This is a question that I’m often asked. And why not, it is the same question that I began asking about 10 years ago, whenever I decided to get back into photography. As with anything in life, as we become involved with something new, a new hobby, a new career, nearly anything, we often ask ourselves, or others, how we can improve ourselves. In fact, I still find myself asking this question on a regular basis. Yes, my photography has improved a lot over the years, but I want to take it to a higher level. What do I need to do to get there? Do I need to learn new techniques? Do I need to invest in different equipment/accessories? Well, when thinking about what topic I’d write about in this issue of Show-Me Nature Photography Newsletter, I decided that I’d offer some suggestions for those who are wanting to improve their photography. So, here goes.
The first thing I suggest is to get out with your camera on a regular, consistent basis. I recommend at least once a week. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, it just matters that you are actively working with your camera. And it doesn’t have to be an all-day event, just try for 30-60 minutes of “quality time” with the camera. I think you will find that the more you shoot, the better you will understand your camera, it’s controls, and how it functions. When shooting, don’t be so intent on the results as you are on what you learn from the experience. If you try a new technique or a different shooting mode, do your best to learn from the experiment. What went well? What didn’t go right? What will you do differently next time? Take notes, so you can refer back to them later. Ultimately, you will find that this repetitive practice leads to better images.
The second thing I recommend is to know your camera. This ties in with the first point, but I think for you to have ultimate control over the camera, you must know it’s controls, what they do, how to work them, and know when/when not to use them. A prime example: When I photograph wildlife, I don’t have much time to play with controls. Over time, I have found that intimately knowing how to quickly change the exposure settings, via Exposure Compensation, has helped me make many successful wildlife images. And I do it “by feel” and by observing symbols in my viewfinder, all without taking my eye from the viewfinder. I know exactly where the controls for using Exposure Composition are located, so I can make changes without taking my eye away from the wildlife action that is taking place. Know your camera well and it will treat you well!
The next thing you can do is to read, read, read. With the internet, articles on equipment, techniques, wildlife, etc. are right at our fingertips! Not only can you learn basic techniques used by many photographers, but you can keep abreast of changes that are constantly taking place with techniques and equipment. And if you even dare, pull out the camera manual and read through it. Yeh, I know it is often not “user-friendly”, but if you practice a lot (remember the first tip in this article?) and begin to “know” your camera better (ah, yes, step #2) then the manual may make more sense to you. And if it doesn’t, there are some videos out for a lot of digital cameras; these might be what you need to help you to learn your camera controls. Another alternative to the manufacturer’s manual: there are some third party publishers that are writing camera manuals “in English”; check these out. Also, check out the local library. They often have a lot of good books on photography. Do you have a local bookstore? Check them out, too!
Attend photography classes or weekend classroom seminars. When I was struggling at improving my photography, I attended every class or seminar that came to the Kansas City area! Most of these classes/seminars were taught by professional nature photographers and I walked away with many tips and suggestions from them. You can do the same. Besides these classes, there may be photo classes at local junior colleges. Or you can attend one of my photography classes I teach at the Cass Career Center in Harrisonville, MO (yeah, a bit of shameless self-promotion), or by other local photographers. Any classwork or seminars you attend can really help to bring things together for you.
Taking the last action a step further, consider a hands-on workshop. These can be extremely helpful! First, identify a photographer whose work you admire (style, subject matter, etc.) and if they offer workshops, sign up with them. The workshop length can be short (a few hours) to quite long (7-10 days). Spend as much time as you can on the workshop. Most workshops are set up with classroom instruction sessions, followed by in-the-field shooting sessions. Spend as much time as possible being close to the instructor. Ask questions! Try suggestions made by the instructor! Get out of your comfort zone and try new things! Ask the instructor for critiques on your images (if the workshop is not already set up for critiques). Now is not the time to go off on your own and shoot; stick to the instructor like glue, and gain as much knowledge as time will allow! If you envy a particular style of the instructor, ask questions about how some of his/her images were made: what equipment was used? how was the exposure made? why did he/she decide on that composition? Take notes and think of some things for you to try at your next “practice” session.
I think if you give these things a sincere try, you will find that your photography can, and will improve. And if you ask me which one of these steps is the most important, I’ll probably answer by saying “repetitious practice” (the first item I discussed). As with anything, you will become better with practice alone. And if you’re like me, the better your images get, the more you thirst for “taking it one additional step”. But one of the most important things is to have fun with it. If you don’t have fun, you will not have the drive to improve. So, get out there, practice on a regular basis, have fun, and watch your photography improve!