A run down of ten things that helped me become a better photographer - a few of which might surprise you ! See if they work for you.
My Top Photography tips
1. Get a Kindle Unlimited subscription
Say what ? What's this got to do with photography ?
Well, learning and improving goes hand in hand with reading and doing. If you don't want to spend a wheelbarrow full of cash buying overpriced photography books, many of which say many of the same things, then it helps if you can read a lot of them for free - aside from your subscription cost that is.
I'm quite happy if I can get one or two useful nuggets from a book that costs nothing. Had I paid $30 I wouldn't.
When I was learning more about photo editing I read all of Serge Ramelli's books on the subject. Had I paid for them all I would have definitely felt a bit short changed as they are mostly screen shots and lots of repetition. However they were very useful in actually learning a process, and help you to find your own style whilst doing it. Most of Ramelli's editing is overdone in my opinion, but his books are still worth reading - just don't pay for them all unless you want a physical copy sitting on the bookshelf to impress your friends.
Overall it helps to read widely. Plough your way through 10 free books each week and you'll learn quite a lot, and make the most of your subscription!
2. Take your camera everywhere
If like me you have limited time to set aside to "go and do some photography", for example you have a pesky day job, pesky kids, pesky pets or needy friends (who needs those ?), then make sure you take your camera everywhere.
A lot of my photos get taken on the school run. See something interesting, or see the same old thing but the light right now is absolutely stunning, or a pod of whales has just decided to cruise down the coast doing synchronised breaching ? The camera is useless if it's sitting back at home.
Take the camera shopping, take it to the rubbish dump, take it to a needy friend and do a portrait and maybe they'll be a bit happier. Charge your batteries overnight too to avoid feeling really stupid.
A few weeks ago on the school run an owl flew across the road in front of me. With the camera beside me on the passenger seat I pulled over and saw the owl sitting in a tree by the roadside. A quick 2 minute stop and I have a reasonable photo of an owl for my collection.
Two or 3 times a week I come back with a half decent photo of something, a sometimes a proper decent photo. See if it works for you.
3. Shoot RAW
It took me a long time to actually do this, even though you're told just about everywhere to do it if you want to get better final images. So, I'm going to say it again anyway just in case you're like me.
No, the RAW image does not look better (not usually anyway) than the nice JPEG your camera has given you. Yes, it requires more work to get your final images - you have to do something with it. Yes, the extra work required will make you more selective on what you keep. Yes, you need to learn to edit with proper editing software.
Yes, you will see the difference.
Go read about it, get it, and don't do as I did.
4. Take photos every day
Get to know your camera inside out. Do this by taking photos every day. Photos of anything and everything. Do 100 photos of the gatepost experimenting with depth of field. Take 1000 photos trying to get a sharp photo of a bird in flight. Change the settings and do another 1000.
The photos you take as practice do not have to be particularly interesting - this isn't film, it doesn't cost anything except your own time, and nobody else is going to look at the photos.
Do it whilst the ketttle is boiling or the dinner is in the microwave. Take lots of photos of your toes, or the living room with various lights on and off, or the kids crayons arranged on the table.
Athletes train, golfers practice, painters paint.
Photographers take photos.
Take photos. Show your toes to your needy friends. They might stop calling you after that.
5. Learn to edit your photos
My first adventures in photo editing were with GIMP, which is free but not quite as intuitive as alternatives such as Lightroom.
After I'd justified buying myself a DSLR I then purchased Adobe's Creative Cloud Photography package, which includes Lightroom and Photoshop. For photo editing I do everything in Lightroom. I only use Photoshop to create logos, watermarks, or play with wacky distortions just for the fun of it.
When you start to edit your own photos you create a feedback loop. You see where the original in-camera shot can be improved and then you work out how to fix it (ie do things differently) to reduce the editing effort in future, or make those edits even more effective. You learn how much latitude your camera will give you shooting RAW in different situations - what can you get away with knowing that it can be handled in post processing.
Those of us who do not have 16 speedlights, 96 inch octagonal softbox umberellas and 8 assistants to move everything around usually have a little more work to do in post processing to get the image we imagined when taking the shot. If the final image comes close to the original intent (which may not necessarily be close to reality) then pat yourself on the back and go around the loop again.
