How to improve your photography: your own twelve step program

April 11, 2013  •  13 Comments

Market day

I originally thought of titling this post 'why short courses and workshops are terrible, tutorials and books slightly better but practice and introspection the best' but that would give away my innermost thoughts too easily, so here it is and you'll have to dig for meaning..

The digital age has erased many of the barriers that kept people from getting serious about photography –no more focusing, no more exposure meters, zoom lenses, no more darkroom, …..... only to erect higher barriers further down the road.
Photography, at least modern photography with digital cameras, is a pretty unique challenge. The incredible brains and magnificent sensors built into modern cameras means that anyone who can press a button can turn out photos that approach in quality the work of competent film photographers. 

With film cameras, many crucial decisions had to be made either early on or fairly late in the photography process – the film choice, developer, etc.- and these decisions were relatively simple and uncomplicated, especially compared to the myriad complexities of digital cameras and post-processing software. With film photography,anyone with aspirations to do serious photography could learn the physical procedures of using a film single lens reflex in a day with another day for black and white film processing and printing. The vast proportion of film photographers sent color film to a lab to be developed thus absolving themselves of any part in the complexities of developing and printing. The relatively crude tools, the long lag before feedback and the hours in a darkroom weeded out most people who weren't serious.

Digital cameras have changed all that. Yes, modern digital cameras are complex machines, even the simplest point and shoot models are much more complex than film cameras but the least of them is quite 'smart' and can be used simply as a 'point and shoot' to produce spectacular results – sometimes, if conditions are right.

As a recorder of time and place, the modern cameras are without equal, and produce excellent snapshots with minimal effort from the photographer. But excellent snapshots are usually not compelling viewing for those outside the immediate circle of the photographer, and certainly fail to evoke the emotion that good art usually aroused in the viewer. So the act of taking a snapshot is missing something – and that something is the decision-making that allows a photographer to create arresting imagery. Taking back that control, and learning to make the appropriate decisions, is the challenge facing the modern photographer.

So, how do people learn to be a good photographer? How do people master not only the complexities of the technology but also the art of seeing and creating an image. Is there an easy way? Is there a best way?

Well there is an easy answer. No, there is no easy way to learn photography.

Often beginners, used to thinking of schools as the best traditional method to study complex structures will look towards classes or expensive 'workshops' taught by practicing photographers. Unless you are a total newbie, without any skills or knowledge I think that expensive workshops are not cost-effective ways to learn and here is why.

Before you run out and register, you need to understand the learning environment and must understand a bit about the business of photography, This perfect storm of new technology, digital cameras, Internet education and tens of millions of new photographers has changed the business of photography. Out of the millions of new camera users there are tens of thousand of new 'professionals' out there trying to make a living or even just to make money with their expensive hobby.

Ball Up At the same time, the growth of cheap stock photography websites has cut the need for custom commercial photography work. What's a medium level professional photographer to do with his/her talent and investment now that his markets are shrinking and the competition is growing?

The answer is, he/she will teach.

Good, well-known professionals are finding it easier to make money by giving courses or workshops than actually producing photographs and finding someone to buy them. The huge numbers of cameras sold, the incredible lure of being an 'artist' and the steep learning curve of digital photography means an essentially never-ending supply of people who think that getting skilled in photography can be done by working with or listening to someone with the knowledge – a transfer of a desired characteristic like the laying on of hands.

But, except for real beginners who know nothing and who would profit from any kind of knowledge, that doesn't work. Typical courses have a relatively wide latitude of students attending them, from those who haven't any experience in the subject matter to those who want to top off their mental tank with the expert's words. The teacher tries to satisfy everyone and so, in general covers a typically wide subject going from the very beginning to the very end, necessarily skipping too many details because of time constraints.

Most courses teach the easy stuff – which features are present and how they are activated. What few courses teach is which features are relevant in specific situations, and WHY they are important in that context. They also do not usually address the end result – why some images evoke strong emotions, and how they achieve this miracle.

The result is that very naïve, beginning students are often overwhelmed, get a few tidbits but forget or can't yet use most of the content and go away glazed in wonder at the knowledge of the teacher. Medium and advanced students are generally bored by the basic stuff covered and frustrated by the necessary lack of detail.

Another more systemic problem is that many or even most 'teachers' are not scholars but working photographers and so they are most familiar with what they do that works for them and may not have any conceptual idea of how what they do fits in the realm of what can be done.

