Be a Better Photog, part 1: Challenge yourself

How do you improve your photography?  Ask most experienced photogs and their advice is to read books, experiment, take a lot of photos. If you think about developing any skill, from cooking to golf to learning a new language, it always comes down to the same elements: a desire to improve, and a willingness to learn and practice.  This post, as it pertains to photography, assumes you have the former, so I’ll focus on the latter. 

With the advent of digital photography, we are no longer constrained to 36 exposures on a roll of film, and then waiting until they’re developed and printed to see the results.  We can see how and what we’ve done with every release of the shutter, and our only constraint is the size of our memory card, and our own time.  

Henri Cartier Bresson

Henri Cartier Bresson

Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004) said “Your first 10,000 photos are your worst.” And author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, discusses the 10,000 hour rule, saying that to become successful in any field, you need to practice that activity for 10,000 hours.  Clearly there’s something about that number, so the sooner you get started, the better!  Here are three ways that can get you shooting in order to develop your skills.  

Go on Assignment: Over the years, Rey and I have given ourselves countless photo assignments.  They work something like this:  First, we toss around an idea for the assignment.  Sometimes this is a 5 second discussion, sometimes it involves negotiation(!).  But once agreed upon, we set a rough time frame, such as two weeks, and agree to meet on a given date and place (usually a coffee shop in town) to share our respective results.  We often set a goal of a certain number of images to be brought to the final meeting, say 10 images, for example.  The goal, it’s important to understand, is not to show up with any 10 photos that sort of have something to do with the agreed upon subject.  The goal is to bring quality images of or pertaining to the subject, that you really put some effort into, knowing that you might have to make hundreds of images from which you’d select your final 10. 

Assignment: Lines 2005
Assignment: Lines, 2005

When we’d meet, we’d show each other our photos, generally on a laptop, and honestly critique them.  The keyword there is “honestly”.  So imagine the learning opportunity this presents: you dedicate the time and effort to make really good images of a subject, knowing you have a limited amount of time, a goal and that you’ll be sharing them with someone as equally interested in photography and in learning, as you are.  It’s all friendly and constructive, and it’s pretty motivating.

Assignment: Available Light 2007

Assignment: Available Light, 2007

Subjects for an assignment can fall into three broad categories, each challenging in a different way.  They are: 

  • Hard subjects, such as trees, blue, heavy equipment
  • Soft subjects: intensity, despair, hope
  • Techniques: depth of field, panning, available light

Given the range of subjects you can select for an assignment, it’s easy to see how you can never run out of subjects, and you can really start to develop your skills.

Take a hike!  Another great opportunity to shoot and learn occurs when you take a photo walk.  Again, Rey and I have done this many times, (most recently, last Saturday, which you can read about here).  While a walk can be combined with an assignment, oftentimes we just pick an interesting locale, such as a state park, town forest, or a downtown.  These are usually “target rich” areas.  We try to go during the golden hours (an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset to get the best light, and we follow our noses (or should I say our lenses?) towards interesting scenes and subjects, light and shadows. 

Photo walk: Arnold Arboretum, 2009

Photo walk: Arnold Arboretum, 2009

The idea of a photo walk is to bring your camera and your nose for good images, to a locale you don’t frequent everyday, and to capture what you see to the best of your ability.

Do it daily:  It may seem like a big commitment, and it is, but another terrific way to improve your photography is to commit to taking a photo a day.  Like the assignments, it’s not about taking just any photo, but making a high quality photo every day.  Some people have been doing this for years, and stay with it because of the satisfaction they derive from seeing their photography improve.  Rey and I have committed to doing this for various periods of time, such as a month, and sharing the results.  You can pick a theme (weather, low light interiors, portraits, candids, etc.) or just go with the flow.  And you can commit for a period of time (a week, month, year) or leave it open ended.

Daily photo: Palms, 2010, Canon P&S
Daily photo: Palms, 2010, Canon P&S

The ability to make a great photo everyday is greatly enhanced if you have your camera with you at all times, since you never know when, in the course of daily life, a golden opportunity will arise.  And you’d hate to miss that opportunity.  I take my Nikon dslr with me frequently but my everyday camera is a 4+ year old, 6mp Canon P&S, and with it I’ve made many quality images that I’m proud to show.  And if the Canon’s not with me, I rely on my iPhone.  While these last two are not as capable as my Nikon, they do allow me to capture a moment, where the alternative would have been to lie awake at night berating myself for missing the shot of a lifetime.

Daily photo: Seattle, 2010, iPhone
Daily photo: Seattle, 2010, iPhone

So, to wrap up…

Whether you are shooting for an assignment, taking a photo walk or making a photo a day, the process is the same, (and here’s the takeaway from this post): 

Set goals, assess results, learn, repeat.

And as you have seen, doing all of this with a buddy is advantageous for many reasons.  First, like many endeavors, it’s motivating to know that someone else is striving for the same goals you are, and is expecting you to do your best.  It’s also beneficial to receive their feedback, which is hopefully constructive and honest.   

In the next part to this series, Be a Better Photog, I’ll discuss the importance of having your work seen by others, and what you can gain by seeing theirs. 

In the meantime, get started on your 10,000 images, and keep in mind that it’s the journey, not the destination that matters.              – Posted by Ed


About Ed Spadoni "Thoughts and opinions, resources and experiences… for emerging photographers everywhere."
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9 Responses to Be a Better Photog, part 1: Challenge yourself

  1. Dianne Ward says:

    Excellent article filled with great ideas.

  2. arthill says:

    Good article. You’re lucky to have someone to do this with.

  3. Ed, you make a lot of good points in your article. Ditto Art on someone to share your work with.

    Since I started shooting a photo a day about a year and a half ago, I have seen some improvement in my shots. I would say that the improvement goes two ways, though. First, you strive to take better sooc shots. Second, when you mess up, and there are a lot of those times, you end up improving your pp skills as a side effect. Even when the shot is right, there are still many things to potentially do in pp, so again, pp skills tend to improve. It does take time, but everyone needs a hobby, and if you really like being behind the camera and/or the computer work to go along with it, it’s worth it.

  4. Carrie Conte says:

    Very interesting and informative. Lot of ideas to implement.

  5. Howard says:

    I just re-read your blog Ed and agree with everything you say, especially the daily part. With that being said, some days I’ll take many photos and other days, zero! I do try to improve my sooc efforts, but, enjoying my creative side, I agree with Maryann on PP. If I can make a photo look better, imho, and still keep it “natural” looking, I will. Thanks again, great info!

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      You’re right Howard. I just heard recently that Ansel Adams said “a photograph is never done”. And this from a man whose work preceded the digital age and Photo Shop! Ed

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