At the close of 2017 and the beginning of an exciting new year in 2018, I reflected on what made me a better photographer and what helped me grow. My photography endeavors aren't a full time job like I would love them to be, but instead, it is a self sustaining side business that makes enough money to keep taking pictures and buying expensive new gear. To start off this new year, let's go over a number of things I've learned that might help you be better at your photography and develop your career (if you choose to go that route). I'm hopeful that eventually, I'll be able to sustain my family on some kind of photography work.
The biggest improvements I saw to my photography started when I began printing my work. The most improvement I saw came in the form of boosting the overall exposure. What looks great on a computer screen or a phone might not look great as a print. But what does look great as a print will look absolutely phenomenal on a screen. I found that most of my photos were too dark, and when printed, they looked muddy (not moody) and underexposed. I would never have realized this if I didn't print the photograph.
It's not just myself that I see affected by this, but I see lots of other photographers posting underexposed or under processed images online. I think lots of other photographers start off with darker images that could be improved by a boost to exposure and contrast. 500px is known for it's super contrasty and dark images. But at least half of the images uploaded to that site wouldn't make for good prints because you can't see any detail in the shadows. When seeing other work from landscape photographers the first thing that I notice is most images are too dark to make a good print.
In order to grow my photography business, I want to sell prints. And so, I try to take photos that someone will want to buy. I don't care about the number of likes on Facebook or Instagram or being on the front page of 500px because I can't pay my bills with likes. Shooting and processing my images with the desired result to be a print has helped me adjust my methodology. Every photograph I finish and post to Facebook gets printed on 12×18 paper. This helps me to see if something is too dark or if I added too much clarity or saturation in a certain area. A print costs $4 so it's valuable investment to improve my editing.
Printing also helps you to become familiar with different types of paper, ink, canvas, metal, and suppliers. Not all are created equal and you'll soon find that Costco prints will never look as good as prints that come from professional print studios. I've printed dozens of photos at various printers and I know which ones I like the best due to quality, color accuracy, durability, longevity, price, turn around time, included hanging hardware, etc.
I used to just show up to a location and expect to get a great shot. This can happen but getting lucky is not something you should have as the foundation of your photography business. Scouting a location will help you manage your time and plan for the best photo. There are times where I will scout a location 2 or 3 times before ever taking out my camera. Once I've found what looks like the perfect composition, I'll do a dress rehearsal with my camera so I know the best settings and focal length. Then I'll watch all my weather apps and be prepared to leave at a moment's notice when the conditions are perfect.
This photo of the Oquirrh Mountain LDS Temple in Northern Utah was 18 months in the making. It was my mom who said she wanted a photograph of it so the mountains could be seen in the background. I pondered on that idea and did several scouting trips to find the best perspective. Eventually, I landed on the idea of taking a ladder and setting it up to get the proper elevation. I borrowed a 12 foot A-frame ladder from my brother and took my camera out to find the best focal length to use. Once that was all in place, I planned on doing an autumn scene with the leaves changing color. Starting around October, I drove past the temple several times each week until the leaves were just the color I wanted. I checked the local sunset time and picked a clear day to set up my ladder and camera. The result is this beautiful panorama of which I've sold several copies.
Showing up and just taking a picture is fine. But without proper planning and scouting, you might be disappointed to see that your photos look like everyone else's.
Aspect ratios and horizon flipping
Different aspect ratios will give your photos a different look and feel. When shooting and editing, consider testing out different aspect ratios than the standard 2×3 that most cameras shoot in. Try panoramas (1×3 or 1×2 ratios) or square crops (1×1) to give your photos a unique look.
Flipping the horizon might seem like heresy to the photography elitists, but I'm not a journalist. I'm an artist and I reserve the right to create the image how I best see it. Flipping the horizon can make a scene that much more inviting. A photo that leads a viewer into the scene from left to right often feels more comfortable to us (because we read from left to right) than the other way around. If you have a path or a road that goes from right to left, consider flipping it and see how the photo looks after.
Falling into a river
When I was out trying to get shots of a winter scene with a river, I was crossing a snow covered log and fell into waist deep, ice cold water. Luckily I didn't have my phone or keys in my pocket and I was able to hold my camera above the water. Instead of getting upset, I just laughed. Then I tried to see what compositions I could get from the middle of the river.
