For many photographers, late December is the time of year that is spent looking back at the year in photos, choosing the best, and deciding how to proceed with your craft in the weeks and months ahead. Reviewing your photos is an important step in evaluating yourself as a photographer, and it can give you valuable insight into who you are as a photographer, and who you may potentially want to be. I personally have given a lot of thought to how I want to focus my efforts once the calendar turns to January 1st. So, with my list of goals already prepared, I thought now would be as good of a time as ever to throw out a few possible New Year’s Resolutions that are meant to improve your photography in 2017.
So, About Those Resolutions…
Before we dig into the list, I think the elephant in the room should be addressed. Every year on January 1st, millions of people wake up with a spring in their step and a new goal in mind that they want to achieve. Personally, I know that last January 1st I decided that the single best way I could improve my life was to stop hitting the snooze button and, when my alarm goes off in the morning, start my day without hesitation. I had spent too many mornings half-asleep in bed, surfing my phone and wasting minutes or hours I could be putting towards something useful and fulfilling. So, with that goal in mind, I began 2016 with the intention of hearing my alarm clock, jumping out of bed, and facing the day with a new-found discipline and motivation.
That resolution lasted a total of 4 days.
Goal setting is a tricky business. Most of us who have tried to set one in the past have probably learned the same lesson I did. Whether that new-found motivation fizzles in 4 days or 40 days, many people lose sight of their goals before they reach them. When setting a goal or a resolution, the first step is to make sure it’s something you actually want to do. After that, find a way to remind yourself of those goals so that they are hard to ignore. Read them every morning, remind yourself why you want to achieve them, and break those goals down into smaller, reachable checkpoints so you can see the progress along the way.
For my New Year's resolutions, I’ve been looking at the areas that I think may be limiting my growth in photography, as well as deciding which goals will be the best use of my time. I have a list of goals I want to reach by halfway through the year, and by the end of the year, which smaller progress checkpoints broken down month by month. That list is going above my alarm clock, and every time I wake up in the morning, that list of goals is the first thing I’ll read before going about my day.
Oh, yeah, and I won’t hit the snooze button. With that said, on to the good stuff…
1) Identify Your Weaknesses and Focus Extra Time on Improving Them
The single easiest way to start improving your photography is to admit to yourself what you aren’t good at. Through posting photos on social media or sharing photography with friends and family, we tend to put our images into a positive feedback loop that may not always be as honest as it could be. It’s rare that I get an unsolicited piece of constructive criticism on something like Instagram, but on the occasions it does occur I value it infinitely more than any of the empty “Nice shot” or series of emojis that tend to be more common in the comments.
If you think you can be honest and critical about your work, sit down and look through your images from the past year. Compare them to how you would like your images to look and figure out what is preventing them from getting there. However, as important as it is to be able to constructively criticize your own work, seek out the opinions of others, both experienced photographers and non-photographers, to help pinpoint things that you may not see on your own. This would be a great reason to look into a portfolio review, which is a very effective way to get a lot of valuable advice from professionals in a small about of time.
Once you have identified the area where you think you have the most room to improve, make it a focus to have that facet of your photography go from a weakness to a strength. For me, I tend to stumble around Photoshop without spending any focused time learning all of the many tools and functions in the program I could take advantage of. So, in early 2017, educating myself in Photoshop is going to be the way I choose to bring my post-processing and, as a result, my photos to the next level.
2) Speed Up Your Workflow
Sometimes the ability to improve your photography is simply a factor of available time. With so many different ways to eat up the hours in the day, taking a few back for yourself to spend on improving your photography can be extremely valuable. Productivity and efficiency is something I feel like I personally struggle with. Between a full-time day job, commuting, eating, sleeping, and other mundane adult tasks, the hours I get to spend on photography are always more sparse than I would like them to be (honestly, to the people who have children, I don’t know how you ever find time to take a photo…).
If available time is always a limiting factor, maximizing the hours that you do have is an obvious goal for your photography in 2017. Find ways to speed up your workflow, whether it be using presets in Lightroom to give yourself a head start on editing, or recording actions in Photoshop for the tasks you tend to do over and over in your editing process. If the behind the scenes business obligations that come with making money on your photography become a burden, consider looking into getting an assistant to take care of the tasks that prevent you from spending more time taking photos. I’m the type of person that tries to save money by doing everything myself. However, at some point it’s important to learn that spending a little money for your sanity, or spending money to give yourself an opportunity to make money back some other way, can be a worthwhile investment.
3) Become a Master of Artificial Light
For those who are already masters of artificial lighting, you can move right along to the next resolution. I admire you, commend you, and all that good stuff. For those like me who pride themselves on capturing photos with natural light, getting the hang of artificial lighting can fill a huge gap in our knowledge and open up doors for new photographic opportunities.
Learning lighting and off-camera flash are high on my list of resolutions for this year for a number of reasons. First, it will allow me to learn a new skill so that I can start diving into a new discipline like portrait photography. Second, it will shake up my workflow and add new tools to my photography arsenal, meaning that when I return to landscape photography I may have fresh pieces of knowledge to use in ways that I had not thought of before. Third, mastering artificial lighting will help give me tools to create income opportunities from several areas if I decide I want to grow my photography business. And lastly, it will help boost my creativity by allowing me to make my own lighting conditions instead of just working with what nature throws at me.
