8 Steps to Better Photos

Mountain Lion and Dogs

Mountain Lion and Dogs | Beebower Productions

Growing up I was surrounded by photography.  From Frito Lay chip shoots to old West horse stampedes, my Dad and Uncle Gordon lived, slept and ate photography.  I loved looking at their work.   I’d study Dad’s pictures like Mountain Lion & Dogs and wonder how he got a mountain lion and dogs to cooperate for a photo.  (I later learned it was a stuffed mountain lion, but those dogs sure thought it was alive.)

As much as the subjects of his images fascinated me I quickly realized photography, from my child-sized eyes, looked really complicated: lighting and f-stops and technical junk everywhere.  I didn’t really like technical junk.  It gave me headaches.  No, I decided, journalism might be more my style.

It wasn’t until my high school years that I suddenly got shoved into photography.  I was working as a freelance writer at a local weekly newspaper.  The staff photographer wasn’t available to take pictures for my story.  Dad suggested I learn to shoot my own photos and write the story.  That would give me two marketable skills.  (Wise man since we’re now in business together.)

Who knows why, but I jumped in with both feet despite my old feelings toward the profession.  Suddenly I was in a race to learn how to take really good photos before I headed off to college to study, gasp, photojournalism.

Naturally I turned to my two favorite photographers, Dad and Uncle Gordon.  Here’s what I learned from them over the next four years:

1) Study great photos: 

It should come as no surprise if you want to be good at something you study the masters.  Back in the dark ages before the Internet, I actually looked at magazines well known for their top-notch photography.   I spent hours pouring over each issue of National Geographic and it’s companion Traveler.  I soaked up the library’s photo book collection.  Dad and I visited art museums to study paintings and photographs.

Today it’s so easy to study great photos it’s not funny.  The Internet is rife with photo galleries, photographers offering online classes and e-books.  You can follow photographers on Facebook, exchange tweets and build a gallery of top-notch images to study on Pinterest.  Often you interact directly with the photographer because many have their own websites and respond directly to your comments and questions.  So hunt for great photos and learn all you can from studying them.

2) “CSI” photos: 

Don’t just look at great photos, pull them apart or “CSI” them.  How did the photographer use light in the photo?  Was it available light or a flash?  What direction did the light come from and why is that important to the photo?  Is there more than one light source such as available light and flash?  When you take the time to study a photo there are clues like shadows and catch lights in people’s eyes that can help you determine light sources.

Did the photographer use the Rule of Thirds or leading lines in his composition of the photo?  What part of the composition works or doesn’t work?  Why?

Look at the whole photo.  Does it make a point or tell a story?  How did the photographer accomplish that?

If the information’s available, study the choices the photographer made with the ISO, f-stop, shutter speed and lens focal length.  How do those things contribute to stopping the action, the grain in the photo, sharpness or blurriness, overall message or feeling of the photo?

Studying these elements of a photo will give you a better understanding of what makes a good picture. To progress even faster, give yourself assignments to improve on specific techniques (see number six!).

3) Master your gear: 

Dad Photographing Cauldron

Dad’s mastered his camera

Nothing screams amateur more than a photographer who doesn’t know how to change the f-stop or attach his camera to the tripod.  When you go out in the field using your camera, lens, flashes and tripods should be second nature.  You shouldn’t even have to think about it.  Practice until you master all aspects of your gear.  

By doing that, you’ll be able to concentrate on composing and lighting your photo rather than finding that little button that allows you to cut your flash output in half.

4) Find a mentor: 

Very few of us are born with top-notch talent oozing out our pores.  Most of us had to study, practice and work very hard to become good at what we do.  Many of us also had mentors that spurred us on and challenged us beyond what we thought possible.  I had two-my Dad and my Uncle Gordon.

Your mentor could be a teacher, a fellow photographer or family member.  Just find someone who takes amazing photos and wants to pass that passion and knowledge on to you.  Then take your time together seriously.

