Everyone has a different photography skill level. There’s nothing wrong with being a beginner or an intermediate. However, if you desire to improve your photography, you might be your biggest hindrance.
I talk to quite a few photography enthusiasts at various locations, meetings, and online groups. Some of them are content with just capturing what they point the camera at, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, many desire to improve their photography skills, but over the years, they don’t seem to have made very much progress in doing so.
Improving is not something that happens just by solely taking more photos. It comes with learning, practice, self-critique, and a lot of failures. I’ve met many photographers that have years more experience than I do that still make rookie mistakes. These photographers have many excuses from “that’s just too complicated” to “I just don’t have the time to learn that.”
The problem is that they want to be better, but they refuse to learn. Even once you know all of the basics, and perhaps are pretty good at what you do, you’ll still make mistakes, but you should learn from them.
Here are some of the things that I believe are a common hindrance to becoming a better photographer.
Can you take a beautiful photo in Program Mode? Yes. Will it be exactly what you wanted? Probably not. Learning the various modes of your camera is the basis for understanding exposure. If you don’t know what aperture is, you’re not going to get that blurry background. If you don’t know what shutter speed does, you’re not going to capture that fast-moving bird.
What if your subject is underexposed because the background is so much brighter? Without knowing how or what to compensate for, you’re not going to improve that photo.
Learning the basics of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO is the foundation of expanding your capabilities. Likewise, learning the basic settings of your camera is crucial — if you want to improve. Night photography is going to be much more difficult if you don’t know about mirror lockup. You should have a general knowledge of your various menus and settings. If you have not gone through your camera manual several times, you need to pick it up again.
Composition and lighting are so critical to a great photograph, but I talk to enthusiasts who often know very little about it. An afternoon of watching YouTube videos on composition could significantly improve a beginner’s skill by merely knowing about the rule of thirds and leading lines. Understanding how people look at photos helps you compose a pleasing and easy to view image.
One of the ways I improved when I was starting was to self-critique my own photos. I’m not talking about rating how good your image is. I’m talking about tearing it apart, bit-by-bit, analyzing what you did well, and what you did poorly. Don’t just hit delete on bad shots, learn from them.
Self-critique reinforces what you did well so that you can repeat that success, and what you did wrong so that you can avoid that mistake next time. Without that, you’re just going to make the same mediocre image on the next shoot.
Consider the following image. I was shooting birds against some neat clouds around the setting sun. I noticed a friend of mine in the water, and I liked the silhouette, the reflection of the sun on the water, and the lighthouse — it was a perfect scenario. I quickly switched from the bird and fired off an eight-shot burst. Every single one of them was out of focus.
Analyzing these photos with a focus points plug-in in Lightroom, I saw that the focus point was on her head, but it did not lock focus. From this, I have learned that a single focus point is sometimes too small for a silhouetted head. I won’t make that mistake again.
One of my biggest pet peeves is someone refusing to straighten or crop an image. Most of the time, when questioned, they simply say they forgot (again). There’s only one straight line through your image (the horizon), and you didn’t notice it was crooked? What were you looking at when you were editing it? It’s step one, how did you forget? I know it’s step one because I taught them Lightroom, and I made sure that it was step one!
I’m guessing that they’re often in a hurry to get the image edited and posted on social media. If you need to, create a checklist for things to do when editing your photos. Look for items that are wrong or off, not just at the things that you like about the photo.
It’s sometimes intimidating to photograph something when you don’t have any experience with it. Maybe it’s your first dog shoot or your first wedding. However, if you realize that it will make you improve by trying and self-critiquing, it can be a fun challenge. Don’t be afraid to fail. Often, I learn more from my failures than from my success.
Don’t refuse to shoot something because you don’t have the right gear (as long as it’s not a paid shoot). Having the experience of shooting something without the optimum gear can teach you a lot. Recently I learned that an f/2.8 lens is much better for astrophotography than an f/4 lens. It’s something I “knew,” but seeing the difference made me really realize it in a much more profound way.
Learn the basics, learn to self-critique, and continue learning new things. Sometimes learning just a small essential skill can dramatically improve your photos overnight. Other skills may take years to perfect, but you might as well get started now. Learn one skill, practice it, then learn another. You’ll quickly see an improvement if you just put forth a little effort, don’t let failures stop you, learn from them.