6. Be happy with the gear you've got
I'd really love a Nikon D850, a 600mm zoom lens, and a super wide-angle lens, half a dozen off-camera speedlights and collection of softboxyocta-reflectabrellas and a studio the size of my house with a selection of moveable backgrounds and a supercomputer loaded with every Adobe package under the sun.
Realistically though right now I'd settle for a speedlight.
The truth is we are really only limited by our imagination and/or persistence. The camera is an amazing piece of kit, it can do some amazing things, but it needs us to do it. With just one camera and one lens the possibilities are as endless as your ideas.
I think the quest for more gear or better gear is sometimes a kind of procrastination. "I need A to do B", "I can't do X because I haven't got Y". Maybe, maybe not. Maybe just do it differently.
A lot of the studio accessories can be improvised with a bit of ingenuity, there are plenty of resources online showing how they can be done. It's slightly harder to improvise a 600mm zoom though, but not impossible. Getting a bit closer is a good start.
Don't let a perceived lack of gear stop you moving forward. Get the new gear as and when the time is right, or the wallet can handle it. Most of us can go a long way before we really outgrow the capabilities of the kit we've got, and we have to feed the pesky kids in the meantime.
I really would like that Nikon D850 though if anyone wants to send me one.
7. Be your own critic
When we do anything remotely creative we open ourselves up for criticism, which can be good or bad. Photography and other creative endeavours are not like mathematics where 1+1 always equals 2, unless you're a computer geek where 1+1=10.
Take a photo an 10 different people may give you 11 different opinions.
What really matters though is whether you like it or not. With 7 billion people on the planet there will be quite a few others who do like your photos, even if the majority don't. So, be your own critic, be honest with yourself, take photos that make you happy, throw out the rubbish, and present whatever is your best at that particular point in time.
As time goes by the ratio of good to not so good images improves incrementally. At the same time you raise your own bar. Take a look at images from 6 months or a year ago and re-review them. You'll likely find that what you thought was good then wouldn't make the cut now.
8. Do buy some good books
Despite what I said earlier about books I do actually buy a few - a handful of keepers that don't really go out of date and are not available on a Kindle Unlimited subscription.
A few examples are Greg Heislers "50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographers Photographer", "Light, Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting" by Fil Hunter and co, and Michael Freemans "50 Paths to Creative Photography".
All of these contain tons of useful information and ideas to stimulate your creativity, and make you think about what sort of photography you want to produce, and above all can be read multiple times or dipped into on a regular basis as you travel down your own photographic road.
9. Use Aperture priority most of the time.
But everyone says use Manual if you want to be a proper photographer don't they ?
Indeed they do, but aperture priority works fine most of the time.
By most of the time I mean about 90%. Set the aperture you want then just worry about an ISO setting to get your shutter speed. For example, when photographing birds I'll usually have the aperture wide open and set the ISO depending on the ambient light to get a fast enough shutter. Some birds are fidgetty, some perch and sit still for a while, so "fast enough" varies depends on the light and the subject. It also needs to be fast enough to overcome the exaggerated shake with 300mm of zoom.
When do I use manual ? Photographing the moon, twilight and night skies, long exposures - anything where the histogram shouldn't actually average out at 50% grey, which does include daytime shots too, just not that many for me.
Know your manual settings, but if aperture priority works for you most of the time like it does for me then it'll reduce your faffing about when a fleeting photo opportunity pops up in front of you.
10. Be inspired
Read lots of books, look at lots of photos, look at paintings and other visual arts, see the light (or notice the lighting) in magazines, books, tv and movie images. How did they do that ? Why does it look great (or not) ?
One of my recent Kindle Unlimited reads was "Still Life Photography" by Kevin East. He recreates photographically images in the vanitas style of the Dutch still life masters. Reading it was quite fascinating, not just in terms of lighting and technique and prompts for ideas, but also how all the items present in a still life contain a message or metaphor and contribute to the overall reading of the image.
Follow all the rules and you may end up with images that look like everyone elses.
I've sort of found my style, but it's always work in progress !