4) Learn a New Type of Photography
Ever since picking up a camera I have been a pure landscape photographer. However, the tunnel vision that comes with sticking with one focused type of photography can sometimes get photographers in a creative rut, preventing them from learning new skills and trying new things. For those that have felt a bit too formulaic in their photographic approach in the past year, choosing to try out a new photographic discipline may be a good way to get out of that rut.
If you are used to shooting wide angle landscapes, try your hand at macro photography and start noticing the little things. If still life photography has always been your bread and butter, go point that camera at a fast-moving athlete or animal. If you are used to the fast-paced, stressful world of wedding photography, go sit quietly on a mountain at sunrise, relax, and wait for the morning light to (maybe, hopefully) give you a beautiful scene to work with. Trying out these new disciplines at the very least will make you more well-rounded as a photographer. Potentially even more important is that you may discover a new style of capturing photos that sparks your creativity or gives you new opportunities as a photographer.
5) Invest In Education Instead of Gear
With so much free information at our fingertips on the internet, it is becoming more and more rare for photographers to invest money in formal education, especially when shiny new pieces gear are calling to us. However, the amount of times spending money on gear truly improves the photos we take is far outweighed by the amount of times education will.
If you have some money to spare, challenge yourself to participate in a photography workshop or attend a conference instead of buying a new lens. I bought a new camera body (a Nikon D750), a new wide angle lens (a Tamron 15-30mm), and a new tripod (the Feisol CT-3442) last year. I can confidently say that none of those things improved my photography, they only made the photos I wanted slightly easier to capture. Don’t get me wrong, I love the gear and I’m happy I bought it, but if I had limited money to spend and wanted to try to figure out the best place to spend it to get the most noticeable positive effect on my photography, I would put that money into education without hesitation.
There are no shortages of places to spend your money when trying to improve your photos. This resolution may be a good one to focus on after identifying what your weaknesses are and where you want to improve in 2017. Once you know where you want to improve, participate in a workshop, join a community like Improve Photography Plus, sign up to attend a conference, or enroll in a class at a local college. The possibilities are endless.
6) Shoot with Other Photographers
Personally, I often tend to be a bit of a loner when it comes to taking photos. Photography is my time to escape, and time behind the camera is solitary relaxation. However, shooting with other photographers can also have great potential benefits. We all see the world a bit differently. So, heading out to shoot with a fellow photographer who has a different eye than you can open your mind to new shots and compositions, as well as new skills. Further, if there is one thing I learned this past year, it is the value of networking. Simply reaching out to other photographers to ask a question can lead to important connections and lasting relationships. So, if you’re often a loner like me when taking photos, commit to remembering to connect with other photographers every so often in the year ahead, if not just to find out what you might be missing.
7) Think Before You Shoot
In a world of digital photography and 365 photo-a-day projects, it is easy to get into the habit of shooting for volume instead of for quality. Personally, except for the old Kodak disposable cameras, I’ve never shot film, so my habits as a photographer stem from an almost purely digital perspective. In fact, when starting out in photography I took far too many photos. I would see a scene I liked, snap a shot, and every so often I would get a photo I liked out of it. Even when I got those good photos, I don’t think they were a result of much skill, only luck.
If you take photos too often without considering what you are trying to capture and why you are trying to capture it, creating a compelling photo is likely going to be an uphill battle. Making a resolution to think before you capture a photo will make you more deliberate in the shots you take, as well as make you stop and consider what can make your image better. Be mindful of why you take a shot before you take it can have a profoundly noticeable effect on improving your photos. If you are like me and have never shot film as a photographer, pretend there is a roll of film in your camera instead of a memory card and allow yourself to capture only a small amount of photos in a given day. Not only will you end up getting a higher percentage of “keepers”, but those hard drives won’t fill up quite as quickly either.
8) Avoid Burnout
It’s important in life to know when you have had too much of a good thing. One of my favorite pieces of advice I’ve received is “everything in moderation, including moderation.” It’s good to immerse yourself in something and learn all that you can, but it’s also valuable to know when to take a break.
I’ve had a few conversations with fellow creatives about burnout in the past year, and each conversation has come to the conclusion that knowing when to take a break is important to keeping your passion from becoming something you dislike. I spent a night this past summer camping on Wyoming. We witnessed a beautiful sunset over the Tetons that evening and, eventually, a clear, dark, star-filled sky where the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye. The friend I was with kept commenting that he couldn’t believe that I didn’t want to take out my camera and capture it. I probably missed a few great photos that night, but I wanted to enjoy it in the present more than I wanted to get a photo I could enjoy later. I spent the night relaxing with friends and sleeping in a hammock under a clear night sky, and the amount of recharge that gave me fueled my photography for weeks to come.
So, with the New Year almost upon us, and with your resolutions and plans to make them a reality in place, make sure to remind yourself every so often to kick back and relax. The camera and the photo opportunities will still be there tomorrow.
Best of luck in 2017, everyone. Don’t hit that snooze button.