This was reinforced for me during a class I took just a few weeks ago. I knew the instructor was a great studio photographer and a master printer. His prints were as beautiful as I'd ever seen and so I drove 80 minutes and paid money to sit in a classroom for six hours to hear how he worked. A good part of the morning was spent with each other student telling where they were in photography and then he went on to describe some different basic methods – all text-book stuff. I was waiting for what was scheduled after lunch. He went through a selection of his prints and described how he converted from the color images to black and white images.

He gave us the 'recipe' for the settings he used in one specific step of the process with Photoshop. Now, I thought, we were at the spot where I would learn so I asked why he used those settings, what was technical rationale? His answer was that he had always used those numbers, that he didn't know how other conditions would affect them. This was akin to asking a great hitter in baseball for some batting hints and having him respond that the best result is when the pitcher throws the ball right where you can hit it hard.

Frustrated by my disappointment with this and other workshops I've taken, I queried my friends and they reported similar experiences. So I've come up with a set of advice on how to become a better photographer – assuming that you are serious about this effort - my own 12 step program. 2006 05 17 SWVacation_00102-Edit

1) Be prepared for this learning process to take a long time. Like playing the piano, learning and skills and talent have to be cobbled together

2) Do not spend lots of money on classes or workshops expecting that the class is the key to learning unless they are very small groups and very narrowly focused on a certain specific topic. Even then be prepared to waste your time and money. In general, classes are inefficient because you can't re-listen, they are rarely on point for the individual, there is too little detail and they go too fast. (If you have read the manual you will be ahead of three quarters of the class.)

3) Use the materials you have that pertain to your own equipment; that means “read your manual.” Read it again. Know the basic workings of your equipment. I have a good friend who went on a three week trip to Asia with a new camera and came back to find that an initial, crucial setting was off and half of his images were defective. Luckily the other half were quite good.

On the other hand, don't worry about being a total equipment master, work on actually making pictures. Learn to focus your mind, your eye and the camera on what you want to take a picture of and take that picture. Learn to use the camera's bells and whistles as you need them. Decide up front if you need to know which buttons are present and what they do OR you need to understand why there are there in the first place. The first part is the mechanics, the second part starts opening the door to the artistry.

4) Take lots of pictures, of things that catch your eye, and then analyze them to see what you were attracted to in the original scene/situation, and think about what would have made the image better.

Were important things in unimportant places, were things in focus, were the colors good?
It takes some time to develop a vocabulary to describe what you see and what you feel. 
That vocabulary, and awareness of the visual, allows you to bring what was essentially unconscious, up to the level of awareness, and on that awareness, you can start building your learning efforts. Combined with looking at other people's images, you will see some characteristics emerge from mass - the images that grab your attention have certain common elements.
Until you understand what elements make pictures successful and learn how to reproduce those conditions in your own images, you can't progress.

Photography is a visual art, and one of its most important powers is to communicate to a viewer. Viewers already have absorbed, usually unconsciously, many of the rules that influence visual expression, and they react well (or poorly) to the manner in which the image is presented. Photographers need to learn this visual language, and to understand how viewers see images. But as participants in the culture, we already have absorbed many of these lessons in an unaware manner, and the effort is needed at raising the underlying mechanisms to the conscious level. When something catches our eye – our cultural programming is stirring. When we start analyzing what it is that got our attention, then we start relearning on a conscious level the elements of visual communication.

5) Use the Internet. When you need to learn how to do something, find an on-line tutorial. Join a online photographic community. Be choosy, find one where you are comfortable and you can both get useful information from people with more experience and where you don't feel out of place at your level.

6) Look at lots of pictures, lots of them. And not just your own. Use them as exercises. Decide whether you like the picture or not and try to figure out why. (that's the important part) Read lots of comments, this will help you to build your understanding of images and will give you the vocabulary to put labels on your artistic responses.

Another ability that you will start picking up with practice is the ability to see light not just as a bunch of photons, but also as a visual modifier which endows your subject with depth and volume and texture and color. The quality of light has a huge effect on the effectiveness of an image, and it is under-rated as a factor that makes the image sing.

Part of learning anything, is to pick up the technical vocabulary that describes the nature and nuances of the field. That vocabulary also has an inherent order and structure that allows analysis and categorization. These tools allow the practitioner to determine is they need more of this and less of that, whether overall balance is attractive or not, and whether there is a coherence that communicates clearly to the viewer.