I realized that I love photography enough to see it as an adventure. I'm willing to go wherever the adventure takes me and have a smile on my face. Falling into an icy river in November was part of that adventure and I remember it fondly. Since then, there are few things that have irritated or upset me when it comes to photography. Sometimes I get the shot I want, sometimes it turns out poorly. But I see photography as play time so whatever happens is just part of the great time I'm having.
This year I learned to be more careful about what I spent my money on. My photography business isn't pulling in millions of dollars so I have to be choosey about what I buy. This includes everything from new gear, tutorials, and even snacks for road trips. I used to just buy whatever I saw that looked cool (that Z-shaped camera mount thing that was on Facebook for a while) as long as I had money in my account for it. But after getting so many things that just didn't make a difference to my photography, I started being more careful about my purchases.
Budgeting for new gear, trips, and boring things like taxes has helped corral me into only buying stuff that will really matter for my photography business. No longer do I buy then next fancy thing I see in a Facebook ad because I need to spend my money on something more important.
Getting my camera stolen
This was an awful thing to happen and I sympathize with anyone who has had anything stolen. I brought my camera bag into work to take some photos off the memory card (why I didn't just bring in the memory card I'll never know) and I left the bag on my desk overnight. The next morning it was gone. Anyone could have walked off with it but I always suspected the sleezy night security guard who stole food from people's drawers and fridges.
This event, and the multiple stories I've read about other photographers getting their stuff stolen, has helped me protect my camera and my gear. I don't leave anything in my car overnight and if I have an important shoot I always take the memory card out of the camera and keep it on my person just in case. The client shouldn't have to suffer just because I was either careless or a victim of a crime.
Giving away prints
Giving away prints as gifts helped me to understand the value of photography and fine art. It also helped me know how to shoot and edit so I could create something that I would be proud to give someone else. Giving away prints was a wonderful way to get to know different printers, different qualities, and different mediums (paper, canvas, metal, etc). This helped me to see my art in a tangible way and realize how I wanted it to be represented.
The first few prints I gave as gifts were terrible by my standards today. I even told someone that I would take back the first print I gave them and trade it for a more current edition that is much more visually appealing. However, giving away these prints helped me to see what I could improve in my shooting and editing (see point #1) and was an important step in my development as a photographer.
Another bonus from giving away prints is that word of mouth spreads. I've had people contact me to purchase the same print they saw hanging up in their friend's (my cousin or aunt's) living room. Don't bet the farm on word of mouth spreading fast this way, but it does help.
Going on a photography trip (with other photographers)
Being able to collaborate with other photographers for a few days was a huge step forward for me personally and professionally. Not only did I develop relationships with some great photographers. but I was able to understand the nuance and etiquette of shooting with other people. Things like where to stand, how close you can get to someone else, “stealing” someone's composition, and when it's ok to use your flashlight when shooting the milky way were all valuable lessons that can't be learned anywhere else.
Also, going on a photography trip helped me to benefit from the years of experience of other photographers who may have been to a location before and know the best places to shoot. If it so happened that we were all new to a location, spreading out and finding (and sharing) great compositions was another added benefit. Being able to see the world through another photographer's eye only helps you to be a more versatile photographer because you will share a vast pool of knowledge for everyone's benefit.
Whether it be paid tutorials from established photographers, or free tutorials from YouTube, any learning you can do will greatly enhance your shooting and editing skills. Subscribing to Photoshop tutorials on YouTube helps me to learn neat tips and tricks from the pros and see things about editing that I didn't know where possible. Reading articles about how to use blend modes helps me to know the appropriate situations to use them.
For my real estate photography, learning from the vast community of professional real estate photographers has cut my on-site shooting time and editing time in half. It has also helped me learn how to “massage” an image that didn't turn out quite right in order to make it look pretty good (good enough to be listed on the MLS anyway). There are times when I haven't been happy with a photo after all my editing. Then I'll try a few tricks I learned about dodging and burning and it transforms into “not great” to “pretty decent” in a matter of minutes.
Paid tutorials are the fast lane to improving your skills. While I believe you can find all information for free, it will take a significant amount of time to stumble across everything that someone has put together in a 4 hour course for $65. Paid tutorials, when you understand the content and read the reviews, are well worth the cost and will launch you into the next echelon of photography ability.
Practice in public
This was a concept I learned about in the book Real Artists Don't Starve by Jeff Goins. It is important for artists to practice their craft in public, going on display as they develop their skills. This helps them get better faster and energizes them to continue producing.
