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Seven Steps to Better Photos

By Charlotte Lowrie

With the start of a new year, everyone is interested in improving their work. And with photography, working to improve is always more fun than work. With that in mind, here are some of my top suggestions for moving your photography to a higher level this year. Frosty leaves

  • Get it right in the camera. All too often, I am in either a real or a self-imposed hurry, and I’ll take shortcuts that cost me time later during image editing. When I take a shortcut often enough that it consistently costs me time during editing, I know that I have to slow down during shooting. It pays to get it – everything – right in the field. For example, if you’re tired of cloning out or cropping out distractions, then devote more time to finding a shooting position that excludes as many distractions as possible. Are your image exposures problematic? Then take time to learn how to get the exposure right. Learn the exposure and metering controls available on your camera and how to use them. Then go practice what you’ve learned. Learning without practice is tenuous, and it becomes more tenuous the longer you wait to put what you've learn into practice.

    As I’ve mentioned in another article, the histogram is the single best tool you have to ensure that you nail the exposure in the field. For example, I shoot RAW capture, and on my 7D, I have found that a positive 1/3-stop of Exposure Compensation will help give me consistently good right-biased exposures in overcast and shady light. By testing this and determining the best setting, I now spend less time during RAW image conversion.

    Every shooting session presents a set of limitations for the photographer. Do not let these limitations become a litany of excuses for not getting the best images you can. Instead, try to find solutions to overcome the challenges.
    Snoqualmie Falls in winter

  • Decide to move your photography to the next level. The “next” level is different for everyone. First, it’s important to accurately identify where your skills are now. One way to do that  is to review your best shots from last year. Then list the strengths and weaknesses of the images. This type of review requires a cool, dispassionate eye. If you can't take an emotional step back from your work, then ask friends who are familiar with photography to review the images. Next, find photographers you admire who shoot better images than you currently shoot. Then evaluate the differences among their shots and yours. The differences are the areas that you will work on for the next few months or even longer.

    Very often, photographers think that they will make better pictures with better gear. I can tell you from experience, that gear is seldom the difference between pedestrian and professional images. And to make this point abundantly clear, consider how many outstanding iPhone pictures are being made. Most often the difference is the amount of time experienced photographer spend envisioning and setting up to make the image.

  • Choose interesting subjects or make subjects interesting. Look for subjects that have a story, subjects that will resonate with many people, subjects that have visual impact...in short, look for interesting subject. Once you have an interesting subject, be the photographer who pays attention to creating a story, provides interesting background context, waits for the best light, and gets the best and most evocative exposure.

    And don't overlook simple subjects. Simple subjects can be either simple and dull, or simple and beautiful. It’s up to the photographer. One example of a very simple subject is a music CD cover of three pears shot on a white seamless background with edgy light. This is a fine example of a beautifully rendered yet simple subject.

  • Learn. It’s that simple — keep learning. Part of the fun of photography is that there is always something new to learn. Keep yourself challenged and excited about taking the next step in photography. There are thousands of photography books, courses, workshops, videos, and chat rooms where you can constantly learn. I teach four courses at BetterPhoto.com. And I have many books on Canon cameras that you can order. But there are thousands of courses and books, so get the ones that suit you best, and enjoy expanding your photographic skills and thinking.

  • 60D Digital Field GuideUse your camera phone…often. The simplicity of the camera phone is liberating and fun. The camera phone forces you to forget about camera buttons and controls and lets you discover new and unexpected subjects and stories. Then do a quick edit of the image with any of hundreds of apps. I use a few apps for my iPhone pictures including Nik Software’s Snapseed.

  • Get out of your comfort zone. If you most often shoot portraits or still life subjects, then go out on Saturday and photograph kids at the skate park or photograph a local ball game. Or if you normally shoot action, then set up and make some artistic food shots. Do whatever it takes to get out of your routine to shoot and think different ways. Chances are good that you'll come back to your routine shooting a little sharper and with some new ideas.

  • Connect with other photographers. By its very nature, shooting is often a one-person endeavor. While I’ve worked with other photographers, I most often work alone. Working alone gives me a wonderful time to be in the zone. This is when time stands still as I explore the subject, find new approaches, and challenge myself to make an interesting images. But it's also important to see what other photographers are shooting and to learn what they are thinking and doing. So I stay connected with other photographers through FaceBook and Google+. There are many active photography groups on Flickr, FredMiranda.com, and dpreview.com. 

I hope that these suggestions are helpful. If you have other ideas or questions, feel free to e-mail me at charlotte@ wordsandphotos.org.

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About the author: Charlotte Lowrie is an award-winning freelance journalist and photographer based in Seattle. She is the author of 17 photography books, numerous magazine articles, and she teaches photography classes at BetterPhoto.com.

All images and articles are copyrighted by Words and Photos and may not be reprinted without permission.
Contact: charlotte@wordsandphotos.org