a good cup of tea or coffee. And biscuits if you can get them. Making that cup of tea is an art form in itself. Do it right and you will learn to do the little things with great attention. A skill that will serve you well in photography and any other pursuit…
I wish you all the best in your endeavors in 2017. May it be filled with lots of passion, whatever it is that may be for and may you make giant strides towards all your goals!