I practice in public by posting my images to my Facebook page and printing images and displaying them at my office on my cubicle wall. Facebook is an easy way to practice in public but it can also be very emotionally taxing when you only get 3 likes and 2 of them are from your mom and your sister. I went a step further and made a business page which allowed me to boost my posts (pay to reach more people) and was able to now get my work in front of strangers with the interests I selected. It was exciting to do this because I got positive feedback from complete strangers, made a couple print sales, and gathered a few new “followers” to my business page.
Hanging up prints at my day job really helped boost my confidence and self-esteem as well. So many people said so many nice things about my work which made me want to keep shooting. I regularly add to my “gallery wall” and people tell me they get excited when I put up something new. At the very least, it makes me want to keep taking pictures which leads to improved shooting, composition, and editing skills.
Entering a judged art contest or art show is another great way to practice in public. Many state fairs have photography competitions and they offer live judge feedback. The first state fair I entered, I fully expected to get a ribbon but I walked away with nothing. I got feedback on my prints from other people, including photographers who I respected, and I worked to get better. The next year I entered the panorama I mention in the next section and won 1st place. Art shows are also fun because you get to put your work on display and stand there with a smile on your face saying “I did this.” Strangers will stop by to talk to you about it and you'll learn valuable things about your work from what they have to say.
You will almost never start off as amazing as you want to be (or think you are) but unless you actually get your work into the public view, the time it will take for you to get better will be greatly extended. The faster you get your work in front of people, the faster you will get better. There is a saying that goes, “If you aren't embarrassed by your first public offering, you waited too long to get to market.”
Shooting outside my comfort zone
The first panorama I shot was at Capitol Reef National Park. I went to a vista and thought, “A panorama would make for a better photograph.” I had a beautiful scene in front of me but I'd never shot a panorama before. I just rotated my camera on my ball head and snapped photos along the way, making sure to get enough overlap. Then I brought the photos into Lightroom and did a “merge to panorama.” The resulting image was amazing and it remains to this day one of my favorite pictures ever.
I certainly had near perfect conditions for this panorama to work out and I honestly got very lucky. But from that experience, I've gone on to take many more panoramas, improving my skills in the technical aspects of depth of field, focal range, and composition to make even better and more natural feeling panoramas. 1×3 aspect ratio panoramas are one of my favorite types of images to shoot.
Another example of shooting outside my comfort zone was the Eclipse of 2017. I really, really wanted a good photograph of it and read every article I could on how to photograph the eclipse.
Solar filter: check.
Long lens: 400mm, check.
Bracket every shot: check.
I drove 6 hours to a little town in Wyoming and brushed up on my research. When the event happened, I was well prepared and able to get some great photographs. Shooting the eclipse taught me things I didn't know about solar photography and helped me to prepare for the next event in 2025.
They say that the best growth occurs outside of your comfort zone. The next time you go out shooting, try something new. If you've never taken a sunrise picture, wake up extra early and get to a spot that will give you a good view. You'll learn so many things about dynamic range, lens and sensor cleanliness, and composition. The same things can be learned through astrophotography, shooting in deserts (or shooting desserts), forests, or snow, or shooting at 50mm instead of 17mm.
Wanting to get another set of eyes on my photos from someone who knew a thing or two about photography, I employed Jim Harmer to do a portfolio review for me. I had plenty of feedback from strangers who liked looking at pretty pictures but couldn't articulate WHY it was a pretty picture (or how to make it a prettier picture). I needed someone who understood the mechanics of light, composition, emotion, storytelling, and crafting a vision to give me a review.
The portfolio review was one of the highlights of 2017. Jim was kind yet honest about my composition choices and editing techniques. He was able to show me a few little things that would make my photos just a little bit better. One of the things he mentioned was that the top of one of my pictures seemed crowded and that maybe I could reshoot it to give a little more space at the top of the frame. Because of how the image was composed, I wasn't able to reshoot it but I did play around in Photoshop and learned how to make a natural looking expansion of the sky at the top of the frame giving my picture a handful of extra pixels that made a huge difference.
Because I went to an experienced photographer for feedback (instead of my brother or mom) I was shown the what, where, why, and how things could be improved. Much of the time we just get simple feedback like “I like it, but I don't love it.” Most people cannot articulate why something looks good but not great. Handing your photos to a seasoned photographer will help you know why something is good and how to make it great.
Each new year, month, week, day, or hour we have a chance to be better than we were the previous year, month, etc. If you are reading this article it means that you want to be a better photographer in 2018. I hope that my experiences will help you become a better at compositions, editing, printing, and all the other skills we slowly develop as we learn and grow.