5) Take a class: 

Some of us learn best in a classroom setting and other prefer hands-on learning in the field.  I assure you there’s a class or workshop out there that fits you.  Thanks to the Internet there are so many opportunities to learn about photography it should be pretty easy to find a class at a university, a community college, an online class or with a professional photographer leading a workshop.  

Why bother?  A well-done photography class pushes you to learn faster than you might on your own, gives you new ideas and connects you with other photographers in your area.  You can get those burning photography questions answered and bounce ideas off of your new compadres.

6) Give yourself a photo assignment: 

Denise at Work

My own photo assignment

So you studied great photos, ripped them apart, found a mentor and took a great class.  Now it’s time to practice all you’ve learned.  Focus on mastering one aspect of photography at a time.  For example, learn how to really shine at lighting your subjects.  

Depending on your type of photography (fine art, photojournalism, portraits, etc.) that lighting assignment might look a bit different.  For example, I studied on-camera or hand-held flash techniques as opposed to studio lighting because most of my newspaper assignments required shooting on the fly.

I date myself here, but one of my early assignments was learning how to manually focus on moving objects.  (Gasp, no auto focus!)   My Dad drove his van around town looking for folks riding bikes and running.  I hung out the passenger window with my camera attempting to focus while the van and the subject moved.  We did that one over and over and over.  Sigh.  But eventually I got.  Our drive-by shootings did the trick.

So pick an aspect of photography basics and begin practicing until you learn it so well you could do it in your sleep.

7) Open yourself up to constructive critiques: 

Nobody likes to hear how they did something wrong.  But in an ever-changing field like photography, your career stalls if you’re unwilling to listen to critiques and advance your techniques.   

There’s always something new to learn, so build a thick skin, put your work up on the bulletin board and ask your fellow photographers to give you the good, bad and ugly.

During my time at Mizzou (University of Missouri) we did just that every week.  A group of about 15 folks ripped your photo apart for about 10 minutes and then moved on to the next victim.  It was painful at first, but as I began to see the value of what folks were saying rather than thinking they were attacking me, I really learned a lot.  My photography improved faster than it would have with an adoring crowd.  (Make no mistake that Dad and Uncle Gordon were quick to point out the good, the bad and the ugly too, but it’s different when it’s family critiquing!)  

Choose your forum carefully.  You want to make sure the critiques come from folks who really know what they’re talking about.  Again, the Internet really helps open up the critique choices.  

I’d highly recommend a website developed by my friend Gary Fong.  He used to be the Director of Editorial Graphics Technology at the San Francisco Chronicle and now runs the Genesis Photography Agency.  Gary also helped develop the We Are Photographers website.  Wouldn’t you know, Gary and his cohorts offer a “Photo Gauntlet” where folks submit their pictures for review.  Check it out at www.wearephotographers.com/gauntlet   .

8) Stay up on the latest developments: 

As I mentioned before, photography changes in the blink of an eye.  I remember film and slides from the early years of Dad’s studio.  Heck I shot them myself.  You also had to process film in a darkroom, not the desktop.  

It seems like so long ago, but in reality digital didn’t become “affordable” for the most photographers until the late 1990s.  It was a big deal when I was given a digital camera for my job in 2000.  A stern-faced boss told me under no circumstances was that camera ever to be scratched.  Otherwise I owed the company $20,000.  Today you can buy a far nicer digital camera body for about $7,000.  The times are a changing.

Staying up on the latest in photography isn’t just about the cameras and lenses, although that’s certainly enough.  It covers flashes, tripods and gear, techniques, software, computers and printers.  It’s enough to make your head spin, but if you want to have that competitive edge you have to put in the research and practice time.  

So there you have it.  Eight ways to improve your photography at warp speed.  By doing these things I not only learned enough to earn a degree in photojournalism, I actually built a solid portfolio and got a job when I graduated.  

What things have helped you become a better photographer?