How to Become a Better Photographer

| How-To

I teach, write and talk a lot about photography – traditional, digital and iPhone photography. Many people approach me to ask how to learn to be a better photographer. People who have been photographing for some time may find they are struggling in their quest to making great images. They ask if purchasing a “better camera” would help them become better photographers. Stand back, because that vexes me to no end.

Photographer laden down with lots of camera gear

No amount of fancy camera gear will guarantee that you become a better photographer

Why do I find this so cage-rattling? People will surely disagree, but in general, it’s not about the camera and photographic accouterments. At the very least, camera gear is secondary to a good grasp of the photographic principles of Composition, Light and Exposure. 

Yes, if you shoot with an iPhone, there are several physical limitations that can hamper what you can achieve photographically with the hardware. However, armed with the photographic understanding I speak of will help you understand those limitations better. You will understand why certain effects – like narrow depth-of-field – cannot be achieved in-camera, and you'll gain an understanding of how you can exploit those limitations for more compelling iPhone photos.

Little girl composing a photo with her fingers

Learning to develop your “photographer's eye” is paramount to becoming a better photographer

What does being a “good photographer” even mean? It’s kind of vague because, in reality, how good, bad, or indifferent a photo is, is very subjective. If you are a typical photo-buff, and you’re not using your camera for money-making assignments, you want to make images that are not only pleasing to you, but perhaps even compelling to your audience. You know… the kind of photo that makes a viewer linger on it a bit longer than usual to allow the imagery to soak in. 

I’m talking about the type of photo that compels people to make harebrained remarks like “Wow! What a great shot! You must have an expensive camera!!” In a way, it’s nice to get that type of compliment because it tells you that your image stands above all the rest. However, it also says that the people uttering such things really have no clue as to what it means to be a “good photographer.”

Two people examining a photograph

A compelling photograph makes the viewer pause for that second look

And so it is with many who go about taking lots of pictures – whether with their iPhones or their DSLR cameras. They may often find that they are disappointed with their photos – some of that je ne sais quoi is missing from their photography. They appease that feeling by acquiring a new camera to “help them become a better photographer.” Their heart is in the right place, but the action they take is misguided. 

OK, so the essence of this article consists of recommending two or three ways to learn about those elements and techniques that will help you towards your goal of becoming a better photographer without spending any money on camera gear.

Next: Attending Classes at Local Schools and Community Colleges

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Comments

ibuck

To me, an iPhone IS an expensive “camera.” And yet, I agree with your argument that basic techniques are a huge determinant of great photos, rather than expensive equipment.  Thanks for the tips / referrals.

Shawn King

I tell students in my class, “I can give you Ansel Adams’ camera and put you in the exact location he took his shots. I *guarantee* your images won’t come out like his.” smile

ptr

I once read something that went like this:
If I used Ansel Adams’ camera, it’d look like I took the shot. If he used my camera, it’d look like an Ansel Adams.

Mr. EMan

I took a “beginner’s” course years ago in Regensburg, Germany while I was living there. It was essentially just an “adult ed” class, but that has had the most profound impact for my views of photography. It was two and a half days over a weekend. After two weeks, we got back together to look at slides of our photos. Both the examples from the teacher and the other students were fantastic. This has been a great foundation of learning for photography for me. I definitely recommend taking some sort of class.

anovelli

Nice article, though I feel I must offer props to the man in the cover image - I’ve shot next to him and my brother knows him as one of the premier golf photographers. I think rather than disparage someone who I also thought had a rather over-the-top appearance when I first met him, what I found was he was the penultimate sports photographer. What was even funnier was when he pulled out an umbrella out of his armada of gear when it started to rain at the PGA Championship several years ago. After talking to him though, his understanding of photography was encyclopedic; from knowing every performance aspect of every one of the half dozen bodies and dozens of lenses he carried, to know how to most efficiently be there for the right shot at the right time. Sports photos can seem banal to some, but the art of the magazine-cover shot is undeniable. I’ve seen my brother do it time and again, and it is not just master skill at handling the equipment, framing, etc., but understanding your subject, anticipating the timing, and more than anything, busting serious butt lugging what you need farther than you thought, in weather or elements that turn almost everyone back to shelter. I think about Galen Rowell, and imagine that like me, most of his best shots were literally the most painful captures. Do get grounded in the chops of giving yourself the chance of grabbing enough good imagery to work with back home. Then let that inform and streamline your field work so that you have enough quality material captured that you can push the limits and - with a little luck - be at the right place and the right time to get that truly great image!

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