7) Look for critique of your own pictures. Post one or two at a time in the photo communities or in your local camera club. Listen to the comments and use what sounds good to you. Don't get sensitive; a bad picture does not mean you are a bad person.

There is a difference between content and form. We may be attached emotionally to the content, but viewers can only extrapolate from the form of the image what the content really is. The medium is the message. The tone of a spoken sentence is often much more informative than the content (the actual words) used. So it is with imagery – the presentation of the image often overwhelms the image subject in the eyes of the viewer. When we listen to commentary, we’re hearing comments on the form. And as in any human communication, what is being said is often not exactly what is being meant, complicated by what we read is often not exactly what was written. So commentary needs to be explored to get to the common understanding.

8) Don't buy any more equipment than you have now until you recognize that what you are doing or want to do is limited by the equipment you have. The process of getting to be a good photographer is a drawn out and arduous one and often times people think – or rather hope that the path is made less steep by more or more expensive equipment.

Stop thinking that. You are suffering from G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome); this isn't curable but can be managed.

Equipment without skill is an nice paperweight. Skill without knowledge is driving around without a purpose or destination. Knowledge without understanding is the same as knowing the price but not the value. One of the four is easy – it only takes money. The rest depend on the amount of effort and dedication a person is prepared to invest in this activity.

9) Inevitably you will acquire books. I have lots. Most haven't helped me one teeny bit and sit virtually unopened. If you are a beginner it would be useful to get a book on exposure and maybe to read something on composition. Picture books, coffee table books, are nice but expensive. Save your money and get them at the library.

If you are compelled to buy instructional, 'how-to' books, remember this. Books are a wonderful repository of knowledge and even wisdom, as learned by someone elseTo make the content of books meaningful to you, yourself, you have to figure out how to apply this knowledge, because while the books talk about the “how”, they often gloss over the “why”. It is only with deliberate practice do the lessons of the book’s author become meaningful. And in doing the exercises, it is often apparent that the author forgot to mention some important detail, or they really did not fully understand what they were describing. A how-to manual for love-making will never convey the richness and the complexity that the actual act involves. So it is with photography being read about in a book. 

However there are three books that have been invaluable to me - and details for them are given in the next section.

10) Most of the great pictures you see and admire owe 60% of their effect to post-processing either in the darkroom or the computer. Yes, get it as good as you can in the camera but Mother Nature doesn't care about the light you want. Post-processing is to make what your camera records into what you saw in your mind's eye.

Inevitably as you get into or get deeper into post-processing, you will want to acquire both software and books about techniques. Books on specific software are out of date too easily and most/all you want to know can be found online in abundance. However,there are three books that I always recommend that concentrate on process: “Masking and Compositingby Katrin Eismann (2004 edition), “The Digital Negative” by Jeff Schewe, and “Real World Image Sharpening with Adobe Photoshop, Camera Raw, and LightroombyBruce Fraser and Jeff Schewe.

Each of these books are remarkably good for the descriptions of the process by which they reach an end in such a way as to make the underlying concepts clear. All three worth every pfennig.

(for some of my ideas about post-processing and workflow, you might look at Getting to a Final Image - some words on editing photos for a new photographer  )

11) Don't look for tricks or techniques, just learn to take the pictures you want to take. Learning and acquiring mastery is all about cycles – start out with an idea, then do it, then evaluate the result, then determine what needs to be better the next time. The next idea is a little better because of the learning from the last iteration. Hopefully, each cycle includes a bit of new knowledge, a bit of insight,a bit of vocabulary, and a bit of skill.

12) Repeat #4 and #6 forever- they're good for you

(with extensive editorial input and most of the better phrasing from Paul Grizenko, someone I know from the Internet community, but who is, I believe, an actual, real person.)


I really enjoyed reading this article. Thanks for taking the time to write it!
Lew Lorton Photography
There are two possibilities: 1) you are taking so many that you get a good shot virtually by chance - that's bad or,
2) you are exploring the various ways of looking at that scene, exhausting the options until you are certain of capturing what you want, and learning from every missed shot - that's good.

Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.
Nigel Robinson(non-registered)
Not really much to add here, that's my experience. As an amateur the only time I seem to take good shots is when I'm taking lots.
Lew Lorton Photography
This is my most popular article with over 1000 reads as of this date.
Thanks all.
Joe 'JUGA'(non-registered)
Very good read and informative. I particularly like your first step because I have no patience and have certainly learned a bit since taking on the learning process. Thanks for taking time and writing articles like this for people such as myself.
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